The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many others have pointed out that in the third book in Wilder’s series, Little House on the Prairie, two characters state, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” They also report that Ma often expresses fear of Indians.
What not one of those outlets mentions, however, is that far from endorsing such bigotry, Pa, the obvious hero in little Laura’s life, repeatedly contradicts his neighbors’ ignorance. “He figured that the Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were let alone,” records Laura. She ends the chapter simply: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”
As for Ma, her husband’s simple admonitions display more goodhearted prejudice-busting than any graduate-level criticism: “‘They are perfectly friendly,’ said Pa. He often met Indians in the woods where he was hunting. There was nothing to fear from Indians.”
It would take much more space than I have here to describe all the complex and realistic encounters Laura has with Native characters that grow her respect and understanding of them. But a scene where Pa goes off to hunt a panther that threatens his daughters only to find an Osage man has beat him to it stands out as representative.
“The Indian pointed to the panther’s tracks, and he made motions with his gun to show Pa that he had killed that panther. … So that was alright. The panther was dead. Laura asked if a panther would carry off a little papoose and kill her, too, and Pa said yes. Probably that was why the Indian had killed that panther.”
Of course the indigenous characters aren’t all unrelentingly noble, because that would in itself be a stereotype. Rather they behave in varying degrees of friendliness and hostility toward the Ingalls family. Just as we would expect authentic human beings to do.
Given that Wilder was writing in the 1930s, decades before reforms in the way we teach about westward expansion, she displays sensitivity far ahead of her time. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Laura, too young to express what she’s feeling in words, sobs for the Indians’ forced relocation as she would for herself.
If anything, the novels go further than the 1970s TV show to educate and offer context on native history, like when Pa explains to Laura that the path by their house is the Indian’s trail because it was his long before they came. Or that what their neighbors’ fear is a war party is really a buffalo hunt Pa wishes he could join. Or that the Indians start a prairie fire not to harm the white settlers but to clear the grasses and make traveling easier, and Pa is glad of it. I could go on and on.
In fact, in a move that seems to subtly right a wrong, both the book and the first episode of the show end with the Ingallses finding out they will have to leave the territory. Pa isn’t angry at the Indians for this, but at the government that incorrectly told him the land was open for settling.
While it’s true that one book includes a scene with a minstrel show, this would have been common and uncontroversial in the 19th century and no sane reading could find any intention of malice in it. More revealing of the author’s heart than her use of racial terms we find offensive today (that, to be clear, still rise nowhere near the level of those used by Mark Twain) is her faithful depiction of the diverse community she found on the plains, like the black Dr. Tan who saves the entire Kansas settlement from malaria. In a later adult memoir, Wilder revealed that the real Dr. Tann also delivered her sister, Carrie.
More revealing still was Wilder’s immediate, unmitigated apology in 1952 when a reader pointed out a line that suggests Native Americans aren’t people, something else The Washington Post and others failed to mention.
The ALA claims it dropped Wilder’s name for the sake of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Yet the Little House novels, and the excellent TV series that was based on them, positively burst with these qualities. It’s the ALA, whose inclusivity apparently doesn’t extend to those who came before us, who has shown itself to be lacking in them. Those of us who dare put words on paper can only hope future readers will treat us with more generosity.
Children of all races and backgrounds will be poorer if we teach them to sneer so easily at the cultural contributions of artists past. The perceptions of earlier eras weren’t perfect, but we instill only arrogance if we suggest we have the moral standing to render perfect judgment on them.