By Jennifer Fort
I collected my childhood in songs: the alphabet, how to count, parts of speech, sharing is good, C is for Cookie, Love American Style. I learned that Jesus loved me and Mr. Rogers was really counting on me to be his neighbor. Commercial jingles and jump rope rhymes and hymns and theme songs slosh and spill into my life even now as I carry them like a brimming coffee cup I forget I’m holding.
One song sinks to the bottom like bitter stray grounds. I sang it for my little sister. I sang because this particular song could make her cry. And, oh, I wanted her to cry. I wanted her to howl, to give voice to my existential eldest child frustrations. I don’t know the exact moment, but at some point it became clear that music had power. The box had been opened. Music could evoke responses mere words could never generate. I understood that I could use music to manipulate my sister’s emotions; I had a new weapon.
That weapon was Ten Little Indians.
On the surface it is a simple counting song. The version found and used currently is simply a count of little Indians, forward and then backward, usually to the tune of Michael Finnegan. It is simple and mind-numbing and politically incorrect. The version I learned was more complicated and recounted the horrific demise of each Indian boy, one by one. I can find various poems that must have been the basis for the song I knew. There is death by choking, death by bee stings, death by giant fish. One is killed by a bear. One roasts to death on a hot day. One gets chopped in half. It is a nursery song directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I don’t remember who taught me this song. If it was an adult, it hardly seems like a good call. But to be fair, it was the 1970’s and there was a lot of impaired judgment. What seems to me now like obvious racism and attempted genocide tucked into a song for children went unnoticed and unheeded in those groovy days. Fairy tales were served raw with some carob and wheat germ on the side. The only line I remember singing is the last one. It is not the traditional ending and appears to be a unique and violent adaptation. It is this line that would generate the tears and I sang it to full effect:
One little Indian found a gun. Shot himself, and then there were none.
My sister found this horrifying because how could that little boy’s parents let him play with a gun? It sounded like a simple open-and-shut case of suicide to me, but she insisted upon a complicated story of tragic parental neglect. My sister was and is a maternal person, always caring for the dolls I did not hesitate to throw headfirst into the dark well of our toy box when the work got tedious. She was the good shepherd for those left behind on our block. She was kindly captain of the little sisters and brothers, the kids nobody had time for. She was the democratic underdog, the unheard and unheeded middle child giving voice to the voiceless up and down ticket. And me? I was Donald Trump.
I was the monster that music built. I was the one-note bully in the obnoxious trucker hat: Make this family great again. These siblings had showed up, uninvited and unwanted, and I was doing my best to deport them. And then there were none. When I wasn’t singing to make my sister cry I was acting the terrorist, beheading my hapless Sunshine Family dolls in full view of my little brother. This was an incredibly satisfying act, as it made him scream and sob and seek a more hospitable country. When he was not providing me with useful menial labor as a shopkeeper in our pretend store I was busy building a wall to keep him out of my room.
I could get myself in trouble with the authorities for throwing a book at my brother’s head or pinching my sister; I had gone these routes and been spanked for them and knew I needed to be more creative. I could be faulted for physical violence, but this music let me manufacture all the misery I desired with impunity. If I was careful, these drone strikes would fly undetected by preoccupied parental radar and devastate their targets. Who would punish me for playing with dolls even if what I was doing belonged at a public execution in Riyadh? Who could chastise me for singing to my little sister?
The enemy I imagined in my sister no longer exists, has been replaced with an ally. The tormented has long since forgiven her tormentor, if she remembers at all. The actual words I sang have melted and evaporated from memory like ice cubes on the broiling summer sidewalks of my California childhood.
But this remains:
Someone taught me a song.
Someone opened the box.
Sometimes the wind is right and a song rises from the depths and I can hear things that have been silent.
Sometimes I hear my sister crying.
History of Ten Little Indians
Editorial from Indian Country