While the Little House on The Prairie television show was a few years before my time (I only saw re-runs late at night or in random doctor’s lobbies), my mother bought me the complete boxed set of Little House books, which I read over and over again. My favorite books were On the Banks of Plum Creek and Little House on the Prairie, and by far my favorite excerpt, the one I returned to over and over again, was the chapter wherein a duo of Native Americans (well, “Indians”) show up at the Ingalls’ house while Pa is away.
Why did I love this chapter so much that, a decade after my last reading of the book, I still remember all the accompanying pictures and a few of the exact lines (“We’ll be safe if we stay close to Jack,” “Ma said they were her brave little girls”)? I think the first reason was that I was intrigued by Native Americans (I used to wish that I had been born one) and the second reason was because it was vicariously thrilling to read about how scared Laura and Mary are, and then to be so relieved when the Indians turn out to be, if not exactly friendly, non-threatening.
Re-reading as an adult, there are some undertones in the chapter and in my own love for it which are decidedly disturbing. The Indians are described in animal-like terms, their eyes “glittering, like snake’s eyes,” and much ado is made about the powerful odor emanating from a pair of skunk skins they wear about their waists. My curiosity about the Indians was driven by how exoticized they were, and no doubt my desire to be an Indian stemmed from having read, in the Little House books and elsewhere, sensationalized stories of their “dangerous” and “wild” ways.
While I couldn’t find any of the Little House books on current banned book lists, the question of whether the books are appropriate for children to read is still highly debated. The blog American Indians in Children’s Literature does not recommend the books or think they should be taught in classrooms. And in Dennis McAuliffe’s non-fiction book The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: An American History, the author recounts how his grandmother, an Osage Indian, was mysteriously murdered when she was 21 in Oklahoma. McAuliffe says he would not allow his son to read Little House on the Prairie.
If we read the Little House books in context, their insensitive representations are not much different than those found in frequently-challenged book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which uses racial epithets and can be read as presenting African-Americans as foolish and superstitious. I think it’s important to note that the Little House books do not present one monolithic attitude towards Indians. Laura is primarily curious about Indians, while neighbor Mrs. Scott thinks “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and Ma is very afraid of the Osage Indians and disdainful of their culture.
These complex attitudes, the fact that the Ingalls are trespassing when they settled Osage land, and the historical conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers are things that young children may not be able to process all at once.
That said, I would allow my (non-existent) daughter to read the Little House books on the condition that she and I discuss the portrayal of Native Americans therein. I’m undecided about whether or not I think the books should be taught in public schools–on the one hand, they have historical value and children tend to really enjoy them, but on the other hand, there is merit to the argument that they present a skewed view of Native Americans which is best dealt with by parents in the home.
I am comfortable passing on the Little House books to my children because I read them, with no supervision, and came away with a positive view of Native Americans. It is crucial to note that the Indians never attack or hurt the Ingalls, and, though I might be in the minority, I always read Ma as paranoid in her distrust of them. While my experience is certainly not the universal one, I think there is an argument to be made that the Ingalls, to some extent, realize that poaching the Osage Indians’ land is wrong, and that Laura grows up to have a respectful attitude towards Native Americans.
If you would like to read a more thorough opinion on the complexities of how Native Americans are presented in Little House, I highly recommend this post by Jennifer Porter, who is a writer and blogger of Native American heritage herself.
*Note: I could not find any pictures of Osage Indians; the man and woman pictured in individual portraits are Apache and the two girls pictured together are unidentified.