The Romantic Idealization of American Indians in Early American Literature
By Mary Arnold
One of the major controversies in the acquisition and development of America as an independent nation was the dilemma concerning the people who were already here. As a Christian people, it would have been sinful for our founders to just 'take' the land from other peoples. Therefore, the settlers and the succeeding generations began romanticizing the Indians, depicting them as either noble children of nature in need of civilization and Christianity or as ferocious, demonic savages in need of extermination. Neither view exhibited the reality of the Native Americans. From the earliest American writings, this image of the Indian, either as inherently noble or inherently evil, has persisted in our culture to the present.
In Columbus' letter regarding his first voyage to the Americas, he describes a virtual Garden of Eden. While he does not describe the natives he encounters in great detail, it is safe to assume that he did not find them to be menacing or ferocious savages based on the content of his letter. Columbus states that he "sent two men inland to learn if there were a king or great cities" and that the men traveled for three days and "found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number" (Norton 26). Surely Columbus would not have sent two men among the Indians if he had any indication that the Indians would not be peaceful and welcoming.
However in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus' view of the natives has changed. In pleading his plight to his sovereigns, Columbus says he is in "daily expectation of death" and "encompassed about by a million savages, full of cruelty" (Norton 28). These contrary and romanticized depictions of the Native Americans would be picked up and even expanded on by later American writers.
William Bradford carried on peaceful and friendly relations with the Indians that lived where they set up Plymouth Plantation. The Pilgrims made a treaty with the chief Massasoit which continued "24 years" (Norton 86). Additionally, Bradford transfers romantic qualities to Squanto, an Indian who had been captured and taken to England. Bradford says of Squanto that there are "scarce any left alive besides himself" which instigates the "vanishing Indian" myth that Cooper later uses for his narrative (Norton 87). Bradford also idealizes Squanto by referring to him as a "special instrument sent of God for [the Pilgrims] good" (Norton 87).
The writings of John Smith further emphasize the ambiguous feelings of the Europeans towards the Indians. When he and his men were in danger of starving to death, Smith describes how God "changed the hearts of the savages" so as to provide food for the Europeans (Norton 45). The indication here is clear: that the Indians are 'savage' by nature but all that is needed to make them good people is Christianity.
When Smith is later taken hostage by Powhatan and his tribe, he narrates how he was "kindly feasted and well used" (Norton 49). But despite this, Smith remains fearful of the Indians, no matter how much he tries to make himself sound bold and unafraid. The fact that he is afraid of the Indians and their personal nature is seen through Smith's description of the Indians in language and imagery that is horrifying. He depicts them as "devils," "fiends," having a "hellish voice" and entertaining him with "strange and fearful conjurations" (Norton 50). Smith is definitely romanticizing the Indians by making them seem as if they are demons from Hell.
These three romantic idealizations of the Indian (noble warrior, bloodthirsty savage, and vanishing Indian) converge in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. As the title suggests, the tribe of the Mohicans has been so very diminished that only two remain, Chingachgook and his son Uncas. This exhibits the "vanishing Indian" mythology.
The tribes of Indians that are the central focus in Cooper's narrative are the Mohicans (Delawares) and the Iroquois (Mohawks). These tribes are depicted in the characters of Chingachgook and Uncas (Mohicans), and Magua, who even though was born a Huron, has became a member of the Iroquois federation. According to Cooper, both of these tribes are vanishing due to the "inroads of civilization" (Cooper 6). Chingachgook tells Hawkeye when his son Uncas dies "there will no longer be any of the blood of the Sagamores" because Uncas is the last of the pure blood Mohicans (Cooper33).
As for the Six Nations of the Iroquois, Cooper tells the reader in a footnote that:
There are remnants of all these people still living on lands secured to them by the state; but they are daily disappearing, either by deaths or by removals to scenes more congenial to their habits. In a short time there will be no remains of these extraordinary people, in those regions in which they dwelt for centuries. (Cooper 20)
Thus does Cooper romanticize the idea of the "vanishing Indian myth."
In his introduction to the first edition of his novel, Cooper describes the "native warriors of America" in the following manner:
In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste. (Cooper 5)
This type of description of Indians denies their individuality in human emotions and characteristics. As such, it romanticizes them by assigning them inviolable personality traits. Of the narrative's three main Indian characters, Chingachgook and Uncas are idealized as the "noble warriors" and Magua is romanticized as the "bloodthirsty savage." None of these characters are presented in a realistic, humanistic fashion. They are spoken of in language that portrays them as highly exalted or irretrievably degraded.
In his first appearance in the novel, Chingachgook is seen seated on a log, engaged in a debate with Hawkeye. Chingachgook uses "calm and expressive gestures" and the posture of his body to "heighten" the effect of his "earnest language" (Cooper 29). He has reached middle age, but has no "symptoms of decay" that would suggest a lessening of "his manhood" (Cooper 29). Furthermore, even though Chingachgook is habitually suspicious, he is "not only without guile" but is possessed of "sturdy honesty" (Cooper 30). These physical and mental traits provide us with the classic image of the strong and stoic Indian warrior, one who is brave and fearless when necessary but kind and calm also. Chingachgook's son Uncas is idealized even more than his father is.
Uncas is "fearless", "dignified," "noble," "proud," "determined," "brave," and "constant" (Cooper 53). Even Alice, who is fearful of all Indians, says of Uncas that she "could sleep in peace with such a fearless and generous looking youth for her sentinel" (Cooper 53). And Duncan allows that Uncas is a "rare and brilliant instance of those natural qualities" existing in Indians (Cooper 53). This portrayal of Uncas suggests that he is not like others of his tribe or race; that he is somehow exalted above the rest. Cooper plays up this exaltation of Uncas by revealing that he is descended from a noble chief (implying that Uncas' blood is 'royal') later in the novel when Uncas is about to be burned at the stake (Cooper 309).
When Uncas is sentenced to death, his friends react in various ways: Duncan struggles to get free, Hawkeye anxiously looks around for a way to escape, and Cora throws herself at Tamenund's feet to plead for mercy for Uncas (Cooper 309). Only Uncas remains calm and serene. He watches the preparations for the fire with a "steady eye" and does not resist when the other Indians come to seize him (Cooper 309). One gets the impression that if Uncas had not been spared by the discovery of his tortoise tattoo, he would have went to his death calmly without saying one word to save himself. This is a highly idealized portrait of a person, not so would we expect someone to act in this particular circumstance no matter how brave the person was.
At the opposite side of human nature, Cooper romanticizes the character of Magua as intrinsically evil and depraved. Other than being brave and fearless, Magua has no qualities that would be considered good as possessing. Magua is described as having the "characteristic stoicism" of his race, but his countenance exhibits a "sullen fierceness" (Cooper 17). Further Magua's expression is "cunning," "savage," "repulsive," and having an eye "which [glistens] like a fiery star" (Cooper 18). Alice is afraid of Magua, based on his physical appearance, and refers to him as a "spectre" inhabiting the woods (Cooper 20). Cora tends to give Magua the benefit of the doubt, even though she first looks upon him with "pity, admiration, and horror" (Cooper 19). Even Duncan, who says he knows Magua well and trusts him, tells Alice not to show any distrust or fear to Magua, or she may "invite the danger [she] appears to apprehend" (Cooper 21). This admonition to Alice displays Duncan's tendency to equate Magua with some species of wild animal, which will attack when sensing fear.
The idealization of Indians in Last of the Mohicans exhibits the period's ambivalence towards the first inhabitants of the Americas. The colonists tended to either romanticize them as children of God or nature, or as savage, brutal heathens. This attitude towards the Indians began with Columbus and, in some degree, still exists today.
Norton Anthology of American Literature
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
About The Author
Mary Arnold holds a B.A. in literature and history. She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Creative Writers.
Her writing portfolio may be viewed at http://www.Writing.com/authors/ja77521