“No people. Only Indians.”

HOO BOY! There’s a lot going on today and every day lately- and mostly I’m trying to hunker down and get as much writing done as possible. But this Laura Ingalls Wilder controversy (her name is being stripped from a prestigeous literary prize because of racial language and stereotypes) goes straight to the heart of what I’m writing about now – colonialism, its offshoot Manifest Destiny, their hierarchical view of both people and land use, and the linkage of all those things to white supremacy.

Ingalls wrote that the character “Pa” wanted to go where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Ouch. But that bald, painful sentence goes right to the heart of the resettlement of North America by white Anglo-Europeans. “There were no people. Only Indians.” That’s a myth that is still active. I have been told, within the last six months, that America was “empty” when the settlers got here or that our ancestors took land that no one was using.

The truth is that the land was very much in use, but in ways that colonizing whites could not “see” – by which I mean they did not see it as of any value.  Land was hunted and farmed communally; fields were left intentionally fallow to regain fertility, complex ecosystems were stewarded to the benefit of the group.  The colonizers, on the other hand, were part of centralized states that needed bounded, taxable land in order to generate revenue through taxes. Communal land can’t be enumerated and taxed, just as hunted or foraged food can’t be easily counted and taxed.

By the way, this isn’t directly about whiteness. This was the pattern when the English colonized Scotland and Ireland and it continued in North America.  It’s not about “whiteness,” but it is about hierarchies of who and what is valued. Land use customs originally defined it, but skin color became inextricably bound up with it, and through that colonization became a tool of white supremacy.

So what about Laura Ingalls Wilder?  What do we do with these parts of our culture – books that use racial epithets to describe groups of people; monuments that lament the South’s loss of the Civil War; or even words like “boy,” “cotton-picking,” “pickaninny” that were once used without thought by whites and are now understood to be racist?

Many people say that we “shouldn’t erase our history.”  But that’s the problem; it’s OUR version of American history, but it’s not necessarily theirs – whoever “they” might be. And, all too often, “our” history erases “their” history.

Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t, by the way, being banned or erased.  She’s just not going to have a prestigious literary award named after her any longer.  Her books, thought problems and all, will still be on the shelves of your local library. Children will still read them and dream.  But we, as a nation, do need to reckon with what we did: we did not “settle” an empty land, we took land from people who were actively using it.  What we saw as pristine forests with no troublesome undergrowth, were actually territorial hunting grounds the Native population had carefully stewarded with controlled burns so they could hunt more easily.

Some of my family say we need to give up “white guilt,” and you know what? I agree. But I mean it differently. I mean we have to stop passing on the stories we’ve used to make ourselves feel better.  Many of these are stories my beloved mother told me, and that her mother told her –  that our ancestors were the “good masters,” that “a lot of slaves were happy,”  that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or that the land was empty when we got here.  We need to accept the truth of what we as a nation have done, good and bad.  It’s the only way we can move on to the future.

Some myths – those that have been turned into literal monuments, do need to be reevaluated honestly by the communities they exist within. Some of them will be removed, some will remain.  Laura Ingalls Wilder and her myth of a land that was empty – because the Indians who lived there weren’t “people” – can and should stay on the shelf.  But the myth she romanticized so compellingly – the myth of an empty America waiting for white settlers to take it – does need to be questioned.  Literature is complex and imperfect, just like the people who create it. We should allow it to be so – by critiquing what is untrue or wrongheaded while valuing skill and artistry, and the joy they give us.

Laura Ingalls Wilder will not be hurt by the stripping away of her name from a prize. And her readers, those dreamy little boys and girls, wandering along the shelves of their public libraries, looking for worlds to escape into, certainly don’t care.

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