What do we do with Little House on the Prairie now?

I posit the following: Little House on the Prairie is culturally insensitive.

Do Not Read poster graphicAs a librarian, censorship is not the answer, nor is censorship through selection an answer either. Just as I would want my patrons to have access to Mein Kampf or the Bible, readers should be able to access Little House on the Prairie. We can never know a reader’s intent anyway; perhaps a reader is doing comparative analysis for a dissertation and is looking at portrayals of Native Americans throughout literature…

However, if Little House goes out of print, and it becomes difficult to replace a worn-out copy, then we move on. Likewise, if it stops circulating and the library can use its shelf space more productively, so be it. My hypothetical (albeit, nonexistent) sentimental attachment to the book is irrelevant at that point and we go with the library’s weeding policy. This is why libraries have circulation policies after all. There are archives and special historical collections (there is one at the CCBC, for example) that will preserve access if the book merits preservation.

If I had a teacher colleague looking to do a unit on Little House, I would try to encourage him/her to be careful not to gloss over the cultural insensitivities and pair it with another book like Birchbark House for a more balanced perspective. I was personally very troubled by the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie, so I would have a hard time as a school librarian promoting or recommending it to young readers just looking for a recreational read, because I think it merits a contextualized, critical view.

LHP Indians illustration

image from http://newspaperrock. bluecorncomics.com/2008/02/ stereotypes-on-prairie.html

I do not believe that level of critical thinking is common in the average 3rd grade independent reader. I am not trying to diminish or discredit the abilities of young thinkers, but I believe that teaching critical reading is like teaching information literacy: “If it’s on the internet, it must be true” and “If it’s in my book, it must be true.” I know adults who think like this. Not okay! It takes practice (and obviously, some of us did not get enough…) To me, a book like Little House that inspires strong distaste among the minority group portrayed within deserves to be handled intentionally and critically by the teachers and adults presenting it to our society’s children, so as not further negate this group.

A colleague of mine used to teach on a reservation in North Dakota. She told me a story of a friend she had there who had grown up in one of those Indian Boarding Schools. As a girl, she used to sneak into a “restricted room” to get the “good books” and subsequently read all the Little House books. She said that in light of the “white,” suppressive education she was receiving and the often negative portrayals of Indians she read about in fiction, she could not even see herself. “Indians were fearsome and evil.” Not until she was an adult did she realize what had been taken from her–intentionally or not. Imagine she had read Little House under the tutelage of someone who helped her challenge what was unfair about it. Her identity and self-perception might have developed differently.

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