We were driving home from preschool when my daughter Marilee—four years old at the time—asked, “Momma, are all Indians mean?”

I paused the audiobook version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and reminded myself that she’s just a kid asking an honest question. After inquiring about her perspective, I replied, “All people have kindness in their hearts, and all people have meanness in their hearts. But why do you ask if the Indians are mean?”

“Because they seem mean in the book,” she said.

My seven-year-old son, William, chimed in with a short synopsis of American history and western expansion, then wrinkled his forehead, and said, “Mom, it’s not fair if the government keeps making the Indians move. It seems really selfish.”

I nodded my head. “It was selfish, William.”

Our conversation underscored an uncomfortable truth: I cannot defend the decision—by Pa Ingalls or anyone else, including our own distant relatives—to settle the East and then push west at the cost of decimating native peoples. I also don’t want to pretend that these stories we have grown to love portray a pure or unadulterated past.

When I first realized that these stories could perpetuate a myth of white American conquest, I considered leaving them behind. Instead, they have become a way to enter into our history—the glory and the shame of it, the complicated, messy, ugly, selfish, and sometimes beautiful humanity of it all.

For kids’ sake, adults often curate the details of the past—whether it’s the history of white settlers and Native Americans, the facts about slavery and race relations, narratives from the Bible, ...

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