First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:
There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.
It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:
You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.
In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:
There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.
In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years! But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.
I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:
First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.
But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.
And what are they when it comes to the Indians?
One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,
‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.
‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around underfoot.’
Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .
The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.
‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’
Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”
Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.
Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.
You be the judge.
Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story