Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Yesterday's assigned reading for students in my class at UIUC was Little House on the Prairie. Most of the students read the book in childhood, and some remember it being read to them by a teacher or parent. Re-reading it now as adults, they were surprised at the multiple occurrences of what they described as derogatory and racist depictions of Native people that they do not recall.

One young woman remembers the phrase in the book "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" and another remembers feeling worried that Laura and her family were in danger.

Along with the book, the students read Michael Dorris' essay "Trusting the Words," in which he describes the joy with which he set out to read Little House to his daughters, only to be taken aback by the negative portrayals. He tried to edit them out as he read aloud, but eventually gave up. His essay first appeared in Booklist 89 (June, 1993) and was reprinted in his book of essays, Paper Trail, published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

I suggest you take a second look at Little House. Note the ways that Native peoples are described, and consider whether or not the book ought to be set aside and used, perhaps, in contexts where readers are able to think critically about racism and colonization.

If you are interested in books and articles that critique Little House, there are several, including these two by Native people.

"Burning Down the House: Laura Ingalls Wilder and American Colonialism," by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, in Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America, edited by Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs), published in 2006 by University of Texas Press.


"Little House on the Osage Prairie," by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr., available on line at the Oyate web site.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I have thought about this many times since I had your Children's Literature class (GSLIS Fall 2001) and you described your daughter's reaction to being assigned to read Little House. I have brought it up in several different circles only to be lambasted by people with fond childhood memories of reading the series. Now I'm the librarian at a school where several teachers do read alouds from these books and we have multiple copies of the whole series. I am sure I couldn't get away with not having them -- and I have no particular way to have constructive discussions with each child who checks out the book. So I'm trying to round out my collection with better choices and perhaps I will refer teachers to your blog!

Anonymous said...

This is no defense of Little House or Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I would like to see some reference on your blog to the simple fact of when these books were written and the realities of pioneer life. Certainly the attitudes of "the colonizers" and their followers were abominable, but to place blame at the feet of these beloved books without acknowledgment of historical context is somewhat disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Well, this book was written in the 1930s - your comment seems to indicate you think it was written at the time of the pioneers. By the '30s, the Indian Wars were long over, most of the Indians had been forced onto reservations, many of them were sent to boarding schools to be stripped of their language and culture. Most significantly, the area that was supposed to have been set aside as "Indian territory" such as the Kansas prairie where the Ingalls settled (and all of the present state of Oklahoma) had long before been opened up to white settlement and the Indians forced from the land. That time was not our time, but that time was also not the time that the books depict.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book to my 7 year old daughter now. I don't think it should be avoided or less loved because of her portrayal of "Indians". We talk together about the prejudices that are exposed by the writer. We've talked also about the perspective of the Osage -- that the Ingalls built their house and used resources without asking. I just wish it was easier to get some of the information on the situation at the time and what is correct/incorrect. That's why I'm researching online and came across this blog.

Anonymous said...

I respect your comments on this, but I would like to respectfully say that I have been able to edit these troubling sections out as I have read these books aloud. Most of the books in the series do not mention Native people at all. The most troubling is definitely "Little House on the Prairie", and "Little Town on the Prairie" has at least one negative comment. (More troubling in "Little Town on the Prairie" is the minstrel show that townspeople put on with blackface.) I also want to add that one of the Little House books reveals the "truth" about Santa Claus, and there are also references to corporal punishment of children. These are things that I have chosen to edit out of my read-aloud to my child.

On the whole, these books describe a family who lives and works together, relies upon the earth and each other, and shares much love and hardship. These are positive values that I appreciate sharing with my child. I have not found it to be "difficult" to my adult sensibilities or reading abilities to skip over a sentence, paragraph or even chapter here or there.

This seems a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

K.J. said...

I have read these wonderful books over and over again; as a child, and as an adult. I agree that the comments regarding indians and the minstrel show which uses the word "darkies" jumped out at me, but as I read and reread these stories, I was able to see that Laura was actually attempting to write about the predjudice of her mother without actually coming out and stating it. To out and out call her mother a "bigot" is something that Laura would never dream of. It is my belief, based on the undertones and actual statements following the predjudice statements, is that Laura wanted somehow to write in some real flaws in a family of what might otherwise be an unbelievably perfect family. Caroline Ingalls was predjudiced against indians, and Laura had no reason to leave that out. It is the truth, and nowhere in the books was I left with the impression that WE as readers were to agree with Caroline's views. In fact, all indian referennces in the books were written with the resultant good that came out of the interaction. Laura, as a good writer was very careful when writing about those incidences by simply telling the facts and opinions of the characters in the story as they happened. She did not, nor should she have, told her readers how to feel or think. That is left up to the reader. However, I note that Laura never wrote a negative comment without a positive contradiction.

Regarding the minstrel show, Laura wrote these books before the civil rights movement, and I remember when I was in grade school in the 70's, our school taught about minstrel shows as if they were no big deal. We've come a long way since then. I do think that perhaps the "darkies" word should be edited, or discussed with the student as the history surrounding minstrel shows.

Anonymous said...

I, too am reading LHotP to my young daughter and am troubled by some of what i read. I don't remember such harshness. But I also find it a fabulous spring board into discussions about how wrongly the Native Amercicans were treated. I stop and ask my daughter what she thinks, if she agrees. I am just at the part where Laura as a very little girl is questioning her Pa, in a day when little girls simply did not do such things, about what's going on with the Indians. Pa explains that they are being forced to leave so the white people can come, and Laura asks "But I thought this was Indian Territory" and Pa shushes her up, abruptly and tells her to go to sleep. I found this beautiful and brilliant. The wisdom of the young child questioning the all-powereful adult. Wilder tried to write through her eyes as what she saw and how things were from her perspective then, not when she was writing, but when the story took place. That's how things were, and its important that we remember how things were so we can learn the lessons. If we wash this down and clean it up it would no longer be historically accurate.

to simply assume people are reading these and thinking "Oh how wonderful it was back then" is simply wrong.

I really appreciate your blog and the insights it has given me. I was simply looking for a study guide.

Tell everyone to read this book, so they may see the mistakes we've made as a country. Its part of our history and should not be concealed.

Nancy said...

A few years ago, I was reading a text about a native indian community- i don't remember which. The book stated that, as a way of opening the way to establishing friendly relations, they would enter each others houses and sit in silence. Reading it, I remembered that in one of the Ingalls Wilder books, an Indian does exactly that for a whole day when Pa is away. Ma is terrified and I think even Pa is disturbed and worried about it when he gets back - is there even a reference to his gun? It made me cry because it was such a painful example of relatively innocent ignorance, with potentially devastating consequences.

Rebecca Miller said...

So, I am a student in the class that Debbie refers to in her comments above. I have been "googling" lesson plans to see if I could find any that were critical looks on the book. I read a lot of the comments other people have been making, and it seems that many of these comments still miss the mark. One person said that it is not hard to skip over the bad parts or someone else said that it is part of our history. The problem is that kids don't understand the mis-representations like an adult does. One of the comments says that they read the book as a child and as an adult and they don't really see a problem with it...well, I ask, "Do you really remember your first impressions of the book as a child?" There are not a lot of things I remember about certain books from a long time ago, so I would think you only remember what you are reading now as an adult. Now, as an adult you recognize the mis-representations, but do you really believe that 3rd graders being read the book in class really do the same? I do not, and so, I agree with my teacher...the book must be omitted from curriculum taught in classrooms. Especially, when teachers continue to romanticize the book instead of looking at all the negative impressions it gives kids of American Indians. This book is through the perspective of white settlers; when will teachers look at the perspective of the American Indians?

kamagra said...

These books just thrilled me as a child and they thrill me still as I read them aloud to my own children now.

Neil said...

I have to admit, I feel disheartened by this whole thread. I would never, ever, ever suggest that we excuse racism because of the context in which the author was working. The lesson at the heart of The Adventures of Huck Finn was that right and wrong are independent of the context, or the social pressure, or education someone has received. When Twain has Huck sitting there, deliberating, caught "betwixt two things," he shows a morality that is independent of context. That said, if a black person didn't want to read the book, because the n-word appears something like 5,000 times, I'd understand that too.

But I too would suggest people "take a second look at Little House. Note the ways that Native peoples are described, and consider," well, consider many things. Would you have wanted Wilder to have written a story about a happy white pioneer family who loved and respected Native Americans? It would have not only been a fantasy and a deceit, but a toxic one, allowing readers to pretend that white settlers weren't responsible for a near genocidal war on the indigenous people on the high plains.

The Little House books show people talking and thinking about "indians" honestly, but no uncritically. In any piece of writing, but especially in a children's book with a child as the protagonist, the reader is likely to identify with that protagonist. And what is it that Laura has to say on the subject?

“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?”

Wilder was unflinching in her depiction of the racism that was ubiquitous among the white colonists, and among her family, and in the questions and observations that she puts in her protagonist, she passes judgement on it all.

As she wrote in her journal "“If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it.”

My mother and father read me these books when I was very, very young, and living in Kansas, where Little House on the Prairie was (probably) based. My father was found of trivia, and history, and liked to explain little things to his children. One lesson that got repeated a lot was that we tend to name things after whatever USED to be there, before we killed or tore it down. If our elementary school was called Tanglewood, "you can bet a bunch of trees got chopped down to build it," as he told us. When we read Little House on the Prairie he told us that the name "Kansas" came from one of the Native American people who lived there before white settlers arrived, and even as children, we were never confused about the just how evil that had been, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of the people who taught us that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I have linked to it in my own recent story, "Censorship at Bedtime" (, in which I talk about having to censor many classic children's books on the spot, while reading to my son at bedtime and mention the Little House books as well as Michael Dorris' essay, "Trusting the Words," which I had the opportunity to read only later, when my son was older. It's a perennial dilemma, whether it's better not to read a book or to read it but engage the child in a conversation about it; and of course that decision has to be made case-by-case, depending on the book and the child. Your post helps, and is especially important because the Little House series are such beloved American classics and continue to be read to impressionable children.

Emily and Anthony said...

Yep! Couldn't agree more! And don't forget that in Little House on the Prairie, Laura also describes the entire family coming down with malaria and a black doctor that mysteriously comes along and gives them medicine. I also agree that the minstrel show is the most poignant example of overt racism, but then again, I learned about this ugly part of history from the book. If I had not read the book, I wouldn't have known about those things.