Reading Racism: Or, How I’m Learning to Wrestle with "Little House on the Prairie"

Somewhat clumsily, I’m learning how to read Little House on the Prairie to my three-year-old.


Recently, Mia rediscovered the mini-library of “Little House” books – given as a gift to her and her sister from old family friends – on a bookshelf in her room. She was pretty enamored of them when she first stumbled on the books a year or so ago. Back then, we even managed read all of Little House in the Big Woods and about half of Little House on the Prairie, but in reality she mostly liked the pages with pictures. On the pages with just words, I’d have to rush through them to stop her from leaning over and turning the page on me. But now is different. Now, we’re reading a chapter of Little House on the Prairie every night before bed, and it’s clear that she’s really listening to the stories. On the pages with no pictures, I sometimes notice her looking up and watching my lips move. Other times, she dreamily looks just past the book as if she’s conjuring the story on an imaginary stage.


Like a lot of children, I too had these books when I was a boy, but unlike a lot of children I never read them. I was too busy devouring Roald Dahl and Choose Your Own Adventures. And so Mia and I are reading them together for the first time. I love them. The stories are so evocative, alluring even, windows into a world so utterly unlike our own and yet narrated with a voice familiar to anyone who’s ever been a child. Watching Ma and Pa stockpile food for the winter in the Big Woods, Pa greasing his bear traps and playing the fiddle at night before bed, Laura crying with jealousy at the way adults fawn over her sister Mary’s blond hair, Laura swaddling her corncob doll, Mary waiting patiently in the tall prairie grass and trying to catch curious gophers: it’s easy to be captivated by them.


And because the stories are so colorful and told with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, it’s also easy to be blindsided by the racism.


In last night’s chapter, the family was just starting to explore the spot on the prairie where they’ll eventually build their house. Somewhat off-handedly, Laura asks Ma when she will see a “papoose,” something Pa had promised her before they left the Big Woods. “Papoose” is a term borrowed from the Narragansett meaning baby and often referring to a baby carried on the back or a type of wooden baby carrier worn on the back. Over time, it came to be used to refer to any Native American or First Nations baby, regardless of tribe or heritage, which is how Pa used it: “A papoose is a little, brown, Indian baby,” he said (p. 6). And even though some First Nations people remember the term as one of endearment, many others remember it quite differently as a term evoking genocide. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is a term “now generally regarded as offensive.”


The blurring of unique heritages under an umbrella term is a tool of settler colonialism. Treating all First Nations people as a monolithic bloc made it easier for white settlers to stereotype, marginalize, and oppress them. They are no longer people on par with the dominating group; rather, they are members of an “other” group and one less entitled to the same rights. Consider that one of the earliest recorded uses of the term “papoose” was from provincial records of the New Hampshire General Assembly, which in 1711 ordered that “for [every] Indian man slayn in the Province sixty pounds, for every woman thirty pounds, and for every minor or Papoose, fifteen pounds be payd out of the Treasury” (p. 477). Let’s be clear: this was a law that set a bounty for the murder of innocent children, with the label “Papoose” used to mark a child for death. This is not a term of endearment.


Ma’s response to Laura’s childlike question is one of raw fear, defensiveness, and self-righteousness, responses that were almost certainly typical among white settlers in the 1870s (and also at the time Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing in the 1930s). But though it may have been typical, it is also a classic case study of how racism gets perpetuated. That is, by children soaking up the prejudices of people they love, laid bare in unguarded moments like this one:


“Mercy on us!” Ma said. “Whatever makes you want to see Indians? We will see enough of them. More than we want to, I wouldn’t wonder.” …


“Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asked, and she caught a drop of molasses with her tongue.


“I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,” said Ma.


Confused, Laura then asks Ma, “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” To which Ma assured her that “the Indians would not be here long.” Indeed. In 1869 and 1870, Laura’s family was one of many white settler families illegally squatting on land in what is now Kansas that still belonged to the Osage tribe. And true to Ma’s word, within a year the Osages would be forced to sell the last of their land and move to a new reservation in Oklahoma. Within 15 years, almost all of the former Osage land would be populated by Euro-American settlers. (For an excellent – relatively brief but detailed – history, see Frances Kaye’s article “Little Squatters on the Osage Diminished Reserve.”)


When Mia and I stumbled onto this passage last night, I started to do what I did the last time we read these books together. I selectively censored it. I changed “Indian” to “Native American” or “indigenous.” I changed, “I just don’t like them” to “I’m just not sure about them.” But even as I spoke the words, I knew that my clumsy censorship was not doing Mia any favors. And it felt wrong. The words I was attributing to Ma were not words she would have used. So I stopped. I decided to level with Mia.


I told her that Laura’s family was moving to a place where people already lived. They had been living there a long time. And people – mostly people with white skin, I said – called them “Indians,” a name that they did not give themselves and a name that we don’t use anymore. I told her many people were very mean. I told her that “Indian Territory” was a place where Native American or First Nations people would be forced to move. (I didn’t know then that when Ma tells her “Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon” she was referring not to Oklahoma but to the very Osage land they had come to occupy.) I told her that Ma said she did not like the people she called Indians in part because she was afraid of what she did not understand.


But I also knew (and did not say) that Ma – like a lot of people then (and now) – was racist. Pa, as portrayed in the book and in commentary about the book, is seen as having a somewhat more complex and even malleable perspective on race – pushing back against fellow settlers’ racist mutterings and welcoming an Osage man into their home over Ma’s objections. But even Pa is subject to a white supremacist worldview, telling Laura at one point, “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on… That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country.”


And so, while I do not yet have the just right words to talk about racism with Mia, I was reminded last night just how much I need to fumble my way through. I cannot wait for the perfect words. Mia is the same age now that Laura was in that chapter. Like Laura, she takes vigilant and careful notice not only of the words we say but also the words we don’t say. And we are reading a book where I cannot let the words on the page speak for themselves. Last night, my truth-telling was nobly intentioned but clumsy. But the chapter we read last night is not the only encounter Laura and her family will have with First Nations people in the book, and so I am getting better prepared.


For one, I will tell Mia the name of the native people. I will call them the Osage, because that is who they are. For another, when the Osage people return to the prairie later in the book and come around looking at the house, I will try to tell the story from their perspectives, too: that this was their home, that they were away and came home to find strange people living there, that they were confused and probably angry. Who knows, I may even tell her that they were entitled (by the treaty they signed with the U.S. government) to collect “rent” from people living on their land and that is why they go into the Ingalls’s house and take things. But most importantly, when other settlers say racist things – for example, when the Ingalls's neighbor Mr. Scott says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” – I will call it racist, because it is.


It would be easy to take these books off the shelf, to say that they – like many books of their time – were steeped in white supremacy and racism and therefore they do not belong in our canon. It would also be easy to read all of the pages full of wonder and wild adventure and a family’s love and skip over the parts that inconveniently don’t fit that narrative. Instead, I am trying a middle path. It is a precarious path. I’ve already stumbled. No doubt, I will stumble again. But hopefully, I'll also get steadier with practice.