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/

Bustles on an Iron Throne: Victorian Gowns fit for Westeros

Mrs. Wilder can’t afford silk, but, done in a more praxtical fabric, I suspect she would approve most heartily of that bronzy dress’s cut for everyday summmer or informal visits with friends…

The Pragmatic Costumer

Lately I’ve been thinking about stepping outside historical costumes for something a little more free-form and fantasy based. I’m not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV show (I lost track of watching it a long time ago), but I am a huge fan of the amazing costumes by Michele Clapton, especially the beautiful gowns embroidered by Michele Carragher! But just because I’ve been drooling over fantasy gowns doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned historical costumes.

One of my favorite sources for historical dress inspiration, Augusta Auctions, is gearing up for their May auction. They always have fabulous fashion items and are so kind to post their upcoming lots with plenty of pictures on their website. I was scrolling through the Upcoming Sale page when I discovered THIS:

Wool Dolman Bustle Coat, circa 1885
The awesome medieval detailing, embroidered Van Dyked  trim, the sweeping fabric…so fabulous!

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Books That Have Influenced Me #3 – Laura Ingalls Wilder

Did you know that Laura published her first magazine column #OTD 18 February 1911? She was 44 years old, and it launched two decades of a journalism career, writing as a columnist and editor at The Missouri Ruralist and The St. Louis Star, as well as publishing articles in numerous national magazines, just as her daughter Rose was doing. Rose was a much more well-known author all the while…and Laura wouldn’t begin writing and publishing her now-iconic series of books until she was what we now consider “retirement age.” Her first novel, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, was published in 1932 when #LauraIngallsWilder was 65!

This fan from the UK describes her initiation to the world of Laura, and it seems a fitting tribute:

Helen Pollard writes ...

As an avid reader, my local library and school library were vitally important to me in childhood. I got through books at an alarming rate, nagging my grandad to walk me to the town library every Wednesday teatime (and hoping for an ice cream on the way home), and looking forward to our class visit to the school library each week.

So you can imagine my disappointment at the age of nine when I saw the state of the small classroom library in Year 4. The books on the shelves were ancient. Seriously ancient and seriously dull.

It seems our young, forward-thinking class teacher felt the same way and somehow managed to purchase one shelf’s worth of brand new paperbacks, which we were allowed to borrow if we were very careful.

I don’t remember all that she bought. But I do vividly remember a series about a nurse called Sue Barton…

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Laura Ingalls Wilder at 150…

Today, 7 February 2017, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday, and celebrations are happening all year. My love for this iconic, and, at times enigmatic, figure is deep and complex and not something I’m very good at expressing in ways that make sense to most non-LIW fans out there. But my people know. The fans, the scholars, the literary critics, the educators, the historians–oh, especially my fellow historians, YOU get it–these people understand what those who have little if any familiarity with our Flutterbudget do not. And that’s fine.

But today is a big deal. 150 years since Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls brought forth her second child in a tiny cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin. This humble birth began what is now the worldwide phenomenon of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, who is the embodiment of that great myth of the person of obscurity, rising from what seems to be the most mundane and ordinary of beginnings, passing a childhood and youth (and, in Laura’s case, much of her adulthood, too) riddled with struggle and misfortune, only to persevere, excel and become wildly successful against the odds. In Laura’s case, she did it as a relatively poor woman with relatively little education and relatively little opportunity all while at a relatively advanced age.

Gives a person a lot to think about.

I’m enjoying seeing how far her reach has influenced others and how many people come up with innovative observations. I dare say I have little in the way of innovation and this tomboy with ten thumbs doesn’t craft, so the best you’ll get from me is a pan of gingerbread with chocolate frosting. Maybe.

Meanwhile, the snarky part of me can’t wait to see how many bloggers and journalists will misattribute tv show dialogue to her wisdom* and, more importantly, how many people are really, REALLY confused by all of this information because they thought the show was documentary** and/or in current production.

In any case, I have LIW to thank for inspiring my adoration of history, research, museums, Dakota roadtrips, ancient cemeteries, abandoned homesteads, antique schoolbooks, and rag dolls with hand-drawn faces. Not to mention corseted karaoke with a diverse selection of like-minded Laurati. So, hats off to Laura!  (And bottoms up, if you’re inclined.) I’d love to hear how you’re celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Sesquicentennial in your life, whether today, this week, this year, or on whatever timeline suits you!

*I’m looking at you, Anyone Considering the use of “Home is the Nicest Word There Is” in your thinkpiece. Seriously, People. Laura never, ever, said that. Not once. She didn’t write it either. It’s scripted dialogue from tv, written almost two decades after she died. Say it with me: “Laura. Never. Said. That.”

**Trust me. It happens. At least once, at almost every public program I present. 😉

Once more, with feeling: #LauraNeverSaidThat

#IPromise

How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Photography!

 

With all the advancement in digital photography and the fact that most of us have a great camera in our cell phone, there is no reason anyone who hasn’t been properly trained to touch the stones. Using different contrast settings, trying black and white, or approaching from different angles will all contribute to better results. Take several images and view them on the phone then enlarge them to see how clear the inscription detail is. The camera can “see” many things that our naked eyes can not necessarily distinguish unaided. Sometimes you just need to wait a few minutes for the light to change, or position yourself in such a way that you are casting a shadow on the stone. With a little practice, anyone can get great, legible photos without damaging the stones.

And remember: never enter a historic cemetery when the ground is unstable, such as during snowmelt or spring runoff. Your weight near the stones can disturb the ground and compromise their foundations.

 

Here’s the full entry, reblogged from Dick Eastman:

“Take a look at the picture below. Do you see something wrong with it? Almost every genealogist will cringe when viewing a picture like this one from FindAGrave.com. Someone apparently used a wire b…

Source: How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Photography!

Not on your life.

Tonight, while plugging away at yet another assignment for my graduate classes, I took a few minutes to check email. There, among my Google alerts, I spotted a phrase that stopped me in my tracks, and I simply HAD to respond. The headline on the Huffington Post (and numerous other outlets that immediately picked it up as well) declared: “Laura Ingalls Wilder Would’ve Voted for Trump.”

While I can ignore a lot of wild claims and misguided mythology about my favorite Gilded Age American, I could not ignore this one. No. I had to respond, and quick. Accurately. With evidence culled from the better part of three decades of study. So I did. And here it is, published all over the ‘nets on HP, and numerous other websites that ran the original piece, as well as on FaceBook and Twitter. 

MY COMPLETE RESPONSE:

Not on your life. You cannot use dialogue and prose passages from Wilder’s fictional work–much of which was heavily edited by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who is now considered a “mother of modern Libertarianism,” but who had some ideas which were very different from her mother–to decide what Laura Ingalls Wilder thought about life and classes and myriad other topics.

Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us in her own non-fiction writing that she objected to harsh language (“Swearing is such a foolish habit” was the topic of one of her published “As a Farm Woman Thinks” columns at the Missouri Ruralist from 1911to the mid-1920s), and she certainly had a high regard for women as people, not as the objects our President Elect’s speech and behavior would indicate he perceives women to be.

While there was certainly race and class bias in Wilder’s work, and much of it is indeed racist by today’s standards, Wilder’s choice of “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” has everything to do with the fact that the term “Native American” was not in use in such context in the 1930s and 1940s when she was penning her novels. While I will not defend her sometimes racist language, I will point out that she often re-considered her own beliefs and set about to correct them when the need arose. In fact, when specific language in the opening paragraphs of her first novel, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, was questioned by a reader who objected to the implication of Indians not being counted as people, Wilder responded with an apology, (“of course they are people”), and directed the publisher to correct subsequent editions.

Further, as a farmer whose livelihood depended upon NOT being taken advantage of by commercial farming interests, she was much more likely to vote for a candidate who did not appear to be making inroads for bilionaire cronies. Wilder believed in self-sufficiency, yes. But she did not approve of greed and avarice, nor deception or malice. She was frugal, but she was also loving and generous to family and friends. She believed in honesty. She also believed in lifelong education, starting several clubs in her local area of Mansfield, Missouri, for the betterment of citizens through educational pursuits. She held several positions in her community, including Worthy Matron of her local chapter of the Eastern Star. She also was the very efficient and successful Treasurer for the Farm Loan Association, where she helped struggling farmers borrow the capital they needed to succeed in their farm endeavors. She is remembered for handling over one million dollars in loans over a decade of tenure and having not one case of default on any of the loans she originated. That hardly sounds like someone who would approve of Mr. Trump’s ruthless attitude, nor his habit of refusing to pay contractors for the work they completed in good faith.

Nowhere in the President-Elect’s speech or behavior do I see any evidence that he values such qualities that Laura Ingalls Wilder prized, and lived by.

There is other, overwhelming, evidence to support the idea that Wilder would decidedly NOT vote for Donald Trump. There is a wealth of well-researched, historically-contextualized biography and literary criticism that would shed light on the subject. You should read some of it. I recommend anything written by John E. Miller, Professor Emeritus of History at South Dakota State University, as your first reference. Miller and other scholars demonstrate that, while certainly human, and as such, naturally flawed, Wilder was someone who had integrity.

Having myself studied Wilder, her life and works, in great detail for over 25 years, I can say with confidence that Wilder would much prefer a dignified, rational, level-headed, experienced, and fiscally conservative candidate for any elected office. Several come to mind. Donald Trump doesn’t make it anywhere on that list.

Vital Cause, Vital Resource: Truckers Against Trafficking

We interrupt this blog to share a crucial resource in the fight against Human Trafficking…Truckers Against Trafficking. (First entry in a series of posts intended to raise awareness of critical issues in our world and connect readers to nonprofit organizations and reliable resources that make a difference in solving problems that matter to this historian.)

Truckers Against Trafficking


I just discovered this organization, and after investigating their mission, I am happy to report they are clearly making a difference by educating truckers, transportation companies, and the general public on how to spot and intervene when human trafficking is suspected. 

This 501(c)3 is dedicated to helping victims and catching the traffickers by partnering with all levels of the transportation industry and facilitating training and outreach throughout. I am proud to offer my support. 
Human trafficking is a worldwide problem and affects an estimated 20.9 MILLION individual victims around the globe. An estimated 1.5 million victims are in North America, including within all 50 states. I live in one of the smallest and wealthiest states in the Union, New Hampshire, yet I can attest that human trafficking happens here, just as it does in all the other 49 states. We have had cases just a few miles away from my hometown. And when I travel around the US, some 20,000-35,000 miles per year, over anywhere from 12 to 20 states, I encounter people who appear to be victims of this horrifying “industry.”

I’ve often wondered how best to handle my suspicions, but, I am ashamed to admit, I did not take specific action other than occasionally reporting something oddly suspicious to a manager at the rest stop, or–once–calling 911 because of a conversation I overheard. But I’ve wanted to do more. Now I’ve found a good resource that prioritizes guiding transportation industry professionals and ordinary citizens to take real action, to spread the word about the problem, apot the signs of trafficking, to help victims get out of “the life” and to arrest and prosecute the traffickers. 

Truckers Against Trafficking offers training and support for all, with a focus on transportation industry professionals. With corporate partnerships and sponsors such as Pilot/Flying J travel centers, Volvo, Bridgestone, Peterbilt, Ryder, Costco, Love’s Con-Way, hp, Freightliner, Cobra, Heartland Express, UPS, Hirschbach, and even Coca-Cola, it is great to see how many well-known corporations are taking this issue seriously. Perhaps more importantly, driver training organizations are requiring TAT training as part of certification. These are important advances in the fight against Human Trafficking, which in a large percentage of cases, involves children as primary victims.

Best of all, you don’t have to be a trucker to get involved! Click on the link below to find out more about how you can help, through donations, outreach, hosting fundraisers and/or training in your community, purchasing their merchandise (which raises funds and awareness simultaneously!) or just spreading the word about this excellent organization. 

PLEASE NOTE: Truckers Against Trafficking DOES NOT host a hotline, but urges you to report any suspected trafficking activity OR request help by calling 

1-888-373-7888 (US)  or 

1-800-222-TIPS (Canada)

You can also TEXT the word INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Remember, if you see something, say something! Call the hotline and or 911. 

BUT: Do NOT approach the suspected trafficker! Instead, try to record details of their vehicle: registration (plate)#, make/model/color/identifying marks or stickers etc., and try to get a good description of the person(s) involved, to aid the authorities in their investigation. 

Thanks for taking the fime to read about this important issue and this wonderful, effective, and dedicated organization. 

If you’d like to donate, TAT offers a PayPal option on their website, or you can send a check to:

Truckers Against Trafficking

P.O. Box 816

Englewood, CO 80151

“Truckers Against Trafficking is a 501(c)3 organization, so all donations are tax deductible.” 

(We now return to our regularly-scheduled Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder programming…) 


http://www.TruckersAgainstTrafficking.org