Sunday, January 6, 2019

Revisiting Laura

Recently there was an article here in Minnesota about a library that had been named after Laura Ingall Wilder being renamed. The renaming occurred because Indian groups had protested, citing the Little House Books as being racist and denigrating indigenous people.

This saddened me. I loved the Little House books and own a complete collection. I’ve read them many, many times, even as an adult, and know much of them by heart. But now I had to think about them differently. Are the books racist? Do they downplay the plight of the Indians in the late 19th century? What do I think?

First, the racism. Laura lived in a time and place, the upper West and Midwest in the 1870’s, where there were very few African Americans. Black people are not really mentioned at all in the books, except for two notable exceptions. First of all, the one that is evoking the accusations of racism in the first place. While living in South Dakota in the midst of a long, cold winter, her father and the other men of the town put on a minstrel show. Of course now we look on this as very racist indeed, white men putting on blackface and singing and playing instruments in a caricature of black music. We would be horrified if anyone put on such a show today, but not so long ago it was perfectly acceptable. I can remember watching minstrel show bits on TV as recently as the 1950’s. That’s not to say it’s ok, I’m just saying that our awareness of the harmful effects of something like a minstrel show has changed.

But for Laura and her family, this was just an exciting piece of entertainment at a time and place where they were isolated from the rest of the world to a large extent. She was amazed and impressed by how well the men performed, and she loved the music and dancing. They had no knowledge or awareness that they were mocking someone.

The other interaction she and her family had with an African American occurred in the book Little House on the Prairie. The Ingalls were living in a wooded somewhat swampy area near a river and they all contracted malaria. They were horribly ill. Laura’s description of what untreated malaria was like was more than a little terrifying. Remember at the time no one knew that malaria was contracted from mosquitoes. But they were saved by an African American doctor named Dr Tan. He visited their cabin and gave them quinine, so they recovered. I think it’s safe to say that until Laura was an adult and had lived in Florida and traveled to San Francisco for the 1906 World’s Fair, Dr Tan was probably the only black person she had ever met. 

Dr Tan is described in glowing terms in the book, but in the arguments against the Little House books that I’ve read, this passage is never mentioned.

Secondly there are the passages about the Indians, of which there are more than a few. After all, Laura and her family are pioneers. Laura’s mother had lived in Wisconsin in during a time of Indian wars. There was a terrible massacre of settlers not far from where her family lived. The newspapers were full of graphic descriptions of settler’s homesteads being burned, and the people killed. Ma hated and feared Indians her entire life. This is not unlike my own father, who helped his father’s business when he was in high school. Part of my dad’s job was to help his father go into black neighborhoods and collect bills that were owed to them and one time he was held up. To his dying day he did not trust African Americans in general and was probably afraid of them. Of course nowadays we would expect people to not generalize about an entire people from the actions of a few. And also it’s important to remember that to the Indians the settlers were invaders. There were plenty of massacres of Indians by white people, as we all know. It doesn’t make it right on either side, but that’s the reality.

In the book Little House on the Prairie, the Ingalls traveled to Kansas, built a house, and began to farm. The government had told the pioneers that the land was going to be opened to settlement. But when the Ingalls arrived they were there illegally. There were still Indians living in the area. They visited the Ingalls cabin frequently, marching right in and demanding whatever they wanted, sugar, flour, etc. Of course to the Indians this seemed only fair, since as far as they were concerned the Ingalls were living on the Indian’s land. There is one vivid passage where the Indians have entered their cabin at a time when Pa is away. One of them is wearing a fresh skunk skin as part of his outfit. You can imagine what that smelled like!

Eventually the government started to remove the Indians from the area. There is a scene in the book where the Indians are leaving, and they march by in a long line, past the Ingall’s cabin. Laura, who is really very young, probably only six or seven, sees a little Indian baby on its mother’s back, in a papoose. She sees that little baby with its bright black eyes and tells her mother that she wants it! Her mother tells her no, of course. She says to Laura, “hush! That Indian lady wants her baby, it’s not for you to have.” But Laura just cries and cries. One part of her knows she’s being unreasonable and one part of her just wants that little baby. Honestly, it’s one of the stranger scenes in all of the Little House books, but I like it. We’ve all been in that place where we can look at ourselves and know we are behaving badly, especially when we are kids, but just can’t stop. I certainly know I can! But of course, it’s also disturbing, since that’s a real baby, belonging to a real person.

Ironically once the Indians left the area the government signed a treaty with them and the settlers were forced to leave. Of course Pa is very upset, because he has lost a year of work, and they have to leave the house they built and the land they started to farm.

Laura Ingalls wrote the Little House Books in her sixties, probably with some help from her daughter Rose. The books were written primarily in the 1930’s and 40’s, when racist attitudes toward African Americans and Native Americans were commonplace. Looking back now, we cringe at some of the things that happen in the books, but after all, the books are a product of their time. It wasn’t until the 1960’s with the Civil Rights and Native American movements that attitudes began to change.

Is it Laura’s job to explain the Indian’s side of the story? No of course not. Is it her job to be able to comprehend that minstrel shows are racist? Again no. But these scenes are still problematic. I personally would not recommend reading the minstrel scene aloud to a class of younger children any longer, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t still encourage kids to read the Little House books. Children can understand that something that was once widely accepted is now recognized as offensive. 

Instead of banning the Little House books, why not supplement them with other books that tell about the Native American and African American experience? US history contains many stories. The pioneers are part of that story, in both positive and negative ways. We need to hear about all of it.

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