Friday, March 19, 2010

Pa (as a kid) played that he was hunting Indians

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is Favorite Book #23 in Elizabeth Bird's SLJ "Top 100 Novels" countdown. Published in 1932, Bird says "As of right now, it has sold about sixty million copies in thirty-three languages."

Sixty million! That's a lot of people reading these words in "The Story of Pa and the Voice in the Woods" that begins on page 53:

"When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.    

"One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together  in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.    

"I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.' It was dusky in the path, and dark in the woods.

There is no further mention of Indians as Pa continues his story. (The voice he heard was actually an owl.)

It is that last paragraph above that gives me pause. Wilder writes "I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians." Indians who she then calls "wild men." Wilder tells us this story, presumably a story her Pa told to her... A story wherein Pa tells her how he imagined himself, as a kid, hunting Indians. Hunting Indians. 

Pa (the adult) told Laura (the child) and Laura (the writer) told children that Indians are like animals to be hunted.

Did that paragraph leap out at you as you read the book?

When you read the book to children now, what do you do with that passage?


Unknown said...

Read it straight, and then (if the sentence doesn't manage to make the kid twitch--which is likely because most kids don't jump on phrases that "sound wrong") wonder out loud why "Pa" didn't think Indians were people.

Trish Lunt said...

The sad and shameful thing is that *I* played @ 'cowboys and indians' too.
The 'game' didn't seem to have any context at the time. It certainly wasn't modelled on F-Troop or John Wayne movies. There was just a lot of thigh slapping and inane hooting.
This does not excuse 'imaginary play'. There is no imaginary in such play. It's learned play; a cultural expectation that one 'plays the game' as modelled by others (who have some power to influence).
And yes, this was Australia in the 1960s. And yes, my brother had a set of plastic figures (I had the paper doll bride and groom set).
I wish I'd been more aware of the world/people and its influence on the world/people and circular ideological arguments when I was a v. small child. I think we are showing that this is possible by encouraging children to think beyond cultural stereotypes, expectations, homogenizing systems of belief - but are we (whoever we are) going to feel ashamed in 50 years' time that we 'got it wrong'?
And so my argument becomes circular again and I implode.

Debbie Reese said...

Trish---Pa wasn't playing Cowboys and Indians. All those plastic toys, and the actual playing of cowboys and Indians... I doubt kids KNOW why those groups fought each other. I doubt most kids--perhaps even a lot of adults--know that Indians fought settlers, and soldiers (and cowboys) who attacked American Indian men, women and children.

Though that fight is part of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, there, and in LITTLE HOUSE IN THE WOODS, what Wilder presents here is frightening.

What was Pa playing at in hunting Indians? Why would he have the idea of hunting Indians? Wilder tells us that it is acceptable to tell kids that whites could play at hunting Indians!

Pa was hunting Indians and animals. This is

Anonymous said...

We read these books as a family, and just as I do with ALL the books we read as a family, I pause at passages that describe actions or behaviors contrary to our family's culture and values, and discuss them with my children. Ditto for the myriad kids' shows that portray unacceptable behavior or speech--we talk about why *we* don't talk and speak like the people in books and on television! Hopefully my children will grow up much more media savvy as a result--not emulating the characters they see/read about, while at the same time learning about the world around them, its history, and peoples.

Saints and Spinners said...

When I read this book aloud, I read that Pa played he was hunting wild animals, and then go to the part where the birds were twittering goodnight. My daughter knew beforehand that I was going to skip the parts that were negative toward Indians or stop and discuss things. It's not enough simply to stop and discuss-- the adult reader has to know some factual history.

By the way, as much as my daughter enjoyed my edited versions of the LH books, we are much more emotionally engaged in the Birchbark House series.

jpm said...

What struck me is that until Debbie found the quote from LHIBW, I 'misremembered" there being no mention of Native people at all in the book. But look at the power of that one phrase. It flew under my radar in ways that LHOP's negative portrayals did not - and yet, it provides a third point on the line, so to speak. It connects the two books to each other with a thread of bias -- well, racism --, as surely as they are connected by more positive threads ("loving family", "courageous pioneers" etc.)