As I have mentioned in my Sunday Bookends posts recently, Little Miss and I have been reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder before bed. I read the books as a child and I’m guessing I either didn’t understand how horrible the references to Native Americans in the book sounded back then. It is also possible my Mom explained to me what I have been explaining to my daughter this week, which is that the fear the Ingalls had of the Indians was really a fear of the unknown. They were drawing their views of the Native Americans from stories they had heard and not personal experience.
This past week, I made reading the book an educational experience in addition to being an entertaining one. I also explored the reason behind the racist-leaning language in Wilder’s books by doing what so many of us do these days — I Googled it.
As an adult re-reading Little House on the Prairie, I was taken aback by what Wilder wrote about the Native Americans. I didn’t remember the negative descriptions from when I read it all those years ago. Part of me had considered abandoning the book, so I didn’t have to discuss such a difficult topic with a 6-year-old, or at least skipping those sections. It was hard to skip the sections, however, since so much of the book is about the Native Americans and the Ingalls encounters with them. I’m glad I didn’t abandon the book, because then I would have missed those moments where the fictional version of Wilder challenges the views her mother and others living on the prairie have of the Native Americans.
One reason the real Laura couldn’t have questioned the negative views of the Native Americans when her family lived on the prairie is because she was actually only 2 when they moved to Kansas and around 4 or 5 when they left. In the fictional children’s book, she portrays herself as around 8 or 9. She also writes that baby Carrie was alive, but in reality, Carrie had not even been born yet.
Laura Mclemore points out on The Little House on the Prairie website that it is important to understand the history behind Wilder’s story when considering how she writes about the Osage. For one, Wilder’s mother held a fear of the Osage people because of a massacre which occurred in Minnesota, near where the Ingalls had lived before moving to Kansas, around 1862. That massacre occurred when the Sioux and Dakota tribes rose up against the settlers after many of the men left to fight in the Civil War. Laura’s mother and their neighbors, the Scotts, remember that massacre when they express anger and fear toward the Osage people, even though they are a different tribe.
It’s also important to remember that Wilder wasn’t actually writing an autobiography when she wrote her children’s books. While there were some authentic life experiences, as well as actual people, in the books, Wilder was actually writing historical fiction using her real family as the basis for the stories.
In 2018, Wilder’s name was stripped of a literary award named after her by American Library Association in 1954 because many believed her depictions of both Native Americans and African Americans were racist. The decision to remove her name bothered some people, including Amy S. Fatzinger from the magazine The Atlantic.
“The books indeed include several pejorative passages about Native people that reflect ‘dated cultural attitudes.’” Fatzinger wrote. “At times, they also work to dispel myths about American westward expansion; some scenes illustrate the complexity of race relations on the frontier and remind readers that countless families like the Ingallses were illegally occupying Native lands. As a result, Wilder’s approach can leave readers with conflicting messages about Native characters, requiring a more nuanced consideration of the texts themselves.”
While reading the book this week to Little Miss, I could see what Fatzinger means about scenes showing the complexity of race on the frontier. The various descriptions of Native Americans are definitely shocking by today’s standards and show how misguided the Ingalls family and other settlers were about the tribes living around them. While Wilder relayed some of the more prejudice comments she heard about Native Americans while growing up, she also did something other writers of the time didn’t do, Fatzinger wrote, and that was to point out that white settlers had illegally moved onto land occupied by the Osages. Charles Ingalls tells his family they are moving to “Indian Country” because politicians in Washington had sent word that the land would soon be free of Native Americans. Yes, just like today, politicians were adept at stirring up trouble and leaving people hurt in the wake of their ineptitude.
“Even readers who find such scenes troubling might assume that Wilder was simply repeating the attitudes of her time,” Fatzinger wrote in her article. “A closer look, though, reveals that she usually presents misconceptions about frontier life only to later challenge them; similarly, negative views of Native people are often juxtaposed with more favorable ones. In Little House on the Prairie, young Laura listens to various perspectives about Native people uttered by the adults around her and questions them. Laura asks her Ma, for example, why they’re traveling to Indian Territory if she doesn’t like Indians. It’s a question that highlights the absurdity of the events that follow, like when the Ingallses huddle in their house petrified of the Osage neighbors whose land they are attempting to appropriate.”
Through questions she asks her parents, Wilder also showed that her younger self had doubts about whether the Native Americans were “evil”, even though she had a very obvious fear of them and referred to them as “wild”, “smelly,” and “savage.” She writes that Ma was always leery and upset by the Native Americans, especially when they entered the home uninvited, but Pa was much more laid back, saying more than once, “As long as we are peaceful toward them, they will be peaceful toward us.” Of course, he also had a prejudice view of them because at one point he almost calls them devils, but Ma cuts him off so he doesn’t make the children afraid.
I believe Wilder wrote her books from the perspective of a child who had a fear of the unknown which included Native Americans, but also from the perspective of a woman born in 1867.
Her writing mainly focuses on what others thought of Native Americans and she relays their views through the eyes of a child trying to make sense of it all. She doesn’t leave those racist ideas to sit there alone, without explanation. She addresses them again as you progress through the book. When the neighbors say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Laura’s father disagrees, especially when Soldat Du Chene, a member of the Osage tribe talks the rest of the Osage people out of declaring war on the white settlers.
“No matter what Mr. Scott said,” Laura writes. “Pa did not believe the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”
Keeping in mind the need to offer context to Laura’s story and instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I took Mclemore’s suggestion to use the books as a teachable moment. One night before bed, told Little Miss who the Native Americans were and how they lived in our country before the white Europeans.
I wasn’t sure how she would respond to my story of how the white Europeans chased many Native Americans off their land. I hoped she wouldn’t demonize either side.
Little Miss,6, is sharp, though, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised when she said, “I’m guessing the white people started the war.”
I hadn’t even mentioned war. I would imagine she heard about that in a cartoon or in lessons I’ve taught to her brother about similar subjects.
I told her that sometimes the white settlers started the war because they wanted the land and sometimes Native Americans started the wars because they were upset that the white settlers had taken their land and hurt their people.
I also explained that what the white Europeans did was wrong, that some of them may have been our ancestors (especially on my dad’s side where we have traced our family back to very early settlers in Connecticut), but that doesn’t mean we are to blame for what happened. We do, however, need to remember that dark part of our history so we don’t repeat it. We also need to recognize that the land we now live on was land was once occupied by people who settled this land long before our ancestors did. Although, we actually may have some Native American ancestors on my mother’s side, but we have not been able to officially connect us to the Cherokees my aunt and mom believe we may be related to.
After I told her, that the land we lived on now was probably where members of the Iroquois nation lived and that we would study them soon in our history, her curiosity was piqued.
“You have hooked me,” she announced. “Now I want to know more.”
Five minutes later she was asleep with my promise that we would soon learn more about Native Americans. The next day we watched a video by a Native American woman on YouTube about the Native Americans of the northeast and those of the Midwest. Little Miss enjoyed it but looked up after the woman talked about the women of tribe cooking and cleaning and scraping the buffalo hides and said, “I’m guessing this is when the men thought women couldn’t do the same thing that men could do, right?”
She’s a little too smart for her own good at times.
I agree with Mclemore’s suggestion for parents who would like to teach their young children about life in the 1800s and that is to not ignore Wilder’s books.
“I suggest that rather than banning books or refusing to read them, we use them as a platform for examining the history of the United States,” she writes. “What better way to learn our history than by reading a classic like Little House on the Prairie and using it as a platform for discussion?”
Incidentally, I am taking this same approach with To Kill A Mockingbird which I am reading with my 14-year-old son for his English class.
I also agree with Fatzinger to not remove Wilder’s references to Native Americans from her writing, or in fact remove any references to races that we disagree with. By doing this we are effectively removing any mention of the race at all, which closes the door to discussions about why stereotypical views of a race are wrong.
You can learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder at http://www.littlehouseontheprairie.com and more about Fatzinger’s view of Wilder’s work on The Atlantic site.