Like most American children, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of history Selika Ducksworth-Lawton read classic frontier author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books as a young girl.
In the autobiographical series based on an 1800s pioneer family living in places such as Pepin and Minnesota, Ducksworth-Lawton would have read a passage in which the main character, Laura, refers to a minstrel show of men dressed like racial caricatures as “darkies.” She would have read the phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which appears repeatedly.
“That language was painful,” Ducksworth-Lawton said of the books. “And it is painful for those of us who are citizens who are not white.”
According to the American Library Association, the derogatory language toward African Americans and Native Americans is what sparked the organization’s decision on Saturday to strip Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature prize, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It will now be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
The decision has been met with applause from those who say the books’ offensive content does not reflect modern values and therefore should not be associated with the award. It has also sparked dissent from those who say changing the award’s name is an effort to erase history. Authors and educators with ties to the Chippewa Valley have views that fall somewhere in between.
While Ducksworth-Lawton agrees Wilder’s writings are not acceptable, she said removing Wilder’s name from the award is one less chance to talk about racism in the pioneering era and how it’s changed over time.
“Her language in the books shows how prevalent (racism) was. How well accepted it was,” she said. “I understand not wanting to be associated with that, but I think that we can’t take that away from history.”
She disagreed with the idea that changing the award’s name is an effort to erase history, which is a view prevalently expressed on social media. Those who say lynching never happened are an example of attempts to erase history, she said, not changing an award title.
In a news release issued Monday, the ALA said its decision to change the award name is not an effort to censor or erase Wilder’s literary importance, but is rather a step toward aligning the award’s title with its core values.
“Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them or making them available to children,” the release says, adding the organization hopes adults think critically about the books.
Debra Barker, director of UW-Eau Claire’s American Indian Studies department, said Wilder’s books instilled stereotypes about Native Americans into generations of readers, and she hopes the award name change will get people talking.
“No doubt there are non-Indian adults who recall these children’s books with fondness,” Barker said via email, “not realizing the ways that Wilder’s language subtly denigrated and stereotyped the Osage Indians who were represented as menacing characters in her stories.
“The decision to change the book award title will, I hope, prompt conversation that eventually leads to intercultural respect and the need to learn more about both sides of the stories passed down about the settlement of the American West.”
Author Caroline Fraser — whose biography “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” won her the Pulitzer Prize this year — hopes readers continue to value Wilder as an author.
She said the choice to change the award’s name belongs to the organizations that give it out and she understands both ends of public reaction.
“Fans of Wilder are upset about this because they feel that in some way it’s detracting from her reputation, and even though I don’t really agree with that, I understand emotionally where they’re coming from,” said Fraser, who is based in New Mexico but will be here in the fall for the Chippewa Valley Book Festival. “I also certainly understand the feelings of the communities that hoped for this outcome — people who felt that there’s so much that’s offensive in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ that there needed to be a greater understanding of that.”
Fraser noted that efforts to correct racially insensitive content in Wilder’s books date back to the 1950s, when Wilder was still alive. For example, Wilder references in one book that there were no people on the prairie, only Indians, as if Native Americans were not people. That sentence was changed to read, “There were no settlers there.”
In clasrooms, Fraser said, “Little House on the Prairie” should be taught with nuance and sensitivity.
“I hope this whole controversy does provide a way for people who may not know about some of the history to go and find out about who Wilder was and what she was writing about,” Fraser said, “and how she may have not been cognizant of a lot of the things that we now know.”
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