Do you remember the “Little House on the Prairie” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Sure, you probably do.
Now, do you remember them as being profoundly anti-Native American?
I bet you don’t. Because, of course, they weren’t.
But that hasn’t stopped the Association for Library Service to Children from removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their annual book prize, for the allegedly negative portrayal of Native Americans in her books.
That’s right, they’re renaming their book prize from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Wow. Such an exciting name. Truly, these people must be titans of children’s literature, able to keep even the most rowdy kids interested with their long-winded, inoffensive books about how everybody has to get along and be friends, or else.
But for real, the sum of all the anti-Indian stuff in the Little House on the Prairie books is like three lines. In one book, the Ma character, based on Ingalls’ real mother, says that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
If you read the book, you will of course recognize that this represents a characterization of a typical worry-wart mother, a high-spirited but sometimes fretful woman who knows she does not like strangers before she has occasion to meet them.
It’s crucial to understand, too, that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were written based off of her real life experiences, and have a real history behind them. The character of Caroline Ingalls, Ma, was afraid of Indians because of the real threat they presented, at that time, to settlers out in the woods on their own, far from US government support.
Caroline Ingalls is afraid, not because of racial prejudice, but because (and this is mentioned in the books) she is thinking of an event called the “Minnesota Massacre” which had, at the time the books are set, only recently occurred. In that incident, Sioux warriors rose up against white settlers in the Minnesota territory and brutally murdered many, including women and children. (The Sioux for their part were fighting to reclaim land they felt had been stolen from them.)
Despite this real rational for Ma’s fear of Indians, Ingalls does imply on several occasions that her mothers fears are not fully justified. At one point, the character of Laura, based on Ingalls herself as a girl, asks her mother “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma…This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
This reveals that there’s considerably more nuance in the story Laura Ingalls Wilder, in 1930, was telling about her childhood than people today would give her credit for. In fact, there are a pair of characters, in the books, Mr. and Mrs. Scott, who are presented as being too afraid of Indians, to the point of prejudice.
And the Pa character, based on Ingalls’ father, is shown to have a more positive view of Indians based on his interactions with them while out hunting. He reassures his wife in Little House on the Prairie, saying that the Indians near their cabin are “perfectly friendly.” And Ingalls narration then describes her father as having “often met Indians in the woods where he was hunting. There was nothing to fear from Indians.”
And later on, to balance out the racist Scotts, Pa speaks up in defense of an Indian character, Soldat du Chene, saying “That’s one good Indian.” Ingalls goes on in her narration: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” Pa even invites an Osage native into the Ingalls’ home, against Ma’s wishes.
Little House on the Prairie, and the other books in the series, are written about a time when white settlers did sometimes come into conflict with the Native Americans whose land they were, it must be said, basically stealing.
But these white settlers, of whom Laura Ingalls Wilder was one, had a wide range of responses to the natives they met. Ingalls, in her books, attempts to show those different responses in ways that can be understood by young children.
Some, like the Scotts, had a burning hatred for “the Indians.” Some, like Ma, had irrational or semi-rational fears. And others, like Pa, approached friendly native people with friendliness in return. For Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about her childhood, to have presented the situation in any other way would have been a kind of dishonesty.
She wrote what she knew. And, indeed, her narration and the larger message of her books seems to be a repudiation of the irrational fears of Ma and the Scotts. The sympathetic character is Pa, a man seeking to live on friendly terms with those around him, knowing that he, indeed, lives in their land, and not they in his, and preferring it that way because he would rather be out in the un-citified wide-open spaces with the Indians than surrounded by his own people.
But, of course, the Social Justice Warriors don’t see anything valuable in that message. All they see is the ghost of racism looming over every little thing. Every piece of renowned and beloved children’s literature now suspect, because anything could secretly be racist. It’s not enough that the actual, really racist books have been banned.
Now we must ban the books that address and confront racism too.
And soon we will have to ban the books that only might be racist.
In fact, just wait. In five years they’ll be banning “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” for being an unflattering portrayal of welfare recipients.
Hell, it may not even take that long.