Did Laura Ingalls Wilder see Native Americans as less than human?
This is the question that people have asked about Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House series.
Are there some incidents and descriptions in her books that are racist? Yup, there sure are. Wilder wrote about her family, and her family did squat illegally on Native American lands in Little House on the Prairie (LHOP), and her mother especially did not like the Natives and made no secret about it.
But from Wilder we also have, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most compelling descriptions in literature, and especially children’s literature, as the Osage nation passes by her illegal homestead in Kansas. Wilder witnessed it, and she wrote about it.
And the chapter, “Indians Ride Away”, brings my heart to my throat every time I read it. At this point in the story, you would think the Ingalls would be glad to see the Osage nation leave. They have been frightened by visits several times, and they have just endured days of listening to war chants. But the whole family, except for baby Carrie, watched them ride by for the whole afternoon, and when it is over, they all feel “let down”.
But what do we hear about? Her obsession with a baby and how it shows she wanted to “own” another human being.
I think she’s describing her honest feelings as she, a four year old herself, looked into the baby’s eyes.
The biggest thing we about, however, is the fact that she originally wrote, at the beginning of LHOP, “There were no people here, only Indians.”
Yeah, that’s not a great thing to say. And in her lifetime, a reader wrote her editor about it. Her response was this: “You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine” (See Pioneer Girl, footnote 7 page 3). And she changed the word “people” to “settlers”.
Now if that’s not a lesson, what is?
Was Laura Ingalls Wilder racist against African American people?
There are only two references to African Americans in all of the Little House books. One is significant and kind of amazing, and the other is embarrassing.
In Little House on the Prairie, the entire Ingalls family is treated by an African-American doctor, Dr. Tan. Dr. Tan was based on a real person, Dr. George Tann, who was from a family of free Black tenant farmers who went to Kansas to get their own farm. He lived a mile away from the Ingalls family, and he treated both Native and White people who lived in the area (see Prairie Fires, loc. 1040).
In LHOP, she writes:
Then the doctor came. And he was the black man [sic, that Laura saw earlier]. Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away (191).
She tells the story with the lack of candor of a young child, but it is certainly a positive encounter. Prairie Fires, the recent Wilder biography, tells us that Dr. Tann also delivered Carrie, who in a departure from the novels, was actually born in Kansas.
And ironically, the most gratuitous example of racism is in Little Town on the Prairie (pp 256-260), when Pa and some of the other townspeople dress up in “black face” and perform a minstrel show. In the 1870’s, of course, minstrel shows were common and popular, so that’s all the townspeople were thinking. But now: it’s embarrassing to even read it. That scene does get mentioned, and I believe even removing it has been discussed.
These articles from Wikipedia and Britannica certainly make some interesting points history of the art form that places it in the context of modern African American culture. In Pioneer Girl, note 62 on page 254 has some interesting background on how the art form was used in the abolitionist movement that might be worth looking into. Editor Pamela Smith Hill references this article, Blackface Minstrelsy from pbs.org, and the book Mightier than the Sword if you want more information.
The idea that the minstrel show might have been connected to the abolitionist movement in the townspeople’s minds, as hard as it is to accept (I feel like it’s a stretch)…well, at least it contextualizes what might have been their frame of mind a little. Although truthfully, I think they were excited to have recreated such a cool (for the time and place) diversion.
Should children be reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Town on the Prairie?
Of course children should read these books? History isn’t always pretty. They need to know that. The Little House books are a bit complicated because they are not straight history, but all of the elements discussed here do have a historical basis. I’ve never taught any Little House books, but I would choose them over other books from the time period because the history has been so thoroughly researched that there is plenty of nonfiction to pair with the novels.
I would probably not choose to teach Little Town on the Prairie for several reasons that have nothing to do with the minstrel scene, but if for some reason I were reading it with children (It’s really geared toward middle schoolers, but certainly younger readers do read it), I would explain to them what it was, of course discussing why it’s racist but also pointing out that it was an art form at the time, and the settlers were proud of themselves for being able to imitate it.
Little House on the Prairie is a book I would be more likely to read with students because of its historical significance. I would bring in lessons on the Osage Trail of Tears so the students understand what Laura sees. When we discuss Ma’s reaction, I would be sure to point out that the Ingalls family was in the wrong by being on the Osage land illegally and discuss the family’s encounters from that perspective.
The Ingalls family was there for the wrong reasons, but what Wilder saw and recorded is an important part of history.
I would be especially glad jump into the chapter that includes Dr. Tan because it would a great way to introduce the children to information about African Americans that they don’t often hear but definitely existed.
The important thing for kids to understand is we can make mistakes and learn from them. And be better.
It’s all about our attitudes.
More In This Series:
Part 1: Who gets to say what is O.K.?
Part 3: Dr. Seuss’ Racist Imagery
If you want to know what your library is up against: The Most Frequently Banned Books of 2019