Ma Said What? Tackling Racism in Little House on the Prairie

In Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, author Philip Nel examines the racist illustrations present in a number of Dr. Seuss’s works, and points out racism present in other children’s classics. Many of these books are on our shelves.

For more context about the impetus for this post, read this first

I should probably begin by saying that I did not read any of the Little House books as a child. Therefore, as a 40-year-old white mother, I didn’t approach sharing this book with my 8-year-old white-appearing daughter with much more than a purpose to have intentional conversations about the racism found within. Without the sentimentality that some people have attached to these books, reading this book with a critical eye was not difficult.

Little House on the Prairie is one of a series of semi-autobiographical (but technically fictional) books for middle grade readers about a family of five who moves to Kansas during the western settlement that drove many American Indians from their land. In this post, I will sometimes refer to American Indians as “Indians” when speaking in context of the novel, which is how the author refers to them throughout.

We weren’t too far into the book when I found myself having to explain why the settlers felt like they were free to move into “Indian Territory.” Throughout the book, Pa is often the voice of reason, appearing to understand that the American Indians’ upset is justified, and yet still also believing in his own right to settle on Indian land. After the first mention of that, I stopped and asked if my daughter thought that is was fair for the Ingalls family to move onto land that belonged to someone else. She felt it was “snotty,” which, while not a word we typically use in our house, is pretty accurate and I feel a close synonym to privilege. I felt like she understood this.

I explained that the government felt white people would “civilize” the land. In the government’s view, to civilize meant to make the area more similar to white civilization. By taking this stand, the government allowed American Indians to be forced out of their homelands. I explained that it is difficult for some people to view other cultures and see value in the way others live if it is different from their own way of life. Sometimes, instead of seeing differences as just part of people’s uniqueness, fear takes over and people who have power make decisions. Those decisions affect people who don’t have power. I then related it to gentrification and lost my daughter there. Too far, Lindsey, I told myself.

But the question “Whose land is it?” comes up in one of the more tense moments halfway through the novel when two American Indians visit the Ingalls home while Pa isn’t there. “Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible” Laura says, and the illustrations depict a stereotypical image of two nearly naked men with skunk-skin loin cloths. Wilder goes into great detail about the odor of the two men— emanating from the skins. The girls and Ma are terrified. The men point to things in the house, Ma gives them food and tobacco, and they leave.

photo of book page with illustration of Indians in the Ingalls' cabin

photo of book page with Indians taking Pa's furs and leaving the cabin with them

Once the tense moment passes, I closed the book and had the following conversation with my daughter:

Me: What do you think just happened?
Her: The men came in and asked for food.
Me: Why do you think that Ma and the girls were scared?
Her: Because they are always scared of the Native Americans.
Me: Why do you think that?
Her: Because they don’t know much about the Native Americans.
Me: What do you think about the Native Americans taking the food and the tobacco?
Her: Well, maybe that’s how they do things in their tribe. It doesn’t feel right, but maybe it wasn’t stealing it was just sharing since they had to share their land.
Me: What do you think you would do if you were Laura in that situation?
Her: Oh, I don’t know...I’d probably do whatever Ma was doing.

Like most kids, she would model her parents’ behavior.

There were some phrases such as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” said repeatedly by a neighbor, that we had to unpack. We talked about how those were racist statements and if we ever heard someone speak that way about other people we should call that out. Similarly, Ma often chastised Laura’s curiosity about American Indians; we discussed how exploring other cultures can be a beautiful thing as long as it is done respectfully. Throughout the book, Laura wishes to see a papoose (incorrectly defined in this book as a Native American baby). Her obsession with papooses reaches a fever pitch toward the end when she sees a baby and demands to have the baby—to take the baby from her own mother so that she may keep it as if the child were a doll. My daughter and I had a long talk about that one. The Ingalls family viewed the American Indians as being so different from themselves that they often objectified them. In doing so, they prevented themselves from seeing the Indians as family members and moms and children, the same as themselves.

photo of book page with illustration of Indian mother and baby on a horse

The climax of the novel (spoilers ahead) is when three tribes come together to determine what to do about the settlers. We see this from the very frightened perspective of the Ingalls family who can hear the drumming and war cries from their home. The family endures many sleepless nights listening to the nearby ceremonies with mounting fear until the tribes reach a solution with the help of the only American Indian who is humanized and called a “good Indian” by Laura and Pa. He earned this distinction by putting an end to the things that were making the Ingalls family uncomfortable—which is a common trope used to pigeonhole people of color into only serving to help the white people in a story. After reading this tense chapter, we spent some time exploring You Tube videos watching traditional war dances and war cries. I asked my daughter if she found this scary and she said “No, but it's because I know why they are doing it.”

A little education goes a long way.

As I have mentioned, Pa often calms Ma’s attitude toward American Indians or explains why the nearby tribes are not happy with the settlers. However, Pa’s true colors show at the end of the novel (again, spoliers) when he learns the government is going to allow the American Indians to remain, thereby making it unsafe for the Ingalls family to settle there. We have seen Pa face medical emergencies—nearly drowning, a wolf pack attacking him—and we never see him break a sweat or lose his temper. But after he learns this latest news, he throws a Pa-sized tantrum.

photo of book page with angry words from Pa

photo of 2nd page of angry words from Pa

I had the following conversation with my daughter:

Me: Have we seen Pa so upset?
Her: No. Me: Why is he so upset?
Her: Because he worked so hard to build that cabin and now they have to move again.
Me: How do you think the American Indians feel about that?
Her: They are probably happy.
Me: How do you feel about that?
Her: I think I would rather the American Indians be happy.
Me: Why?
Her: Well, Laura’s family will be fine
(note: here I think “She’s got it! She understands privilege!”)
Me: What makes you say that?
Her: Because you said there are tons of other books about them. They must be okay.

So, maybe my daughter didn’t walk away with a full understanding of white privilege, but she can now better identify when someone is being “snotty” to another person for racial or cultural differences. She also has a better understanding of our country’s treatment of its native people. And that is a foundation that we can build upon. One log at a time.

If you would like to read books similar to Little House, I recommend Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series told from the perspective of an American Indian family.

Whether or not you choose to share classic books such as Little House on the Prairie with the children in your life, we encourage you to have open conversations with them on the topic of race. It’s important; there is a wealth of research in support of that fact. In the absence of conversations on the topic, children can come to problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions. Here is a guide to talking with young children about race, from the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of American Library Association.

Comments

Thank you so much! While I would think to discuss the overt racism, it didn't occur to me that there was a real opportunity to talk about white privilege in these instances.

Using the term “white privilege” is a very shallow (and ultimately, inaccurate) approach to what was occurring in the Little House books.

Throughout history, tribes have fought for dominion over the land. Sometimes the differing tribes looked very similar to each other, while sometimes their appearances differed greatly.

Also, sometimes these territorial battles were fought over the desire for mere power, and sometimes they were fought out of self-preservation. (i.e. their homeland resources weren’t sustaining their tribe’s population, so they had to fight for new lands in order to provide for their family).

European immigrants often came to America because they had lost hope and the basic needs for survival in their land of origin.

Upon their arrival in this “land of opportunity,” the expected clash of tribes occurred. The Native Americans who had been privileged with a relatively undisturbed wealth of resources for their entire lives didn’t appreciate the intruders coming in and using up what once belonged entirely to them.

(Please note: we see this exact same thing happening with modern-day legal and illegal immigration. The tribe who is here is very opposed to the tribe who is trying to enter.)

This isn’t white privilege; it is tribalism. And tribalism is simply a form of protection and safety for its members. All people and all cultures form tribes, and when battle between the tribes occurs, one tribe will win.

Danes against the British, Huns against the Romans, Tutsi against the Hutu, Lakota against the Chippewa, etc. etc. etc. The list could go on for miles, because tribalism is a foundational habit of the human race.

In short, please stop acting as if white men are the cause of all the world’s problems. (However, I shouldn’t expect any different from you, because your behavior is a perfect example of tribalism. You have deemed another tribe as a threat and are attempting to weaken them with your insults).

Now back to the story of Ma and Laura: imagine if a few dirty, gun-toting, overall-wearing men showed up at your home in the city (the same city that destroyed their hunting lands) and started taking things from your home right in front of you and your daughter. Think of the emotions you would feel. I doubt they would be favorable of the intruders.

You see: you and your daughter belong to one tribe, while the dirty men belong to another. The natural clash of tribes occurs.

On rare occasions, people can see beyond their own tribes and have understanding for others, but I think it is fair to say that this approach is that of the outliers.

Overall, the Little House books give us an excellent source of insight into early American settlement, including the tribalism that occurred at that time.

So when teaching your children, please don’t teach them about “privileged white men,” but instead about tribalism and how we can be outliers in a world that wants to naturally pits us all against each other.

lpatrick's picture

Thank you Audra. You are correct. I was using “white privilege” as a simplification without considering how the simplification could be inaccurate or harmful in itself. I’m just at the beginning of my understanding of white privilege and certainly have even further to go on tribalism and colonialism. I will keep learning and sharing with my daughter!

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