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.
By 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.
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 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:
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).
Even 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)