Is Little House on the Prairie Racist?

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I have fond memories of reading The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was the first series of books I read entirely on my own. I loved the stories of pioneer life and the simple pencil drawings.  I still have my original boxed set with all nine books in pristine condition. I was excited to start reading the series and share Laura’s adventures with my ten-year old daughter.  My excitement waned slightly when a friend told me she stopped reading the books with her kids because of Wilder’s culturally insensitive stereotyping of Native Americans.

I read these books in 1979.  Nearly forty years combined with my terrible memory means I had no clue what my friend was talking about.  My daughter and I jumped into reading the first book, Little House in the Big Woods but it was during the second book, Little House on the Prairie, that things got uncomfortable quickly.  The use of the word Indian, Laura’s desire to see a papoose and a character stating, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” were jarring.

I pressed pause on our reading.  “Culturally insensitive stereotyping of Native Americans” was an understatement.  Are these books racist? Was Wilder racist? Should I stop reading? Turns out that wasn’t an option because my ten-year-old wanted to continue to reading so I explained why I had paused.  Her response, “Mom, when you read the word “Indian” in my head I think “Indigenous peoples.” And I know that this what they said back then because they just didn’t know better. I know better.”

This led to a discussion about racism and our ability to grow and change. The Little House on the Prairie series documents Wilder’s childhood in the late 1800s on the American frontier.  It’s written from Wilder’s historical perspective. These words are hard to read and difficult to accept but they are words from a specific time and place. The truth is we used these words.  We cannot move forward without knowing where we have been.

The following passage from Little House on the Prairie, a chapter entitled The Tall Indian, has stayed with me.

“Oh I suppose she went west,” Ma answered. That’s what the Indians do.”

“Why do they do that , Ma? Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”

“They have to,” Ma said.

“Why do they have to?”

“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”

He played the fiddle softly for a while. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”

“May I,” said Ma.

Laura began again. “Pa, please, may I—”

“What is it? Pa asked. It was not polite for little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.

“Will the government make these Indians go west?”

“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”

“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to–”

“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. Go to sleep.”

Even as white people were driving indigenous peoples off their land they struggled to explain their actions.  Just as I struggle to explain to my children our failure to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights to lands and resources, and the residential schools meant to kill their culture and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the impoverishment, inadequate housing, food insecurity and unsafe drinking water indigenous families and communities still face.  I will not be like Pa and say, “No more questions.”

When reading to my children I won’t skip over words or song lyrics or whole books which may be considered racist or discriminatory.  When talking about history I will not sugar coat it. We used these words and we did and continue to do these things.  I want my children to ask all the questions.  I want them to understand. I want them to know the truth. And I want us to do better.  So much better.

Reconciliation cannot happen until we know and accept the truth.  

 

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