Deep in the woods of Pepin, Wisconsin, a little girl named Laura Ingalls lived with her Ma, Pa, sister Mary, and Baby Carrie. When Uncle Sam said that anybody moving west could take land that rightfully was part of the Osage Diminished Reserve, Pa had to decide if he wanted to move the family and take advantage of the opportunity. Times were tough, and free land could make a man right comfortable the rest of his days, if he knew how to work it. And Charles Ingalls, with abs like split cedar logs, was definitely a man who knew how to work it.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, Caroline!” Pa said repeatedly after he heard the news, slapping his knee. “Land sakes, we ought to hitch up Pet and Patty and leave before break of day!”
Ma nodded thoughtfully, pressing her lips in a thin line, then shooed the girls outside to play with a balloon made out of a butchered pig’s bladder, as a treat. “And take Jack with you!” she called, then watched as the brindle bulldog trotted protectively after the girls.
The excitement of the bladder balloon wore off after several hours, so Laura wandered freely, bonnet hanging down the back of her neck, while prim and proper Mary kept hers tightly tied in a neat bow beneath her chin. At first, they contented themselves building small houses out of twigs and leaves for their corn-husk dolls, but just as Laura was bending down to pick up a pint-sized acorn cup, she saw them: a long line of American Indians, traveling together through the wilderness that, until now, they called home.
“Look,” Laura whispered urgently to Mary, who followed her pointing finger to a mother carrying an infant in a traditional cradleboard. “She has a baby!” The baby peered at the girls with its large beautiful dark eyes, and Laura stood transfixed. Suddenly, all she wanted in the whole wide world was to have that baby as her own. She wanted it more than sugar snow or maple syrup candy or even a penny on Christmas.
As the Native Americans passed by, Laura whirled, braids swinging, to run back to the house with Mary close behind, followed by Jack at their heels. “Oh, Ma!” Laura blurted out as soon as she set foot inside the log cabin. “Ma, we saw real live Indians, and—oh, Ma, one of them had the most beautiful baby and, oh, can I have her, please, for my very own?”
Ma put aside her washing and stared at Laura, and for a moment, Laura hoped this meant Ma was considering the question—sweet, good, round, rosy-cheeked Ma would say yes, of course she would—until Ma opened her mouth to speak.
“Laura,” she chastised with a low, disappointed voice. “First, you should know that ‘Indian’ is not the preferred term, and we should try to use either American Indian or Indigenous American, as those are preferred by many Native people, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which technically doesn’t exist yet but this book is a work of fiction and we can do with it as we please. Secondly, that baby is a person, with a loving Ma of her own—what kind of thought is that, to treat a baby like some silly doll you want? Do you wish for me and Pa to go wrench her from her mother’s arms for you? You should be ashamed, Laura, thinking of someone’s child like a thing you’re entitled to.” Ma bent low, looking Laura directly in the eyes. “It’s a wicked thing to want, Laura, to steal someone’s child. Indigenous American people are people just like you and me, not things, and certainly not things to covet or steal.”
Laura looked down at her bare feet. “I’m sorry, Ma,” she said, voice trembling.
Ma nodded. “Now run along. There’s a pig’s tail I saved for you girls to sizzle over the fire.”
Later, after the girls were tucked into bed in their little attic loft, Laura listened intently to the soft murmurings of Ma and Pa as they readied themselves for sleep down below. Somewhere far away, a panther howled, and Laura shivered under the thick quilts Ma had brought out of her hope chest as the weather turned colder. A sound further off in the woods came again, closer this time, and then Laura jolted with a sudden fright; for it wasn’t a panther she heard, but voices.
Jack growled softly at the door, but Pa shushed him quietly. “It’s just the American Indians, Jack old boy. I reckon this land was once theirs long before we came, and now they’re passing through to leave it.”
Pa went silent for a moment. Laura wondered if the mother and baby she’d seen earlier with the travelers were leaving like that too.
“Charles, I’ve been thinking,” Ma said quietly. “I told Laura earlier how wicked it would be to take that Native woman’s baby, just because she wanted it. Taking Native land that isn’t ours—really, how different is that from wanting to take that baby? Oh, Charles, I reckon it contributes to downright genocide of Indigenous Americans, and even if Uncle Sam says we can have the land, it isn’t right. It just isn’t right, Charles.”
From above, Laura crept to the edge of the loft and peered down as Pa looked at Ma with his big kind eyes that twinkled merrily in the moonlight. Pa did so want to go out West, Laura knew. He wanted land out there more than he wanted smooth buckskin gloves or even a new tin cup from Father Christmas. But when Pa spoke, his voice was warm and kind, not bitter or angry at all. “You’re right, Caroline,” he said. He slapped his knee, softly this time, so as not to wake the girls. “By gum, you always are. We’re upstanding folks and I reckon we ought to stay that way. And a man can’t raise a family properly on stolen land. No.” He shook his head firmly. “Manifest destiny—more like manifest white supremacy. You’re right, Caroline, we ought not take part in such wickedness.”
And so, convicted of the moral repugnance of settling on stolen land, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie gave their land in Pepin, Wisconsin, back to the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ and Wahpeton tribes and took a great boat back to the little town of Skirbeck, Lincolnshire, England, the land from where Pa’s family originated. Soon enough they settled by the clear stream that Skirbeck’s name comes from, and where Laura caught many a silvery minnow (read more about that in book two, By the Shores of Skirbeck Stream), and together lived out their lives merrily playing and dancing to the fiddle long into the nights without committing genocide even once.