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“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, 1935
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the sentence quoted above. Those exact words appear on page 284 of Wilder’s classic children’s book, Little House on the Prairie. Were those the words of little Laura herself, written in maturity as she remembered them from childhood? Or was such a slur spoken by Laura’s beloved Pa? If not Pa, did Ma utter that condemnable statement, out of fear of her neighbors on the prairie? Or worse, out of pure hatred?
For a book that was published nearly a century ago, it’s no spoiler alert to reveal that, in fact, it was the Ingalls’ neighbor Mr. Scott who made the remark. You may wonder why I just didn’t include any information about the speaker in the first place since the full quote is written, “‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.”
Assuming you weren’t born yesterday, you may have guessed that I am quoting someone else who quoted the line from Little House without providing any context. Since my 10-year old daughter recently read the entire series of Wilder’s books, the three-year-old controversy over her treatment of “Indians” came to mind. It’s probably been lost among the more recent cancellations and denunciations of American authors, historical figures, and brand-name grocery store icons, so I’ll remind you of what happened in 2018.
In June of that year, the American Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, explaining that:
“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
In an article published by NBC about the decision, writer Tim Stelloh helpfully adds further context by saying:
“Those ‘dated’ references are reflected in lines contained in ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ which details the years Wilder’s family spent living in Kansas, an area heavily populated by Native Americans. The book includes a line: ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’
The NBC article is just one example of how the award’s name change was covered by the media, but it’s probably fair to take it as representative. Both the library associations and the article about their decision make sure to reassure readers that they are not aiming to censor Wilder’s works. Censorship would be far too obvious. According to Stelloh of NBC, “[t]he change signaled the latest example of a culture reckoning with its racist history.” It’s clear that Stelloh is agreeing with the decision to disassociate from Wilder because her books convey the racist sentiments of her time toward Indians, right? That seems to me to be the implication, and I know that I am not alone.
I often talk to other moms about the books their similarly aged daughters are reading and what they recommend. My daughters love to read, so we’re always looking for the next book or book series to keep them engaged. In the summer of 2018, we were visiting with wonderful friends who happen to be politically progressive. In the course of the conversation, the other mom commented that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were no longer suitable. She said it in the way that any right-thinking parent would certainly steer her children away from that outdated and possibly damaging series of books. It continues to strike me as extremely disconcerting that so many people are ready to take their cues from thought leaders without much skepticism or debate. For myself, I was always a fan of Wilder’s books and the TV series based on them. It never occurred to me to discourage my daughters from reading the books. I confess to having purchased the last four books in the series recently at the request of my youngest (we’ve owned the first five books for many years).
The Little House series is still well-loved and easily available for purchase. So why did the library associations feel the need to suggest that Little House is full of anti-Indian racism, why did mainstream journalists appear to cheer such conclusions, and what did Wilder actually write about Indians in her most famous personal tale? I think Tucker Carlson provided an answer to the first two questions back in March when Dr. Seuss was under fire for racial insensitivity. Paraphrasing Carlson, I think the idea is to taint our shared culture with the accusation of racism not to protect us from its evident bigotry, but rather to hide from us the true, non-racist character of beloved American children’s literature.
This brings us to the third question: what did Wilder really have to say about Indians? She writes about Indians throughout Little House, beginning with curiosity: “That night by the fire Laura asked again when she would see a papoose, but Pa didn’t know.” When Indians finally arrive and Ma makes them cornbread, Pa returns home later and comments that “[t]he main thing is to be on good terms with the Indians.” After an evening meal with one Indian, Pa says, “[t]hat Indian was perfectly friendly…And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack [the protective family dog], we won’t have any trouble.”
Wilder even explains that the Indians are being forced to move west by the government and that the white settlers (including her family) are moving into Indian territory. Not all the Ingalls family encounters with the local Indians are pleasant, but Wilder describes them as particular events involving individual people. Of Mr. Scott’s comment about a good/dead Indian, Wilder provides the context that the neighbors and Pa were concerned about the source of a recent prairie fire and whether the Indians intended to start a war. On page 285, Mr. Scott says he hopes that Pa is right that the Indians are simply preparing for a buffalo hunt because Mrs. Scott “can’t get the Minnesota massacres out of her head.” After all the tribes except the Osages had decided to kill the white people, the friendly Indian named Soldat du Chene stood up for the settlers and threatened that the Osages would fight the other tribes. Upon Pa’s learning this from an English-speaking Osage Indian, Wilder sums up the events by writing, “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”
I trust that you are not completely shocked to learn that Wilder’s story communicates a meaning that is precisely the opposite of what is suggested by the single quote selected for maximum damage to her reputation.Published in