When Little House on the Prairie, the third book in the popular series about a young girl growing up on the American frontier, author Laura Ingalls Wilder probably never dreamed that her writing would one day be challenged – and even banned from school libraries. (For that matter, she probably never dreamed that her books would inspire a television series, several movies, and a biannual gathering of fans and scholars known as “Laurapalooza,” but that’s another story.)
If you’re anything like me, you never thought you’d hear “banned” and Little House on the Prairie in the same breath, and yet, not twenty years ago, that’s exactly what happened. In Thibodaux, Louisiana and Sturgis, South Dakota (this latter the same state in which a good portion of the books took place) parents tried to kick the covered wagon to the curb, because of the way Native Americans are depicted.
Specifically the Native Americans in question are the Osage people who lived in and around what is now Kansas in 1869, and it’s true that Wilder’s descriptions seem racist by modern standards. In the chapter, “Indians in the House,” she describes them as “…tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.” Many of those descriptors are repeated throughout the book: she calls them “bold and fierce and terrible,” refers to their naked state, and repeats observations about glittering black eyes. At one point the Ingalls’ neighbor Mrs. Scott even shares her opinion that the only good Indian is a dead Indian.
Are those words bigoted? Yes. Are some of the people Wilder depicted racist? Yes. Were Native Americans portrayed through racist eyes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books? Absolutely. Those portrayals, however, represented the real opinions of people young Laura loved and admired. Her own mother, Caroline, had a deep-seated fear of them, partly because she had lived so close to the Minnesota Massacre of August, 1862.
As to Wilder herself, in the same book she fantasizes about living like a Native American, riding on a pony with her skin bared to the sun, imagining a life free of the constraints that her own mother puts upon her. Her father, as well, displays not fear of the native people but respect for them, teasing his wife about taking laundry down to the river to wash it because “Indian women do.”
To me, the different points of view – Mrs. Scott’s hatred of Native Americans, Ma Ingalls’ fear, Laura’s childish fascination with them , and Pa’s respect – combine to represent a vivid picture of pioneer life. At the end of Little House on the Prairie Laura and her family watch the Osage people riding out of Kansas, and soon after that they, too, must leave (in reality they returned to Pepin, Wisconsin though the books have a timeline that doesn’t quite match the family’s real travels), forced out by American soldiers because the territory they’ve settled belonged to the Osage, after all.
While I’m not a parent, I’ve worked with kids, and – as all of us were – I was a child myself. My mother never disallowed any reading material, but if there was anything racist or sexist in what I was reading, we’d discuss it. (I remember talking about Huckleberry Finn with her, but I don’t think she ever read the Little House… books.) Similarly, I believe that when literature portrays ideas that we now consider wrong, ignorant, or just out-dated, we should use it as a teachable moment. Don’t erase it; talk about it.
As a child reading the Little House on the Prairie, the depiction of Native Americans bothered me, but I accepted it as part of the story, not a point of view to be agreed with. As an adult with a better sense of history, I appreciate Wilder’s candor, but as a writer, I also know that she was serving the story, not history, with what she wrote.
I don’t remember where I read it, but there’s a book or a story where one young character says, “The one who asks the most questions learns the most.” If representations of any group of people in period literature cause us to ask even one question, even if the answer is difficult, isn’t that still better than never questioning anything?
So I ask again: were some of the depictions of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie racist? Yes. Should these books be rewritten to reflect modern politically correct attitudes, or worse, banned completely? I don’t believe so.