As the text demonstrates, Laura, Ma, and Pa are all repulsed by the smell of skunk musk. The Indian men are not. The subtext is that these men are different from Laura and her family. Their sense of smell is not like theirs. In the natural world, animals know that skunks smell unbearably bad, and will avoid them, but apparently these two “Indians” do not. The image of Indian men wearing fresh skunk pelts is plausible only if the men aren’t really human; only if the reader thinks them to be ignorant or animalistic, and only if we believe that they do not know how to skin a skunk without puncturing the glands that hold the musk. With this episode, Wilder tells us these Indians are less-than-human and that they less-developed skills at trapping and preparing pelts than Pa does (in several places in the story, Pa is trapping animals and tanning hides). In short, she tells us, they are primitive.
In this episode, Wilder’s (1935/1971) characterizations of Indians obscure their lives as members of civilized, self-governing societies. At that moment in history (1868), about 800 treaties had been negotiated between leaders of Native nations and representatives of the United States government.7 Treating with Native nations goes as far back as 1778. Two years after declaring their independence from England, the American government signed its first treaty with a tribal nation. President Washington negotiated the first treaty. Both parties to the treaty were militarily powerful and economically dependent on each other. Deloria (1984) writes that this treaty was significant “because it established an important precedent. Indian nations were to be dealt with as sovereign entities on an equal footing with the United States. Agreements were to be reached bilaterally, with each side given an opportunity to guest terms and provisions” (p. 101). This information presents Indian people in sharp contrast to the way that Wilder presents them. As diplomats, they were far from the primitive creatures Wilder portrays.