Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Indians in Fact and Fiction: LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about portrayals of American Indians in Little House on the Prairie, countering the "savage" and "primitive" imagery with information about treaties. A primary intent of this blog is to provide a different image of American Indians. Not one of perfect people, but one that is real, of mothers and fathers, grandparents and children. Caring. Thoughtful. Grumpy. Mean. Sad. Happy. All those words we use to describe people we know. Those same words can and should be used to describe American Indians.

I'm critical of Wilder and a good many other writers for the ways they describe Indians in their books. When you have a minute, read the passage in Little House where the Indians enter the house. Something about them smells bad. Laura realizes it is the "fresh" skunk skins they are wearing. They are, apparently, impervious to the pungent skunk odor! Let's back that up, though. Wouldn't they know how to skin skunks without puncturing the glands where the skunk oil is? Wouldn't they prepare the skin by tanning it before wearing it?

Those portrayals can and are defended by saying that is what people really thought about Indians at that time.

Key words: "at that time."

Certainly, newspapers created and affirmed those ideas. And, some lawmakers likely believed those images to be true.

People used to think the world was flat. We learned that was not the case, and we don't teach 'the world is flat' to children. Should we still teach books like Little House on the Prairie?


Anonymous said...

you're right; who can buy that skunk skin business??? I suppose anybody can buy it who thinks of Native people as less than fully human. And young children who don't know any better. Which again raises the question of just how useful Little House on the Prairie is in elementary school classrooms.

You noted that ugly portrayals of Native people such as appear in Little House are often "defended by saying that is what people really thought about Indians at that time." Another possible rejoinder to such a defense is, "Which people thought that way? Chances are that's not how Indians thought about themselves."

Surely two Native men in that place at that time would have known that walking into a 'settler's" home could end in a confrontation with a gun. So what would have led them (or anyone) to go into the stranger's living space in search of food? Wouldn't they have to be terribly hungry to take that risk? What had happened to make them desperately hungry? Or perhaps since the settlers were actually invaders in that place at that time, this was a symbolic act of indigenous resistance to the invasion, requiring some degree of courage? That is, if it even occurred. We know that not everything Wilder wrote actually happened to her.

Even if a teacher decides to invite children to think critically about the images of Native people presented in Little House -- I wonder if children have enough information or the developmental capacities to dissect what's being presented, or to put themselves in the place of, say, those two men, or the mother Laura sees carrying a baby away across the prairie.

Rob said...

The excuse that "this is what people thought at the time" won't wash. Europeans knew from the start that their conquest of America was immoral and un-Christian. Not only did they know it, they debated it in public forums.

In Those Evil European Invaders, I quote Thomas R. Burger, who wrote:

In Spain, lawyers and clerics struggled with the questions of law and morals that this epochal discovery presented. By what right did the Europeans conquer these people, take their land, and subjugate them? There were two views. Juan Gines de Sepulvèda, the greatest Aristotelian philosopher of the day, relied on the doctrine propounded by Aristotle in his Politics, that some races are inferior to others, that some men are born to slavery. By this reasoning, the Europeans, a superior race, were justified in subjugating the Indians, an inferior race. On the other hand, there was the view propounded by Bartolomé de Las Casas, God's angry man of the sixteenth century. He argued that all men are endowed with natural rights, that the Europeans had no right to enslave the Indians, that according to natural law the Indians were entitled to live as free men, under their own rulers and their own laws.

k8 said...

For me, the question is this: If we teach Little House on the Prairie , when do we teach it?

Slight Tangent: I didn't read the book until I was over 30 (for a children's lit course). I was horrified, to say the least, and fascinated by those in the class who had that reaction you mention - "that's the way it was" - without paying attention the the cultural lens through which those observations are made. It was interesting in that there was a divide in the course. Those who hadn't read it prior to this course though it was horrible. For the most part, those who read it as a child didn't have much of a problem with it - I suspect their fond memories of the text affected their ability to read it critically or believe that it is really as bad as it is. Because, to believe that, they are implicated in the text's racism.

So, if it is taught, when? I agree that the target age group would have trouble reading it critically, even with a lot of guidance. At the same time, I can see using it with older audiences (middle school, high school, college) to teach issues of representation. But then, I don't really want to contribute more money to the Little House empire. A conundrum, of sorts.

Debbie Reese said...


I teach LHOP in my college courses. I don't require students to buy a copy. In fact, I tell them NOT to. What I have done is buy used copies, so that I have a class set that I loan to students. I am upfront about why I am doing that, too.

I've posted questions here about how teachers use the book, asking them how they use the book, in the classroom. I don't think it has a place in the elementary classroom at all.

What it has is a very strong bias against American Indians. And, it is rife with attitudes that Indians are less-than-human, not smart, etc. etc. ALL OF THAT IS FACTUALLY WRONG. Maybe that is what Mrs. Scott thought. But she was wrong. We so easily defend her and that attitude, but it is NOT defensible. What I'm trying to develop is an argument that PEOPLE KNEW BETTER but chose to act as though Indians were subhuman, primitive, etc. WHY?! Why did they choose to act that way? Why did they choose to up that portrayal in their newspapers?

What is at the root of the American embrace of the story told in LITTLE HOUSE?

Why can't we let it go?


Anonymous said...

I teach LHOP to college students, alongside Zitkala-Sa's three autobiographical short stories in American Indian Stories, and with a TON of historical material and criticism. That pairing is a whole story in and of itself. But anyway, it is _incredible_ how students who loved the book as children tend to want to resist criticism of any kind, and how eager the students who didn't are to dig right in. There is something about the attachments we make as children -- but also something about the powerful settler fantasies of these books in particular -- that are just HARD CORE. And they're meant to be -- L.I.G. and her daughter were big old libertarians and the books are intentionally didactic in that particularly charming direction. Anyway, I think it's not only good but important to teach -- or rather, to unteach -- LHOP at the college level -- and to pair it with Native Lit. Debbie, I'm going to adopt your "lending the book" policy. I always encourage them to buy it and some other, similarly problematic texts, second hand, but that's even better. I'm also going to have them read your blog entries and responses on this site, so you may get some comments next fall . . . hope that's alright. Anyway, you are doing such fantastic work here. Thank you! Oh, also, p.s. -- my granny had a skunk-skin fur coat and it was not only GORGEOUS (poor little skunks), it smelled only of her cheap perfume.

Debbie Reese said...


How did you happen on Zitkala Sa?

And definitely ask your students to comment!

Anonymous said...

Hi --
I started reading LHOP to my four year old daughter based on fond (but fuzzy) memories from my own childhood. As I was reading, I found myself selectively editing out more and more of the content, until I got to that infamous passage where Mrs. Scott extoles genocide and I just sat there stunned.
I had a long talk with my four year old in which I tried to explain at her level land ownership, treaty breaking, reservations, and prejudice. I feel I was wholly inadequate.
What I am looking for now is an antidote -- are there any books or lesson plans out there for young children that portray this story from the Native perspective?

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, top8free, there is a better choice. Get Louise Erdrich's BIRCHBARK HOUSE, and the sequels to it, GAME OF SILENCE and PORCUPINE YEAR.

Akibare said...

I found this blog today, have been reading samples of it (mostly newer stuff) and enjoying it.

I honestly had no idea that "Little House" is being taught in schools. I did read the books as a kid, on my own, and I distinctly remember wondering why, if they were autobiographical, they were in the fiction section rather than in the biographies section. How naive I was.

What opened my eyes was seeing an article in my local paper that had a picture of the real Ingalls family. At the time, the images commonly available were either from the TV show (very different from the books, so obviously "wrong") or the Garth Williams illustrations.

My, the real family looked different.

This got me interested in finding out more about the actual people, and even as a kid I was able to find a book with some information that let me know that yes, in fact the books are fiction.

Even aside from the parts dealing with American Indians, many places where the books would have you believe the family is going it purely alone in the wilderness, they actually live near to fully settled towns, or at least fairly close to other families. Heck, the University of Illinois was founded the year that Laura was born.

Later I discovered Rose and Libertarian angle, as others have posted about.

All of which is to say that, it would probably be a good thing if there were some companion book written for kids at a similar reading level as the Little House books themselves, "The Real Story of the Ingalls Family" or the like, with pictures and maps. I know that I and my similarly "Little House" obsessed elementary school girl friends would have read it eagerly as we consumed anything else "Little House."

I will definitely check out those other books you recommend here.

And... hello from Urbana!

Ron said...

Wait a minute. I am currently reading LHOP to my kids. We just read the chapter about the 2 Native American men entering the house wearing skunk skins. My feeling after reading the chapter is totally different from yours. The author did not describe the men as savages or in any unflattering way. The account was very factual. They came in, they looked at me, they stood by the fire, etc. There is no judgment passed, just facts related. I was interested in the skunk skin phenomenon. I was wondering, did any tribes really wear smelly skunk skins and why? Perhaps the smell was a tactic to frighten off predators, like the packs of wolves described in the books. Or maybe it was to mask the smell of the men when they were hunting, allowing them to sneak up on prey. That's what I was searching for when I stumbled across this web site. Ms. Wilder never said the Native American men were subhuman or couldn't smell the skunk odor or were too stupid to notice. That is being projected onto her. She just stated "facts". I was trying to determine if those "facts" were true. Did any tribes wear smelly skunk skins for a reason? Perhaps so. I haven't found the answer yet. But, don't project your judgments onto the author. Yes, she saw other cultures through the lens of her own culture, but she, at least to this point in the book, had been remarkably nonjudgmental. Maybe that will change in later chapters, but, so far, she has just told the story as she remembers it. Maybe men did show up wearing smelly skunk skins and maybe it was for a good reason. Ever consider that possibility? P.S. I just made a Google account to post this. Would be nice if people were able to sign in with other email addresses.

Matt said...

Ron, how does anyone sneak up on anything if they are wearing a skunk skin that smells. Osages would trap then drown skunks to get their furs without a residual smell because they could smell skunk odor just as well as white people.
By the way, the right to enter the illegal settlers dwellings and take what they felt was theirs was a right given to the Indians as a way to collect "rent" from illegal settlers. I am sure it would have scared settlers, but those settlers were taking the benefits of the land away from the rightful owners, the Indians.
There is also the fact that the original first edition had the sentence in the first chapter, "There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no humans." It was switched to end with the word "settlers" and the next sentence is, "Only Indians lived there" implying that the Indians weren't human, which was a horrible belief that was remedied in 1923 when federal law declared Indians were indeed, not 2/3 of a human but equal with all other Americans and to be given the same rights. There were other edits made to the first edition because the publisher had enough complaints made to them about the original text. The later version (which most people read) is much more "Laura and Pa" being more "friendly" towards the Indians to balance it out so it could keep getting printed. If you think she is being truthful and factual you should actually find out the facts about how old Laura would have actually been when the story actually happened and then you would realize how much fiction is in Laura's story.

Anonymous said...


I know this is late, but I was just doing the same research you were doing back in June, and ended up here. I completely agree with you. In fact, most of the charges leveled at Laura and the Little House books have been successfully and eloquently refuted by an Irishman named Donal Maloney, in an article he wrote entitled The Integrity of the Past. I think you would find it interesting. Good luck in your search.