Laura Ingalls Wilder in “Little House in the Prairie” (1935) wrote about her White American girlhood on Native American land – Indian Territory. In the 1970s it became an American television series that ran for nine years (pictured). The book is widely regarded as “wholesome”, even educational, one that teaches history and the value of courage.
Yet it is pretty racist stuff:
- Her family of white land thieves takes Indian (Osage) land without permission, yet whites are seen as Basically Good while Indians are seen as bad, wild and threatening.
- Two characters say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
- Later in the book there is a good, still-living Indian: one who is willing to fight his own people to protect white settlers.
- Ma hates Indians. So does Jack, the family dog.
- Descriptions of Indians:
- “wild” (18 times)
- “screeching dev-“
- “Their eyes were black and still glittering, like snake’s eyes.”
- “The wild, fast yipping yells were worse than wolves.”
- “There were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.”
- “Laura thought [Pa] would show her a papoose [baby Indian] some day, just as he had shown her fawns, and little bears, and wolves.”
- Laura: “Pa, get me that little Indian baby … Oh, I want it! I want it! … Please, Pa, please!”
- Ma: “Dear me, Laura, must you yell like an Indian? I declare, if you girls aren’t getting to look like Indians! Can I never teach you to keep your sunbonnets on?”
- “Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.”
- Laura cries when the American government forces Osages off the land. Ma feels bad too. But not bad enough to change their land-thieving ways.
- The book supports the racist idea of Manifest Destiny throughout.
In 1998 when this book was read at a grade school in Minnesota, one eight-year-old Indian girl came home in tears, having learned from this Beloved Classic that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Another girl did not cry. When asked why, she said, “I just pretend I’m not Indian.”
Waziyatawin, the Dakota writer, was the mother of the crying child. After she showed the school board how racist the book was, they agreed to stop using it. But when the news got out it was turned into a censorship issue of banning books and the school, backed by the ACLU, changed its mind.
Waziyatawin was told she has a “chip on her shoulder”. Linda Ellerbee on Nickelodeon’s “Nick News” told children across America that all books are offensive to someone. The school defended the book as “history” – yet her daughter’s teacher was not taking apart its racist messages, which has the effect of normalizing them. That, no less, at a white-run school that stands on land stolen from the Dakotas.
The Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany are “part of history” too, yet no one thinks of reading their youth literature to schoolchildren without examining their racism. Why is “Little House on the Prairie” any different?
Source: This post is mainly based on Waziyatawin in “Unlearning the Language of Conquest” (2006), edited by Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs).