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  • "The Only Good Indian":History, Race, and Representation in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie
  • Sharon Smulders (bio)

The twenty-third of July 1894 was, for Laura Ingalls Wilder, a day of significant crossings. Late that evening the Wilders (Laura, Almanzo, and Rose) drove their covered wagon onto the ferry at Yankton, crossed the Missouri River, and so completed the first leg of an arduous 650-mile journey away from the hardships that had dogged the family in South Dakota. But while the Missouri marked an important geographic boundary, it was not as important to Wilder as the psychological threshold represented by the James, the river that the family had crossed earlier that day. "We all stopped," Wilder wrote in her diary of the trip to the Ozarks, "and looked backed at the scene and I wished for an artist's hand or a poet's brain or even to be able to tell in good plain prose how beautiful it was. If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it" (On the Way Home 23-24).1 Sympathizing with the Indians whom she, as a settler, had displaced, Wilder not only sums up her feelings of loss and grief, despair and rage, but also projects the violence of her emotions onto another. This strategy of displacement, involving a highly vexed reversal of positions, also characterizes the treatment of the Indian in her later work for children. Predictably, the resultant tensions most deeply affect Little House on the Prairie (1935), her "Indian juvenile" (Rose Wilder Lane, qtd. in Miller, Becoming 205). Celebrating the achievements of the pioneering movement while questioning its assumptions, Wilder presents the Indian in this work as both good and bad, attractive and repulsive, and thereby exposes to critical attention "the metaphysics of Indian-hating," which, according to Richard Drinnon, constitutes "the enabling experience of the rising American empire" (xvii). But inasmuch as the Indian functions as a vehicle to explore white anxieties and white desires, this image, however compelling imaginatively, remains a cipher. Thus, despite its seeming authenticity, Little House on the Prairie ultimately denies the real experience of aboriginal Americans in order to validate the assimilation of the American landscape to the civilizing project of frontier settlement.

Arguing that the idea of the Indian has become "as real, perhaps more real, than the Native American of actual existence and contact," historian Robert J. Berkhofer observes that this imaginative construct serves "the polemical and creative needs of Whites" (71). Not immune to the power of the Indian as image, Wilder also shapes her representation of natives to a particular set of aesthetic and ideological objectives. Having no idea initially for a series, she wrote her first novel as "a memorial to [her] father" (Anderson, Sampler 177); but between the publication of Little House in the Big Woods in 1932 and Little House on the Prairie in 1935, she developed a far more ambitious plan. Indeed, as she told a Detroit audience in 1937, the success of her first book had encouraged her to create a comprehensive history of the western frontier for children:

I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of rail-roads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History.... I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginnings of things, to know what is behind the things they see—what it is that made America as they know it. Then I thought of writing the story of my childhood in several volumes—an eight volume historical novel for children covering every aspect of the American frontier.

(Anderson, Sampler 217)

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Cover art by Garth Williams from Little House...