Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

I was perturbed when the American Library Association announced its intention to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The purpose of this action, according to one source, is “to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.”

As far as I know, no one has as yet proposed banning the books themselves from elementary school curriculums. Still, this could prove to be a slippery slope. At the very least, it casts a shadow on these autobiographical novels that gave me endless pleasure as a child, and that I still admire. When it comes to protecting people’s sensitivities at the expense of free speech, I tend to come down on the side of free speech.

It has been pointed out that the third book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, contains the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Obviously, that is an ugly, bigoted statement, but it must be put in context. The remark was made by a new neighbor of the Ingalls family after their move to Kansas, and Laura’s Pa took exception to it. Laura, although still a little girl in this part of the series, was afraid of Indians but also curious. On some level, she sensed the Indians’ anger at having their territory invaded was justifiable. When she asked her parents about it, she was usually shut down quickly. There was no question that Laura’s Ma hated Indians and said so, but Pa had a more nuanced view. Throughout the series, Laura always seemed much closer temperamentally to her father than to her mother. In a later book, Ma made a face as she recalled the smell of the skunk skins that some of the Indians wore. Pa continued to insist that there was much to be learned from the native tribes: “They know things that we don’t know.”

Our understanding of history requires an honest discussion of these issues. We must try to comprehend how pioneers who ventured into what was once designated “Indian territory” actually felt about the challenges they faced. It is not terribly useful for us, in our superior enlightenment, to declare how we think they should have felt. True, it would be useful to know more about this era from the Native American point of view, but that is a whole different story.

Unquestionably, Laura and her family felt a real threat from Indians. Some encounters were friendly, and some were not. They knew they were taking a risk by moving to Kansas when the Federal government opened it up to non-Indian settlers. The fertile land was too tempting for all kinds of pioneers … farmers, hunters, and cowboys … to pass up. Later, the government reversed that decision, but in the meantime, tensions built dangerously between the old and new inhabitants. Laura described the noisy powwows, punctuated by ear-piercing war cries, that often kept her family up all night as the local tribe debated what to do about the invaders. The most dramatic moment in Little House on the Prairie occurs when a French-speaking Osage chief, Soldat du Chene, arrives on the scene by horseback. He persuades his followers, in the nick of time, not to attack the white settlers.

Excessive political correctness in our day and age is as dangerous in its way as Trumpism. Those of us who oppose this vile president, a shameless enabler of racists and neo-Nazis, only play into his hands when we refuse to understand the different context of racial clashes in times past. It is dangerous enough to demand absolute purity of thought in the present; it is futile to demand it from our ancestors.

The “Little House” books provide testimonials of how people handled cultural clashes when they were a life and death matter. A long-running television series, also called Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) provided a more soft-pedaled version, far less jolting to modern sensibilities but far less accurate as well. I would still recommend the books, trusting that most readers would understand that perceptions have changed since the 1870s, and would be able to handle any discomfort that might cause. When I first read these books as a fourth grader, I was capable of understanding that. Why do we think present-day readers, even young ones, must be protected from history?

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19 thoughts on “Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

    1. I agree! One egregious example of this is the campaign that’s been going on for years to rewrite the parts of “Huckleberry Finn” that strike the modern ear as racially insensitive–ignoring the fact that the novel itself is an eloquent indictment of racism.

      1. Yes! I have long been a student of history and I am NOT a fan of revisionist history–or censorship of the written word, of course. The past is the past and lying about it does us no good. It’s highly disturbing to me that so many writers (and readers) these days are supporting attempts to “sanitize” literature. I shiver to think where we are going to be in twenty years with this!

  1. I don’t understand why we are passing moral judgement on a generation that shamefully perhaps but often simply didn’t understand, didn’t always know better – it was a different time and people didn’t have the experience or education to know much of what we know today. I say leave it, don’t sanitise because every time an example comes up we are given a perfect teaching moment. For me as a teacher I thrive on these moments in literature to encourage discussion. We can’t change what was by pretending it wasn’t. We can change what will be by teaching the difference.
    Great post L as always.

    1. Thank you for providing a teacher’s perspective. I hope teachers will always stand up for their right to instruct their students about the real world rather than some distorted version of it.

    1. Yes, I would agree that Laura was mostly curious about Indians, although there were both friendly and frightening encounters. There was a distinct difference in her parents’ attitudes. Later in the series, an elderly Indian comes into town to warn the settlers that a hard winter is coming. Laura’s Pa believes him, and prepares accordingly. That probably helped the family survive the seven months of blizzards that followed.

  2. I had a discussion with another resident in our new retirement community the other day, when he found out I’m a writer. I say discussion, but he basically used me to listen to his pet peeve, the revisionism being foisted on the Little House books, which he had loved as a kid, and was re-reading currently to see if he agreed with the political correctness. He did not. He was pointing out that Wilder put opinions into the mouths of characters – which is perfectly acceptable in a novel. Some characters had had frightening encounters with Indians – and that colored their opinions.

    I haven’t read them, so I’m going by the general ‘feeling’ of warmth turned to scandal by modern apologists; similar to complaints about all kinds of books written many years ago. Some books will hold up better than others (I wonder if MeToo will get rid of garbage (IMHO) such as Catcher in the Rye, which I hated back then.

    Who knows? Books are always going to be written by people, and people are flawed.

    1. I agree with your friend entirely. The Little House books have been close to my heart since childhood. I recently read a fascinating analysis of the methods Wilder used to transform her real life into fiction. She had the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was a famous writer before Laura was. It is possible that they exaggerated some of the encounters with Indians for dramatic effect. For example, the existence of Soldat du Chene, the Indian hero of Little House on the Prairie, hasn’t been verified by historians. Still, it all has the ring of truth.

      I must say I also have a soft spot for Catcher in the Rye, which really spoke to me when I was in high school!

      1. I found CitR disgusting, and its focus on the male adolescent excruciating. Doesn’t matter, if there are other people who feel differently. I needed something, instead, like the movie LadyBird we watched the other night, that showed life from the pov of a female adolescent (an American version, of course, and nothing like what I grew up with) – many parts rang true. Saoirse Ronan (? – and no idea how to pronounce the first name) and Laurie Metcalf as the mom. Surprisingly watchable.

        But everyone’s LIFE experience is different, and all those movies and books from the pov of view of the declining mid-life crisis male also drive me crazy; I avoid watching them, and their penchant for giving aging male actors access to pawing young beautiful female ones. Grow up, men.

      2. I agree, I really have no interest in male mid-life crises! As far as teenaged angst is concerned, some critics have said that Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar provides a female counterpart to Catcher in the Rye. Both protagonists ended up in a psychiatric institution, but Plath’s book didn’t have the same degree of foul language. I remember my mother being shocked that we were assigned Catcher in high school. I was so innocent then, I had to ask her what some of the words meant!

      3. The male mid-life crises so often seem to be of their own making – they divorce a long-time wife, mother of their children – and then think the universe will replace her with a younger, sexier model for them. That may have been true in the Old Testament days, when women died in childbirth frequently, the men had all the property, and had extra wives, and concubines, to assure the proper existence of a male heir. Our generation had a different ethos, the ones who I thought were doing it ‘better’: marry one person, stick together to rear the children, retire and enjoy each others’ company again. Like my parents. And my husband’s parents.

        I know it’s a rarer model nowadays, but I think it’s a better one than the ridiculous old geezer (we have one in the WH) with the trophy wife. Those give no thought to the fact that their trophy wife will probably outlast them, and their late children will be fatherless. I know I’m sounding very judgmental, but this society has too many men in power of that exact model.

      4. Agreed. My parents, like yours, stayed together. It was my maternal grandfather who ditched my grandmother for a trophy wife, and may have had children outside the family whose identities we don’t know (my brother is looking into this through ancestry.com). My mother and her siblings were adversely affected by the family trauma. My mother could never totally trust my father, or anyone really, although he was a very good man.

        I also agree that Trump is a horrible excuse for a role model, in this and other ways. I’m glad to see Melania is doing her best to establish her own identity and keep her dignity, although everyone knows he cheated on her with a porn star. He is the one who degraded the marriage, not her.

      5. How could she possibly have expected anything else, knowing his history? She did it with her eyes wide open, probably figuring she’d end up all right whatever happened. But fidelity? Although women are capable of endless self-delusion. There are probably very powerful legal documents in place, and their son looks like his father.

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