Children’s difficult questions

I have been reading the Little House books to my daughters. They are fascinated by the accounts of life “in the olden days”, and especially by the experiences of the children in the books.

In the last few days, we have finished Little House on the Prairie. The last few chapters of the book deal with the Ingalls’ encounter with Native Americans, and in particular, with the family’s experience of listening to an “Indian jamboree”, hearing the war cries night after night, and wondering if the Indians would leave their camps, and kill or drive out the white settlers. Ma is terrified, and in the books, her terror, and Pa’s fear, is conveyed to the children, who likewise can’t sleep, and spend their days in incredible tension.

It seems however, that these accounts must be largely reconstructions, rather than recollections. Although Little House on the Prairie portrays Laura as being around age six, in reality, she was about three. In addition, it’s clear that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder, edited her mother’s books heavily, and the books are best described as a collaboration between the two women, rather than a factual account of what really happened in 1869 and 1870. So what we have is a story written in the early 1930s, based on research conducted then, the recollections an elderly woman about what had happened when she was just a few years old, and family stories.

The account vividly portrays the growing terror of the Ingalls family. My daughters were led to the natural conclusion – that the Indians were bad people.

“No,” I said. “They weren’t. They were angry, because the white settlers had come in and taken their land away from them.”

So we were led into a discussion of why the white settlers might have wanted the land, and why they might have assumed that they could take it, and why the Native Americans might have felt that the only thing they could do was try to drive the settlers away.

That was all easy enough to handle. After all, America is thousands of kilometres away, and it all happened over a century ago. It was easy enough for the children to see that it was not a simple question of “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, but that a terrible injustice had been done to Native Americans. And I could have left it there. But seeing that the moment was right, I pressed on, and talked about how white people had done exactly the same thing in New Zealand – come in, and taken the land from Maori people, by fair (to them) means and foul.

I found it enormously hard to help my children to walk the tightrope between seeing that white people had committed injustices, but not feeling as though “we”, meaning my children, personally, had actually done nothing wrong. How can six and eight year old children possibly be held personally responsible for something that was done between 100 and 150 years ago? Nevertheless, as they grow older, and when they start to participate in our political society, as adults, they will need to start thinking about what happened in the past, and the extent to which they personally have participated in, and benefited from, the continuing ramifications of past events.

These are incredibly hard issues to deal with, partly because separating past injustice from present culpability is a difficult task in any case, and partly because adults in our society don’t have settled views about the issues in any case. I think that the birds and bees talk(s) will be a doddle in comparison.


3 responses to “Children’s difficult questions

  1. This is a wonderful post, thank you.

  2. Um I found this interesting re. children and parents and love and stuff

  3. The Ingalls family did not intentionally take land from the Native peoples; While Ma (understandably, under the circumstances) shared the _common_ anti-Indian prejudices of her day, Pa clearly did not, and young Laura was frankly fascinated by them.