Lions and tigers and genocide? Oh yes

L. Frank Baum, the creator of Dorothy and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ — opening Friday in the US — also dabbled in murderous racism

The "Wizard of Oz" prequel opening Friday in the US is based on the ideas of L. Frank Baum, whose descendants would eventually apologize for his hateful racial views. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
The "Wizard of Oz" prequel opening Friday in the US is based on the ideas of L. Frank Baum, whose descendants would eventually apologize for his hateful racial views. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Ten years before a tornado whirled Dorothy to a land of multicultural harmony, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” creator L. Frank Baum penned an editorial for the South Dakota newspaper he owned.

“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent,” he wrote, “and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

It was 1890, and Baum was publisher and editor of the Saturday Pioneer in Aberdeen, SD. He ran the paper for only a year, but it happened to be one of the most explosive in America’s conquest of the western frontier.

The region’s expanding population of white settlers had been in conflict with Native Americans since the Dakota War of 1862. Armed skirmishes continued for decades, culminating in what became a day of infamy for US-Native American relations at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29, 1890.

During the battle, the US Seventh Cavalry division captured a large group of Sioux Native Americans, most of them unarmed. Although the Sioux surrendered and handed over their weapons, soldiers killed up to 300 unarmed men, women and children.

Baum subscribed to the Theosophy movement, whose leader likely wouldn't have approved of the casting of Jewish actress Rachel Weisz in Friday's new film. (Disney Enterprises, Inc.)
Baum subscribed to the Theosophy movement, whose leader likely wouldn’t have approved of the casting of Jewish actress Rachel Weisz in Friday’s new film. (Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Both before and after the massacre, Baum ran editorials calling for the elimination of South Dakota’s Native Americans.

Just a week before the massacre, Baum urged readers to put an end to the Native American question with the headline, “Why Not Annihilation?” He framed the destruction of Native American tribes as a natural step to consolidate the frontier.

“Wipe these untamed and untamable creatures off the face of the Earth,” Baum wrote just days after Wounded Knee. “In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands.”

For his calls to get rid of Native Americans, Baum has been charged with incitement to genocide by some historians.

Apologists claim Baum’s views on Native Americans were common among both South Dakota newspaper editors and Americans at large in 1890. Others argue the author wrote about annihilating Native Americans in jest, much as he would later write about winged monkeys going after Dorothy.

“Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced,” Baum wrote of Native Americans in his newspaper. “Better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. We cannot honestly regret their extermination.”

Just one decade after Wounded Knee, Baum created that alleged utopia of diversity — the Land of Oz.

The charm and innocence of Baum's most famous story largely whitewashed his uglier works. (YouTube screenshot)
The charm and innocence of Baum’s most famous story largely whitewashed his uglier works. (YouTube screenshot)

Baum drew on years living in South Dakota to portray drought-stricken Kansas and the monotony of frontier life. The land to which he sent Dorothy and friends in more than a dozen Oz books contained wildly diverse inhabitants, usually at odds with each other. Heroism and wickedness filled Oz, but religion and “God” hid somewhere over the rainbow.

As a land of magical symbols and intergroup tension, Oz mirrored Baum’s religious journey during the years between Wounded Knee and the publication of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900.

Born a Methodist, Baum and his wife, Maud Gage, “converted” to Theosophy three years before “Oz” hit bookstands.

Modern Theosophy formed in 16th century Germany, as practitioners drew on ancient myths and occult sciences to create symbolic meanings. The universe could be unveiled and fully understood, adherents believed, if only people learned to read its hieroglyphs.

Theosophical Society leader Helena Blavatsky organized a ritual and communal infrastructure into which Baum and his wife entered in 1897. Blavatsky preached about a world filled with interracial struggle, where a superior Aryan race toiled against “semi-human” Jews.

“Judaism is a religion of hate and malice toward everyone and everything outside itself,” wrote Blavatsky in her “Secret Doctrine.” Decades later, this and other Blavatsky teachings resurfaced in Nazi racial doctrine.

Some Baum writings are more difficult to overlook, including his poem ‘There Was a Little N—– Boy’

Baum had been intrigued by Theosophy for years, and in 1890 — the year he called for the genocide of Native Americans — he wrote about the movement for his South Dakota newspaper.

“The Theosophists, in fact, are the dissatisfied with the world, dissenters from all creeds,” Baum wrote. “They admit the existence of a God — not necessarily of a personal God. To them God is Nature and Nature is God.”

Understanding Dorothy’s Oz journey as an allegory for the soul’s path to illumination, later theosophists connect every detail of Oz to Baum’s metaphysical views. The wizard represents the fraudulent personal God of Judaism and Christianity, and Toto is really Dorothy’s intuition saving the day.

Baum never advocated eliminating the Sioux again, but his works of fiction and poetry are not short on genocidal themes and racial stereotypes.

Soon after publishing “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Baum wrote “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.” The frontier tale climaxed in a showdown with the “wicked” Awgwas tribe – stand-ins for the Sioux and various African tribes Baum enjoyed deriding.

“You are a transient race, passing from life into nothingness,” a Baum character says to the tribe. “We, who live forever, pity but despise you. On earth you are scorned by all, and in Heaven you have no place! Even the mortals, after their earth life, enter another existence for all time, and so are your superiors.”

In echoes of Baum’s actual life a decade earlier, hateful words came just before a massacre of “backward” people. It might have been a book about Santa Claus, but the Awgwas were brutally mowed down just the same.

Baum described the fictional tribe’s demise as yielding “a great number of earthen hillocks dotting the plain” — as with the aftermath of the Wounded Knee massacre.

In his short story “The Box of Robbers,” one Baum character refers to Native Americans by saying, “I hope they will kill us quickly and not put us to the torture. I have been told these Americans are painted Indians, who are bloodthirsty and terrible.”

Unknown to most Oz fans, some books in the Oz series have been edited by publishing companies to water down racist elements.

For “The Patchwork Girl of Oz,” the publisher Books of Wonder saw fit to turn a “coal-black” character into a “cross-eyed” one instead. Later Oz books savagely mocked Africa’s Hottentot tribe, prompting publishers to soften text and remove “racially charged” drawings.

Theosophy envisioned a world filled with interracial struggle, where a superior Aryan race toiled against “semi-human” Jews

Some Baum writings are more difficult to whitewash, including his poem “There Was a Little N—– Boy,” and a story about “naked n—–s in Africa.”

During his lifetime, Baum escaped criticism for racist content in his frontier-era editorials and trove of original fiction. Having created Oz immediately after his “conversion” to Theosophy, he was not shy about the role divine inspiration played in crafting the story.

“I think that sometimes the Great Author has a message to get across and He has to use the instrument at hand,” Baum said. “I happened to be that medium, and I believe the magic key was given me to open the doors to sympathy and understanding, joy, peace and happiness.”

In 2006, several Baum descendants apologized to the Sioux nation for their ancestor’s writings.

“We’re here to say that we’re sorry and to acknowledge these calls to genocide that culminated in a bloody massacre like Wounded Knee,” said Mac Hudson, Baum’s great-great-grandson.

Speaking at a Rapid City, SD, gathering of Sioux from reservations in the state, Baum’s great-granddaughter, Gita Dorothy Morena, added her perspective.

“We are here to apologize, to bear witness to the suffering to that kind of thinking and attitude and make reconciliation and begin healing,” Morena said. “We felt called to make a connection with the descendants’ survivors.”

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