Wilder’s books get a healthy reassessment

“There were no people” on the Minnesota prairie when Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family arrived in the late 19th century.

“There were no people,” Wilder wrote. “Only Indians lived there.”

That’s a line from “Little House on the Prairie,” published in 1935. Many years later, the line was rephrased, but as written, it’s as if the Ojibwe, Dakota, Osage and other indigenous people didn’t exist, other than to cause trouble for white settlers.

You may not have noticed it when you were a kid, but the “Little House” books are chock full of examples of biased language and insensitive attitudes about Native Americans and blacks. For that reason, a division of the American Library Association voted last week to remove Wilder’s name from its award for children’s literature.

Wilder was the first winner of the award in 1954, but times have changed and the library association has taken an important step to correct the record, and help readers rethink what they know about pioneer days on the Great Plains.

“The decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with (our) core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” the organization said. Having her name on the award was no longer “consistent with the intention of the award named for her.”

The organization emphatically said it’s not trying to “prohibit access to Wilder’s work or suppress discussion about them.” The books “are a product of her life, experience and perspective as an individual white woman of her era. Her works reflect mainstream, although certainly not universal, cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color” during her era, “and during the era in which the award was established.”

The “Little House” books and Wilder’s family saga are a core part of Minnesota and Upper Midwest mythology. She was born just across the Mississippi River from the Wabasha area in 1867, and her family zigzagged across the Midwest during those pioneering years, with stops in the Lake City area, South Troy and Spring Valley.

After the “Little House” books came out, Minnesotans claimed her as part of our historical legacy, along the lines of Paul Bunyan and Ole and Lena. Spring Valley has a Wilder display at the local Methodist Church Museum, and U.S. Highway 14 is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Highway. There’s a reconstruction of her family’s log cabin north of Pepin, Wisconsin.

But the past is always up for grabs and in need of reassessment. There’s no doubt that Wilder’s perspective on that era has a “reductive” approach to Native Americans, and to the manifest destiny of whites on what had been native lands.

One line that echoes hauntingly through the books is, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Thus, it was time to remove her name from one of the top awards for children’s books.

That doesn’t mean parents and children should quit reading the “Little House” books, or that you should call the school district to get them out of the library. No one would claim they’re great literature like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but there’s value in the stories they tell of pioneer life. With good teachers and new introductions, they may have even more educational value than before. And Michael Landon will keep the franchise going forever on cable TV.

This episode is a reminder that it’s healthy to take a fresh look at the heroes and icons who are part of our culture, and reassess what they have to teach us. That’s not political correctness. As the Rochester Public Library says, that’s “growing in wisdom,” with the knowledge that no generation has a lock on wisdom.

Rochester Post Bulletin


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