Saturday, April 02, 2011

"Why Don't You Like Indians, Ma?"

For the last three days, I've been reading Little House on the Prairie to the beasties. I have fond memories of this book, and all the books in the series. Memories of creating covered wagons from bunk beds. Building log cabins from fallen branches. I longed to travel in a covered wagon. To build a homestead with crops and animals. It was, and is, a very appealing vision. As a friend commented to me, "They're basically the DIY books of that time period."

But as I read, I kept finding myself stumbling over racist images of Native peoples. Again and again. Ma doesn't like Indians. Ma has heard they'll be opening up Indian Territory soon to the settlers. Indians are red savages with Tomahawks. Pa knows about Indians because he knows about wild beasts. It's horrifying even when one knows that the books are dated. I find myself, stopping, and giving the beasties history lessons: "You know it was horrible when they opened this territory because this is where the Natives lived and we killed them to get their land." I talk to them about racist imagery and how problematic it is. And yes these are all good lessons but I do sometimes wonder if I should be reading these books to them. It's the problem with the classics (which is whole entry onto itself).

What bothers me is that I did not REMEMBER this racism from when I read the books as a child. I read them to myself not as a read aloud. There was no one to say "Whoa Ginger, that's a pretty horrible thing to say about another human being." I never questioned the imagery as either good or bad. I just soaked it up. And to me the fact that the racism is just an aside is what makes it so damn dangerous. When racism is presented in such a casual way it's easy to just kind of glide over it.

This kind of insidious racism presents "otherness" as almost natural. When a book's main focus was racist I did pick up on that as a child. But when it's just part of the background, you just don't think about it as much. It's there, nothing to worry about, folks, just keep reading about prairie life. I have to wonder now how much that books contributed to my ideas about Natives, and about settlers. Or rather how I could fantasize about moving West without ever pausing to think about what happened to those who already  lived in the West. I know when I was 15 and playing "Oregon Trail" I never stopped to reflect much when my wagon was attacked by Indians. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized that the move West was a violent move both physically and culturally. Not only were bodies destroyed in the destructive wave of white settlers pushing their boundaries but Natives became symbolically pushed to further and further boundaries of what it meant to be human. And this violence lies in all the Little House books.

When I sit and read these books to my children, I find that I can not let this racism lie. I have to speak on it. I do not want this "otherness" to become naturalized to my children. Perhaps they will carry with them fond memories of play but also memories that such a time was not innocent and idyllic.

1 comment:

Jennifer Welborn said...

Also, Laura Ingles Wilder did not live in some idyllic little prairie. She actually grew up in a thriving town of nearly 30,000 settlers. Her cabin actually overlooked the town. My History of the American West Professor gave us an entire lecture on the fallacies of the Little House series. Not so historically accurate...