- Sympathy or Racism?L. Frank Baum on Native Americans
Lakota Sioux, Oneida Nation, South Dakota, The Wizard of Oz
Some might say there is nothing more American than the children's classic The Wizard of Oz or its author, L. Frank Baum. More than a hundred years after the book's first printing in 1900, it's still popular and beloved, with new additions to the franchise appearing in movies, books, an upcoming biopic, and even a casino.
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Recently, the Oneida Nation in Chittenango, New York, announced plans to build a twenty-million-dollar casino that will honor the late author's birthplace, an endeavor that will provide jobs and economic growth in the area. Yet the decision has warranted public criticism due to Baum's 1890 editorials in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, calling for the "annihilation of the few remaining Indians." While many historians and readers see the editorials [End Page 77] as resounding evidence of Baum's racist views toward Native Americans, others believe his fiction demonstrates that he was sympathetic to their plight, especially their loss of land, religion, and culture.
L. Frank Baum's nonfiction writing and editorial work serve as a resource for understanding his position on politics and race. Baum moved his family from Chittenango to the Great Plains, hoping to find open space and a newfound freedom, one that the "city life" couldn't offer. Hardly settled, he opened Baum's Bazaar and quickly made a name for himself selling fancy goods, like Chinese lanterns and music boxes, to Aberdeen's wealthy decision makers.
With business doing well, Baum bought the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer and filled it with news and entertainment for his readers, including the "Editor's Musings" and "Our Landlady" columns. A staunch supporter of women's rights, Baum devoted a considerable amount of space voicing his opinions on the subject, advocating for a women's right to vote. His mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, was a cofounder of the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she not only encouraged him to write but is said to be the influence behind the feminist themes found in the Oz books. Gage was also "adopted" into the Mohawk Nation in 1893.
Around this time, relations between Native Americans and European settlers had been one of conflict. The General Allotment Act of 1887 sought to relocate the Sioux onto reservations. Within two years, North and South Dakota were formed. While settlers feared a Sioux uprising, they would've also witnessed suppression of Native culture and religion, and even loss of hunting lands, leading some to starvation. Meanwhile, settlers were dealing with their own struggles, including economic hardships and food scarcities, as the area faced continued drought—another topic Baum covered fiercely.
Eventually, Baum was forced to close the store. He then focused solely on the newspaper, reporting on the issues of his day, including the relationships between the Sioux and settlers. One story he's credited with publishing was written by Aberdeen resident Hamlin Garland, who attempted to reach common ground between the two sides. In The Real Wizard of Oz, Rebecca Loncraine explains, the settler in Garland's story, burdened by labor and loneliness, gets emotional when "for the first time in his life he got a glimpse of the infinite despair of the Indian." The settler approaches "Drifting Crane," a reference to the Sioux chief Drifting Goose, and tells him that the war is "all wrong . . . there's land enough for us all, or ought to be." The settler doesn't understand why it can't be shared.
Later, Baum published an interview with a Montana senator, who called "tensions" with the Sioux a "tragedy," which happened as a result of European "covetousness." The senator claimed that ownership of land was an "invention" rather than an agreement "with his aboriginal neighbor." Baum responded by encouraging his readers to also view it as a...