Laura Ingalls Wilder was on the brink of having an award named in her honor, from the Association for Library Service to Children, when in 1952 a reader complained to the publisher of “Little House on the Prairie” about what the reader found to be a deeply offensive statement about Native Americans.
The reader pointed specifically to the book’s opening chapter, “Going West.” The 1935 tale of the pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with a character named Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.”
And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”
The editor at Harper’s who received the reader’s complaint wrote back saying it was “unbelievable” to her that not a single person at Harper’s ever noticed, for nearly 20 years, that the sentence appeared to imply that Native Americans were not people, according to a 2007 biography of Wilder by Pamela Smith Hill.
Yet Harper’s decision in 1953 to change “people” to “settlers” in the offending sentence did little to quell the critics in later decades, who began describing Wilder’s depictions of Native Americans and some African Americans — and her storylines evoking white settlers’ manifest-destiny beliefs — as racist.
Now, after years of complaints, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, says it voted Saturday to strip Wilder’s name from the award.
The decision makes Wilder the latest target of efforts to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views or engaged in racist practices. Statues and flags have been removed and highways renamed across the country. Coats of arms and building names have been changed or are the object of protests to get them changed. Columbus Day is now Indigenous Peoples’ Day in some places.
In its decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award, the library association had cited “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work” when it announced the review of Wilder’s award in February. The award, reserved for authors or illustrators who have made “significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” will no longer be called the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.” It’s now the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.”
“This 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 ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” the association said in a statement on its website.
Wilder was the first to win the award in 1954, when she was in her late 80s and nearing the end of her life.
Until her death in 1957 she was beloved for the semi-autobiographical “Little House” children’s books, fictionalized versions of her family’s adventures traveling the western frontier in their covered wagon and its encounters with Native Americans.
Born just after the Civil War in 1867 and having lived through both the Panic of 1893 and Great Depression in the 1930s, Wilder once acknowledged that “in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.”
But by the same measure, critics say, her family’s intrusion on Native American lands, particularly in “Little House on the Prairie,” represented a whole period of abuse against tribes across America, justified by white settlers’ belief that Native Americans didn’t count as settlers on their own land.
The book includes multiple statements from characters saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation was so disturbed after hearing her teacher read the statement aloud in class that she went home crying, leading her mother to unsuccessfully petition the school district to ban the book from its curriculum.
Elsewhere in the book, Osage tribe members are sometimes depicted as animalistic, notes the critic Philip Heldrich: In one scene, Wilder describes them as wearing a “leather thong” with “the furry skin of a small animal” hanging down in front, making “harsh sounds” and having “bold and fierce” faces with “black eyes.” Although Laura’s father espouses a more tolerant view of Native Americans, his description of a “good Indian” is one who is “no common trash.”
The character who is Laura Ingalls’s mother, Caroline Ingalls, is not subtle in her hatred of the Native Americans, saying repeatedly she doesn’t like them, before she has even encountered them. As the critic Ann Romines wrote, “Indians become a code for everything that seems to threaten the settled, white life she wants for her daughters.”
In addition, in another scene, Wilder depicts white men wearing blackface for the entertainment of others — including her father.
Still, Caroline Fraser, author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” argued that the racial insensitivity in Wilder’s book shouldn’t mean that children shouldn’t read it.
In a March column for The Washington Post, after the association announced that it was considering stripping Wilder’s name from the award, Fraser argued the library association “evokes the anodyne view of literature” that it has fought against, and that no book, “including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.‘”
“Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of ’Little House on the Prairie,” she wrote.
“But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.”