The wonderful racist of Oz

L. Frank Baum was an unabashed racist who publicly advocated for the genocide of Native people. He didn’t need an army of fictitious aerial primates to make his genocidal desires come true; he simply needed the U.S. Cavalry says Jimmy Lee Beason II

This year is the 80 anniversary of the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” and as a kid, like all the other kids, I grew up watching it and thought how awesome it was when Dorothy stepped from a black and white tornado ravaged house, into a world of bright technicolor. As a 19-year old, I remember engaging in some underage drinking with my buddies trying to drunkenly sync the Wizard of Oz movie with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon CD (yes, back in my day we had to use something called a “compact disc” to listen to music).

Then the munchkins would emerge singing cheerful melodies in their creepy helium fueled voices at the behest of Glinda the Good Witch and her presence was like a calming blanket of glittery goodness. 

Unfortunately, I had been duped into liking a film, after being socially coerced into watching it by public school educators and prime-time television, I would have refused to sit through had I known the facts today.

L. Frank Baum, the person who wrote the novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” turned out to be an unabashed racist who publicly advocated for the genocide of Native people. Apparently if you followed the yellow brick road long enough, it would lead to a mass grave full of “savages” who, according to Baum, deserved to die for being a “pack of whining curs.” 

On December 20, 1890, Baum issued an editorial in the Saturday Pioneer, in which he justified the devastation wrought onto Native people by the U.S. government, then decided to go full beast mode and boasted the “security of the frontier” will only be established after the total annihilation of a “few remaining Indians.” 

According to Baum, when a group of Indigenous people are nearly wiped out from the face of the Earth, you should simply kill whoever is left because White people will be better off in the long run.

According to his editorial, he states: 

“With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are....We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America.”

Gee thanks Mr. Baum! We didn’t know genocide carried out by the military might of America was considered an act of mercy. I’m surprised he didn’t portray the Wicked Witch of the West as the real hero and ended the story of Oz with her flying monkey’s killing every last munchkin down to their candy-striped stockings as a “favor” for being a pack of “whining dwarves.”

However, L. Frank Baum didn’t need an army of fictitious aerial primates to make his genocidal desires come true; he simply needed the U.S. Cavalry. 

Days after his publication came out, where he nonchalantly approved of Native extermination as if he were discussing dinner plans with his wife, the massacre at Wounded Knee took place where 300 unarmed Lakota men, women and children were killed by the United States Cavalry. In 2010, Baum’s descendants even apologized to the Lakota people for their predecessors' words and there has even been speculation his editorial may have partially led to the massacre. Maybe. Maybe not. 

Even without Baum’s words, the U.S. military was still itching to put down the Ghost Dance and any hint of resistance during that time. Any kind of “dance” was usually considered a “war dance” and put all the White frontiersman on edge, never mind the fact the Ghost Dance was highly influenced by Christian doctrine and was rather non-violent.

It’s also been theorized that Baum’s statements were simply him being “sarcastic”. That it was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek commentary, where he was using dark humor to convey what he perceived as an injustice and he was simply making a statement that has been completely misunderstood. 

This notion that he was really supporting Native people is rather far-fetched but Baum apologists disagree because how could the man who wrote one of the most beloved children’s stories in American history, that spawned a classic movie and is pop culture fodder for all arrays of media, occupy the same ideological plane as Adolf Hitler?

The simple answer is it wasn’t “sarcasm” because it was how he truly felt.

Most white males during the late 1800’s had the same idea when it came to “Indians”-they were in the way of “progress” and needed to be assimilated into American society or killed. Baum would have been no different. And considering he was writing for an audience of White South Dakota territory residents who were among the most racist anti-Native people to walk the land they squatted, it is highly unlikely he would be using “satire” to veil his opinions for his readers as there would’ve been no need to. 

But people may ask, “wasn’t he just a product of his time though?” Eh, not really. The “product of their time” argument is simply a lame excuse to justify racist behavior from White “celebrities” and other innovators of American culture whom are viewed to be above criticism because of their “contributions” to society.

If it is wrong now to advocate the annihilation of a race of people, it was most certainly wrong then. Nobody says, “Heinrich Himmler was simply a product of his time.” Advocating genocide is never justifiable. Yes, many non-Natives were not ashamed to admit they felt “killing Indians” was the best policy during that time, but Baum didn’t harbor these concepts of racial superiority because it was fashionable like stove top hats and well-kempt mutton chops. 

No, L. Frank Baum was not a product of his time, but he was a product of racist ideologies perpetrated by Europeans since the “Age of Discovery” who thought the Indigenous people they encountered during their invasions were nothing more than “creatures” who deserved to be put down if they failed to conform to White living standards.

Racism is just as prevalent now as it was then, the only difference is, people get called out for their behavior to an extent, and there are social consequences (sometimes) for saying something similar to what Baum stated in 1890. 

If Baum were alive today, he would either be working for Breitbart as an obscure essayist on the ideological fringe ranting about “dangerous immigrants” praising Alex Jones or trolling people online with bigoted vitriol with an anonymous Facebook account. Or more than likely had been a participant in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, NC as an “esteemed” speaker.

Upon learning this information, it is hard not to feel a sense of betrayal over Baum’s racism directed at Native people that is simultaneously fused together with a sense of nostalgia and good childhood memories.

Which brings up another issue regarding Baum and the Wizard of Oz. Racism is so institutionally woven into the fabric of America, that people like Baum who thought killing an entire race of people was “good policy”, are given a pass by his contemporaries and their works continue to be praised years later despite their rhetoric. The fact that the Oz story remains ever so popular, speaks to the dismissive attitude most Americans have toward the prejudices Native people faced and continue to face in this country. 

Baum isn’t the only one who despised brown folks; there is “great writer” Ernest Hemingway accused of being a racist and anti-Semitic; and Laura Ingalls who disparages Osages in Kansas with racist terminology in her “Little House on the Prairie” books. These individuals harbored bigoted attitudes toward non-White communities and yet, are considered important icons of American culture.

But that should be no surprise considering the country itself was founded by European elitists who “owned” enslaved Africans and frequently made laws and policies that inflicted harm onto non-White communities. Racism is as American as apple pie.

As Native people, we need to be wary of whom we are told should be held on a historical pedestal, and try to ensure we revere our own leaders, in the past and contemporarily. Continue to create our own bodies of work that can be shared with our communities that tells our stories either fictionally or non-fictionally.

These days I feel I cannot willingly watch the Oz movie again without wanting to throw something at the television and yell “boo!” As for those who believe he was being “sarcastic” with his praise of Native extermination, they need to be like the scarecrow and ask the Wizard of Oz for a brain, or in this case shall we say, the Imperial Wizard of Oz. 

Jimmy Lee Beason II (M.S.W.) is a member of the Osage Nation and is a faculty member of the Indigenous and American Indian Studies department at Haskell Indian Nations University. His writings and research focus on Decolonization, Native empowerment and social justice advocacy for Native communities. You can contact or follow him on Instagram @osage_native_scholar or email at pahuska8@gmail.com

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
ElkLeaderWoman
ElkLeaderWoman

There does exist a theory among US historians that involves L. Frank Baum writing the book series as a political commentary. I don't know if it's political commentary in a strict sense or just a tired dad looking around at what was happening in his world and making a story of it. Baum was known as a progressive. Economically he believed the basis for our economy should have been a gold and silver standard, not just gold. In the books, Dorothy's slippers were silver. They were ruby in the movie, because that was more visually pleasing cinematically. Anyway, here is a quick list of what the story was supposed to mean: the munchkins were the immigrants coming into the country. Dorothy represented his daughter (If I remember correctly, I think he was appealing to his daughter in having a central female character. It's been a loooong time since that history class where we talked about this story.) The scarecrow (needing a brain) represented the farmers who were trying to unite to create the Grange, the predecessor for the Democratic Farm-Labor Union, which eventually became the Democratic political party. Obviously, Baum didn't think much of the Democrats. The tin man represented the industrialists and the industrial revolution taking off (which is why the tin man did not have a heart and needed oil all the time). The lion was William Jennings Bryan, who had a big mouth, but would back down at the slightest criticism. (So the lion needed courage, making Baum a supporter of what Bryan was saying, but couldn't enforce). The wicked witch represented the drought the farmers were experiencing. The flying monkeys were the Natives being held on reservations (under the witch's control.) Glinda the good witch represented progress. The poppy field represented many people's unfettered partying addiction to drugs (After all, why would Freud come up with what he did if he weren't addicted to heroine?) The Emerald City represented the almighty dollar, and the wizard supposedly represented the US government (way out of its league to control what was happening) using smoke and mirrors to put fear in the munchkin people (Emerald City folk) who would blindly follow what the wizard said. I don't know if this sheds any light on whether Baum was being sarcastic, but I thought it was interesting.