- Amid the Mockingbird's LaughterNon-Indian Removals in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Depression-Era Novels
Most frontier stories share a common theme: non-Indians take possession of the land, while American Indians are forced from the region or fade out of the story. In her Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder reverses that theme twice—twice it is the Ingalls family who exits the disputed territory while American Indians appear to remain on their land. Wilder's first scene depicting non-Indian residents' forced removal from Indian Territory occurs in Little House on the Prairie, when the federal government identifies the In-galls family as illegal squatters on Osage land and the family leaves their homestead amid a mockingbird's laughter. The second scene appears in These Happy Golden Years, when Laura's visiting uncle recounts his experience as a member of a group of trespassing miners driven out of Lakota lands by soldiers. Both scenes suggest that non-Indians, including Wilder and her relatives, were in the wrong when they rushed into Indian Country, thus contradicting the premise of manifest destiny and confounding a basic expectation of a frontier narrative. These scenes are important to more fully understand Wilder's portrayal of Native characters and themes, and when examining them it is useful to consider that most of Wilder's novels were published during the Great Depression and are a product of that time at least as much as they are of the frontier times reflected in the content. The scenes in Wilder's novels depicting non-Indians' removals from Indian Country are startling in the context of frontier literature or even historical facts but far less so in the context of Depression-era literature in which writers more commonly sought to examine America's past. Situating the Little House texts as literature of the Depression helps to shed light on [End Page 181] some of Wilder's probable motivations as a writer and complicates first impressions regarding her portrayal of American Indian people and issues.
In 1915, well before the publication of the first Little House book in 1932, Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, encouraged her mother to record her frontier experiences. She wrote to her mother and advised her to emphasize
Only one generation ago Indians and forests and half a continent practically untouched by the human race. Free land, free fuel for the hunting it—"Go west, young man, and grow up with the land," And "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." That sort of thing. And do it all concretely—don't say those things were so, show that they were so.(Lane qtd. in Anderson, Literary 39)
Lane was born into a pioneer family in Dakota Territory herself, but her letter suggests that in 1915 she embraced the mythology of the frontier where she herself had once lived. "Make it real," she told her mother, "because you saw it with your own eyes" (39). Wilder, however, either intentionally ignored her daughter's advice or found that she could not follow it, as she created the Little House novels with a more complex view of America's frontier past than the one Lane initially advocated for, particularly where Native people were concerned. Even as Wilder's protagonist, Laura, and her family participate in westward expansion as they travel from home to home on the Midwestern prairies during the 1870–80s, Wilder recalls her family's experiences in a manner that is often critical of expansion; the frontier that Wilder "saw with [her] own eyes" and reflected upon was quite different from the imaginary frontier Lane proposed. During the next several decades, though, Lane's perspective on frontier history evolved, perhaps as a result of her own experiences of writing about her family's pioneer history and helping her mother with the Little House series.
The content in the Little House novels was informed by Wilder's own experiences but not solely by her experiences as a child on the frontier. Her childhood memories were filtered through her lifetime of experiences as she recalled and recorded them, and perhaps no [End Page 182] experience was...