Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 6, Empty Woods and Good Indians

In the sixth week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the Ingalls survive in the Big Woods and General Sheridan defines a “good Indian.” Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

Laura in the “Big Woods”

little house big woodsOkay, first of all I have to have a little tiny nostalgic freakout moment, because I FINALLY got to a Laura book after 5 weeks! Woo! Also, this book takes places less than a 2 hour drive from my house! Double woo! (I might have to go on a field trip.)

That said, I didn’t get very far before I was reminded just how different this read-through will be:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (p.1-2)

Folks, this is literally the first page. And already there is a huge problem: “There were no people.” As if the woods are just pristine and untouched. There WERE people!

wisconsin Native tribes wLaura
Side note: For a great explanation of why mapping Native tribes is an inexact science, click this picture.

If we look at a map of now-Wisconsin marked with the names of the original inhabitants (a map to which I have added the Ingalls cabin, just north of Pepin, WI), we can see that Laura’s cabin was built on land that the Santee Dakota (Sioux) called home. As I’ve read/written about previously, the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died. So, there WERE people. But they were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.” (Also, some were still there.)

That all took place from 1852-1863 or so. Laura ‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blows my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting invasion and entreaties out west. This is happening at the SAME TIME, folks! And yet, there is a ginormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

Now — I realize and I will grant that this book is (a) for children and (b) narrated by a child narrator, so I get why there aren’t vivid descriptions of, for example, the Sand Creek Massacre of 1862. But it would have been nice — and more honest — if Author-Laura had included a little bit of historical context in her narrative. I’ll cross my fingers that perhaps we get some later. That being said, the lack of any humanization of Indians indicates that to most white settlers, the Native inhabitants just don’t matter. Out of sight, out of mind. The Ingalls are concerned with getting their piece of land and staving off bears and wolves and subsisting. They give no thought to the fact that there used to be other people living on that land. The land is just “theirs” and that’s that. This is what the doctrine of Manifest Destiny does: it allows the white settlers to feel entitled to something that isn’t theirs while also ignoring and dismissing an entire people group.

I guess I can move past the first page now… so here are some notes and themes from the other 237 pages:

  • The Big Woods are so vivid they are almost like another character. From the opening page and throughout the book, you get an overwhelming sense of the isolation and the “wildness” the Ingalls feel living out in the forest. One night Laura stays up to listen to the wolves howl outside their door, and there’s nothing between her and them but a door and the guard dog, Jack. (And Pa’s rifle.) I didn’t count, but I’d bet money there are more anecdotes in this book about the Ingalls interacting with wild animals (bears, panthers, etc) than there are about them interacting with humans!
  • Even though Laura is only a very young child, we can already see her precocity and struggle with gender roles. Because I’ve read the whole series, I already know that Laura is the feisty one and Mary is the “perfect” one, so it’s interesting to see that this dichotomy is already emerging as early as page 23 of Book 1. Also, later in the book Laura learns that her Pa letting play outside is unusual compared to the norm of “Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers” (p.96).
  • Weird casual racism… is weird. And racist. So I remembered that Pa played lots of songs on his fiddle all the time. But somehow I glossed over the part where he sang a song that prominently featured “an old darkey [whose] name was Uncle Ned” (p.100) ???? That was a really jarring cognitive dissonance for me. I mean, yes, this book was published in 1930, but still — I read this! As a six-year-old! It just clearly demonstrates to me how embedded in white/American culture racism was/is, that a children’s author would think it appropriate to include a song about a “darkey” with no explanations or notes (and that the publisher would, too!).
  • There actually are a couple historical/cultural references, but I just didn’t notice them as a kid. First, I forgot that Laura’s Uncle George, a Civil War veteran, makes an appearance in the book. So there is at least a slight mention of “the war” here. Second, we get a tiny hint of Ma’s “townie” past when she gets out her fancy party dress “made by a dressmaker … in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa. … Ma had been very fashionable” (p.128). So she’s come from relative wealth to isolation and total self-run subsistence forest living. Totally different than the girls, who have never seen a store or a town or a machine before.

There are a few other things, but for the most part this is a pretty simple book told in a simple, childlike fashion. Bottom line: it’s a different time and place in a lot of ways. I’m sure all these themes will get more complex as we read through Laura’s growing up years and her thoughts get more complex.

“The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian”

Chapter 7 of Wounded Knee finds us following the Southern Cheyennes who decided to head south to rejoin Black Kettle and the “peaceable” crew rather than stay up north with Red Cloud and the Lakota Sioux. Unfortunately, they arrive just in time to be subject to yet another ridiculously belligerent US Army General. Yes, friends, it’s time for Good News, Bad News!

  • Good news: Southern Cheyennes reunited!
  • Bad news: Almost immediately two factions re-form: the “friendlies” rejoin Black Kettle and the more militant Dog Soldiers split off to follow Roman Nose.
  • Good news: US General Hancock says he wants to meet to sign further peace agreements.
  • Bad news: He insists that both Roman Nose and all the Cheyenne women and children must be there, despite the fact that these Sand Creek survivors are CLEARLY (and rightly) suspicious and cautious about allowing soldiers to march into their village/camp. (So basically Hancock is SUPER SKETCHY.)
  • Good news: Our old Cheyenne ally friend Major Wynkoop was able to become the agent for the tribe, so officially their advocate.
  • Bad news: He has no power to protect them from other US military officials. He later resigns in protest.
  • Good news: When Hancock & co. arrive at the Cheyenne village/camp, most of the people are able to quickly flee on horseback.
  • Bad news: Hancock & co. methodically inventory and then burn the hastily abandoned camp and everything in it, leaving the people destitute.
  • Good-ish news: After Red Cloud’s successful resistance in Powder River, a peace commission is organized and General Sherman offers “one great reservation south of the Arkansas River” to be shared by the Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, & Prairie Apaches.
  • Bad news: The US Government is still “arguing over the treaty and had not provided money to buy [the Cheyenne] food and clothing as promised” (p.162), so the people suffer through a starving winter.
  • Bad news: When Roman Nose & Dog Soldiers try to mount some resistance against General Sheridan, the new general sent after them, Roman Nose is killed in battle. Sheridan orders General Custer (yes, that Custer) “to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children” (p.168).
  • More bad news: When the Cheyenne get wind of this, they ask a neighboring fort commander for protection. He tells them they will be fine and sends them back to be killed, even though he knows Sheridan’s plans… 
  • Worst news: Black Kettle decides in the morning he will take a delegation of warriors to meet the soldiers and convince them of their peacefulness… but before they even wake up the next morning Sheridan and his soldiers ambush the whole tribe out of the fog. “They killed 103 Cheyennes [even the conciliatory Black Kettle], but only eleven of them were warriors” (p.169).
  • Good-ish news: Few scattered Cheyenne survivors, as well as Arapahos and Comanches, come in to surrender peacefully, identifying themselves as “Good Indians.”
  • Ick: General Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” (p.170)

Good heavens, what is the deal with this strange fixation with being confusing and randomly destroying native people groups EVEN WHEN THEY WANT PEACE, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE WILLING TO SUFFER SIGNIFICANT LOSSES TO GET IT??? I am so DISCOURAGED about the evil that humans are capable of when I read this. Though, Major Wynkoop’s struggle to be a good advocate and Black Kettle’s persistent attempts to lead peacefully remind me of the good that humans are capable of. So I guess I should try to focus on that. It’s just hard to feel hopeful when it feels like the “bad guys” win.

(**Note: Since I already did the “Where are they now” for both the S. Cheyenne and Arapahos, and there are upcoming chapters about the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches, we’ll skip for this week.) 


Between the stubbornly white-focused Manifest Destiny worldview of most white settlers (and most of white American history!) and the actively destructive determination of the US military Indian extermination effort, I feel like I’m starting to understand a little bit of why many Natives today might feel so depressed and invisible and hopeless. The country and culture they’re surrounded by mounted a purposeful campaign to steal their land and destroy and whitewash them, and now it has written them out of history and made their ancestors and their people sound like a sad but inevitable stepping stone on the path of “Human” (aka white) “Progress”. I feel a little hopeless just reading about it, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up in this space. It must be exhausting to perennially be located in a space where your mere existence is active resistance to the dominant order, and to feel like you’re a tiny megaphone shouting into a hurricane of oppression and centuries of physical and psychological and spiritual trauma.

Don’t really know what else to say about that, so I’ll just end there for today.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 8 and Little House on the Prairie (LH #2).


4 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 6, Empty Woods and Good Indians

  1. I’m a little late to read this one, but it was another great post! I was really curious to hear how the actual Laura books would go once you got there. How sad that there’s SO little awareness of (or concern for) the other people in those woods, or who used to live in those woods. I wonder what the cultural rhetoric was like at the time for families who did what the Ingalls did and moved out to the “free” land on the frontier. Did they even know that the land was “free” because the Indians had been driven away? Obviously, some white people knew (the soldiers/government/etc.), but how many of the pioneers knew?

    I also remember how Pa used to always play the fiddle, but I didn’t know about the racist songs. I’m sure I wouldn’t have understood what “darkey” meant when I read those books, but it’s sad that it’s there at all. It’s been FOREVER since I read them. Do they tell you any more about where “out east” that Ma is from? Or where the Ingalls lived before the big woods?

    This quote was so great: “I feel a little hopeless just reading about it, so I can’t imagine what
    it’s like to grow up in this space. It must be exhausting to perennially
    be located in a space where your mere existence is active resistance to
    the dominant order, and to feel like you’re a tiny megaphone shouting
    into a hurricane of oppression and centuries of physical and
    psychological and spiritual trauma.” Well said.


    1. CarissaLick  Thanks! Glad you liked it.
      To (sort of) answer your question about the feeling of adults at the time, I’ll direct you to the next post (on Little House on the Prairie) in which Ma’s and Pa’s attitudes are much more explicitly written about and discussed.
      Re: Ma’s home “out east”, no, there really isn’t more in the book, nor is there any other mention in LHotP. I would imagine that if there will be any more mentions they would be later, when Laura & Mary are older and care about things like fashion. But I can’t recall from memory — slash, as we’ll see in the next post, my memory about these books is NOT trustworthy, lol. But if you check out the Wikipedia on Ma (Caroline Ingalls) or Pa (Charles Ingalls) it will give you a little more info on their origins.


      1. RebekahSchulzJackson CarissaLick Very interesting… So Ma was from Waukesha… not as far east as I was imagining. It looks like Pa was actually born in New York, though. I read those books so long ago and don’t have a very clear memory of which places she lived, but it seems like everywhere I go, I run into a Laura Ingalls Wilder site. I lived not far from Walnut Grove for a while growing up, I’ve lived in Wisconsin, and now I live in South Dakota and have seen signs for De Smet.
        Anyway, I’ll have to read your next post! I didn’t realize it was up already. 🙂


      2. CarissaLick RebekahSchulzJackson Yeah, they lived a lot of places in the Midwest… kinda everywhere.
        Re: next post, It’s not up yet… but it’s written. I’ll post it in the morning. =)


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