Little House and the Indians

The book Little House on the Prairie (1935) sees the Ingalls family move to “Indian Territory” in what is now Kansas. As is made clear a few times throughout the book, the family moved to Indian Territory with the understanding that the US government would soon force the Native American tribes inhabiting the land to move further west to make room for white settlers. If you’ve read the book, you know that it didn’t turn out that way, not within the confines of the book, anyway. Instead, the Ingalls family has to move east.

Somewhat over halfway through the book, there is a chapter called “The Tall Indian.” At the very end of this chapter, Laura has some questions.

“Oh I suppose she went west,” Ma answered. “That’s what Indians do.”

“Why do they do that, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”

“They have to,” Ma said.

“Why do they have to?”

“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”

He played the fiddle softly for a while. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”

“May I,” said Ma.

“Laura began again. “Pa, please may I—”

“What is it?” Pa asked. It was not polite for little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.

“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 made to have to—”

“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.”

How do you read this exchange? Of course, the novel is written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the author almost always presents her childhood in glowing terms, as a happier and simpler time; and she almost always presents Ma and Pa as saintly, nearly perfect parents. This is the only time I think I sense some criticism of her parents.

Well, that’s not quite true for Ma. Throughout this novel, she is presented as something of a racist, with a deep prejudice against Native Americans. Not as bad as Mrs. Scott, for whom the only good Indian is a dead Indian, but still Ma clearly has judged the book by its cover, and she doesn’t like Indians because they’re different from what she’s used to. Not so Pa, who routinely reassures Ma that the Indians are nice enough and won’t bother us if we don’t bother them.

In this exchange between Pa and Laura, I think Pa’s more lenient attitude toward the Indians is in conflict with his own desires. The way I read this is that Laura has hit the nail on the head, and that if Pa had not been so perturbed by the interrogation and if he had the patience to answer her question honestly, he would have said, “Yes, the Indians will be mad to be forced off their land, and they have every right to be furious. I myself would be irate if some foreigners came in and told me to evacuate my ancestral land.” But Pa shut down Laura’s questions, because she was forcing him to confront a reality he’d rather not think about: his own complicity in Indian removal.

My only hesitation about this interpretation is that it paints Ma and Pa in such a bad light that I’m a little doubtful Laura Ingalls Wilder intended it. But maybe that’s my 2021 perspective. Perhaps in 1935, a little bit of complicity in Indian removal wasn’t thought of as so bad.

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