By the Shores of Silver Lake

This book is filled with wonderful episodes and, in my opinion, the best writing this late in the Little House series.  Mary going blind, and the death of Jack, are well-known episodes; I had read them last year without continuing in the book, and their simple power holds you on second reading.  Continuing into the book this time, several more episodes stood out for me. 

The encounter in the dark with a wolf on Silver Lake – really the whole time spend in the surveyor’s house on the lake’s shore – was just enchanting. 

Earlier Laura and her new friend Lana had been riding saddleless on two ponies, with Laura hanging on for dear life.  I love the description of the trot turning into a gallop:

She was holding onto the pony’s mane. She was hanging onto deep handfuls of it with all her might, and her elbows and her knees were holding onto the pony, but she was jolting so that she couldn’t think. The ground was so far beneath that she didn’t dare look. Every instant she was falling, but before she really fell she was falling the other way, and the jolting rattled her teeth. Far off she heard Lena yell, “Hang on, Laura!”

Then everything smoothed into the smoothest rippling motion. This motion went through the pony and through Laura and kept them sailing over waves in rushing air. Laura’s screwed-up eyes opened, and below her she saw the grasses flowing back. She saw the pony’s black mane blowing, and her hands clenched tight in it. She and the pony were going too fast but they were going like music and nothing could happen to her until the music stopped.

(“The Black Ponies”)

Earlier there had been the trip out to the new settlement, through a prairie so flat and unchanging that you feel they might as well be on the surface of the moon:

All morning Pa drove steadily along the dim wagon track, and nothing changed. The farther they went into the west, the smaller they seemed, and the less they seemed to be going anywhere. The wind blew the grass always with the same endless rippling, the horses’ feet and the wheels going over the grass made always the same sound. The jiggling of the board seat was always the same jiggling. Laura thought they might go on forever, yet always be in this same changeless place, that would not even know they were there.

Only the sun moved. Without ever seeming to, the sun moved steadily upward in the sky. When it was overhead, they stopped to feed the horses and to eat a picnic lunch on the clean grass.

It was good to rest on the ground after riding all the morning. Laura thought of the many times they had eaten under the sky, while they were traveling all the way from Wisconsin to Indian Territory and back again to Minnesota. Now they were in Dakota Territory going farther west. But this was different from all the other times, not only because there was no cover on the wagon and no beds in it, but some other reason. Laura couldn’t say how, but this prairie was different.

“Pa,” she asked, “when you find the homestead, will it be like the one we had in Indian Territory?”

Pa thought before he answered. “No,” he said finally. “This is different country. I can’t tell you how, exactly, but this prairie is different. It feels different.”

“That’s likely enough,” Ma said sensibly. “We’re west of Minnesota, and north of Indian Territory, so naturally the flowers and grasses are not the same.”

But that was not what Pa and Laura meant. There was really almost no difference in the flowers and grasses. But there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer.

All the little sounds of the blowing grasses and of the horses munching and whooshing in their feedbox at the back of the wagon, and even the sounds of eating and talking could not touch the enormous silence of this prairie….

All that afternoon they went on, mile after mile, never seeing a house or any sign of people, never seeing anything but grass and sky. The trail they followed was marked only by bent and broken grasses.

Laura saw old Indian trails and buffalo paths worn deep in the ground and now grassed over. She saw strange large depressions, straight-sided and flat-bottomed, that had been buffalo wallows, where now the grass was growing. Laura had never seen a buffalo, and Pa said it was not likely that she would ever see one. Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country. They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.

(“The West Begins”)

What struck me later in the book, however, is how Laura notes that the buffalo are gone but says nothing about the Indians who had just as surely been killed and pushed away from this land. She comes across a strange depression in the land and asks Pa if fairies had made it:

 “You are right, Laura; human hands didn’t make that place,” Pa said. “But your fairies were big, ugly brutes, with horns on their heads and humps on their backs. That place is an old buffalo wallow. You know buffaloes are wild cattle. They paw up the ground and wallow in the dust, just as cattle do.

“For ages the buffalo herds had these wallowing places. They pawed up the ground and the wind blew the dust away. Then another herd came along and pawed up more dust in the same place. They went always to the same places, and——”

“Why did they, Pa?” Laura asked.

“I don’t know,” Pa said. “Maybe because the ground was mellowed there. Now the buffalo are gone, and grass grows over their wallows. Grass and violets.”

(“Where Violets Grow”)

At another point Pa and Laura speak about buffalo wolves coming back here to visit their old den, and this also, unintentionally or not, makes you think of the long-gone Indians:

“They were just looking at it,” said Pa. “My belief is they came back to visit the old place where they lived before the graders came in and the antelope left. Maybe they used to live here before the hunters killed the last buffalo. Buffalo wolves were all over this country once, but there’s not many left now, even around here. The railroads and settlements kept driving them farther west. One thing’s certain if I know anything about wild animal tracks; those two wolves came straight from the west and went straight back west, and all they did here was to stop one night at the old den. And I wouldn’t wonder if they’re pretty nearly the last buffalo wolves that’ll ever be seen in this part of the country.”

“Oh, Pa, the poor wolves,” Laura mourned.

“Mercy on us,” Ma said briskly. “There’s enough to be sorry for, without being sorry for the feelings of wild beasts! Be thankful the brutes didn’t do any worse than scare you girls last night.”

(“Pa Finds The Homestead”)

Garth Williams

So there is mourning for both the buffalo and the wolves who were killed or pushed out, but nothing about the Indians.

I think it’s necessary to judge any work first in its own historical context in order to understand it, before bringing in modern judgments, which are also necessary.  But in this case I’m not trying to bring in a modern judgment.  The book itself brings the Indians to mind.  The buffalo are explicitly said to be their cattle, so if the buffalo are gone, what happened to the Indians? 

Laura sees direct evidence of the people:  she sees old trails on the vast plain and recognizes them as Indian trails.  She even recalls living in Indian Territory in Kansas as a little girl, and here she is older, so a reader can more justifiably wonder about her awareness of the wider world. 

In Kansas Laura had even visited the remains of an Indian camp in a hollow similar to the one here, but this one makes Laura think only of fairies rather than the abandoned Indian camp that had made such an impression then, and from which she had even taken and kept some beads.

All of this is unsurprising in a work set in the context of white 19th-century America, in which the Indians were not welcome, even if Laura herself and her Pa are depicted as less hostile to the Indians than others are, particularly Ma Ingalls.  It was generally true, in the end, that white settlers would mourn buffalo, and even stray wolves, more than the nonwhite inhabitants of the land.

So I may have wanted, as a modern reader, for the book to mourn the Indians – but I didn’t expect it.

Yet it remains perplexing why nothing, good or bad, is said about the Indians’ departure, when so much is said about the buffalo and the buffalo wolves.

In the third novel, “Little House On the Prairie,” the departure of the Indians was made into the climax of the story, and if affects Laura very much.  Here, she doesn’t think of them.

But had the Native Americans really departed?  Maybe that’s my own modern idea, taken out of the context of the story.  If we return to the story, I recall now that in “The Long Winter”, which is set one year after “Silver Lake”, an old Indian comes into the town store with a warning about the upcoming winter, and it seems as if the presence of Indians on these lands is taken for granted.

I see also in the first chapter of “The First Four Years,” which is set in nearly the same time and place as “Silver Lake,” that a group of Indians visits the Wilder homestead.  Laura speaks of them as if Indians were not only common but still in frequent contact with whites:

One blustery day Manly started early for town, leaving Laura very much alone. She was used to being the only person on the place and thought nothing of it, but the wind was so cold and raw that she had not opened the front door. It was still locked from the night. In the middle of the morning, busy with her work, Laura looked out the front window and saw a little bunch of horsemen coming across the prairie from the southeast. She wondered why they were not traveling on the road. As they came nearer she saw there were five of them, and they were Indians.

Laura had seen Indians often, without fear, but she felt a quick jump of her heart as they came up to the house and without knocking tried to open the front door. She was glad the door was locked, and she slipped quickly into the back room and locked the outside door there.

The Indians came around the house to the back door and tried to open that. Then seeing Laura through the window they made signs for her to open the door, indicating that they would not hurt her. But Laura shook her head and told them to go away. Likely they only wanted something to eat, but still one never could tell. It was only three years ago that the Indians nearly went on the warpath a little way west, and even now they often threatened the railroad camps.

She wouldn’t open the door but watched them as they jabbered together. She couldn’t catch a word that she could understand, and she was afraid. They weren’t acting right. Why didn’t they go away!

Instead they were going to the barn—and her new saddle was hanging in the barn and Trixy was there… Trixy! Her pet and comrade!

Laura was afraid; in the house there was comparative safety, for they’d hardly break in. But now Laura was angry too, and as always, she acted quickly. Flinging the door open, she ran to the barn, and standing in the door, ordered the Indians out. One of them was feeling the leather of her beautiful saddle and one was in the stall with Trixy. Trixy was afraid too. She never liked strangers and she was pulling at her halter and trembling.

The other Indians were examining Manly’s saddle and the buggy harness with its bright nickel trimmings. But they all came and gathered around Laura just outside the door. She stormed at them and stamped her foot. Her head was bare and her long brown braids of hair blew out on the wind while her purple eyes flashed fire as always when she was angry or very much excited. The Indians only stared for a moment; then one of them grunted an unintelligible word and laid his hand on Laura’s arm. Quick as a flash she slapped his face with all her might. It made him angry and he started toward her, but the other Indians laughed, and one who seemed to be the leader stopped him. Then with signs pointing to himself, his pony, and then with a sweep of his arm toward the west, he said, “You go—me—be my squaw?”

Laura shook her head, and stamping her foot again, motioned them all to their ponies and away, telling them to go.

And they went, riding their running ponies without saddles or bridles.

But as they went their leader turned and looked back at Laura where she stood, with the wind blowing her skirts around her and her braids flying, watching them go away across the prairie into the west.

“The First Four Years” was published posthumously, and without any editing by either Wilder or her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Wilder had never written it to be a part of the “Little House” series for children, and in fact it reads like a story for adults.

In the end, it’s a disappointment for me that “By the Shores of Silver Lake” ends by mourning the buffalo but not the Indians.  Perhaps this is the intervention of a modern judgment, formed from movies like “Dances With Wolves” and books like “Black Elk Speaks,” in which Native Americans are inextricably linked with buffalo.  But that relationship is already brought forth in the text of “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” where it is stated that the buffalo were the Indians’ cattle.

All questions about the novel aside, what is the historical truth about the Native Americans of this land?  When were the tribes truly gone from the territory in which the Silver Lake stories are set?  And did they ever leave entirely?  Were they still there when the Ingalls arrived, but on reservations?  (Would a reservation Indian be free to go into a white town and enter the general store?)  Laura says that local Indians probably are begging for food, and she is clearly not afraid of them – all of which suggests at the least that they were disarmed by this point and going hungry.

What happened to the Native Americans here, and when?

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