The Problem with Canceling History

 

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.

There are 51 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member
    Misthiocracy grudgingly
    @Misthiocracy

    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”.

    Presumably it doesn’t count as a “challenged book” if the ALA is the one doing the challenging.

    • #1
  2. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Huh. My husband read countless books aloud to our four kids and I don’t remember him ever saying: “we would never, ever say that. And also please, never, ever say that.” And since he was always reading well beyond their own reading level – in the case of son #3, years beyond his level, I can only assume there was problematic dialogue that they heard.

    Does hearing something imply that it’s okay or accurate? That it’s okay to repeat? Since when?

    Every person I know my age (61) either read The Little House books or they were read to them. In the past 50 + years, I don’t remember any of them ever making the slightest derogatory comment about Indians. 

    I think making such a fuss is not helping. In fact, it might be hurting.

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Just unbelievable. And you are their teacher. Wow. “Problematic”? Good grief.  There is not only nothing wrong with Wilder’s books, but they are a cherished part of our literature. If we judge people in the past through the lens of our modern PC sensibilities, where does it end? If you erase the way things used to be, how do the kids of today know why everyone is so all-fired angry all the time?

    But more important than that, if you erase the past, the kids of today have no way to judge the progress we have made. In my lifetime there were still drinking fountains and restrooms marked “White Only.”  But also in my lifetime, we had a black president of the United States.

    For your information, the people in Wilder’s day had good reason to fear the Indians. Why is that “problematic” for you?

    • #3
  4. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Is it accurate or fair to characterize Laura Ingalls Wilder and her mother as “racist?”

    In my family, I believe we kids read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books on our own. We were raised by parents who modeled impartiality concerning skin color and ethnicity. Somehow we didn’t conclude that Wilder and her mother were “racists.” Of course, my mother read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee around the same time, and… There were no books in the house forbidden us, so my around 6 year old sister picked it up to read in school, where she was terribly bored as her class labored through Dick and Jane. She recounted the especially gruesome parts on our bus ride home. Still didn’t get to Little House of racists.

    Of course, we also picked up on the real danger and the creative cruelty in many American Indian cultures. Then again, the organized cruelty of, say, the Norseman came through in our self directed reading from library books. Two words: “blood eagle.” Nothing “racist” about other people in their path wishing them destroyed and speaking quite ill of them. 

    • #4
  5. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    The five stages of corporate convergence

    Convergence describes the degree to which an organization prioritizes social justice. There are five stages of corporate convergence:

    4. Heavily Converged. Social justice advocates now control the corporate high ground and the strategic centers. Significant elements of the executive team and the board are devoted to social justice, often in a very public manner. Implicit hiring quotas are imposed and it becomes almost impossible to fire anyone for anything short of murder in the workplace. HR openly dictates corporate policy to employees, often without consulting the executives. The marketing materials not only signal corporate virtue, but openly advocate various social justice issues. The corporation shows indifference to its core customer base and begins to obsess over new markets that mostly exist in its imagination.

    • #5
  6. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    Goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    I loved these books and so did my children. I bought the whole series for them as they showcased a loving, caring family and the closeness of the community that nurtured them through good times and bad. There were good and bad people of all stripes contained in the pages, but mostly they were good people who inspired a whole generation of children and adults for that matter. 

    • #6
  7. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Or, perhaps, the people who actually dealt with the unpacified, savage, murderous, pagan Indian tribes knew something that we do not.

    Are we going to cancel the Declaration of Independence?  One of the accusations against King George III was:

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    I remember once watching an episode of the ludicrous, propagandistic Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in which this was read as part of the 4th of July celebration, and everyone looked at each other uncomfortably.  Because, you see, Hollywood writers living in Galbraith’s affluent society know exactly how things worked on the frontier, where no one was a bad guy.  No, wait, we were always the bad guys, according to Hollywood.

    • #7
  8. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    I love this post.

    It perfectly illustrates why parents have to educate their children.

    • #8
  9. Roberto, Crusty Old Timer Member
    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer
    @Roberto

    Editor Note:

    Totally rude and inappropriate comment. We would not allow it if directed at a fellow member and will not let it slide because it was directed at Bethany. Do not do that again, please. -Max

    [redacted]

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The American Library Association is hereby cancelled. I will henceforth treat their recommendations as denunciations, just as I do with the Hugo and Nebula Awards for science fiction. If those window-lickers approve, there’s something wrong with it. Probably several somethings.

    Would you deny your children The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it is “problematic?” It is also the best refutation of slavery ever written, as well as a rejection of group-think when Huck ignores everything he has ever been taught to tear up the note to Miss Watson.

     

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Bethany Mandel: 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.

    That was a good conversation to have with your kids, but I have long suspected (along with others, IIRC) that that particular episode was complete fiction. Wilder’s books are classified as fiction, but they recount a lot of true events. I suspect that some literary license was used at this point.

    Having said that, I will point out that several of the early European-American settlers in my part of southwest Michigan later said they could not have survived their first winter in Michigan without the help of their Indian neighbors.  

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I read all of the Little House books to my kids at least twice. They were great.

    Laura Ingalls was not nearly as close to her mother as to her father, and this comes through in the way she describes her mother’s prejudices against Indians. She never has those words coming out of her father’s mouth. Laura wasn’t inappropriately judgmental about it; she described her parents the way she saw them, and let it go at that.

    One biographer noted that as an adult she went to great trouble to travel to her father’s funeral, but there is no evidence that she came to her mother’s.  It may have been in part because the two were not close, but Laura was also older then and maybe it would have been harder to travel.  

    When I said “inappropriately judgmental,” I had in mind one of Sergei Khrushchev’s autobiographical accounts, where he has a lot to say about his father, but on at least one topic  didn’t go further because (he said) it wasn’t proper for a son to pass judgment on his father. I thought he had it about right. 

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    I see no evidence of that.   

    • #13
  14. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    BTW, we made a pilgrimage to the DeSmet SD sites with our kids. We toured the surveyor’s cabin where they stayed their first winter (the one before The Long Winter), the site of their shanty out on their homestead claim, and the house Pa Ingalls later built in town.  IIRC much of the upstairs of the house was devoted to items from the life of his libertarian granddaughter (Rose Wilder Lane).  Out at the homestead site, the cottonwood trees whose planting was described in one of the books’ chapters were still growing. Our youngest took a cottonwood leaf as a souvenir, which for all I know is still pressed between the leaves of one of the Little House books at home. 

    This was back in the mid 80s; I don’t know if those trees are still living. I took a look on Google satellite view just now, and it’s hard to tell. The site now seems to be cluttered with other plantings and a visitor center of some sort. Back then there was a place to pull off the road and park, but the site was rather bare except for those trees. Nearby was a place where an annual pageant was performed, but the homestead site itself was uncluttered back then.  

    • #14
  15. Roberto, Crusty Old Timer Member
    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer
    @Roberto

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    I see no evidence of that.

    We disagree. 

    This is an open forum, and we are the better for it.  I see contemptible behavior and you do not, these differing perspectives should be openly aired. 

    • #15
  16. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    I see no evidence of that.

    We disagree.

    This is an open forum, and we are the better for it. I see contemptible behavior and you do not, these differing perspectives should be openly aired.

    Oh, I see contemptible behavior, all right, and not just at the ALSC. 

    • #16
  17. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    I love the movie Blazing Saddles.  While some people may think it’s a racist movie, the message is explicitly anti-racist.  However, if children (or adults) were using language like what was used in the movie to refer to people, most decent people would be offended.  I don’t understand those of you who think that Bethany is a bad mother because she’s teaching her children that some phrases from the 1800’s are considered rude today.  She’s not slamming the Little House books, she’s reading them to her children.  Bethany is opposed to people who say the book is unfit for children.  Is it so weird to warn your children not to say certain things?  Because I’ve heard a lot of parents talk about their kids repeating something to great parental embarrassment.

    • #17
  18. SkipSul Member
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    BTW, we made a pilgrimage to the DeSmet SD sites with our kids. We toured the surveyor’s cabin where they stayed their first winter (the one before The Long Winter), the site of their shanty out on their homestead claim, and the house Pa Ingalls later built in town. IIRC much of the upstairs of the house was devoted to items from the life of his libertarian granddaughter (Rose Wilder Lane). Out at the homestead site, the cottonwood trees whose planting was described in one of the books’ chapters were still growing. Our youngest took a cottonwood leaf as a souvenir, which for all I know is still pressed between the leaves of one of the Little House books at home.

    This was back in the mid 80s; I don’t know if those trees are still living. I took a look on Google satellite view just now, and it’s hard to tell. The site now seems to be cluttered with other plantings and a visitor center of some sort. Back then there was a place to pull off the road and park, but the site was rather bare except for those trees. Nearby was a place where an annual pageant was performed, but the homestead site itself was uncluttered back then.

    We were there 3 years ago.  It’s actually still much the same, though they’ve brought in some other buildings that were contemporaneous with the Wilder family, if not then located in DeSmet, and tried to recreate some of the feel of the times on the old homestead.

    • #18
  19. GeezerBob Coolidge
    GeezerBob
    @GeezerBob

    It is hopelessly difficult to get across to people of a younger age, just how pervasive those attitudes were. Whether it is blackface, Wilder, or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, such attutiudes and expressions were common and unquestioned. Certainly, it is not acceptable these days, but how will our young people ever understand how far we have come if they have no reference at all. We do not have to exalt those in the past who held such beliefs but no one, especially those to  come, willever understand what has been accomplished. 

    • #19
  20. SkipSul Member
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Bethany Mandel: 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.

    That was a good conversation to have with your kids, but I have long suspected (along with others, IIRC) that that particular episode was complete fiction. Wilder’s books are classified as fiction, but they recount a lot of true events. I suspect that some literary license was used at this point.

    Having said that, I will point out that several of the early European-American settlers in my part of southwest Michigan later said they could not have survived their first winter in Michigan without the help of their Indian neighbors.

    Laura originally wrote her story (at the behest of her daughter, Rose) as flat-out autobiography.  No publisher would take it, so she rewrote it and storied it up.  But her original manuscript survived and is now in print – it’s called Pioneer Girl – came out in 2014.  In reading it you can see where her novelized stories embellished some events for better reading, and other people and events were compressed or omitted entirely.

    • #20
  21. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    I see no evidence of that.

    He may have been overly harsh, but I tend to agree with the sentiment, if not the degree.

    I’ve been reading several books to my kids that I loved when I was a kid… intend to have them read these, too. Sometimes I find myself wanting to censor it because of the unforgiving world out there who might bar a 10 year old from college and a career for quoting Treasure Island…

    However, I have ultimately decided to treat my kids like they are intelligent human beings, at least as capable of sifting good from bad as I was who read these books unsupervised. Maybe the key is to just be diverse in your reading so they get a complete picture that way. I mean, I read about murderous Indians AND Squanto. It wasn’t an either-or. It was, like all classes of human beings, some good, some bad.

    • #21
  22. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Also, I don’t remember Ma’s opinion of Indians from that scene.

    I only remember her embarrassment at being gifted toasty buns from the bosom of one of the native women… and I thought that was hilarious. It’s the adults making a big deal about it that made me even aware she had that view.

    • #22
  23. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Or, perhaps, the people who actually dealt with the unpacified, savage, murderous, pagan Indian tribes knew something that we do not.

    Are we going to cancel the Declaration of Independence? One of the accusations against King George III was:

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    I remember once watching an episode of the ludicrous, propagandistic Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in which this was read as part of the 4th of July celebration, and everyone looked at each other uncomfortably. Because, you see, Hollywood writers living in Galbraith’s affluent society know exactly how things worked on the frontier, where no one was a bad guy. No, wait, we were always the bad guys, according to Hollywood.

    I really like this. 

    Wilder was actually there and no one living today was. Her impressions – and experiences – are far more valid than the retro-ethno-Rousseau claptrap people believe about Indians today. 

    • #23
  24. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    I love the movie Blazing Saddles. While some people may think it’s a racist movie, the message is explicitly anti-racist. However, if children (or adults) were using language like what was used in the movie to refer to people, most decent people would be offended. I don’t understand those of you who think that Bethany is a bad mother because she’s teaching her children that some phrases from the 1800’s are considered rude today. She’s not slamming the Little House books, she’s reading them to her children. Bethany is opposed to people who say the book is unfit for children. Is it so weird to warn your children not to say certain things? Because I’ve heard a lot of parents talk about their kids repeating something to great parental embarrassment.

    Children have an absolute genius for being able to hear the emotional heft of words and a deep enthusiasm for trying them out for themselves. 

    • #24
  25. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    GeezerBob (View Comment):

    It is hopelessly difficult to get across to people of a younger age, just how pervasive those attitudes were. Whether it is blackface, Wilder, or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, such attutiudes and expressions were common and unquestioned. Certainly, it is not acceptable these days, but how will our young people ever understand how far we have come if they have no reference at all. We do not have to exalt those in the past who held such beliefs but no one, especially those to come, willever understand what has been accomplished.

    Good point. Perhaps that is why ‘microaggressions’ are a thing. 

    • #25
  26. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    What did she say that was inaccurate?  Do you believe that it is good for kids to repeat stuff that is wrong & that will make people upset? 

    Re-read the piece. It is anti-cancelling.  She does not say the people are bad, but that we don’t talk like that now.   She teaches a valuable lesson

    There is no need to go straight to insults here.   Why are you willing to give someone in the past the benefit of the doubt, but not Bethany?

    • #26
  27. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Bethany Mandel: 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.

    Maybe, just maybe, having lived during an era of conflict between the Amerindians and the settlers, Laura’s mom might have a slightly different perspective than you have, a century and a half later. Both sides engaged in some pretty awful stuff back then. Woody Guthrie* was commissioned to write some songs about some New Deal public works projects during the administration of FDR.† Guthrie celebrates the construction of dams in the Pacific Northwest, something no leftist would countenance today. In Roll On Columbia, he also details the conflicts with Amerindians:

    It’s there on your banks that we fought many a fight
    Sheridan’s boys in the blockhouse that night
    They saw us in death but never in flight
    Roll on Columbia, roll on

    Remember the trial when the battle was won
    The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run
    We hung ev’ry Indian with smoke in his gun
    Roll on Columbia, roll on

    So I think we need to cancel Woody Guthrie too. And the Columbia River dams, even though their power has turned our darkness to dawn. The state of Washington adopted Woody’s song as the official state folk song. Just wait til the Woke in Olympia actually listen to the song.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20ZffI6by3A

    *a man of the Left
    †another man of the Left

    • #27
  28. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Roberto, Crusty Old Timer (View Comment):

    You whine.

    You are a whiner.

    Those who came before us encountered challenges you cannot begin to to comprehend. Instead of explaining the difficulties, the successes and failures to your children you instead whine. You are a poor mother.

    What did she say that was inaccurate? Do you believe that it is good for kids to repeat stuff that is wrong & that will make people upset?

    Re-read the piece. It is anti-cancelling. She does not say the people are bad, but that we don’t talk like that now. She teaches a valuable lesson

    There is no need to go straight to insults here. Why are you willing to give someone in the past the benefit of the doubt, but not Bethany?

    The post was, as with more than one of our contributors here, trying to be both. It’s “I hate cancel culture because Conservatism” but on the other hand, “I’m a super-sensitive white person who passes the guilt on to my children so yay me.”  Telling your children that Wilder’s portrayal of the Indians is “problematic” is not a good thing to say to kids. It’s no reason to be patting yourself on the back for pete’s sake. It was an accurate representation of the way things were when Wilder wrote them.

    And if self-professed Conservatives are being this namby-pamby, how long will it be before someone’s social media comment that “pedophiles are bad” might be dug up and used to say the person is a bigot. Stop the madness.

    • #28
  29. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    And if self-professed Conservatives are being this namby-pamby, how long will it be before someone’s social media comment that “pedophiles are bad” might be dug up and used to say the person is a bigot. Stop the madness.

    Next up, The Conservative Case for Pedophilia.

    • #29
  30. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    drlorentz (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    And if self-professed Conservatives are being this namby-pamby, how long will it be before someone’s social media comment that “pedophiles are bad” might be dug up and used to say the person is a bigot. Stop the madness.

    Next up, The Conservative Case for Pedophilia.

    Ha. Wait why am I laughing. They’re already trying to say it’s just another sexual preference, and I’ve seen “LGBTQP” in a couple of places online. Most gays are pushing back, but at this point nothing would shock me anymore. If we keep retroactively shaming people this way, there’s a real possibility that in 10 or 15 years, a person’s online stance for locking up pedophiles could be dug up and used against them, as bizarre as it seems today. That’s why this stuff has got to STOP.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.