Sunday, April 25, 2010

is Little House on the Prairie racist?

To my amazement, a surprising number of people say Little House on the Prairie is racist. When they cite a specific example, they choose this paragraph:
Mrs. Scott said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, "Land knows, they'd never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice." She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.
They ignore this paragraph:
Pa said he didn't know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were left alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.
What they don't understand is that Pa is a voice of moral authority in the book. He not only says Indians are the same as whites, he says the hatred of some Indians is perfectly natural given the way whites treated them.

Context matters.


  1. Carolyn Ingalls is - it comes up several times in the books. Mostly through fear of the unknown, I think, but she is very anti-Indian. Also comments in one of the books (Little Town OTP, I think), she says something about being against Laura helping her Pa in the fields, as that was something foreigners did, not Americans.

    Pa was much better, but there was that time he dressed up like a 'darkie' for a town program along with some other men - kind of a minstrel show.

    But there was also a black doctor who helped them when the whole family came down with fever, so...

    It's been a while since I've read them, but I do remember the anti-Indian attitude as a reason they were challenged at one time, in one of the states that has a notable Native American population (former librarian). Probably could find something about it on the American Library Association site -

  2. Oops! Just posted a stupid comment in which I was thinking that Caroline was Laura. Deleted it to try again:

    Someone could probably do an interesting essay about the shifting of moral authority in the books: when is Pa right, when is Ma, when is someone else.

    I agree that for young readers, discussing the times that books were written is appropriate. But the best way to discuss this book and Huck Finn is not to say they're racist works. It's to say they're anti-racist works that are sometimes confusing to people today because what's on the surface is not always what's meant, and even the best characters are human, and therefore fallible.

    Now, I haven't read the books in ten or fifteen years, so I may've forgotten something important.

  3. I never know how to classify historical things as far as racism goes. That the books merely reflect their times seems obvious enough to me. What bothers me more is the assumption that any historical figure that said/did racist things would still be a racist if he/she knew what we know now. (After all, for centuries biased science told them that racism merely reflected biological realities.)

    I think if Aristotle showed up one day, he would look at the evidence for the earth revolving the sun and be like "Whoa, my bad." I tend to think the same thing applies to assumptions that otherwise intelligent people of the past held about race.

  4. I love Aristotle being like, "Whoa, my bad!"

  5. I agree - they were a product of their time and what they heard from news/authorities was mostly the bad stuff. Charles, in both books and tv, was a remarkable even, calm person. And Laura, though more excitable, definitely seems more like Pa's child.

    Really, Laura was anti-Nellie Olson - and who could blame her? [g]