Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thinking back on childhood reads

The issue of how Native Americans are portrayed in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books--specifically in Little House on the Prairie, has been rolling around in my head.

To be completely honest, the first time I read critiques of these works and their racist content, my knee-jerk reaction was to say, "No!  It wasn't that bad!"  Hi, privilege.  Nice of you to rear your ugly head.  But I needed to stop and think.  Were Native Americans portrayed inaccurately in these books?  Yes.  Is that content offensive and hurtful to Native children?  Yes.  Would I assign these books in a classroom setting?  No.  (Qualified with if I had to, we would have lots and lots of discussions about privilege, forced resettlement, and Native rights).

It's a crappy feeling to think that some of your favorite books growing up had really hurtful things in them.  However, I also feel a bit let down by my teachers, because when we read Little House on the Prairie in school, no one pointed out that what the Ingalls family was doing was wrong--they were taking land that wasn't theirs.  No one said that the phrase, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is horrible.

I wish that children were taught an awareness of America's history with Native peoples much earlier than high school or college.  As a child I knew, on a basic level, that moving people out of their homes was wrong, but I didn't fully understand the extent to which that happened or the violence that was used against Native peoples.  I'm not excusing my ignorance, but I acknowledge it and try to learn as much as I can so that I can help other kids, in my role as a librarian, to be aware and to speak up when problematic stereotypes crop up.

Little House on the Prairie was actually my least favorite book in the series.  I wish I could say it was because of its treatment of Native Americans, but I just thought it was pretty boring.  The family moved a lot and there wasn't as much food description in this book.  I fully admit that I think that Ingalls Wilder should have been a cookbook writer, because her descriptions of food will make you drool in puddles.  I do remember feeling uneasy when Laura begged Ma for a papoose to keep, as if that woman's baby were a pet.  Even as a kid, that creeped me out.  However, I think I excused that discomfort as Laura being young and silly, and not the prevailing view that Native Americans were lesser-thans.

The other big Nope moment I remember from these books was in the beginning of The Long Winter, which, along with Farmer Boy, was one of my favorites (I live in Wisconsin, which is a synonym for "long winter," so I totally related as a kid).  A Native man (unknown tribe) comes into the general store and warns the men about the "heap big snow" that's coming.  Oh goody, the mystical Indian arrives.

I'm okay with being uncomfortable, because it means that I'm learning and I'm changing.  I don't regret having read these books.  Besides, I can't take it back.  However, having those stories as part of my reading history makes it more interesting to challenge the stereotypes presented in them.

Out of curiosity, did the television show reference any of this?  I never watched it because Michael Landon didn't have a beard, and if Pa had two defining characteristics, they were his fiddle and his beard.

Why I feel compelled to write about this now, I don't know.  Maybe to acknowledge to those criticizing the books: I hear you.  I am listening and learning and trying.  Maybe because I feel somehow party to what was expressed, even though the author died before I was born.  Maybe because it just feels like the right thing to do right now.

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