‘Indians in the house’ is the title of the chapter in ‘Little house on the prairie’ in which Laura describes the frightening occasion when two Indians come into their house, dressed in reeking skunk skins, and demand that Ma cook them cornbread. After eating it, they go away, taking all Pa’s tobacco.
This isn’t the only occasion. Two more Indians come another time, this time acting more intrusively because they go through all the cupboards, steal the cornbread and the tobacco, and then start walking off with the pile of furs Pa was planning to trade for a plough and seeds.
On the first visit, Laura is tempted to let their dog Jack loose to attack the Indians despite Pa having told her never to untie him. When she confesses how nearly she disobeyed, he makes a very dramatic point saying there would have been trouble; bad trouble. Laura doesn’t understand. She asks if they would have killed Jack when he bit them and Pa says yes – and that’s not all.
Pa’s attitude is clear. “The main thing is to be on good terms with the Indians,” he says.
The impression he gives is of a very precarious peace. The Indians, seen through his eyes, are capricious and unstable, about to erupt over the slightest injury. In the last chapters of the book it’s made plain that the family – and other families – have only escaped massacre thanks to the intervention of an Osage chief called Soldat du Chêne.
This chief may or may not be a historical personage of the time, but the story makes one thing abundantly clear: the settlers were very much at the mercy of any Indians living nearby. They might pose an economical threat because they could steal food, or horses, or set fire to the prairie as also happens in Laura Ingalls’ book, or they might pose a threat of killing or capturing.
Captivity among Indians was reckoned to be a fate worse than death and indeed some tribes like the Comanche and Apache were specialists in torture, the women at least as much as the men. Their sadistic treatment of white women and children as well as men led to them being considered savages to be eliminated rather than native peoples to be respected.
Different tribes, different areas, different times and different attitudes on the part of settlers – all these influenced the relationship between the native people and the invading people. Sometimes Indians were pleased to show settlers how to live off the land, demonstrating what roots, berries and leaves were edible. The French seem to have been particularly adept at keeping the peace with native tribes and learning from them. Friendships were sometimes struck between individuals and there might be co-operation in a common cause.
An example of this is when Pa, having for days unsuccessfully hunted a mountain lion, meets an Indian in the woods. The Indian points to the tracks and tells him, using sign language, that he shot the animal out of the trees the day before. Pa is thoroughly relieved and the two part company in mutual respect.