Critical Essays Cooper's Indians


Cooper was very sensitive to the criticism about his portrayal of the Indians of North America, and he used a paragraph in the "Preface" to The Deerslayer to confirm and defend the charge that his Indians were not of the school of nature. James Russell Lowell, the American poet and critic (and a contemporary of Cooper), even went beyond such criticism when he wrote humorously (and seriously) in A Fable for Critics that: "His Indians, with proper respect be it said,/ Are just Natty Bumppo, daubed with red." Cooper, then, creates an image of the Indians just as he has formed an epic and mythic hero in Natty Bumppo. Although he did not reply to Lowell's charge, Cooper did acknowledge his reliance on the reports of the Moravian missionary, J. G. E. Heckewelder, about the characteristics of the North American natives. It is also interesting to recall that Cooper explains in The Deerslayer that Natty Bumppo has been raised and educated by Moravian missionaries.

Cooper, however, never probes historically nor deeply into the history, customs, and background of the Indians in The Deerslayer or in the other "Leatherstocking Tales." In his readings, he was attracted to the theories of Heckewelder about the noble qualities of the Indians, and these ideas from the Moravian missionary coincided with the romantic ideal of the "noble savage" exploited by civilization. Indeed, Cooper is more interested in individual Indians than in tribes or nations; and he conveniently divides them into "good" Indians, and Mingos or "bad" Indians. His simplistic (and superficial) treatment may be justified on the grounds of the romance, where contrasts and opposites form a basic part of Cooper's literary technique. In addition, there are really few good Indians in Cooper's world of The Deerslayer and the other "Leatherstocking Tales." Most of the inhabitants of the forests are Mingos, who provide the literary representation of the forces of evil, terror, and fear in the Gothic tradition. At times, the savages are like denizens of a realm beyond human beings; and they are frequently described as devilish and diabolical in their appearance and actions.

Nevertheless, Cooper sees a sad, pathetic, and tragic side to the Indians because they are the victims of the encroaching white civilization. Even Cooper's Mingos, receiving their due punishment for circumventions, scalping, and treachery, are victimized after their defeat by superior forces. Rivenoak, the leader of the Mingos in The Deerslayer, holds himself proudly even when he is the prisoner of Captain Warley and the rescue party. He was, in Cooper's view, defending the ancient traditions of his people by going on the warpath and striving valiantly to annihilate the invaders of the American hinterland. However, the majority of the "bad" Indians (the Mingos) are cruel, bloodthirsty warriors who serve to make the romances thrilling, exciting, and dangerous adventures. Their "gifts" are restricted to the primitive code of savagery.

The "good" Indians, although they are limited in number throughout the "Leatherstocking Tales," are as dignified and noble as the best of the white men portrayed in the series. Cooper's relatively few good Indians do not indicate any prejudice on his part because he makes clear that the majority of the natives are violently opposed to the pioneers, settlers, and soldiers extending the frontier into their territories. While he obviously sees the futility in the Indians' attempts to oppose the invasion of their lands, Cooper finds a heroic and tragic quality in their stance. He thus cannot outright condemn their resort to all manner of tricks and stratagems — the "sarcumventions" of which Natty speaks often. Cooper's good Indians still retain admiration and a bond of comradeship with the Mingos, who are nevertheless their hated foes. Hist, for example, agrees with Rivenoak in his queries to Hetty about the white man's morality, and Chingachgook is respectful of the superior Mingo strategy when the ark approaches the castle for the ambush of Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry. Although the good Indians are considered traitors by the Mingos and are condemned to the same (and perhaps worse) tortures as white captives, the Indians who accept the forces of conquest and colonization are really accepting the inevitable. The tribes undoubtedly had individuals who saw that compromise, in the guise of acceptance, was the only way they could avoid annihilation.

Cooper idealizes his Indians who, though they may have had some noble ideals and a sense of honor, could hardly have expressed their code so elegantly unless they had benefited from the white man's education. The author admits that his readings in Heckewelder, and the missionary's own observations in certain favorable circumstances such as the negotiation of treaties, have limited his vision to "a fair picture of Indian life." Nevertheless, Cooper has succeeded in bringing to American literature a new dimension to the struggle with the Indians for control of the continent. His romanticism, while not supported totally by history and scientific investigation, has given a more human tone to the problem of the natives.