Thursday, November 20, 2008

Classics in Washington History, Part 2.5

The first post in this series introduced us to a great digital resource from the Washington State Library, Classics in Washington History. The second post explored one item in the collection, 12th Session of the Washington State Legislature by the artist Alfred T. Renfro. Today a look at another aspect of Renfro's work, his quirky racism. This was going to be part of the second post but it was getting too long.

It was common for cartoonists of Renfro's era to include a small figure in the foreground of their cartoons to provide additional commentary on a topic. (This tradition continues today with a few cartoonists--note the little figure of Tom Toles at his easel that always appears in his cartoons.) Renfro sometimes featured himself in his cartoons the way that Toles does, but more often his foreground character was a comic Indian figure Renfro dubbed "Si-wash." This detail of a cartoon shows the both of them:

More after the bump!

Renfro has Si-Wash capering about at the foot of nearly all the cartoons in this volume. Si-Wash is portrayed as young, cheerful, lazy, uneducated but sometimes capable of real insight. He sports a single feather from his headband, no shoes, and speaks in an unreadable pidgeon much of the time. "The jargon used by my little friend Si Wash is pure Chinook," Renfro tells us (though of course it is nothing of the kind), "If you do not understand it get some old timer to tell you."

Here are a few images of Si-Wash. In the first he sits in a dunce cap next to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which of course plays into the stereotype of Indians being incompatible with civilization:

Here a detail of another drawing of Si-Wash riding a bird:

Here Si-Wash begs the Insurance Commissioner for a policy in nonsensical "Chinook:"

And finally there is something a little off about an Indian cheerfully offering Washington lands to the white race:

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