Little House on the Prairie: Too racist for children?

I love the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and have treasured the experience of sharing them with my children.  Little House on the Prairie was the first chapter book that interested Nicholas enough for me to read it to him.  His sister Lydia’s first chapter book was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (after seeing the movie), but once we had started on chapter books I soon offered Little House in the Big Woods, and now I’m reading Little House on the Prairie to Lydia, who is almost 4 years old.  Like Nicholas, she asks to hear certain scary parts again and again to make sure they turn out okay–Lydia’s most repeated request is for the part where the log fell on Ma.

Neither of my kids has felt that the chapter “Indians in the House” was an especially scary one.  But the way this book presents American Indians is a major concern for many 21st-century parents, and some have told me they won’t read this book to their kids (or allow them to read it themselves when they’re older) because it’s so racist.

I understand the issue!  The book presents Indians as “wild men,” as a threat that the family naturally fears without really explaining why:

“Mercy on us!” Ma said.  “Whatever makes you want to see Indians?  We will see enough of them.  More than we want to, I wouldn’t wonder.”

“They wouldn’t hurt us, would they?” Mary asked.

“No!” Ma said.  “Don’t get such an idea into your head.”

Ma says that, but it’s clear that she dislikes and fears Indians.  When the girls finally see Indians, they are two men who show up while Pa is away and go into the house with Ma.  Laura and Mary, outside, are absolutely terrified.

I feel that this story is well worth reading, and we can learn from it.  So here’s my approach to this chapter, which we read yesterday.

MAMA: “Chapter Eleven: Indians in the House.”  Who are Indians, do you know?

LYDIA: Wild men.

MAMA: Yes, Ma and Pa told Laura that Indians were wild men.  They meant that the Indians didn’t live by the same rules they did.  Like Jack is not a wild dog; he follows the rules so he can live with the family.

LYDIA: Jack won’t bite them.  But the wolves are wild dogs that would bite them.

MAMA: Right.  So because the Indians didn’t follow the rules of Laura’s family, they felt like the Indians had no rules and they just didn’t know what they might do.  Really, the Indians had their own rules about how to be civilized people, what kind of house to make and what kind of food and clothes, how to get along and share things.  They weren’t wild; they were a different kind of civilized.  But they didn’t speak English, and Laura’s family didn’t speak their language, so they couldn’t explain their rules to each other and figure out how to work together.  They were so different from Laura’s family that they seemed scary.

[Read the chapter up to the point where the Indians have entered the house and Laura and Mary are frantically scream-whispering to each other, “Oh, what are they doing to Ma!”  “Oh, I don’t know!”]

LYDIA: What did they think they were doing?!

MAMA: They just didn’t know.  They thought if wild men were in the house, it was like wild animals being in the house; they just didn’t know what they might do.  Some kinds of wild animals bite people, so maybe they thought the Indians were biting Ma.

[Continue reading.  The girls go into the house and find Ma nervously making cornbread for the Indians.  Although the Indians’ appearance and body language are intimidating, they do not hurt anyone.  Later, Ma tells Pa that the Indians took all his tobacco.  He says that’s all right; the most important thing is to get along with the Indians and not make them enemies.  Later, the girls confess to Pa that they thought about disobeying his command to keep Jack the dog chained up.]

MAMA: (reading) ” ‘He would have bitten those Indians,’ said Pa.  ‘Then there would have been trouble.  Bad trouble.  Do you understand?’  ‘Yes, Pa,’ they said, but they did not understand.’ ”

LYDIA: I don’t understand!

MAMA: If Jack hurt the Indians, then the Indians would get mad and probably hurt back.  They would hurt Jack and his family.

LYDIA: Biting??

MAMA: No, remember the Indians had knives and hatchets? [turning back to illustration and description]  Maybe they would have hurt the family with the knives.  That would be bad trouble.  Pa told them to keep Jack chained because he didn’t want to start trouble by letting Jack hurt people.

LYDIA: Use their words instead of hurting.

MAMA: Using words is better.  But the Indians didn’t know the same words as Laura’s family.  Because there was no way to talk to each other, they had to be very careful not to let any trouble start.

That was all the explanation necessary.

I would rather talk about this story and the difficult but interesting issues it presents, than hide the story.  Prejudice is rooted in fear; sometimes there are good reasons for fear, so how do we respond without prejudice?  How can we respect people who are very different from us and have communication barriers?  These are important questions we Earthlings wrestle with all our lives–so we may as well start early!

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4 thoughts on “Little House on the Prairie: Too racist for children?

  1. Pingback: 3 novels by Asian authors + Waking Up White | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Things are only as offensive as people perceive them to be. This generation has gone too far over the edge and down the rabbit hole.

  3. I came over to read your post after seeing your comment on my book post today, Becca. Thanks for this. I don’t agree with Kegan’s comment above because “things are only as offensive as people perceive them to be” always ends up meaning “things are only as offensive as I perceive them to be, and if I don’t think they’re offensive then they aren’t.” Your interaction with your kids is really helpful because it shows that prejudice grows out of fear and that often we really have more in common than we realize, but we can’t get there because of difficulties in communication. This is a great thing for kids to learn as they read books like this.

    • Yes, I see what you mean!

      I grew up in Oklahoma, so both the unfair treatment of the Indians and the fact that white people such as myself were calling the former Indian Territory home were facts I thought about a lot. My parents were really good at discussing this and other injustices, so I’ve tried to do the same with my kids, and I feel it’s paid off in that my 13-year-old is very aware of when a situation is unfair to somebody.

      Lydia and I discussed the idea of Indian Territory some more when we recently started reading On the Banks of Plum Creek, which mentions at the beginning that they had come from Indian Territory. Wouldn’t you think that Pa would’ve known by the name that this was one place that might not be a good choice for non-Indian settlers?! Why did he feel like it was okay to just move in and start a farm in his choice of place? Of course to a 4-year-old, the idea of property ownership is not entirely clear (mention of Pa and the seller of the Plum Creek property going into town to sign papers helps to reinforce it), but when I explained that the Indians had been told that they had to leave other places but that Indian Territory was just for them, Lydia understood how unfair it was for Pa to think he could live there. And that understanding brings with it the idea that sometimes grownups make big mistakes!

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