Monday, March 17, 2008

Letter to "American MOM"

Earlier today, "American Mom" posted this as a comment to my post about Smeltzer. I'm not sure why she posted there. She's talking specifically about my critique of historical fiction, specifically, Little House on the Prairie.

Get a life and find out there are more people than just indians. Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinners of every skin color- indians, whites, blacks etc.
By not allowing Indians in literature (as your comment in Little House on the Prairie), are you trying to erase that from our history?
No it may not be a happy thing, but indians did kill whites and whites killed indians. I dont teach my children to kill anyone unless they are in defense of themselves or their family. Dont try to lie about history.
be real
American MOM

Here is my response:

Dear American MOM,

From what you said, I gather you are Christian. I trust you know that people of your faith persecuted those who were not of your faith. And, I trust you know that your faith is only one of many.

In my critique of Little House on the Prairie, I seek--not to erase Indians from history--but to rid bookshelves of incorrect images of American Indians. It is factually wrong for you to allow your children to learn that American Indians were primitive, or barbarians, or uncivilized, or simple-minded. That is precisely the way they are presented in the Little House book.

If your child is doing her math homework, and writes down "5" for the answer to 2 + 2, you would tell her that is incorrect. You would help her to understand that her answer is wrong. You'd erase the 5 and write the correct answer.

That is what I am doing with Little House. The information is wrong. In my work, and on this blog, I am trying to correct Laura Ingalls Wilder's mistake.

Was it a mistake on her part? Did she know otherwise? Perhaps. Did her editors know otherwise? Maybe. For us, adults that is, we can and should think about how it happened that she portrayed American Indians the way she did.

With regard to the education of children, we should not let those kinds of portrayals reach our children without some serious conversation. Letting them go unchallenged and unmediated leads them to feel a sense of betrayal when they find out that their books essentially lied to them.



The Local Crank said...

Sadly, American Mom sounds like yet another of the variety of white who is provoked to outrage not by racism but by any discussion that disturbs the mainstream American history myth or suggests that Indians (or blacks or hispanics for that matter) might have been treated poorly in the past (nevermind the present). If only that sort of moral indignation were directed at the perpetrators of racism and white-washed history and not those who simply point it out.

Jody said...

Have you read LIW's account of her maternal uncle's "adventure" in the Black Hills, recorded in By the Shores of Silver Lake? Ingalls Wilder recounts his story of being among "the first White Men" to explore for gold there, and having their furs and stockade burnt by US soldiers "enforcing the treaty" that forbade any white Americans from being in the Black Hills.

The consistencies between that second story and LIW's retelling of her family's experience in Kansas -- the supposed enforcement of treaties by US soldiers at the expense of Quiner/Wilder family members; Caroline Quiner Ingalls' racist response to these "injustices"; an underlying hostility to the government that would be in keeping with Rose Wilder Lane's dedication to Libertarian principles -- make me wonder about how much of this second story was borrowed to create the first one.

In both cases, the common factual error [as opposed to gross misrepresentation of American Indian cultures, status, etc] is the claim that US soldiers evicted white settlers to protect the Indians. In both the "Prairie" and "Silver Lake" stories, contrary to Ingalls Wilder's interpretation, any military action would have been to evict "squatters" so that stolen Indian lands could be auctioned/distributed to other groups of white settlers.

I assume that was the threat that Charles Ingalls weighed before deciding to return to Wisconsin -- not that the Osage Reservation would be preserved (obviously it was NOT) but rather that he was going to be removed as an illegal squatter in advance of the sale of that Kansas land to new buyers.

Rob said...

Good response, Debbie.

Mom's letter is all over the map. First she implies there's too much focus on Indians. Then she implies there's not enough focus on Indians. Finally she offers the irrelevant claim that Indians killed whites.

She did a good job of revealing her bias with her gratuitous comment about Jesus. You can bet that white Christian history is the only history she considers valid. In her view, if you present an alternative perspective, you're not being "real."

Anonymous said...

Should these books be pulled off the shelves, then? It's a bit tricky, you know.

In the library world I come from, that's called censorship.

Rebecca Schosha, Children's Librarian

Anonymous said...

As a librarian myself, I would not seek to take these books off of the bookshelf- it is censorship. Yes, as you said, you would correct a child who thought that 2 +2=5. Therefore, correct the assumptions that are in the books, do not take the books themselves away. It is a contextual world view and we can talk to our children about why it is wrong. If the parents are doing their job well enough, the children should already know what is wrong in the book- and if, by chance, they do not, this can be a conversation starter.

Anonymous said...

I'm white and I grew up reading the Little House books. I don't remember ever feeling negatively about Native Americans. On the contrary, I had a romanticized image of them. I wanted to "be" native. Sioux (or Lakota) in particular, and at 13 I remember wanting to become a teacher on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and I wanted to marry a member of the tribe, so that my children would have a proud heritage. None of that happened, and I became a bit disillusioned and saddened when I was older after reading Grassdancer by Susan Power.
I understand why it would be upsetting to read slander about your ancestors, and it is an interesting topic to discuss in a scholastic setting. But is there still a lot of racism towards natives? If so, how much of it has its roots in the Little House books? I don't mean to sound ignorant, but I truly am curious. I don't know anyone who's racist, or anyone who's read the LH books. The only native I know is half Chippewa, half white, and she doesn't seem at all interested in her history.