Wilder Indians

After reading and blogging about two of my old Weekly Reader Book Club books (here and here), I moved on to another children’s book that I knew made reference to Native Americans. I never read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as a child, but I read the whole series to my children and loved them. As I picked them up again, I realized we had read them through only once, almost twenty years ago, so rereading them now is full of pleasurable surprises.

First, though, to get the Indian thing out of the way. Laura’s Ma hates and fears Indians. Pa views them as human beings and always tries to see things from their point of view, and Laura clearly favors her dad’s perspective.

Recreation of Ingalls family cabin in Kansas

Still, the image LIW presents is often painfully stereotypical. In The Long Winter, sixth in the series, an elderly Indian man warns the settlers about the harsh weather before them. It’s a real mix. He’s wise, his prophecies come true, and Pa so takes his warnings to heart that he moves his family into town. At the same time the old Indian represents that mysterious savage wisdom and actually says the words, “Heap big snow.” In short, the portrait of Native Americans in these books is certainly more humane and sympathetic than in many — probably ahead of its time — but still problematic by our standards.

Underlying all this ambivalence is our understanding that these admirable pioneers — the Ingalls and Wilder families — were displacing the native people. While we’re rooting for Pa to homestead successfully, we’re also aware of the great historical genocide this settlement caused.

In spite of that realization, I love these books. Ms. Wilder (and/or her daughter Rose, who some people think actually wrote them) creates a coherent, tactile world peopled with complex characters. I’ve loved this summer reading (about to start Little Town on the Prairie, the second to last of the series) and will hate to see it end. I’ve been telling everyone that the series is an epic masterpiece.

Is this opinion morally tenable? Should my recognition of what happened to Native Americans ruin my enjoyment of the Little House books? Should Fagin and Shylock spoil Dickens and Shakespeare for us? How far does a reader go to excuse bigotry and stereotypes as typical of their time?

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