Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?

This week is National Banned Book Week. Right on schedule, my Google alerts box is filling up with mentions of Little House on the Prairie, banned for racism.

I’ve always been idly curious about this. Sometimes I’ve thought about it and nodded. I can see where the depictions of Native Americans can be construed as racist. Arguably, they are racist. Not that I think the book — or any book — should be banned. But as I considered it, I did admit to myself that taken out of context, an argument could be made that there was rampant racism throughout the “Little House” series.

But there’s that word: context. In the context of the day, Laura was accurately depicting the mood on the 19th-century American frontier. Ma’s fear. The reality of massacres. The Indians’ plight, forced upon them by the encroaching white men. For kids, I think such books present a good opportunity to educate them on the reality and danger of racism. We don’t want to clean up history; we want to present it warts and all so we can learn from it. People can get all hot and bothered in the name of political correctness, but I will always prefer flawed reality over the PC ideal. The biggest problem with revisionist history — and there are many — is that by allowing it we risk repeating the same mistakes. But mankind is flawed. We must use our misguided experiences to shape our collective education.

In light of all the banned book talk sliding into my inbox, I started thinking about this whole racism charge in a different way. I’ve been reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter. The accusation of racism always rang a little hollow for me, I realized. Why was that? I’d read the series countless times between the ages of eight and eighteen. I decided to ask myself this honest question: What image of American Indians did the “Little House” series depict for me?

The words came in a flood. Proud. Beautiful. Calm. Fair. This might not be what Ma thought, but it is absolutely what Laura thought. Think of the lasting images of Indians throughout the series. Soldat du Chene. The papoose, so important and beautiful to the little-girl Laura. Big Jerry the half-breed, riding off into the sunset with his bright red shirt. Yes, Ma is racist (and as a mother I must say understandably so, trying to mother her children in the middle of such unrest). But if Ma is racist, isn’t Pa her counterpart? And whose side does Laura take? Whose side does the narrator take? What emerges is, in fact, a complex push-pull relationship as Laura has to make a decision about how she feels about these people she knows as Indians. And the author shares with me — the reader — that decision.

Laura likes Indians. She admires them. She feels badly for what’s happening to them. She does not say each of these things outright, although she does say some of them. By what Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer, chooses to share about the character Laura’s thoughts about the Indians, it’s clear that to her, Ma’s judgment does not ring true.

I think that for young readers, the lesson here is not racism. It’s acceptance and respect.

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One Response to Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?

  1. Laura says:

    When I talk about LHOTP to groups, especially groups of adults, I talk about the fact that the books are historical fiction and must be considered in context to the time period they represent. So, I agree with your thoughts on the topic. Also, consider that Ma must have known they were squatters on Osage land and had reason to fear Osage coming to her door. I don’t think fear and racism should be confused.

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