Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This conversation is one that comes up regularly. As a historian, educator, interpreter, and lifelong scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have commented on this topic hundreds of times, and will continue to encourage intelligent, fact-based discussion rooted in the real events of United States history. In fact, a few years ago I developed an hour-long presentation entitled “Why Does Ma Hate the Indians?: Responding to Loaded Questions in First-Person Interpretation.” In it, I open discussion on the topic with a focus on how interpreters and other educators can navigate the most difficult aspects of our collective history while remaining true to the facts–not only the facts of the individual being interpreted, but also the context within which that person functioned–while facilitating essential discussion about historic issues which continue to plague our modern society.
I am of the conviction that banning work such as the Little House series of books is counterproductive. I am also of the conviction that changing Wilder’s text would be dishonest to readers and to history. Laura’s not here to make that decision whether or how to change the character as written. Remember, too, that these are novels–works of fiction–and the portrayal of the character Caroline isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real person. However, it is quite likely that many of Laura’s relatives and other people Laura knew held racist beliefs and may have acted in oppressive ways. The mere existence of the Homestead Act is proof that white supremacy was policy, and often rule of law, in the US. Millions of people were complicit, and most of them probably didn’t give it much thought in terms of the disastrous impact it had on Indigenous Americans. 
Furthermore, I am of the conviction that any reader who finds Wilder’s work too upsetting to continue reading (or sharing with others) has every right to put the book down and never look at it again. I’m never going to admonish someone for drawing the line and saying they simply cannot bear to read something that is painful to them. 
But: we who are educators, fans, and interpreters of work such as Wilder’s have an obligation to those we engage with about that work. If we are educators, we particularly owe it to those we serve to have honest, intelligent, and meaningful discourse. We simply MUST acknowledge the racist content, the events and socio-political motivations that underpin the content, and recognize the pervasive damage that resulted from those beliefs and actions in real life. Downplaying or brushing racism under the rug only serves to continue the oppression. 
Ultimately, it’s not our work to alter, and we shouldn’t change what Wilder said no matter how ugly it is. Rather, we should–MUST–be willing to hash it out. 
Believe me, I’m not afraid to say that there is a lot of ugly stuff in certain portions of the books. I discuss it regularly in my public presentations. But I still don’t think the work of any author or artist should be altered by other people. We don’t have to like the character or the narrative. But it isn’t ours to change. 
What IS ours is a duty to learn from the past and work to improve our society with a goal of achieving total equality. So let’s be honest about it, have the dialogue, and work to improve things for the current and future generations.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/realize-classic-books-childhood-racist/

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2 comments on “Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. Susan Gill says:

    “Ugly stuff”? Ma was afraid of Indians and so would I have been. They massacred whole families on the frontier. Not sure why her feelings would be questioned or even dissected given the time and place she lived.

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    • Melanie says:

      It goes far deeper than that. The family were squatting illegally on land which belonged to the Osage people. The United States government and the Osage tribe were in the throes of negotiation over the Sturges Treaty. As written, the Osage would be forced to leave, and would be compensated only 19 cents per acre in an area that, once open for settlement according to the tenets of the 1862 Homestead Act, could be acquired by preemption at a minimum price of $1.50/acre ($2.50/acre for land designated as railroad sections). Furthermore, the Osage people had already been forced to move to the Osage Diminished Reserve and had been promised this would be their home. Now they would be forced to move again, and their children subject to removal to Indian Schools where they would be forbidden to speak their own language, forbidden to practice their own religion or observe their own cultural beliefs, and even be forced to take on new “non-Indian” names. Of course the Osage were angry. And to top it all, the government was encouraging newspapers to promote the region as being open “soon” for settlement, thus prompting thousands of families to encroach upon the Osage land despite the Sturges Treaty being argued. The Ingalls family were among dozens who came to the ODR and began living there without legal sanction.

      Let’s not forget that violence occurred on both sides. Settlers were responsible for many attacks on Indigenous people, too. Caroline had reason to be frightened, certainly. But the text does little to genuinely acknowledge that the settlers like the Ingalls were invading land belonging to the Osage, and the overall message is that the settlers had more right to be there than the Osage did.

      That’s why it’s ugly.

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