Manifest Destiny, Little House style

I am a fond rereader. I keep most of the books I’ve ever read so I might revisit them when time allows. A few days ago I suggested to my friend Salman that if he wants to know about white Americans, he should read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I took my own suggestion instead. I’m into the second book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, which take place in the early 1870s. The Ingalls family has left the Big Woods of Wisconsin and headed into Indian Territory on the rumor that it will shortly be opened to settlement. Indians living there, Osage by the description, were not pleased to find a white family squatting on their land. After one particularly harrowing (well, for Ma, anyway) encounter with Indians, Pa played the fiddle and the family sang this song:

“Wild roved an Indian maid,
Bright Alfarata,
Where flow the waters
Of the blue Juniata.
Strong and true my arrows are
In my painted quiver,
Swift goes my light canoe
Adown the rapid river.

Bold is my warrior good,
The love of Alfarata,
Proud wave his sunny plumes
Along the Juniata.
Soft and low he speaks to me,
And then his war-cry sounding
Rings his voice in thunder loud
From height to height resounding.

So sang the Indian maid,
Bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters
Of the blue Juniata.
Fleeting years have borne away
The voice of Alfarata,
Still flow the waters
If the blue Juniata.”

The song was written in 1841 by a woman named Marion Dix Sullivan, and it was one of the most popular songs in the nineteenth-century United States. It belongs in the mythology of the vanished Indian–that bit of myth that white Americans believed meant that Indians were disappearing in favor of that new breed of man. (Last of the Mohicans, anyone?)

After the song, Laura asked, “‘Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?”
“Goodness!” Ma said. “Aren’t you asleep yet?”
“I’m going to sleep,” Laura said. “But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went?”
“Oh I suppose she went west,” Ma answered. “That’s what Indians do.”
“Why do they do that, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”
“They have to,” Ma said.
“Why do they have to?”
“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”
He played the fiddle softly for awhile. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”
“May I,” said Ma.
Laura began again. “Pa, please, may I—”
“What is it?” Pa asked. It was not polite for little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.
“Will the government make these Indians go west?”
“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we got get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians made to have to—–”
“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.””

I’m sure I thought nothing of this passage when I was a child. Now it chills me, this casual defense of manifest destiny and settler colonialism. The Indians must go west, and disappear like Alfarata. And then the racism: the land is for white people only. Laura’s serious question, “won’t it make the Indians mad?” dismissed. No more thought. No more questions.

Here’s a recording of Blue Juniata:


2 thoughts on “Manifest Destiny, Little House style

  1. This is part of why I like the books: they were written before apologizing for those attitudes was common, so it preserves them instead of eliding them. The attitudes were regretable, but as an historical and cultural document, it’s more authentic this way.

    The Great Brain books, though I loved them and am sharing them with my son, are a lot more obviously ahistorical in places.

  2. I once wrote a philosophy paper in college on Goethe and used a scene from LHOP when Pa and Laura are examining the muskrat’s winter house. I should go track that down. I’ll look forward to reading more entries on this topic–and I think I’ll reread them too–maybe when baby comes :).

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