I am reading this series of books to my five year old son Joshua who is, of course, of Indian origin. So I explain what Laura means by an Indian and he gets it. But in years to come the simple pleasure of reading these wonderful books may be denied us because Laura is now like coffee, women’s knickers, fried chicken, a 42 tonne rock, trees and numerous other items officially racist. Who says so? Homerton College Cambridge.
Homerton, which only became a Cambridge college in 2010, is archiving 10,000 books in a digital format in a project which is being paid for by a £80,633 grant from the taxpayer-funded UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. Great! So I am paying for this pointless exercise with my hard earned. Great again. Homerton has branded certain books as likely to trigger offence for ‘harmful content relating to slavery, colonialism and racism’. I shall not comment on Dr Seuss (blackface) or the Wizard of Oz but will stick to my specialist subject of Laura Ingalls a heroic libertarian who chronicled what she saw and did so without judgement.
Her apparent crime is in stereotyping what she termed because everybody termed Indians or, as they are now known, native Americans. The chapter I have just finished detailed how fifteen white settlers heading West spent a night at the house the Ingalls family lived in while Pa is away staking a claim. Luckily Mr Boast is there when the settlers, all men, drink too much and started fighting. Is this stereotyping settlers or white men in the West? Nope. It is just a description of what happened.
In this book, On the Shores of Silver Lake, there is one Native American, or rather half an Indian. Big Jerry is of mixed race and is a complex character. At one level he is a horse thief operating in a gang of white men. But on the other he saves the Ingalls family from attack and the relationship between him and Pa – who in turn saves Jerry from being caught and shot as a thief – is a good one. Jerry also stops the wild railroad builders from lynching Pa over pay. Laura writes warmly of Jerry claiming what she describes is what she saw. There is some question over whether Big Jerry was real – after all this book was written almost 60 years after the event – but he is on balance a good guy and no stereotype.
The book where most Indians appear is the second one in the series, Little House on the Prairie. Perhaps the Cambridge Guardian reading offence merchants do not like Laura describing how two Indians who came into the house when Pa was again away, to just take food, smelled badly. That is because the only clothes they wore were skunk skins to preserve their modesty.
So, of course, they smelled terrible as would a Cambridge don if he or she wore only a skunk skin around his or her waist and the act of theft at a time when a town nearby had seen the men, women and children scalped, is described honestly. It is not a stereotype it is what happened. For reasons we ca all understand Ma and her daughters were terrified as the men barged their way into the house. Laura makes no judgement she just describes what actually happened.
There are Indians in this book who hate the settlers and would like to kill them. This is understandable as the settlers were taking over what was accepted as Indian territory. But there are Indians who fight back against that and are described warmly by Laura.
There is the Indian father who like Pa goes out to hunter a dangerous Jaguar to protect his family. The two men meet and via sign language understand the Indian has removed this threat. There is a warm understanding between the two men relayed to us, many years after the event, by Laura.
But Cambridge academics do not want your kids to read an accurate first-hand account of life in the West, one that does not stereotype but merely describes what was or, perhaps, creates good half Indians. Because what was is not what the Dons want our kids to learn about, they want them to learn about a made up world where Indians never smelled bad or did bad things and where the white folks were invariably in the wrong as that might fit in to their world view more easily. And so I must learn that what I am reading to Joshua is harmful and instead go back to a nice safe book provided by the school called “Floppy” which is about a dog and contains about 12 different words in all on its ten pages.