Little House, Wounded Knee: Beginning the Journey Toward “Un-Settlement”

NOTE: This post was originally written for and published in the January 2017 edition of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Newsletter. It was also read aloud at a September2016 church service at Church of All Nations (the recording is archived here).


I learned to read books when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology.

little house prairieBy first grade, I was hooked on my first big chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

According to my mother, I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. A book-tent on my face.)

I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. I loved that she was a tomboy who hated bonnets and dresses — just like me. Even as I grew older, I loved to follow along with the Ingalls family’s migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times, too.

Time passed. I went to college, got busier, wrote papers, got jobs, didn’t have much time for pleasure reading anymore.

Then, a few years ago, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved when I was seven. It had been 10 or 15 years since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

bury-my-heart-at-wounded-knee-dee-brownBut as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books lay Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Ding! A lightbulb went on as I realized these two books happened at the same time.

Although what I remembered about Laura’s story was kind and fun-loving Pa, sibling love and rivalry, and the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, all of those beloved pioneer-enshrined events on the prairie happened during a largely unmentioned backdrop of Indian dispossession and genocide, black enslavement and migration, and even the Civil War!

I decided that, while I would reread the Little House books, this time would be different.

And so I began a project that spanned almost a year from conception to completion, in which I read the Little House novels in their historical context. I plotted the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which proceed chronologically from 1838 to 1890, each focusing on a different Indian nation) and the books of Little House (which take place from 1866-1890) on a single timeline and added relevant historical events of the time. Then, since the Little House books are written for children, I searched for other historical children’s novels to help fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. Here’s the reading schedule I came up with:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

Thus began my Little House / Wounded Knee project. Over the next months, I read my reading each week and blogged my thoughts and analysis before moving on to the next assignment. I began with my childhood nostalgia still partially intact, but as the weeks progressed I began to shift my perspective from my Eurocentric view of “westward expansion” to a view of history that “faced east,” as Dee Brown says in his book’s introduction.

Today, so much white nostalgia is focused on “the good old days” when times were “simpler” and things were “better”. But as I discovered, the only reason these nostalgic white daydreams persist is because much of white America is ignorant of what “the good old days” were actually like. We reminisce about stories of our hardworking immigrant forebears, proud of their grit and perseverance. And it’s not that they weren’t determined or hardworking. But we are blisteringly unaware of the fact that our stories — the stories of white America — are told in total isolation, completely divorced from the concurrent stories of indigenous peoples (let alone black and brown immigrants, enslaved people, and settlers).

wisconsin Native tribes wLauraEven from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s very first book — Little House in the Big Woods — the disconnect is apparent. This book takes place a couple-hour drive from my house. So I did a little research to see where Laura’s cabin in the woods was on a map.

You can see that the Big Woods were already quite full of (Native) inhabitants — and yet the following is how Wilder begins book one in her Little House series:

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. (Little House in the Big Woods, p.1-2, emphasis added)

It’s literally the FIRST PAGE of the book, and already Wilder has erased at least five Indian nations and thousands of people from existence.

Honestly, it kind of gave me whiplash; I could hardly believe the casual ease with which Wilder simply writes “there were no people”. I could feel the violence in that statement when I read it. Because here’s the truth behind that casual opening paragraph: the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, bounty hunted for their scalps, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died before the survivors were legally expelled from the state of Minnesota (a law that is still on the books today). So, there WERE people. But many were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.”

That all took place from about 1852 to 1863. 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 blew my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that the renowned Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting white invasion and persuasion further west. And yet, none of this is mentioned, or even alluded to, in Wilder’s Big Woods. There is an enormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

As I continued through my reading list, I began to see these two narratives — that of the settler and that of the indigenous community — side by side.

Where before I only saw the “westward ho” adventures of the intrepid Ingalls family, now I also saw the uprootedness and disconnection of the “pioneer spirit” embedded in the founding DNA of this country.

I saw the entire story oozing with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, treating the land as an empty place upon which European settlers “improved” — as Almanzo’s father says in Farmer Boy, “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9).

I saw the parallels between the way settlers treated the indigenous peoples and the indigenous ecosystems, as alluded to when Almanzo explains to Laura about the tree claim on his homestead. “These government experts have got it all planned. … They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be…. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East” (These Happy Golden Years, p.170-1). (This quote spawned my next reading project, “Imperial Geography,” about the impact of white settlement on the land and ecosystems of Turtle Island.)

I also saw the violent disregard for indigenous humanity passed on in these “children’s” books — from less obvious little things, like constantly describing Indians as “savage,” “wild,” “yelping,” “yipping,” and “terrible,” to more apparent giveaways, such as including the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” no fewer than three times in a book whose protagonist is a four-year-old. (Side note: this phrase misquotes American Army General Sheridan, who originated the phrase when the Cheyenne survivors of two massacres cautiously approached his camp identifying themselves as “good Indians,” to which Sheridan famously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 170].)

As I delved deeper and deeper into the ugly, violent, and atrocity-filled history of American Indian “removal”, I began to be really angry at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the culture in this country that continues to think her books are good reading for children. These books are VIOLENT. They erase and dehumanize an entire CULTURE. They persistently portray Indians as subhuman and savage, and they portray a blackface minstrel show as a jolly evening of entertainment.

At first I thought, no one should ever read these books! But the more I sat on it, the more I thought the opposite: everyone — especially white Americans — should read these books, but with a critical eye. Because these stories of Ma and Pa and eking out a living on the “wide open prairie” are inextricably wound up in the mythology of this country.

We still believe this country is founded on lofty ideals, even though it’s actually founded on theft, murder, and slavery. We still believe that the mainstream white narrative is the truest and most important story. We still believe that we can make our country better by using and consuming the land, that we improve the land by our efforts. We still believe that the stories of black, brown, and Native communities are ancillary appendices that we can choose to leave out and not miss much.

These are blatant and harmful lies.

Mark Charles, a Navajo pastor, speaker, and blogger, often speaks of the need for a common memory before the people here in this land can attempt reconciliation. And if white America is ever going to move forward in the effort toward racial justice and healing, we need to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves about the way things used to be. We need to mend the rift in the stories we tell, stitch back together the narratives of the settlers and the indigenous peoples, and look with honest eyes on the tall tales of our pioneer heritage. We need to let go of our nostalgia for a time that never was and instead begin the process of undoing what we have done, of pulling up our stakes, of beginning to be “un-settlers” in a land not our own.

—–

Rebekah Schulz-Jackson lives in Minneapolis with her husband and housemates and works toward unsettled-ness with the beautiful community at Church of All Nations. You can read more about the Little House / Wounded Knee project at thesjs.com/littlehousewoundedknee.

If you’re interested in Rebekah’s reading list, here is a full list of all books/articles she read:

  • Little House on the Prairie boxed set of original 9-book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown)
  • The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner (Laurence Yep)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Diane Wilson)
  • Emancipation Proclamation; Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln; found online)
  • I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Joyce Hansen)
  • The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West (Lillian Schlissel)
  • My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl (Ann Rinaldi)
    **Do not read this book without also reading Debbie Reese’s review of this book, found on her excellent blog, American Indian Children’s Literature.
  • As Long as the Rivers Flow (Larry Loyie)
  • The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee (all by Louise Erdrich)
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In which Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorites!

For some of you fellow bookworms who have chatted with me about books, you know that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books. I already loved it to pieces when I read it (and its sequels) as a kid. Then I found an audiobook version where Madeleine herself narrates Wrinkle, and I loved it even more because it feels like you sort of know her  by how she reads the book (which is perfectly how I imagined it).

a circle of quiet lengleI remember my mom once told me, “You know, Madeleine L’Engle has written some adult non-fiction books, too. You should check them out.” But I sort of let it drift into vague-land… until recently.

I found and bought a copy of the first book in “The Crosswicks Journals”,  A Circle of Quiet, and let it sit on my to-read shelf for a bit. I had a full plate working through my Little House / Wounded Knee project, so I didn’t pay Circle much attention. Then about a week ago, when I was lolling around with nothing in particular to read, feeling a little down about life, I saw this book out of the corner of my eye. I picked it up and flipped to read the reviews on the back and found, “My favorite of all Madeleine L’Engle’s books. Lovely, charming, a book to cherish. I know it will give great consolation to ordinary people who sometimes wonder why they bother to get out of bed in the morning.

Needless to say, I was sold!

I snuggled in on the couch and started to read… and was BLOWN. AWAY. by the simple, thoughtful, soulful musings of Madeleine L’Engle, writing her thoughts on life, nature, philosophy, marriage, and writing (among others) from her family’s farm house, Crosswicks, in New England. It really did lift my spirits. It felt like this book was A Wrinkle in Time for grown-ups, because it’s about real life, but it’s the same sensible, spiritual Madeleine at the helm.

Anyways. I could rave about this book all day — I’m really excited to read the second one — but for now I just want to let Madeleine’s writing speak for itself and share a few of the way-too-many-to-write-down-because-I’d-write-the-whole-book passages that really struck me and stuck with me.

On community & identity:

Grandma gave me herself, and so helped to give me myself. (p.58)

On illness, death, and relationship:

She was not our mother, child, wife. Our lives would be basically unchanged by her death, except in the sense that our lives are changed by every death. And I think that we all, except perhaps nurses and doctors who see it all the time, have a primitive instinct to withdraw from death, even if we manage to conceal our pulling away. There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived.

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. (p.118-119)

On community, the Establishment, and revolution:

Because we are human, these communities [family, village, church, city, country, globe] tend to become rigid. They stop evolving, revolving, which is essential to their life, as is the revolution of the earth about the sun essential to the life of our planet, our full family and basic establishment. Hence, we must constantly be in a state of revolution, or we die. But revolution does not mean that the earth flings away from the sun into structureless chaos. As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so also do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son. (p.131)

Seriously, so much wisdom and humor and real life words in this book. Go grab a copy and give it a try. You won’t regret it!

In Which Rebekah Revisits a Childhood Milestone with Grown-up Eyes

I learned to read when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology. For example, the book with which I taught myself to read (The Ernie & Bert Book, I’ll have you know) is the same one that I immediately turned around and read to my just-born sister. Apparently this book has magical powers, because she grew up to be a bookworm too!

But the phase of bookwormish childhood that I want to focus on today is my first foray into chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series.

Apparently I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. Like a book-tent for my face.) I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. Even as I grew older, I still loved to follow along with their migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times too.

Recently I reorganized my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved in first grade. It’s been about 10 or 15 years now since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

But as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (subtitled, “An Indian History of the American West”).

All of a sudden a lightbulb went on: at the same time Laura’s family was wagon-riding around the Midwest, natives were being pushed off their land. Cowboys were ranching even farther west. THE CIVIL WAR was happening, for goodness sakes!

This may sound like a stupid realization, but I never really thought before about how the Ingalls fit into history. I never learned or thought about who ELSE was living on the prairie. As I looked up the dates of when the events in the Little House books took place, I realized that A LOT was going on in the U.S. A lot more people than just “the settlers” were busy living life — and even “the settlers” are more complex, because, people, there were (and still are) BLACK COWBOYS AND FARMERS. And I know nothing about them. I wanted to learn more.

So, I will be re-reading the Little House series… but in its historical context. As I read my way through the 1850s-1890 with the Ingalls, I will also be reading the corresponding chapters from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as several other (mainly children’s) historical fiction diaries of the time. You can see my full reading list/schedule below:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

And here are links to all the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to join me for any of them!

I’m really excited to revisit the Little House on the Prairie. But this time, I’m excited to meet the neighbors, too.

Let’s dive in!

*Edited to update book list / reading list based on books and resources added mid-project.

Books of the Year: 2013 in Review

As some of you *may* know, I am a *bit* of a bookworm. Just a smidge. =)

One of the ways I challenge myself to keep reading (even though now I’m a busy bookworm) is to participate in the yearly book challenge on Goodreads.com. In 2013, my goal was to read 52 books, or about one a week. I exceeded my goal (56 total, woo!) and today I just set my new goal for 2014. But before I get too far into my new book adventures, I wanted to take a look back at some of the books I read in 2013. So without further ado, here are some of my book highlights from 2013.

The Mighty & The Almighty5. The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a while (bought it while I was teaching and just never had time to start it), but this year I finally took the time to dive in, and I was pleasantly surprised at  how much I loved the experience. Not only is Madeleine Albright a seasoned and sensible veteran of politics and world affairs, but she also has a thoughtful and nuanced way of looking at the ways that religion enters into the mix. I found this to be an extremely thought-provoking (and quotable!) read, and I’d highly recommend it to everyone, but especially folks who are interested in the intersection between politics and religion.

Ender's Shadow4. Ender’s Shadow (and its sequels) by Orson Scott Card

Although I’d read both Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow before, I had never read the rest of the Shadow series. Not only did they sink their delightful, action-packed hooks into my brain and propel me straight through, but I found myself contemplating geopolitics in a whole new way afterwards. (Without giving too much away, the sequels show what happens on Earth after the Battle School students return home, and it is messy, let me tell you!) HIGHLY recommended for anyone who loves a good sci-fi.

3. One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss passed away this year suddenly. This is a devastating loss  not only for his family and friends, but also for the Church family around the world, as we have lost a man of strong faith, a faithful advocate for First Nations peoples, and a lover and devotee of biblical reconciliation. This most recent work of his sets forth the case for why Native Christianity is a vital and missing piece of the Body of Christ. If you have ever wondered whether Native beliefs can be compatible with Christianity, or whether Natives can be Christians without being “whitewashed”, then read this book.

2. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

The reason I loved this book is that it uses loads of primary source documents (like journals from real women during each era) to vividly depict what life was like for women throughout American history. Gail Collins does a good job of looking at women from as many different arenas — social, racial, and otherwise — as possible. For anyone who loves reading about everyday life in other times and places, or for anyone wondering how women have lived and survived in America, this one’s for you!

1. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

Okay, this book exploded my brain. The subtitle sums up the premise of the book — the history of the world through Islamic eyes — but it’s so much more than just the “Islamic side of the story.” I felt like I literally got a glimpse of how the Eastern/Islamic historical-cultural mindset has evolved and grown from its geographical roots (aka the Ummah/”Islam-dom” as opposed to “Christendom”) and how the development of Islam in various regions has influenced world history and vice versa. If you have a pulse, go read this book right now. It will change how you view the world and history. Seriously.

Well, that’s my top five reads from 2013. I have quite a list for 2014 — some of which are already sitting on my bookshelf! — but I’m always looking for suggestions. Anything that strikes you as a Rebekah-read? Or do you want to share a great book you read this year? Let me know in the comments!

Banned Books Change Lives.

[Warning: Offensive language ahead.]

This week (the week of Sept. 30th, 2012) is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. As someone who loves books and who has been greatly challenged and stretched by some of these “banned books”, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you why it’s important to keep “banned books” in our libraries, and especially in our schools.

As you may know, I am a licensed secondary English teacher. As a part of my student teaching, I had the privilege of teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to 9th graders at a small rural-ish (almost entirely white & Latino/a) school in Minnesota. But before I continue my story, let me share a little background on the controversy surrounding this novel:

  • In the last ten years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the #21 most challenged book.
  • Although its major race-related theme is the injustice and wrongness of racism, it is often challenged for being a racist book or for “promot[ing] white supremacy.”
  • One of the most frequent reasons cited for its banning is the use of the word “nigger”.

Now, back to my classroom. Knowing a few of my mischievous 9th graders as I did, I decided to be proactive about the use of the “n-word” in our classroom. I spent five minutes at the start of the first reading day explaining to my students that, although the author used that word frequently to accurately depict the setting of her writing, it was not acceptable for them to use that word, and they should count this as their fair warning that anyone choosing to say that word in class would be sent directly to the office.

Of course, the first “culprit”, to my embarrassment, was a student whose English proficiency was not up to grade level and who, I’m pretty sure, accidentally let it slip only because he had read it so many times in the novel. (But, follow-through-er as I was, I sent him to the office as promised, poor kid. I make me wince sometimes.) That night, I went home and designed an entire lesson specifically to educate my students about the historical significance of the “n-word”, because it was clear to me that the vast majority of them had no idea what they were (not) saying.

The next day, we went through my lesson and I did my level best to help my students understand that the “n-word” was so awful because of the hateful, dehumanizing racism it embodied. I searched for and found a photo that I thought exemplified the demeaning stereotype whites created to oppress blacks, and we discussed it:

A slide from our discussion.

Before, the class had been its usual jovial self; as soon I showed this image, it was silent. You could feel the shock in the room, and when I finally coaxed responses to the discussion questions they were muted and brief.

After I was sure the meaning of the word had been made clear, we talked about the history of various words used to describe African-Americans (including which terms are generally acceptable today) and then ended by taking a few minutes for the students to jot what they had learned on a notecard. Most responses were simple — “I learned never to say that word” — but a few students shared more deeply:

I learned that the “n word” is more meaningful than I thought. I knew you shouldn’t use it but I didn’t know it was that important.

I found out that colored is not a good word to call a black/African-American person.

I learned today that black people were introduced as monkeys and were set up as them just because their skin was a color that some people didn’t like. I hate how whites think they can make fun of a different skin color!

I thought it was very sad when we learned about the bank of a man and saw the resemblance between it and the one of a monkey. I will never call anyone that word because of how disrespectful it is.

I learned that black people are not bad, and have never been bad. White people just made them out to be bad, and made them seem like they were [bad] to everyone. They are the same as us, just different colored skin, but that means nothing. They are still the same as us, and we are still the same as them.

My feelings were changed about how people treat other people that people were really awful to people that were different races and they still do. I got chills when I heard the things that people did and said and even showed the African American people as. It was upsetting to me and really hit a spot in my heart that had never really been touched before. Thank you. : )

I share these not to toot my own horn — clearly I was not a model teacher! — but to show the incredible need to educate our young people about past sins in order to help them understand their present world.

If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain “the n-word”) were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the “n-word” into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it. If I or the school or the parents had tried to sweep it under the rug, my students would have remained ignorant, and the only way to make any good out of our messy, hurtful, embarrassing history is to stop it from repeating itself. So I ask you this: If we sanitize our schools of all the ugly past, how will we ever learn from it?

Humanity is cruel and kind, evil and good, racist and just, murderous and life-giving. We learn how to act by seeing both what to do and what not to do. Removing the “bad parts” from our children’s education doesn’t make them better people, just more likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

So this week, check out a “banned book”! You don’t have to like it — you don’t have to think it’s appropriate for any age (most things are not) — but please, before you reject it as a “filthy, trashy novel”, think about what we it might teach us and how it might help us to avoid repeating history.