November 18, 2008

Smelly Indians in Little House

Indigenizing Children’s Literature[T]he predominant characterization of Native peoples is of the primitive savage. The chapter titled “Indians in the House” exemplifies this viewpoint. In this chapter, two Indian men have come into the house while Pa is away. Laura, terrified and in hiding, is peering at them, and notices a bad smell. “Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. The fur was striped black and white, and now Laura knew what made that smell. The skins were fresh skunk skins”(Wilder, 1935/1971, p. 125). After they left the house, Laura said to Ma, “They smell awful” (p. 142) to which Ma replied “That was the skunk skins they wore” (p. 143). When Pa returned that evening, Ma told him they wanted her to make cornbread for them (which she did), and that they took his tobacco. Pa replied that she was right to do as they asked, and then he said, “Whew! What a smell” (p. 143). Ma told him the Indians wore fresh skunk skins, and “that was all they wore” (p. 144). Pa replied, “Must have been thick while they were here” (p. 144).

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.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Little House on the Prairie.


dmarks said...

The book "A History of Wapasha's Prairie" by Myron A. Nilles has similar accouns of white reactions to "Indians in the House":

Mrs. Thompson, one of the first Winonans, stepped out of her cabin one Sunday morning in the earl 1850s and found "two or three Indian papooses (standing) in the door of lean-to shed in which hay was kept" for the family cow. Running to the door of the hayshed, Mrs. Thompson was awestruck by the sight of "about 20 or more Indians in various stages of a morning toilet". The Indian visitors had been traveling the country and had used the barn for overnight rest. "The Indians did not remain long, Mrs. Thompson wrote, "but their odors, like evils men do, lived after them"

Early Winona settlers, like most whites who met Indians for the fist time, failed to appreciate the fact that Indian habits were different than white habits because the Indian way of life was highly mobile and most activities were carried on outdoors. Some Winona pioneers also failed to appreciate the curiosity of Wapasha's Indians about the young and growing town of Winona.

The chapter also mentions accounts of Indians walking in and out of the houses.

Wapasha's Prairie was located an hour south of where "Little House in the Big Woods" took place. The Indians referred to above are Eastern Dakota (Mdewakanton) Sioux.

Rob said...

Melvin Martin said...


The tens of millions of adoring fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and of the television series based on them should be grateful that the Osages didn’t dismember her when they had the chance. One day, I was staring at a map of the Osages’ rectangle of reservation in Kansas and my eyes stuck on a red dot in the middle of it, signifying a “Point of Interest.” The words “Little House on the Prairie” came into focus.

Little Laura Ingalls, her sisters and their beloved Ma and Pa were illegal squatters on Osage land. She left that detail out of her 1935 children’s book, Little House on the Prairie, as well as any mention of ongoing outrages—including killings, burnings, beatings, horse thefts and grave robberies—committed by white settlers, such as Charles Ingalls, against Osages living in villages not more than a mile or two away from the Ingalls’ little house.

Mrs. Wilder’s unwitting association with the Osages would last a lifetime. She started writing the “Little House” children’s books—there were nine—in the 1930s, in her sixties, while living in a big house located on former Osage land in the Missouri Ozarks. The “Little House” books—especially the one that took place “on the Prairie” of the Osage reservation in Kansas—would be much read, broadcast and beloved. Shortly after World War II, the State Department ordered Mrs. Wilder’s books translated into German and Japanese, the languages of the United States’ most recently defeated enemies, who had just joined the list of America’s other Vanquished, including American Indians. The “Little House” books were “positive representations of America,” the U.S. government decreed, a good way to show other peoples of the world the American Way. Obviously someone in government forgot to consult the Osages.

Note: To read the remainder of this article, please go here:

Question: How many generations of the American reading public have been totally duped by this book? MM

Rob said...

Thanks, Melvin. You've added important details to Little House on the Reservation, my previous posting on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. I am currently reading LHOP to my kids. We just read the chapter about the 2 Native American men entering the house wearing skunk skins. My feeling after reading the chapter is totally different from yours. The author did not describe the men as savages or in any unflattering way. The account was very factual. They came in, they looked at me, they stood by the fire, etc. There is no judgment passed, just facts related. I was interested in the skunk skin phenomenon. I was wondering, did any tribes really wear smelly skunk skins and why? Perhaps the smell was a tactic to frighten off predators, like the packs of wolves described in the books. Or maybe it was to mask the smell of the men when they were hunting, allowing them to sneak up on prey. That what I was searching for when I stumbled across this web site. Ms. Wilder never said the Native American men were subhuman or couldn't smell the skunk odor or were too stupid to notice. That is being projected onto her. She just stated "facts". I was trying to determine if those "facts" were true. Did any tribes wear smelly skunk skins for a reason? Perhaps so. I haven't found the answer yet. But, don't project your judgments onto the author. Yes, she saw other cultures through the lens of her own culture, but she, at least to this point in the book, had been remarkably nonjudgmental. Maybe men did show up wearing smelly skunk skins and maybe it was for a good reason. Ever consider that possibility? P.S. I am posting as anonymous because the only other options are sign in with your Google account or your web site. I have neither. My email is not through Google. I'd be happy to sign in if you offered other options for people with other email services.