Book referenced: Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1935 edition)
In my last blog entry, I attempted to look at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books from a different perspective. It is undeniable that they employ many racist stereotypes about Native Americans, and that their characters embody the value of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that European- Americans had an unquestioned right to take over the Indian lands. At the same time, some characters in the books admit, if only momentarily, that the process of displacing Indians from their land will naturally cause anger and conflict. One of the most frequently cited and toxic phrases from the book is “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” spoken by the Ingalls’ family’s neighbor, Mr. Scott. Mr. Scott and his wife are uninterested in Pa’s qualifiers, including his suggestion that “Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were left alone.”
Pa responds to what he believes to be the bravery and leadership of the Osage leader, Soldat du Chêne, with the rather patronizing phrase, “That’s one good Indian!” Yet Laura hears this admiration as a validation of her own doubts about the treatment of Indians by white settlers: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” Nevertheless, when Laura expresses confusion to her father about the possible right of Indians to feel anger at the loss of their own land, he tells her to stop asking questions.
If the Little House books are so problematic and include so much biased material, why read them? My answer would be…
…that they are beautifully written, poetic accounts of one important part of American history, as perceived through the eyes of a child, later a young adult. They reflect common, but not universal, beliefs of the time in which they were written. They include incredible detail about specific practices and customs of pioneer life. They provide a window onto the emotional life of children. It is certainly important to point out to children that not everyone, even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, believed that Indians had no rights, that black people should be enslaved, or in the practices resulting from any other oppressive ideology. It is essential to introduce works by Native American authors and others, which correct the deeply held prejudices and justifications for American policies which pervade Wilder’s work. If we insist on only reading with children books that are free of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, we will have to avoid the vast majority of classics prior to the late twentieth or twenty-first centuries. (The same is true of books for adults, although we have a greater responsibility to guide children in their reading of problematic texts.)
In the chapter “Indians Ride Away,” Laura and her family observe the process of Indians leaving their camps. According to Pa, one group is going south to hunt buffalo, while others have moved west. He attributes the different destinations to conflict among different groups. Obviously, this is a perfect point in the story to introduce primary historical sources and discuss how and why different groups of Native Peoples were compelled to leave their land, and when they chose to move to different areas for essential resources. While Laura’s mother is frantic at the Indians’ presence and desperate to see them leave, Laura is fascinated by their difference. One can interpret her fascination as a degrading exoticism towards the “other.” But Laura is a child, and her reaction is a natural one to people whose appearance and customs offer a contrast to everything she has been taught is normal: “The ponies did not have to wear bridles or saddles, and the little Indians did not have to wear clothes. All their skin was out in the fresh air and sunshine. Their straight black hair blew in the wind and their black eyes sparkled with joy.”
Laura looks at people being driven from their land and she sees freedom. As a child of the frontier, subject to constant physical threats from the environment and restricted in endless ways by parents intending to protect her, Laura interprets her attraction to the Indians’ difference as rebellion: “She had a naughty wish to be a little Indian girl. Of course she did not really mean it.” Laura fixates on the beauty of the Indian baby she sees, referred to throughout the book as a “papoose.” She begs her father to be allowed to “keep” the baby, as if it were a doll. When told that she cannot, she is grief stricken at her loss:
“Those black eyes looked deep into Laura’s eyes and she looked deep into the blackness of that little baby’s eyes, and she wanted that one little baby…
It was shameful to cry, but she couldn’t help it. The little Indian baby was gone. She knew she would never see it any more….
“Why on earth do you want an Indian baby, of all things!” Ma asked her.
“Its eyes are so black,” Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant.”
Laura’s life is completely transient. No sooner does her father “settle” the family in one place, convinced that it will be ideal, then he uproots them. Her mother also defers to his authority, and Laura and the other children have learned that questioning his authority leads to physical discipline, what today we would call abuse. “She could not say what she meant” about her inchoate feelings for the Indian baby, because she does not understand the root of her own sense of loss. She needs to believe that the baby actually understands her in way in which her parents do not. This complexity is part of the reason we still read Wilder’s books:
“Laura could not eat anything, either. She sat a long time on the doorstep, looking into the empty west where the Indians had gone. She seemed still to see waving feathers and black eyes and to hear the sound of ponies’ feet.”