Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 7, Indian Commissioner & Indian Territory

In the seventh week of Little House/Wounded Knee, we meet the first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Ingalls move to Indian Territory. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Seneca Indian Commissioner

Donehogawa aka Ely S. ParkerChapter 8 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is titled “The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa”. As the title suggests, it focuses less on a group of people (though it continues the saga of Red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux) and more on one person: Donehogawa (so named because of his title among his native Seneca people), also known in white circles as Ely Samuel Parker. Donehogawa studied to be a lawyer, but was refused permission to take the bar because Indians were not citizens of the United States. (That was passed into law in the early 1900s.) So he studied engineering instead, and became a brilliant civil engineer. He also befriended Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, and when Grant was elected President he appointed his old friend Parker to be the first Native Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

As Donehogawa took office, many Indian tribes were unsettled by news of a group of soldiers who slaughtered an entire village of defenseless Blackfeet people in present-day Montana. To help avert crisis, Donehogawa invited Red Cloud and also Spotted Horse of the Brule to Washington and was able to offer some help to Red Cloud and the Lakota. As Brown foreshadowed when we last left our intrepid Oglala heroes, there was trouble with the treaty Red Cloud signed in 1868. Red Cloud was told that his people would have their agency (the post where they could officially trade with and relate to the US Government) at Fort Laramie, but the writing of the treaty he signed said their agency would be along the Missouri River, where the government wanted the Lakota to move. Red Cloud said the paper was “lies”; the government said he had signed the paper and was bound by it. (This reminds me of the discussions we have in my book group about how white culture privileges written communication while Native culture privileges oral communication.) Donehogawa was able to find an interpretation loophole to make everyone temporarily happy-ish so that the Oglalas could stay on their land.

But then, the other (white) men within the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t like how he interfered with their kickbacks… so they got him charged with a bunch of offenses. Donehogawa’s (white) second in command wrote a scathing letter of resignation in which he said that Donehogawa was “but a remove from barbarism” (p.189). While Donehogawa was exonerated of all charges, he resigned shortly thereafter to avoid the stress and potential greater harm of being a political lightning rod for racist sniping.

At first I found this story confusing as to why it was included. (Only really determined justice-fighters should get books about them!) But then I thought — Donehogawa just got tired. And that’s normal. And it’s important that any narrative about the various Native American nations and the people thereof show all sorts, both those whose whole lives are doggedly devoted to bettering the treatment of their race and also those who decide to bow out after a while. (In the rest of his time, Donehogawa made and lost a fortune on Wall Street.)

The Seneca: History & Where are they now?

The Seneca’s original homeland is in and around modern-day New York. After much conflict with other Iroquoian nations, in 1142 the Seneca joined them to form the Six Nations or Iroquois League and are the westernmost member of that group. This federation allowed its joint member tribes to have significant military and other advantages over its Algonquian and Siouan neighbors. The Seneca have a long and detailed history of contact with various early European settlers, including fighting alongside the British in the American Revolutionary War. Today, many Seneca people live on and around several reservations in New York, a large one across the border in Canada, and one in Oklahoma. You can read more about the Seneca Nation here.

You can also read more about the life of Donehogawa, aka Ely Parker, here.

Little House in Osage Country

little house prairieLittle House on the Prairie (LH #2) begins with the Ingalls family heading south and west to “Indian country” (present-day Kansas), where Pa has heard from a government official friend that some Indian land is about to be opened up to settlers. And wow. There is SO MUCH going on in this book that I could literally write a book about the book. To quote Inigo Montoya, “Let me explain — no, there is too much. Let me sum up.” I’ll focus on just a couple passages.

A main theme of this book is that pretty much all the white settlers dislike and/or fear Indians. This is reinforced at every turn by Author Laura’s consistent, repeated, beating-a-dead-horse use of words like “savage” and “wild” and “yelping” and “yipping” and “terrible” to describe her Native neighbors. That doesn’t sound to me like people — it sounds likes wolves. Or dogs.

Within the text, Ma straight-up says she doesn’t like Indians. And then Laura, bless her little heart, asks, “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?” Why indeed, Laura.

In addition to Ma’s not-really-veiled-at-all fear and dislike, we also meet another settler family, the Scotts, who pull no punches about their feelings about Indians. My jaw about fell off my face when I read this scene:

[Mrs. Scott] said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, “…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. She said, “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre. My Pa and my brothers went out with the rest of the settlers, and stopped them only fifteen miles west of us. I’ve heard Pa tell often enough how they–”

Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped. Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening. (p.211-212, emphasis added)

First of all, HOLY CRAP did Sheridan’s quote travel fast!!! (Or Author Laura just added it in for posterity. Which doesn’t feel very good either.) Actually the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” line is mentioned a total of three (count ’em, three) times in this book.

Second, why is it okay to allude to a massacre in a children’s book???? I mean, really — this choice by Author Laura to include this ridiculously tantalizing bait about some sort of Indian-on-settler “‘massacre”‘ is baffling to me. (Presumably the “Minnesota massacre” refers to the Dakota attack on New Ulm in 1862.) Till now I’ve maybe been mentally cutting Author Laura some slack about leaving out so much history because this is a children’s book narrated by a child, but — sheesh, if you can mention “massacre” in a book starring a 4-year-old, then you can sure as heck spare a little wordage to humanize the people whose land your book is set on and/or talk about WHY some of them might have motivation to perpetrate said massacre.

Third, notice the not-very-subtle white superiority that Mrs. Scott uses to justify the fact that they are all squatting illegally on Indian land: “they’d never do anything with this country themselves,” as if land is something that must have something done to it, as if not squeezing every bit of productivity out of the land is wasteful, sinful, or savage — something only the “wild animals” (and Indians) would do. Personally, it seems to me that the supremacy of productivity is the most deeply-entrenched belief of white culture. And we see it a lot in these books too — all the talk about how “waste is sinful” and “laziness is sinful” — as if resting, or allowing the land to grow naturally, or hunter-gatherer-ing instead of farming, is somehow morally wrong. (“It’s just common sense and justice!” — JUSTICE!!! Because you stealing it and farming on it is more “just” than NOT stealing it and letting the Natives continue as they have for THOUSANDS OF YEARS!) For me, sometimes it’s tricky to tease out the threads of “Productivity Is King”, but as we can see here, that belief plays a huge role in underpinning the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and a larger overarching racism towards the Indians.

Throughout the book, the Scotts are used to vent some of the more vicious ideas about Indians — the more overt racism and hatred, like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Pa, by contrast, is framed as the moderate voice, and he does have a few quotes that frame him as the “Indian advocate” of the book. After the infamous “Indians in the house” chapter (which is one of the only Indian-related bits I remembered from reading this series), Ma freaks out and Pa reassures her that compliance and peace are important, and later repeatedly argues that Indians are quite peaceful:

“That Indian was perfectly friendly. … And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack [their guard dog], we won’t have any trouble.” (p.229-230)

[After stopping Jack the dog from accosting an Indian on the trail by their cabin] “Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.” (p.230)

“[Pa] figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were left alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.” (p.284)

But this “they were here first” attitude does not transfer across the board, and after Laura asks a piercing question about why Indians go west, Indian-advocating Pa drops the other shoe:

“Will the government make these Indians go west?”

“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”

“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to–”

“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.” (p.236-7)

Even though Pa discounts the fierce racism that assumes all Indians are war-like savages, he strongly espouses the racism that says that White is Right and the “natural order” of things is for the Indians to acquiesce to and react to white settlers’ entitled demands. In other words, Author Laura sets up Pa to argue against the “dead Indian” viewpoint, but she allows the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and white supremacy to be shared unopposed.

This reading is confirmed toward the end of the book when, after an Osage man named “Soldat du Chene” reportedly saves the illegally squatting white settlers from being attacked by other tribes, Laura describes him as “the good Indian” — good because he has proved useful to the white settlers. 

There is so much more that I wish I had room to talk about here… like:

  • Laura’s book-long craving to “see a papoose” that culminates in her telling Pa “get me that little Indian baby” when she finally sees an Osage child,
  • Theories about why Pa would settle “three miles over the line into Indian Territory” (actually more like 9 — see below) in the first place,
  • The passing-by of a group of cowboys,
  • Gender roles and individualism in white culture,
  • Even some really adorable teamwork and flirting between Pa and Ma!

…But there just isn’t time. So you’ll just have to ask me about it sometime. =)

map of Ingalls Osage Kansas
As you can see here, the Ingalls cabin was likely built 9 miles north of the Cherokee border, and 6 miles into Osage territory.

A note about the Osage and Indians in this book…

I did a little background digging on the situation with the Osage, since they don’t seem to be the subject of any of my upcoming chapters. Here’s some useful background info:

  • In the Wikipedia article on the Osage, you can see a pretty quick overview of their history, from their migration to the Plains from their original home in the Ohio River Valley (present-day Kentucky or so) due to conflict with the Iroquois federation, all the way to the modern-day Osage Nation.
  • This blog post on the character of “Soldat du Chene” in the book discusses a little more of the background surrounding the Ingalls’ encounter with him, and also sheds some light on how Laura came up with that name as she did her research to write this book.
  • I also found this really, really, really thorough research paper about the history of the Osage and Kansas in 1865-70 and the interactions surrounding the Ingalls’ settling on Osage land. I skimmed it — has some great maps, too!

One thing I really started to question in this book is the authorial intent behind Laura the Author’s decisions about things like word choice (e.g. “wild”, “savage”, “yowling”, etc) and what to include or exclude from the book (e.g. violence perpetrated by both whites and Indians). To me, it seems like a bit of a double-standard, and a one-sided one at that. I felt a little validated when I stumbled across this excellent blog post from Nambe Pueblo university professor Debbie Reese. Professor Reese, in doing some research about Laura, discovered the text of a speech in which Laura explained her decision not to include a story about Pa participating in a vigilante execution of a couple of pioneer serial killers (I’m not making this up — read the full post). Here’s what Reese has to say (emphasis added):

In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder presents Indians as frightening and menacing. Through Mrs. Scott, she tells us about an Indian massacre. Three times, Wilder’s characters say “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” And what about the terrifying tone at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when Pa stays up all night and the entire family listens to Indians “howling” for several nights in a row?

According to Wilder, it is “fit” for children to read about “wild Indians” but it is not “fit” for them to read about serial killers who are white, nor is it “fit” for children to read that Pa killed someone in order to protect his family from harm. 

Think about that omission and what it means.

I’ll just leave us with that, I think.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee chapters 9-10 and The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy.


2 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 7, Indian Commissioner & Indian Territory

  1. So interesting! You may be onto something in saying that white culture is/was all about productivity. It sounds pretty darn familiar in today’s rhetoric, that’s for sure. It’s baffling how Pa can defend the Indians in one moment and then reaffirm that they “obviously” should keep moving West to make room for white settlers in the next moment. Also, I really wonder whether the “only good Indian is a dead Indian” quote was something Author Laura added in, or if it really had spread around the country that quickly. (Sigh.) That stuff with the Bloody Benders… wow. First of all, that is creepy! Second of all, Laura’s omission of it in the book is similar to how white children/people getting killed makes national news but black children who get killed or go missing are not on the news. Our country is by far more concerned about what happens to white people than other people; we can explain away violence against people of color by saying they were “in a bad neighborhood” but we think that none of that stuff should happen to white people. I saw in some of the comments on Professor Reese’s blog post that the Benders would’ve been gone by the time the Ingalls moved out to Osage County, in which case Laura would have no memory of this and Pa would not have been involved. But why would Laura bring it up, then? So confusing.


    1. CarissaLick  
      Re: “dead Indian” quote — I wondered about that too. Whether it was actually what Laura heard then or not, it sure serves as a quick touchstone way to sum up much of the overt racism against Natives.
      Re: similarity to what makes the news, YES. Exactly. Violence from/between/among people of color is “normal” but violence from/between/among white people is “unusual” and “sensational” and must be reported. Only change “reported” to “written about in my children’s book about my prairie settler childhood.”
      Re: the Benders, that’s interesting! Maybe it was a story Pa told that Laura somehow conflated with him actually taking part? Definitely confusing stuff! Really illustrates how difficult history can be with not a lot of preserved records. But either way, the fact that she considered and excluded that story illuminates the issue of selective censorship and how those choices impact the messages communicated by the text.


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