Nineteenth-Century Representations of Native Americans

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,486 words.)