In "Indian Camp," why did the Indian man kill himself?

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In Hemingway’s short story “Indian Camp,” Nick accompanies his father to an impoverished Indian campsite and witnesses a woman give birth after a difficult two-day labor. Other elderly women tried to assist the mother, without success. Although the men have all physically distanced themselves from the screaming woman, her injured husband is trapped with her. Unlike the other men smoking and waiting outside and up the road, the husband has a painfully injured (and possible gangrenous) foot and can only lie on the bunk above his laboring wife to smoke.

The story illustrates how Nick’s physician father and other white men do not treat the Indian mother as a human but just as an animal medical case. When Nick asks his father if he has any painkillers to give the screaming women, his father tell says that he does not, but that “her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important.” Hemingway immediately follows Nick’s father’s dehumanizing statement with, “The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.” The Indian man—whether or not he understands Nick’s fathers’ words—must feel impotent and disrespected throughout the birthing.

Because the baby is in a breech position, Nick’s father needs to operate on the Indian woman in this crude environment. In fact, Nick’s Uncle George and three other Indian men have to hold down the unsedated woman. After she bites Uncle George and he calls her a “Damn squaw bitch,” one of the Indian men laughs. Although Nick’s father and other men are trying to save the Indian woman and her baby, they probably seem—to the Indian husband—like they are dishonoring her and him. The whole grisly episode is humiliating to the man, who can do nothing to protect his wife. Furthermore, the Indian man may or may not realize that as the father, he is partly responsible for his wife’s suffering.

After delivering the baby through a Caesarian-section procedure (performed with hunting equipment) and boastfully celebrating his work as one “for the medical journal,” Nick’s father notes that the Indian man is quiet. He chauvinistically remarks that fathers tend to suffer more than mothers during labor but that the Indian man “took it all pretty quietly,” like a stoic man.

Perhaps as a result of toxic masculinity, the Indian man slashed his throat; he felt that he could not live up to being “a man” and protect his wife from pain. Other men (especially white men) had to swoop in and save the wife instead.

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The only reason given in the text for the Indian man to kill himself in Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp" is because, as the doctor puts it, the man "couldn't stand things." Because of a leg injury he is bedridden while his wife lies below him in labor, ready to have a baby. The labor is troubled and that's why Dr. Adams is there. Hemingway often left important details out of his stories, so the reader is not sure why the doctor has showed up at the Indian shanty without his medical bag. This is important because the woman is in tremendous pain and has been screaming for quite awhile. Several of the men from the camp have retreated out of range of the woman's screams. Unfortunately, the Indian father is apparently not able to join them because of his injury. Adams has no way to stop the screaming because he has no anesthetic and even comments that the screams are unimportant to his work. They do, however, seem to be important to the Indian man as the screams apparently cause him to slit his throat.

Because of Hemingway's theory of omission, critics have not been satisfied with this simple explanation. Hemingway once wrote:

You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel more than they understood.

Two interesting theories as to why the Indian killed himself have arisen in light of Hemingway's confession that he often left the reader ignorant of important details. In a careful reading of the text, some critics have deduced that Uncle George, who appears to be an unimportant character in the story, may have actually been the father of the woman's baby. Knowing this may have caused the Indian man to kill himself just as the son is brought into the world. Two clues hint at this. First, the woman bites Uncle George as he attempts to hold her down. He replies by saying, "Damn squaw bitch." Later, Uncle George is nowhere to be found when Dr. Adams and Nick are about to leave. Some have suggested that he may be off raping another Indian woman at the camp. These small details have created quite an interesting alternate plot which Hemingway never overtly alludes to in the story. This interpretation seems a bit stretched. It begs the question as to why the Indian would have killed himself instead of going after Uncle George and killing him.

Another theory is posited by Jeffrey Meyers in his essay, "Hemingway's Primitivism and 'Indian Camp.'" Meyers argues that Hemingway was a student of Native American culture (Hemingway had several books on the subject) and that the death is a cultural response as the Indian believes he has lost dignity in having an outside entity interfere with the sacredness of the Indian birth. Meyers writes,

The husband cannot bear this defilement of his wife's purity, which is far worse than her screams.

While this theory seems quite plausible, it seems to ignore Hemingway's intent in the story, which is not to dwell on Native American traditions, but rather to tell a simple coming-of-age story in which the young Nick Adams witnesses both life and death in the short trip to the Indian camp with his father.

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