Laura Ingalls Wilder & Louise Erdrich

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has long been regarded as the essential pioneer girl narrative. However, scholar Michelle Stewart explains that Wilder’s novels also contain problematic narratives, including racist and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans. In contrast, Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House, is a historical story about an Ojibwa girl written by an Ojibwa author. The Birchbark House counteracts many of the myths that Wilder’s work perpetuates about Native Americans, a move that Stewart argues was intentional. Because of the critical conversation surrounding between Little House on the Prairie and the The Birchbark House, the potential exists for them to be interacted with together in order to engage children about literature, history, and diversity.

Recommended Age Range: 8-10 year-olds, 3rd-5th grade 

About the Books

Little House on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls and her family are heading to Kansas! Leaving behind their home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, they travel by covered wagon until they find the perfect spot to build a little house on the prairie. Laura and her sister Mary love exploring the rolling hills around their new home, but the family must soon get to work, farming and hunting and gathering food for themselves and for their livestock. Just when the Ingalls family starts to settle into their new home, they find themselves caught in the middle of a conflict. Will they have to move again? Description courtesy of Amazon

The Birchbark House

With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island. Description courtesy of Goodreads.

About the Authors

Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a log cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867 Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born. Her parents were Charles Phillip Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls. They possessed a pioneering spirit that urged them ever westward, to lands of promise and hope. Laura’s stories of her travels take us from the time when she was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, on February 7, 1867 to 1894 when Almanzo, Laura and Rose settled on Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri. It was here, the last of Laura’s homes, where she wrote in the Little House books about the places she grew up. Bio courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum

Louis Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore. Bio courtesy of Harper Collins

Historical Contexts

The Birchbark House

Turtle Mountain Ojibwa Tribal History

The Ojibwa, also known as Chippewa, lived on the shores of Lake Superior when contact was made with French traders in 1640. The Ojibwa were involved with trade, first among themselves and then with the French. This involvement with the French caused competition for natural resources in the area, and eventually led the Ojibwa to became forced to rely on trading to survive. In the 17th and 18th centuries settlement of Ojibwa lands brought them into competition with other tribes for land as they moved into the location that is present-day Northern Minnesota. Now, the Ojibwa’s home is Turtle Mountain Reservation located in Belcourt, North Dakota Today, the tribe has 30,722 enrolled members with just over 16,500 Ojibwa living on the reservation. Omakayas is Ojibwa, and Erdrich belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band.

Source: Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. 2017. www.tmbci.kkbold.com

Madeline Island

The Apostle Islands, a group of 22 islands along the lake shore of Lake Superior were the original home of the Ojibwa people. The lived across the various islands; however, Madeline Island, which is known as Moningwunakauning: “Home of the yellow breasted woodpecker,” was where their main village was located. In the 1800s, the United States government interfered and Ojibwa tribes were forced to relocate.  in 1970, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was created to help preserve the area. Recently, on Madeline Island, the local community partnered with the Ojibwa to create bilingual signs, featuring both English and Anishnaabemowin, the Ojibwa language. This step was taken to connect with the past, and acknowledge the Ojibwa connection to the island. Madeline Island is where The Birchbark House is set.

Sources: “Home of the Ojibwe.” Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. National Park Service. April 10, 2015 www.nps.gov/apis/learn/historyculture/ojibwe.htm

“Madeline Island and Ojibwe Bilingual Sign Project.” Madeline Island. Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce. www.madelineisland.com/news/ojibwe-bilingual-sign-project/

Little House on the Prairie

Indian Territory Settlement

On April 22, 1889, as many as 50,000 white settlers participated in a land rush for nearly 2 million acres of land in Oklahoma Territory, or as it was known “Indian Territory.” This land had previously been thought to be unsuitable for white settlers, so many Native American tribes had been relocated to the area. The federal government had been promising white settlers land in Indian Territory since the passing of the 1887 Dawes Act which introduced private land ownership to Native Americans and reduced tribal land by millions of acres. This was in conjunction with the the Homestead Act of 1862 which declared that settlers who stayed on a claim for five years could own the land, free and clear. However, despite this land rush, white settlers had been living illegally on Native land for years before the Dawes Act was passed. Laura’s family in Little House on the Prairie moved to Kansas because of the Homestead Act, and even though they lived in the area 20 years before the Oklahoma Land Rush, they contributed to the settlement of the Indian territory.

Sources:

“Native History: Land Rush for Oklahoma Indian Territory Begins.” Indian Country Today. Indian Country Media Network. 22, April 2017. www.indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/native-history-land-rush-for-oklahoma-indian-territory-begins/

“The Oklahoma Land Rush Begins.” History.com. The History Channel. www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-oklahoma-land-rush-begins

The Osage Diminished Reserve

In 1865, the Osage Indians had been stripped of much of their land and left with a 4.8-million-acre tract of land in Kansas known as the Osage Diminished Reserve in southeastern Kansas.  In 1868, the Osage signed the Sturges Treaty which allowed for the sale of the Osage Diminished Reserve and the removal of the Osage to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The treaty was revoked, and the removal of the Osage would eventually occur in 1871. Within a few years of the creation of the Osage Diminished reserve, settlers began encroaching on the reservation territory, including the Ingalls family in 1869. in 1870, Settlers in the area were ordered by the federal government to vacate claims they had taken on Osage land, this is why Laura’s family leaves Kansas at the end of Little House on the Prairie.

Source: Linsenmayer, Penny T. “Kansas Settlers on the Osage Diminished Reserve.” Kansas State Historical Society. 2001. www.kshs.org/publicat/history/2001autumn_linsenmayer.pdf

Reading Strategies

  • Reading aloud is a good strategy for interacting with texts with younger readers. Each student can have a copy of the text and take turns reading aloud, or the person in charge can read aloud to students and just have them listen. When reading aloud, the books can be interrupted to ask questions. This allows children to move at a more controlled pace.
  • Each of these books is a part of a series. Little House on the Prairie is nine book series, and The Birchbark House is the first book in the series.  Make sure children are aware that each book has other books that come after it, and even show them where copies can be found. Encourage youth to read the rest of the books in the series if they liked these two books.
  • If you want to discuss these books with older children, have them read them on their own rather than in a structured class setting. Adapt discussion questions to be age appropriate and encourage them to consider in more depth the history and portrayals of Native Americans.

What are some reading strategies you like to use with children? Please share them!

Discussion Questions

  • Laura and Omakayas are both little girls, but Laura is white and Omakayas is Native American. Do you see similarities in their lives? What are some differences? What do their families look like?
  • Omakayas speaks Anishnaabemowin, the language of her people, Laura doesn’t know what language the Native people near her speak. It’s important to show that speaking different languages is normal, how does The Birchbark House do this? What are languages that people who you know speak?
  • Laura and Omakayas’s stories take place over the course of one year. What are some of the things that they do? What do you do in each season (spring, summer, winter, fall).
  • Laura and Omakayas each have two siblings? Do they act the same way with their sisters and their baby siblings? How do you act with you brothers and sisters?
  • Each book has pictures with them of Laura and Omakayas. How are the pictures the same? How are they different?
  • Little House on the Prairie also has drawings of Native Americans. How are these different than the drawings of Native Americans in Omakayas’s book?
  • Each book includes building a house. Laura’s Ma and Pa build a log house, while Omakayas and her family build their Birchbark house. What are the houses like? How are they similar? What are their differences?

Have you read both these books? Feel free to contribute discussion questions and feedback.

Activities

  • Erdrich’s The Birchbark House features a glossary and pronunciation guide of Anishnaabemowin terms and pronunciations. Using the dictionary, teach children simple words from the story.
  • Housing plays an important role in each of the stories. Work with children to create a birch bark house through paper craft or other means and a little house on the prairie using milk cartons and Popsicle sticks. Talk about the differences between the houses, and how it doesn’t matter that the houses are different, they are just as important to the people who call them home. Resources for these activities can be found below.
  • The Game of Silence (The sequel to The Birchbark House) features a map in the back, and there are multiple maps of the Ingalls family’s journey online. Talk about these maps with the children and then have them draw their own maps of where they live.

Have you taught either of these books and have activities to share? Let me know about them here.

Resources

  • Paper craft files to make birchbark houses. I would recommend using the Hopewell structure under the prehistoric Ohio Houses PDF, this is closest in appearance to Omakayas’s house on the cover of The Birchbark House.
  • This is one example of a log cabin craft for kids. This one quite involved. An easier version can be found here. I would recommend mirroring the first image, and creating the 2D version. Alternatively, Martha Stewart shares an edible version.
  • For those looking to learn more about Anishnaabemowin, There are two websites with resources: here, and here. These resources aren’t extremely child friend, but could be adapted. Erdrich recommends using A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. 
  • The Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan has some great resources concerning teaching Anishnaabemowin to children and other resources for teaching Native subjects as well.
  • Louise Erdrich has spoken often about her Birchbark House series. Here are interviews from Horn Book, and TeachingBooks.net
  • The blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, run by Debbie Reese, focuses on portrayals of Native Americans in children’s literature written by both Native and non-Native authors. She has coverage on both Little House on the Prairie and The Birchbark House.
  • The New York Times and Book Riot have articles on Little House on the Prairie that mention The Birchbark House.
  • Louise Erdrich run’s a bookstore called Birchbark Books. Her bookstore sells Native literature and would be a good place to look for further titles to read.
  • There are wonderful lists of Native children’s books. The two listed here and here are picture book lists and would work well to supplement reading The Birchbark House and Little House on the Prairie.
  • Caroline Fraser’s new biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder can be used to add historical context and in-depth discussion for older readers. I discuss it here.

Do you have any resources you’ve used with either of these books? We would love to have you share them with us.

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