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It’s Not Laura Ingalls Wilder Who Is Prejudiced, It’s The Librarians Smearing Her Legacy


Apparently history is racist now, and therefore not to be tolerated. A subdivision of the American Library Association has changed the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

Here’s why: “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with the [Association for Library Service to Children’s] core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” says the ALSC statement announcing the change.

Lest you think this does not illustrate that identity politics have corrupted what should be a more innocent domain, the Wilder ejection statement nestles atop the organization’s celebration of this year’s renamed-award winner: “If children’s literature today addresses themes of racism, sexuality, and class; if previously invisible characters have come to the fore; if different voices are now heard; if more children see themselves and others in books, look to Jacqueline Woodson as a prime-mover.”

In other words, we don’t mind stereotypes, introducing children to adult material, and politicization of literature. We are just going to ensure that it all reinforces leftist politics and lifestyle preferences.

“ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name,” says a longer statement. “Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”

Know what Wilder’s “lived experiences” were? She and her family were several times threatened, and her family robbed, by Indians. Hers is an entirely standard pioneer experience that often of course went both ways, with settlers menacing and brutalizing Indians as well, back and forth for centuries.

Wilder’s work acknowledges this duality in sensitively child-appropriate ways. Her refashioning of her family’s pioneer history was not due to “stereotypes” but real-life experiences that were entirely accurate to the America of her time. It is in fact incredibly nuanced and generous to people groups with whom settlers had fraught and often deadly relations, including numerous instances of favorable opinions about Native Americans and treating them in an anti-racist fashion: viewing people as individuals who should be judged for their own actions rather than as totems guilty of the worst of their group.

Let’s look at some of her most memorable stories about encounters with Native Americans to prove it.

That Time Indians Stole From and Menaced Her Family

Perhaps in some foreshadowing, early in “Little House on the Prairie” Laura makes an observation about Indians that turns out to be true later on: “She knew [Indians] were wild men with red skins, and their hatchets were called tomahawks.” Laura’s mother applies this same epithet “wild man” to her husband, Laura’s father, and Wilder later calls non-Indian cowboys “red-brown.” It’s a simple factual description, not racism. Laura is also shown to be extremely curious about Indians and keen to see them.

The first time she does, however, is very frightening. Her father is away hunting because they have no meat for dinner. This means he has the family’s only defense weapon. While he is gone, two naked male Indians come to call, wearing freshly dead skunks and carrying hunting knives. The family females are terrified. It’s with good reason, as capture, rape, and slaughter was a frequent fate for settlers Indians encountered at the time.

Ma bakes them a large amount of cornbread while the little girls hide behind a slab of wood. The men eat, take the family’s tobacco store and more cornbread, and leave. When Pa comes back later that day, he acts cavalier, while Ma tremblingly exclaims “Oh Charles! I was afraid!” “You did the right thing” to feed them and let them steal from the family even though they are low on food, Pa tells her. “We don’t want to make enemies of any Indians…We don’t want to wake up some night with a band of the screeching dev–” and here he stops, seeing the children’s eyes pop in fear.

Ma shakes her head at Pa, and he changes the subject. Later, he tells the children they were right to not have loosed the family dog on the Indians: “He would have bitten those Indians. Then there would have been trouble. Bad trouble. Do you understand?”

Entirely reasonable fear, yet charitable, patient treatment of people whom long experience indicates may rape and scalp them. This is the opposite of racism. It is remarkable.

No Wonder Ma Is Scared of Indians

When the family heads into “Indian territory” in “Little House on the Prairie,” before they encounter any Indians in person the children and Ma discuss the possibility.

Laura chewed and swallowed, and she said, ‘I want to see a papoose.’ ‘Mercy on us,’ Ma said.’Whatever makes you want to see Indians? We will see enough of them. More than we want to, I wouldn’t wonder.’ ‘They wouldn’t hurt us, would they?’ Mary asked. Mary was always good; she never spoke with her mouth full.

‘No!’ Ma said. ‘Don’t get such an idea into your head.’ ‘Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?’ Laura asked, and she caught a drip of molasses with her tongue. ‘I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,’ said Ma.

‘This is Indian country, isn’t it?’ Laura said. ‘What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?’ Ma said she didn’t know whether this was Indian country or not. But whether or no, the Indians would not be here long. Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon. They could not know, because Washington was so far away.

Again, we see Ma declining to turn her children into racists or teach them things that may make her children fear and loathe certain people groups, even though many of those groups’ actions over centuries could be said to legitimately merit such an action. Again, we see not racism but forbearance, even tolerance.

The Ingalls family continues in this attitude towards Indians despite another similar encounter. Two other Indians come to the house, again when Pa is gone, and steal all the cornbread and Pa’s tobacco. They grab all the furs he spent a year trapping to trade for supplies to support the family, inside of which is hidden a plow and all their spring seeds, something else crucial for the family’s ability to support themselves. Just before leaving they inexplicably drop the pile of furs holding the plow and seeds. Pa’s response? “All was well that ended well.”

“Indians often came to the house,” “The Little House on the Prairie” says. “Some were friendly, some were surly and cross. All of them wanted food and tobacco, and Ma gave them what they wanted. She was afraid not to.”

Woman Whose Friends Were Massacred Talks about It

Later in “Little House on the Prairie,” the Ingalls family spends some time with fellow settlers, Mr. and Mrs. Scott. During a conversation, Mrs. Scott mentions an Indian massacre that affected her family.

She said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, ‘Land knows, they’d never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.’

She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold. She said, ‘I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre. My Pa and my brothers went out with the rest of the settlers, and stopped them only fifteen miles west of us. I’ve heard Pa tell often enough how they — ‘

Ma made a sharp sound in her throad, and Mrs. Scott stopped. Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening.

This conversation happened about a decade after the famous massacre, the largest in U.S. history, in which Indians killed 650 unarmed, noncombatant settlers in their homes and towns. Men, women, and children were “brutally murdered,” according to The New York Times. Bodies were strewn along the road, cast about their homes, and blood was everywhere. Women were raped.

Here’s one of many contemporary accounts: “Mrs. A. P. Broberg clung on to her ten-month-old baby boy, John Albert, with a tender love implanted in a mother’s heart as she strove to fight off her blood-thirsty assailants but her infant son was torn from her arms and killed by a blow of the tomahawk and then the mother suffered the same cruel fate.” No wonder Ma was scared of Indians.

In what essentially turned into a small war, with Dakota attacks continuing into 1865, there were no documented women and children fatalities among the Dakota when the whites counterattacked. When they captured Dakota, they put them on trial instead of merely revenge-killing.

Now, I can agree that it is wrong to say “The only good Indian was a dead Indian.” But it’s extremely easy to make that facile moral judgment when you have never seen Indians slaughtering 650 of your friends, brothers, sisters, neighbors, and their infant children in cold blood in the middle of the night. If a population-equivalent number of people were killed today, the massacre would total 15,000 dead. While objectively wrong, Mrs. Scott’s opinion is understandable. It is human, and it is history. Wilder’s account merely records that history without commenting on its justness.

Includes Many Positive Mentions of Indians

Given those sorts of incidents were known to essentially every frontier settler, the Ingalls’ open attitude towards Indians throughout the Little House books seems even more remarkable in its lack of prejudice. Sure, they make accurate group statements about how Indians are often something to fear or tend to look a certain way: “Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose. ‘What is a papoose?’ she asked him, and he said ‘A papoose is a little, brown, Indian baby.'”

That’s not prejudicial, it’s normal schema-making. The Ingalls also find good things to say about Indians and judge them on their individual actions rather than condemning all Indians, like Mrs. Scott did. Pa and Laura were excited about “going out West where the Indians live.” Pa “liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Pa takes the children to visit an Indian camp and they all express interest and joy at learning about a different culture.

When an Osage Indian carrying a gun rides up to the Ingalls’s prairie home, the family welcomes him, feeding him dinner, Pa smoking a pipe with him, and tying up the dog so he can’t attack. Pa calls him “no common trash” and says “If we treat them well and watch [the family dog] Jack, we won’t have any trouble.” When another Indian nearly shoots Jack when the dog is standing in the middle of a pony trail, Pa drags the dog out of the way and excuses the Indian: “Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.”

Wilder also depicts, in a child-appropriate fashion, the worries of both sides of this long conflict in a chapter in which the Ingalls family sits huddled in their home, frightened out of their wits, for about a week as nearby Indian tribes prepared for war, including keeping them up for many nights on end with drums and war whoops. Ma and the children literally quake with fright. Here is how that incident went right to the brink of war and was called back:

In the woods Pa had met an Osage who could talk to him. This Indian told him that all the tribes except the Osages had made up their minds to kill the white people who had come into the Indian country. And they were getting ready to do it when the lone Indian came riding into their big pow-wow.

That Indian had come riding so far and fast because he did not want them to kill the white people. He was an Osage, and they called him a name that meant he was a great soldier.

‘Soldat du Chene,’ Pa said his name was. ‘He kept arguing with them day and night,’ Pa said, ’till all the other Osages agreed with him. Then he stood up and told the other tribes that if they started to massacre us, the Osages would fight them.’

…No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.

Rather than being an exemplar of “dated” “stereotypical” attitudes, it seems to me that Wilder’s books are rather remarkable examples of two sides of a conflict that both have very good reasons to suspect the other and nonetheless manage not to escalate those worries and premonitions into crimes such as theft, rape, and murder. She is honest about both sides’ virtues and vices, and the mixture of these on both sides. That is a big reason the Little House books are such an honest, historic American series, and something American children should continue to read and understand.

Actually reading her works shows Wilder to be a shining example of what the ALA says are its “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.” It’s a shame to them that their disparaging public statements are what seems to bear the real prejudice. They unfairly characterize Wilder as something she and her writing are not. Mischaracterizations like these do a disservice to Americans and readers everywhere, and should discredit those who make them.