Although Pa voices a more tolerant view of Native people than most other characters, he’s still an illegal squatter on Osage land, and he’s convinced the Osage will be forced West while the Ingallses remain. But Young Laura isn’t satisfied with Pa’s assumption. She tries to question him (“But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—”) before he firmly silences her. Pa’s belief in Manifest Destiny is steadfast, but Wilder portrays her father as dead wrong. At the conclusion of Little House on the Prairie, it is the Ingalls family, not the Osage, who must leave. Wilder invites readers to consider a point seldom acknowledged in the literature published during her time: that otherwise ordinary families like her own participated in the unjust, unlawful occupation of Native lands.
Lest readers miss this point, Wilder revisits it in a later book, These Happy Golden Years, when Laura’s Uncle Tom recounts his experience being taken prisoner along with other gold prospectors in the Black Hills. Laura’s Ma is shocked that her brother had been captured, but Uncle Tom sets her straight. “It was Indian country,” Uncle Tom explained. “Strictly speaking, we had no right there.”
Wilder’s observations in Little House on the Prairie about the wrongness of encroaching on Native lands are frequently overshadowed by terms that describe Osage people in stereotypical or dehumanizing ways, including wild, fierce, and yipping. Often, these negative descriptors compete with otherwise salient points, such as when Pa finally acknowledges that “wild Indians” remain the rightful owners of their land. Even a behind-the-scenes look at the Little House series does not definitively resolve questions about the contradictory ways Wilder depicted Native people in her novels. For example, when Wilder’s publisher alerted her to a serious problem in the first edition of the novel in 1952, where the prairie was described as a place where “there were no people. Only Indians,” an 85-year-old Wilder acknowledged this as her own “stupid blunder.”
But, as the Pioneer Girl editor Pamela Smith Hill confirms, the reference to “no people. Only Indians” doesn’t appear in Wilder’s earlier draft at all (and it’s unclear to scholars how that line might have been added during the editing process). Earlier drafts of the series in Wilder’s handwriting contain even more varied references to Native people. The pages include stories about a “handsome” Osage man, Native people in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and a time when tension between Native and non-Native communities was caused by a white man’s actions. In an early version, it was the beloved character Mr. Edwards who voiced the most intolerant views about Native people, not the blundering Mr. Scott.
As readers today consider Wilder’s contradictory messages about Native people on the frontier, it’s useful to remember that the author wrote her stories during the Great Depression—a time when young people throughout the U.S. forewent many of the comforts of childhood and labored in fields, mines, and factories to help their families survive. As the scholar Dora V. Smith has noted, during this period, American children’s literature largely shifted away from the heavy-handed moral lessons found in earlier books; this gave young people who were forced to mature rapidly more freedom to work out meanings in the stories on their own. Wilder intended her series for children, and the texts continue to be categorized as such. But contemporary readers who are accustomed to more recent trends in children’s literature—that is, stories often more fantastical, humorous, and fast paced than they were during the 1930s, or even interactive and technology based—may need guidance from adults to navigate the difficult themes she raises.