Winged Monkeys

 

 

 

 

According to some writers, the Winged Monkeys of Oz represent Native Americans in the West in the late 1800s.  Baum himself had clear attitudes toward American Indians and some of his earlier writings about Indians are very similar to his descriptions of the Winged Monkeys found in Oz.  These selections included on this page are all from Ritter’s 1997 article about Oz.  A full citation is included below.

 

 

 

 

 

“In 1887, Frank Baum followed the great American tradition of heading west in search of his fortune.  Baum started a dry goods store in Aberdeen, South Dakota, but the local economy was in a slump and the mostly agrarian residents of the region were hard-pressed.  Then Baum turned to journalism.  In 1890 he took over as the editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper for which he wrote the editorials and many of the articles.  At the time, tensions between white settlers and Native Americans were running high.  Baum used this forum to comment on political and social events, including the conflict with the Sioux Indians.

 

          During the tense months leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, Baum took the position of a hardened frontiersman and complained ‘Any man who tells the truth about Indians is regarded with suspicion by the Eastern philanthropist.’  Baum favorably quoted Senator Pierce of South Dakota who denounced the ‘savages’ attacking ‘poor settlers’ for the reasons of ‘pure mischief…’

 

          …It was as noble savages of nature that the Indians were admired.  Sitting Bull’s greatness and nobility were not by his title, but by his achievements and ability.  In contrast, those Indians that agreed to be settled were degenerate, ‘whining curs’ who gave up their primitive ways to become wards of the government and ‘lick the hand that smites them.’  Since the supremacy of whites was destined by the ‘justice of civilization,’ Baum thought it better that the Indians should die as noble ‘Redskins’ rather than live as ‘despicable beings.’  He preferred that history remember the Indians as ‘grand Kings of the forest.’

 

          Nor was his view changed by the Wounded Knee tragedy.  In his editorial the week after the massacre, Baum wrote:

 

‘The PIONEER has before declared that our safety depends upon the extermination of the Indians.  Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up with one more wrong and wipe out these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.’

 

Here again Baum seems to mix bitterness and vengeance with regret.  Baum thought that ‘extermination’ was the only way to deal with the ‘untamed…creatures’ like the Sioux.  While Baum was saddened about the fate of the ‘redskins’ (identified by color) or ‘Kings of the forest,’ and accepting of the immoral nature of his call for genocide, he nonetheless accepted the inevitability and necessity of the army’s actions.  Ten years later, the utopic vision offered in Oz is one in which the Winged Monkeys are civilized and virtuous leaders installed.

 

          These editorials give new meaning to Baum’s portrayal of the Winged Monkeys in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  When they are introduced in the book, the Winged Monkeys appear as a fierce fighting band that destroy the Scarecrow, damage the Tin Woodman, and capture Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion.  Later, when the monkeys are no longer under the control of the Witch and are helping Dorothy and her group, the king monkey explains their origin to Dorothy:

 

“Once,” began the leader, “we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.  Perhaps some of us were rather too full of mischief at times, flying down to pull the tails of the animals that had no wings, chasing birds, and throwing nuts at the people who walked in the forest.  But we were careless and happy and full of fun, and enjoyed every minute of the day.”

 

          Baum’s South Dakota writings about Native Americans and his later portrayal of the Flying Monkeys are familiar to students of Anglo-American attitudes toward Native Americans in the nineteenth century.  They are strikingly similar, for instance, to the views expressed by George Armstrong Custer in an 1858 essay entitled ‘The Red Man.’ Custer wrote that before their contact with white civilization, the Indians were children of nature, people of ‘native strength and beauty, stamped with the proud majesty of free born men.’  But now ‘these monarchs of the west’ are ‘like withered leaves of their own nature first, gathered in every direction by the fury of the tempest.’  For Custer, there is an inevitability to the demise of the Native Americans after their contact with white civilization.  This demise, though tragic, is nonetheless of their own doing.  Efforts to civilize the Indians leave them broken and withered – so that extermination seems a better alternative.” 1

 

 

1 Gretchen Ritter, “Silver Slippers and a Golden Cap:  L. Frank Baum’s The

Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Historical Memory in American Politics,” Journal of

American Studies, 31 (1997), 2, p. 185-187.

 

 

 

Return to US History Page

 

Return to Mike Nagle’s Homepage