Megan’s Movie Night: Little House on the Prairie

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, June 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. 

Coming next on The World and Everything in ItThe controversy over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books.

EICHER: Last weekend, a children’s division of the American Library Association decided to rename its major children’s literature award.

It had been known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It will now be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The move had been in the works since February.

At the time, the Association for Library Service to Children opined that Wilder’s legacy, its words, “may no longer be consistent with the intention of the award named for her.”

It noted “anti-Native and anti-Black” sentiments in Wilder’s writing.

REICHARD: When the Association stripped Wilder’s name from the award, it released a statement, and here’s what it said, quoting here: “The decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with [the Association’s] core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

So that got our resident expert curious.

Megan Basham decided to look into it.

MEGAN BASHAM, ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR: When I heard on Monday that the American Library Association had decided after 64 years to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their children’s literature award, I immediately did two things. I pulled our battered copies of the Little House set from our bookshelf and fished some old VHS tapes of the TV show from a box in the attic.

Both have long been favorites in the Basham house. So much so, my 8-year-old daughter actually asked for, and received, a butter churn for her last birthday. But I hadn’t personally read or watched either in many years. So I did a deep dive into Wilder’s work.  

Reading the supposedly offensive content in context makes the ALA’s charges seem not just historically short-sighted but slanderous.

The Washington Post, NPR, and many others have pointed out that in the second book in Wilder’s series, Little House on the Prairie, two characters state, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” They also mention how often Ma expresses fear of Indians. The TV series moderates the language, but still gets the sentiment across.

AUDIO: When will we see some Indians, Pa? Never, I hope. Don’t even mention Indians. I hope I never see one…Then why did we come to Indian territory? I suppose it does seem pretty foolish coming to Indian territory and hoping you’ll never see an Indian.

What not one of those outlets mentions, however, is that far from endorsing such bigotry, Pa, the obvious hero in little Laura’s life, repeatedly contradicts it and corrects his neighbors’ ignorance. Laura records—quote—“He figured that the Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were let alone.” She ends the chapter simply: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”

It would take the entire length of this program and then some to detail all the complex and impressively detailed encounters Laura has with Native American characters that grow her respect and understanding of them. Of course they aren’t all unrelentingly noble, because that would in itself be a stereotype. Rather they behave in varying degrees of friendliness and hostility toward the Ingalls family.  Just as we would expect authentic human beings to do. And, incidentally, just as Ma does, her suspicion of outsiders is part of her character and hardly limited to people with different skin colors.

AUDIO: Mighty fine lunch ma’am. He is uncivilized…I don’t like having him around the children, Charles.

Remember, Wilder was writing decades before reforms in the way we teach about westward expansion. Still, she has Laura question injustice perpetrated against natives. 

AUDIO: Thank goodness he’s gone. Why, I thought he was kind of nice…I’m glad, I’m not…It’s not fair. They were here first.

This wasn’t just an invention for 1970s television. If anything, the novels go further, like when Pa explains to Laura that the path by their house is the Indian’s trail—because it was his long before they came. Or that what their neighbors’ fear is a war party is really a buffalo hunt Pa wishes he could join. 

I could go on and on.

In fact, the book and the first episode of the show seem to subtly right a wrong against the tribes. Both end with the Ingalls finding out they will have to leave the territory. Pa isn’t angry at the Indians for this, but the government that misinformed him.

AUDIO: What is it? We have to get out…If those blasted politicians in Washington had just said all of Kansas wasn’t opened up, we never would have settled here.

Now, it is true that one book includes a scene with a minstrel show. But this would have been common and uncontroversial in the 19th century—and I would argue no sane reading could find any intention of malice in it.

More revealing of the author’s heart is her faithful depiction of the diverse community she found on the plains, like the black Dr. Tan who saves the entire Kansas settlement from malaria. More revealing still was Wilder’s immediate, unmitigated apology in 1952 when a reader pointed out a line that suggests Native Americans aren’t people.

The ALA claims they dropped Wilder’s name for the sake of “inclusiveness, integrity, and respect.” Yet the Little House novels, and the excellent TV series that was based on them, positively burst with these qualities. It’s the ALA, whose inclusivity apparently doesn’t extend to those who came before us, who have shown themselves to be lacking in them.

Children of all colors and backgrounds will be poorer if we teach them to sneer so easily at the cultural contributions of artists past. The perceptions of the earlier eras were not perfect, but we teach our children only arrogance if we suggest we have the moral standing to render perfect judgement of them.

As I re-watched the series, I was amazed to find how brilliantly every element of them holds up… from the acting to the production value to the natural inclusion of a Christian worldview that honors sacrifice, community, and loving neighbors of all races and creeds.  

They truly don’t make them like that anymore. And if we let groups like the ALA have their way, they never will again.

AUDIO: You hear that…stars singing hallelujah.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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