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The past several months, I’ve been reading the Little House books with my older two kids. As we’ve been reading, I’ve come upon descriptions of Native Americans and thought to myself, “well, this is awfully problematic.” The way Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family discussed Native Americans, their ownership of the land, and their basic humanity is, thank God, not how we would discuss them today. There have been several instances where I’ve had to stop and explain to my children that, while Laura’s mother used to say “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” we would never, ever say that. And also please, never, ever say that.
Last year the BBC reported that because of language like that, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books have been canceled (I just saw the report today, however). They explain,
The US Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from one of its awards over racist views and language.
The association had received complaints for years over the Little House on the Prairie author’s “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work”.
The ALSC board voted unanimously on Saturday to remove Wilder’s name from the children’s literature award.
The medal will be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy award.
The ALSC, a division of the American Library Association, said Wilder’s novels and “expressions of stereotypical attitudes” were “inconsistent with ALSC’s core values”.
Wilder’s children’s novels about pioneer life in the American West have been criticised for language that dehumanises indigenous peoples and people of colour.
We are following the homeschooling philosophy of Charlotte Mason, and this topic comes up quite frequently. Why are we still reading these books? And what is their value?
Charlotte Mason believed in reading “living books” — books that ignite the imagination, books written about a time period from that time period. We will never be able to read a book like Wilders’, written for children by someone who lived in the time period she lived in, that is up to our “woke” standards of today.
Unfortunately, this is a part of our history and that’s something we have to accept. That doesn’t mean it should be erased; quite the contrary, they should be kept sacrosanct. Wilders’ books give a window into how people thought at the time, and they illustrate how and why these people believed what they did. They weren’t racist caricatures, they were real and complex people, and their views evolved. Seeing this progression helps show children how our society’s way of thinking has developed over time, from one viewpoint to another. It shows them that even good people can believe bad things, without even realizing they are bad. It can help spur some really deep conversations about our present-day society, and what we may do that future generations find abhorrent (I can think of a few things…).
Within Wilders’ books themselves, while Native Americans are not uniformly discussed in the most respectful manner, some of the Native American characters are central “good guys” in the plots of several books, saving the Ingalls family on more than one occasion. In our house, I had a wonderful conversation with my five- and four-year-olds about Ma’s view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and if they thought that was true, given their heroic actions.
In one scene, the Ingalls family built a shanty on a piece of land they had just claimed, unable to withstand a strong storm. While Laura’s father was in town, a Native American came into the store and warned those assembled that the winter would be extraordinarily harsh; with seven months of blizzards ahead. His warning spurred the Ingalls family to move from the shanty on the claim to a much sturdier building that Laura’s father had already built in town.
The scene created a great conversation in our home: What might have happened to the Ingalls family if there were no Indians on the prairie? Would they have survived in the claim shanty that winter? How did the Native American know that a strong winter was coming? Ingalls’ books may have contained racist elements, but they also contained the tools necessary to explain and delegitimize that racism.