Little House on the Prairie

littlehouseprairie
Credit: Garth Williams

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little house on the prairie. HarperCollins, 2008. 335 pages. PB $6.99, ISBN: 978-0-064-40002-2


Many people likely have fond memories of the Little House on the Prairie, a book that tells the story of a pioneer family making a life for themselves in the west. This book and it’s companion novels have all cemented themselves as a children’s classic, and many of the titles were recipients of the prestigious Newberry Honor Award. However, a second read through of the books, particularly Little House on the Prairie, shows us that this once beloved book series has more than a few moments of racism toward Native Americans.

One particularly obvious incidence is when a character states that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (Wilder, 1935).

Another example can be seen in a conversation that happens between Laura and Ma. Laura asks “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma… This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” Ma curtly responds with “I just don’t like them” (Wilder, 1935).

Some argue that Pa provides a positive view of the Indians that works to balance out the racism. Pa tells Ma that “They are perfectly friendly” and he even goes so far as to discount his friend’s racists views by saying “That’s one good Indian.” with Laura explaining that “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian” (Wilder, 1935).

Regardless of the fact that Pa views the Indians in a more positive light, the racism in Little House on the Prairie just cannot be ignored. The fact that such blatant racism exists in a beloved children’s book is a clear example of white privilege at work. Before trying to defend this book and the series as “products of their time”, imagine that you are a First Nations child who has found this book in the school library. You are reading it, and suddenly come across the statement that “the only good Indian, is a dead Indian.” How would you feel knowing those words were aimed at you and your people? What if we changed the quote to say “the only good White person, is a dead White person”? Would you still defend the book then?

Regardless of the racism present in these books, many educators still view them as opportunities for discussion. Laura McLemore (2016) writes “We may feel today, given our 21st-century sensitivity, that Ma was wrong to fear the Osage or that Mr. and Mrs. Scott were racist.  And we are right, in our times they are.  But I suggest that rather than banning books or refusing to read them, we use them as a platform for examining the history of the United States.   What better way to learn our history than by reading a classic like Little House on the Prairie and using it as a platform for discussion?”

Something we as librarians and educators need to consider is that we are speaking to more than just a white audience. So often the white audience is the default, but that needs to change. While these books do have the potential to start conversations about racism, and the senseless violence that has been committed toward Native Americans, we need to remember that these conversations can be hurtful to Native children. Imagine being constantly bombarded with reminders of how your ancestors were massacred. Imagine your family’s suffering being used as a “teachable moment.” White privilege would argue that this is okay, but if you put yourself in the shoes of a Native child, you know that this kind of conversation could be incredibly painful.

Little House on the Prairie and its companion books might be products of their time, but today we can do better. Both White and Native children benefit when we provide accurate, positive representations, rather than books riddled with racism.


References

McLemore, L. (2016). Historical perspective or racism in little house on the prairie?. Retrieved from http://littlehouseontheprairie.com/historical-perspective-or-racism-in-little-house-on-the-prairie/

Wilder, L. I. (1935). Little house on the prairie. New York City, NY: HarperCollins.

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