Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans Introduction - Essay


Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans

Native Americans in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America were most commonly represented by Euro-Americans as either dangerous barbarians or as the embodiment of Rousseau's idealized noble savage. Despite the wide variety of nations and indigenous cultures existing across the United States and its territories, Native Americans were most often depicted in monolithic terms, their differences elided into a handful of stereotypes that concentrated on their interactions with whites more than on their pre-contact cultural identities.

Native American characters were considered an essential part of nineteenth century fictional works on colonial and early American life. The United States would have to develop an original and uniquely American literature if the new country were ever to free itself from cultural dependence on Europe, the reasoning went, and what could be more uniquely American than the native population, their cultures, and their interaction with white settlers. Writing about Indians became such an established convention that Nathaniel Hawthorne felt alienated from his peers because he had produced no stories on the subject. He was convinced that “no writer can be more secure of a permanent place in our literature, than the biographer of the Indian chiefs.” By his own estimation, though, Hawthorne was “shut out from the most peculiar field of American fiction, by an inability to see any romance, or poetry, or grandeur, or beauty in the Indian character.” He was not alone in this prejudice; many writers who were producing fictional representations of Native Americans shared his view. While many depictions of Indians and Indian life were idealized and romantic, there were an equal number that vilified the Indian as a brutish creature little better than an animal. Often the two representations existed side by side.

For many writers, as for Americans in general, the native population became synonymous with the wilderness and all the dangers it entailed. The desperate struggle for survival that characterized early attempts at colonization remained fresh in the minds of white settlers and their descendants. The first towns and villages seemed to have a tenuous hold on civilized life as opposed to the surrounding forests which came to be associated with savagery and barbarism. Religion played an important role in extending the wilderness/civilization dichotomy to portray Native Americans as agents of Satan versus the settlers' status as God's chosen people. If Puritans were engaged in God's work in establishing and expanding colonies in New England, then any obstacle to their success must necessarily be inspired by the devil. That Indians were the color traditionally associated with Satan added to the myth according to Joseph B. McCullough and Robert K. Dodge, who have explored the connection between Puritan mythology and early American fictional representations of Indians.

The American writer most closely associated with incorporating Indian characters into his fiction was James Fenimore Cooper, who, having had little personal experience with the native population, used historical accounts produced by white writers as his source material. Cooper's most famous tales were the five books that make up the Leatherstocking series, but he portrayed Indians in several other novels as well. In his earlier work, Indians tended to be one of two possible types—either noble savage or red devil—but in one of his later works, Wyandotté (1843), both characterizations are present in one man, alternately called Wyandotté and Saucy Nick. Louise K. Barnett has studied this representation of the Indian as a complex “split personality,” and claims that this is a more sophisticated and less simplistic approach to Indian identity than Cooper's earlier division of characters into neat categories of good and bad. Cooper's work also contributed to the stereotype of the drunken Indian; Randall C. Davis claims that Cooper's numerous uses of this character-type throughout his fiction suggests that Cooper considered alcoholism to be an inevitable consequence of contact between Indians and whites.

Some authors' assessments of Native American character and identity changed over the course of their writing careers. One such writer was Henry David Thoreau, who initially saw the traditional wilderness/civilization dichotomy between Indians and Euro-Americans as a clash between nature and culture, but his version of the dualism valued the first term over the second. Thoreau considered Native Americans natural and spiritual compared to the over-civilized, materialistic inhabitants of the towns and cities of the Northeast. Once he established contact with actual Indians, however, his notions of the noble primitive who was unsullied by cultural constraints began to break down. In particular, his Penobscot guide in Maine, Joe Polis, challenged his preconceptions; Polis lived in a house in town, could read and write, and was well versed in the ways of white civic and religious institutions. Linda Frost has studied the relationship between the two men and claims that Thoreau's “opposition between nature and culture effectively crumbles” during his travels with Polis. Frost repeats a popular story of the time that suggests Thoreau was reluctant to publish the piece he was writing during his association with the guide because he was afraid the very literate Polis might read it.

Mark Twain's writing also demonstrates a change in attitude toward Native Americans over time. According to Lynn W. Denton, Twain was intolerant of Indians while he was living in the West, claiming they were first cousins of coyotes and “prideless beggars.” Denton reports, though, that Twain's “prejudice eventually changed to toleration and then finally to idealism.” She believes that as Puritans in the East became the favored targets of Twain's rage, he began to sympathize with Indians as the victims of extermination by the Puritans. In his later writing, as he became more and more critical of white America, Twain began to refer to Indians as “red angels,” completely reversing his early assessment of them. Conversely, Washington Irving's change of heart was in the opposite direction. His idealized approach and apparent sympathy with the loss of rich native cultures changed to a more pragmatic belief in westward expansion as he grew older. Rather than romanticize the indigenous population, he began to romanticize the Anglo-American fur trade, which had contributed greatly to the loss of native culture he had mourned at an earlier stage in his life.

The writer with the most extensive personal contact with Native Americans was Helen Hunt Jackson, whose carefully researched report, A Century of Dishonor, was published in 1881. The following year Jackson was appointed by the Department of the Interior to investigate the living conditions of California's Mission Indians, and her travels among the native population led to Ramona (1885), in some ways a fictionalized version of her earlier report. John R. Byers, Jr. has compared the two works and found numerous similarities between them; places, events, and sometimes even conversations reported in the first text were woven by Jackson into a narrative that proved enormously popular and far more compelling than the original factual account of the government's wrongdoing. According to Byers, by locating the suffering of an entire people at the level of the individual, Jackson made a stronger case against governmental policies and turned her novel into “a work that spoke for the Indian as Uncle Tom's Cabin had earlier spoken for the Negro.”

As native populations were pushed farther and farther west by expanding settlement in the eastern half of the United States, a peculiar sub-genre of the frontier tale arose called “Indian hater” literature. The character of the Indian hater is a white male who has suffered a serious wrong at the hands of Native Americans, most often the massacre of his family. He becomes obsessed with revenge and is, ironically, more adept at the wilderness skills associated with natives—hunting, tracking, surviving in the forest—than the natives themselves. Although the Indian hater professes to seek justice for his slain family, he does not stop with the slaughter of the responsible individuals; it becomes his mission to kill all Indians whenever and wherever he encounters them. The Indian hater's position in relation to the white frontier settlement is ambiguous. He is both an outsider whose actions are considered far beyond the limits tolerated by any civilized society, and a hero who performs a valuable function for the community that shares his hatred of Native Americans. The conventions and standardized tropes of Indian hater fiction have been studied and documented by Louise K. Barnett, who includes such novels as Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1853), Emerson Bennett's The Forest Rose (1850), and Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man (1857) in the genre. Stephen Matterson has studied Melville's novel within this same context, but disagrees with the many critics who assume Melville's approval or complicity with the Indian hater's program of extermination. According to Matterson, Melville considered the Indian hater central to American culture's view of native populations, and by associating the character with various institutions of white America—both civil and religious—the author was implicating the culture as a whole in the attitudes and activities of the Indian hater.