Learning From Laura Ingalls Wilder

The author’s popular Little House books sought to challenge the way many Americans saw their country’s history, with deeply mixed results.

Laura Ingalls Wilder during the 1950s (Scisetti Alfio / Shutterstock / The Atlantic)

Just over a century ago, Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and suggested that she write about her memories growing up on the American frontier. At the time, Wilder was living in Missouri and writing columns for a regional farm magazine. It took several years before she heeded her daughter’s advice and began recording her childhood experiences in a manuscript titled Pioneer Girl. At first, publishers passed it over, so Wilder reworked her story into a series. The first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932 when the author was 65 years old.

Though Wilder and her Little House series have been immensely popular with generations of American readers, only in recent decades has her work received serious critical attention from scholars. The past few years have seen the release of an annotated version of Wilder’s memoir, a new book of the author’s letters, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography. But the writer’s name surfaced in the news earlier this summer when an organization of children’s librarians, educators, and authors addressed reader concerns about Wilder’s depictions of Native and black characters, particularly in the third novel, Little House on the Prairie. The book focuses on the period when the Ingalls family lived on the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas, and several passages—including one where a character says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and others where Osage characters are described as animal-like—prompted the Association for Library Service to Children to take action.

In June, the ALSC Board unanimously voted to change the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. A statement about the decision argued that Wilder’s work reflects “dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” Predictably, the decision sparked a range of responses. Many educators, activists, and readers applauded the move, while others have argued that the ALSC was unfair to Wilder, and that the overall literary merit of the work outweighs sections of problematic content they contain. Still other readers found themselves somewhere in the middle, or unsure what to think.

Such literary controversies can spur people to revisit the works in question. Whether readers are inspired by nostalgia, disappointment, or curiosity to pick up the Little House novels again, they’ll likely find scenes featuring Native characters and themes that pose challenges to both children and adults. The books indeed include several pejorative passages about Native people that reflect “dated cultural attitudes.” At times, they also work to dispel myths about American westward expansion; some scenes illustrate the complexity of race relations on the frontier and remind readers that countless families like the Ingallses were illegally occupying Native lands. As a result, Wilder’s approach can leave readers with conflicting messages about Native characters, requiring a more nuanced consideration of the texts themselves.

In the aforementioned 1915 letter, Lane urged her mother to embrace a romantic view of the American West in her writings, describing the region as “Indians and forests and half a continent practically untouched by the human race.” Lane even quipped the motto of Manifest Destiny that lured Americans into the frontier: “Free land, free fuel for the hunting it—‘Go west, young man, and grow up with the land.’” At first glance, Wilder appears to follow Lane’s advice in her novels (though she corresponded with the Kansas Historical Society to learn more about the Osage people she wrote about). In Little House on the Prairie, when Laura’s Pa decides to leave their home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, he says he’s eager to travel to the “free” land where there were “no settlers, only Indians” who’d move further West if they hadn’t already. Meanwhile, Laura’s mother and sister Mary are frightened by potential encounters with Native people. And when the Ingallses later arrive in Indian Territory, their new neighbors, the Scotts, go so far as to say that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Even readers who find such scenes troubling might assume that Wilder was simply repeating the attitudes of her time. A closer look, though, reveals that she usually presents misconceptions about frontier life only to later challenge them; similarly, negative views of Native people are often juxtaposed with more favorable ones. In Little House on the Prairie, young Laura listens to various perspectives about Native people uttered by the adults around her and questions them. Laura asks her Ma, for example, why they’re traveling to Indian Territory if she doesn’t like Indians. It’s a question that highlights the absurdity of the events that follow, like when the Ingallses huddle in their house petrified of the Osage neighbors whose land they are attempting to appropriate. Pa’s expectation of “free” land in the West is dashed as more Osage appear each day. What’s more, the Ingallses already consider Mr. Scott a fool prior to his offensive “dead Indian” remark, and Pa counters, “Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone.” Eventually, the lives of all non-Native people in the area are saved by an Osage man whom Wilder’s story commemorates as a hero. At the end of the chapter, the author includes a line that’s unusually didactic for her series, “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”

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.

Unfortunately, in my experience as a professor of American Indian studies, I’ve found that many of my college students learned little about Native history in grade school—unless they grew up on or near reservations, or lived in regions that prioritize such education. As a result, I’ve suspected that many adult readers might not know how to properly contextualize stories with Native themes for children. Indeed, I’ve had well-intentioned non-Native grandparents, parents, and teachers tell me they hoped to overcome shortcomings in Wilder’s novels by merely skipping all references to Native characters when reading the books aloud, or by using markers to black out these sections before giving the books to children to read on their own.

Of course, removing references to Native people in Little House on the Prairie doesn’t mitigate racism in Wilder’s time or ours. It results in a different problem: a frontier in which Native people and history have been erased entirely. The revisionist approaches taken by Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie TV series (1974–1983) and by the Disney miniseries (2005) are similarly imperfect. In both adaptations, Laura unrealistically befriends Native characters on the frontier, and Native and non-Native people are shown getting along reasonably well after tense introductions. For the most part, the adaptations merely exchange one stereotype for another. Depicting Native people as “noble savages” instead of “savages” does little to advance audiences’ understanding about ways both the U.S. government and its citizens illegally acquired land from the Native people formally recognized through treaties as members of sovereign nations. The goals of offering both realistic perspectives about what happened to Native people on the frontier and feel-good messages that promote “acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities” appear to be at an impasse in the frontier genre.

The joint statement from the ALSC and the American Library Association, which critiques the “dated cultural attitudes” in Wilder’s novels, perhaps implies that representations of Native people in American popular culture have come a long way since the author’s time. But this is not so. Eight decades after the series’ publication, Native people are still most often shown in historic settings—or as mascots—in mainstream media. Stories that do feature Native characters tend to deny or downplay the acts of genocide committed against them, and rarely are they portrayed with individuality or depth. Such depictions inevitably influence young people (think of Disney’s famous Pocahontas animated film or whitewashed stories about the first Thanksgiving). On the first day of class, I routinely ask undergraduates in a general-education course to draw the first image that comes to mind when they hear the phrases American Indian or Native American. The results from hundreds of students are consistent each semester; the drawings of feathers, headdresses, tepees, bows and arrows, tomahawks, and loincloths suggest how common it is to visualize Native people as existing only in the past.

What has changed since 1935 is that more stories from Native perspectives are accessible, although parents and educators may need to look beyond their local bookstores or standard curriculum to locate them. From tales for small children such as Luci Tapahonso’s Navajo ABC or Richard Van Camp’s Little You to works for older readers such as Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer or Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels, options abound for all ages. Many Native writers tend to set their stories in contemporary times; a notable exception is Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, which evokes Wilder’s series but centers on an Ojibwa girl, her family, and community.

Regardless of where Little House readers stand on the decision to remove Wilder’s name from the ALSC award, perhaps most could agree that the books raise useful questions about best practices for talking with children about racism in America, and that such discussions about Native topics should include Native texts or perspectives. Wilder’s critics and fans alike might find additional common ground in the theme of her February 1920 essay for the Missouri Ruralist: “[Home] is the best place for teaching many things, first and most important of which is how to think for oneself.” The author believed it was essential for children to know and to think about American history. The ALSC decision suggests the Little House novels may not be the best place to start that conversation with young readers, and that the books fall short of contemporary expectations for children’s literature. But helping new generations to see beyond the myths and face the uncomfortable truths about racism in America’s past—and present—is as necessary in our time as it was in Wilder’s.