Depiction of Indian American in Dime Novels

Date: Dec 5, 2019
Category: Informative

Introduction

Indian Americans are probably the most marginalized people in the history of the United States and this is not just in the context of cultural representation but also awareness and appreciation. The American construction of the Indian American is mostly limited to vague and often inaccurate accounts from literature and art, mostly from the colonial era. This means that the Indian Americans today continue to live in the shadows, judged through the eyes of the European colonialists and their rather condescending attitudes towards the Indian Americans. White Americans were historically limited in their interactions with the Indian Americans and as such they also relied on the written accounts from European travelers and other American adventurers who had at one point or another come into contact with an Indian American or two. In the end, the construct of an Indian American is mainly fictitious, idealized or rather romanticized for the benefit of the audience especially within a dime novel. Dime novels are a type of novels that were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These novels shaped the social attitudes towards Indian Americans mainly because they were the only source of interaction for the American people. At the time, most Indian Americans were restricted within their communes and reserves thus making it difficult for outsiders to interact with them. Reading these dime novels thus gave the people an idea of what an Indian American is, what their culture is all about and how these people fit into the larger society. This paper explores numerous ways in in Dime novels portray Indian Americans. In this respect, the paper examines three most common and definitive stereotypes associated with the Indian American population. These include ‘the bloodthirsty savage’, ‘the noble savage’ and ‘the halfbreed’. For this study, the dime novels that will feature include The Last of the Mohicans by James Cooper, Sketches of Western Adventure by John McClung, Buffalo Bill, King of the Boder men by Ned Buntline, Chickasaw slave by Judith Moffett and Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay . 

 

How Indian Americans Were Portrayed In the Dime Novels

Dime novels are known for among other things, their negative portrayal of the Indian Americans regardless of the historical contexts within which they appear. First, it must be appreciated that the dime novels were mostly written and published with a commercial aim, meaning that the stories were specifically crafted to appeal to the leaders. This is why a number of the storylines are rather unrealistic and fancy in a way. Each dime novel has a hero or a heroine and a villain who needs to be defeated. In most of these novels, it can be noted that good triumphs over evil. The main concern however is the definition of evil in a majority of the said dime novels. Within the novels studied in this paper, the most outstanding portrayals on the Indian Americans fit into the three stereotypes of ‘the bloodthirsty savage’, ‘the noble savage’ and ‘the halfbreed.’

The Bloodthirsty Savage

In order to justify the ill treatment of the Native Americans, the stereotype of a bloodthirsty savage was created by the settlers who sought to take advantage of the ‘unoccupied’ lands that actually belonged to the Native Americans in their free spirit and their conservative way of life. When the invaders reached the West, they did not anticipate the presence of the Native Americans having encountered their cooperative and thus ‘more civilized’ counterparts in the East. The savage in this context refers to the untamed aspect that the Indian Americans clearly lacked. They were wild and free and as a result, they were not susceptible to foreign influence and authority without a fight. With the hostile presence of the Europeans, the Native Americans were forced to defend themselves and their lands until finally they had to give up. However, this is the reality. Alternate history tells an altogether different tale on the context and identity of the Indian Americans.

In The Last of the Mohicans by James Cooper, Magua is a bloodthirsty scout who offers to spare the lives of a traveling party if one of the young women agrees to become his wife. Upon their refusal, Magua is not hesitant to sentence them to death. This scenario presents the Indian American as a savage who would kill for anything, including the hand of a strange white woman in marriage. Similarly, all the tales in Sketches of Western Adventure by John McClung  portray the Indian Americans as a people who have a taste for violence based on their existence in the wilderness and the fact that they are used to hunting and being far away from other people. In Buffalo Bill, King of the Boder men by Ned Buntline the Indian Americans are portrayed as dangerous people whose only cure was death. Buffalo Bill actually gains his fame and popularity based on the number of Indian Americans he is able to kill. Within this book, whether the Indian American in context was guilty or not, the author focuses on getting the main character to defeat and kill them. The fact that the deaths are often marked with pomp and color creates a connotation that the Indian Americans were genuinely dangerous and thus deserved to be ‘put down’. In Chickasaw slave by Judith Moffett, the Indian Americans are seen as having to be watched carefully since they are a risk to the society. On one hand, it is understandable that within the context of slavery, the enslaved would have negative feelings towards the masters. With that in mind, it would be understandable for the Chickasaw people to dislike the white Americans and Europeans. However, within this novel the context is carefully omitted to portray the Indian American as an angry individual with no limits or rationale for their thoughts and actions.

Similarly, the differences between the Indian Americans and the white Americans within the context of a bloodthirsty savage, it can be appreciated that the homicidal sprees undertaken by the whites are justified within the novels and whether or not this is for the amusement of the audience is no longer a concern. When the Indian Americans kill to defend themselves and their land, it is seen as a sign of their savagery. When the whites kill Indian Americans even for fun as was the case with Buffalo Bill, they are hailed as national heroes. Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay presents a clear example of a situation where double standards are used to represent the Indian Americans especially seeing as Kit Carson mainly killed Indian Americans even with no provocation. 

The Noble Savage

The noble savage is to some extent the direct opposite of the bloodthirsty savage. Unlike the bloodthirsty savage, the noble savage does not kill or maim or rape for personal gain. For the noble savage, the innate goodness of humanity is an actual concept and thus they seek to remain free from civilization and its associated complications and corruptions. The problem with this ideology is that it is far from reality especially within the contexts of the Western frontier. While the Europeans were busy trying to ‘tame’ the wilderness, they made the original habitats of the region hostile owing to how badly they treated them. As such, the Indian Americans could not claim to be free from the external influences of civilization seeing as they were made defensive and hostile towards outsiders.

Within the dime novels, it becomes clear that the noble savage in non-existent. The authors play at the possibility of a noble savage in order to build the reader’s expectations but they end up causing a significant disappointment thus emphasizing on the negative connotations on the identity of the Indian American people. In The Last of the Mohicans by James Cooper (1826), Hawk-eye seems genuinely interested in the greater good as he helps Heyward and Uncas in their search for Cora and Alice. At the end of the story however, Hawk-eye is seen gaining the forgiveness of Chingachgook thus creating an undertone in his motives. It may be considered that Hawk-eye was only being helpful in order to regain this friendship thus question his good will and supposed generosity as well as commitment to a humane cause. In Sketches of Western Adventure by John McClung (1832), Buffalo Bill, King of the Boder men by Ned Buntline (1869), Chickasaw slave by Judith Moffett (1992) and in, Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay (2000), it is evident that there are no pure hearted or good willed Indian Americans. In each of these stories, the Indian Americans who were working with the white Americans as guides or security personnel all had a motive that they were working for. In addition, while this was not always about the money, in most cases it had something to do with the possibility of power or the promise of a white wife among other valuables within the Indian American communities. On one hand, these stories idealize the concept of being free from civilization and its corruptions. The trusted chiefs who collaborate with the white Americans and Europeans are hailed as good hearted who are on the side of ‘good’ while their opponents are on the side of evil. The problem with this idea is that the so called chiefs are also looking to be wealthy and powerful thus the collaboration with foreigners at a time when their own kinsmen are being slaughtered or cast out to make way for civilization. This greatly compromises the association of honesty and genuine concern with the Indian American contexts not only historically but also at present.   

   Whites in these stories are seen being genuinely helpful and sympathetic countless times, with the heroes even going out of their way to help those who needed help. For the Indian Americans however, any form of help is laced with a possibility of a motive that in this case is not always appreciated. From these novels, one is likely to think of Indian Americans as a people who are always after self interests. These stories challenge the concept and the very existence of the noble savage by destroying the basis of their ‘nobility’. With these connotations, it becomes really difficult for the reader not to doubt every move and intention of the Indian Americans in the stories. 

The Halfbreed

The halfbreed is possibly the saddest cultural stereotype within the dime novels. By definition, an Indian American halfbreed is an individual who is of mixed heritage resulting from the intermarriage between whites and the Native Americans. The problem with this heritage is that the individual never gets accepted within either society. Within these stories, halfbreeds are either products of rape or forced marriages, with very little room for halfbreeds who have a legitimate bearing towards their heritage. It is for example clear that the Indian American men were constantly trying to find themselves white brides. In The Last of the Mohicans by James Cooper, Magua tries to force Cora to marry him by threatening to kill the entire traveling party and when she refuses, he instantly lashes out and sentences them to death. Genuinely, this indicates the ideology that the white Americans and Europeans do not interact with the Indian Americans at will. As a result, the halfbreeds in all the dime novels within this paper including Sketches of Western Adventure by John McClung, Buffalo Bill, King of the Boder men by Ned Buntline, Chickasaw slave by Judith Moffett  and Kit Carson and the Indians by Tom Dunlay  are seen as inadequate considering that they are rarely welcomed on either side of their heritage. Within the contexts of the dime novels, it can also be appreciated that the halfbreed stereotypes represent an unwanted situation in which the Indian Americans were embracing civilization without becoming fully civilized. They could communicate with the foreigners, use ammunition, defend their land and even get the white women to fall in love with them. This is considerably disturbing within the contexts of the white Americans seeing, as they wanted to maintain their ‘purity’ and avoid exposing their bloodlines. Similarly, the Indian Americans were trying to experience the world and  

The halfbreed stereotype emphasizes the double standards with which Indian Americans were treated within the society. Being a halfbreed was not appreciated in any context given that the changing demographics challenged the status quo. With a growing bond between the Indian Americans and the white Americans in the outside world, the Europeans and other powerful white Americans could see the trouble brewing. Americans who could blend in with the Indian Americans were considered as charismatic and even impressive while the Indian Americans who were able to blend into the white American context and culture were mostly seen as traitors not only by other white Americans but also by their people. Here, it becomes clear that while the white Americans were being encouraged to learn the Indian American way, it was considered impossible and thus unacceptable for the Indian Americans to get out of their comfort zones.   

Conclusion

Dime novels were a popular collection of literary pieces that were mostly set in the 1800s, at a time when the Americas were simply wilderness yet to be conquered and developed. At the time, the Indian Americans were not seen as a part of the population but rather a group of savages living out in the wild and away from the actual people. Dime novels only served to popularize and strengthen this ideology, and whether this was by choice or by luck remains highly debatable. Most of the authors are seen portraying Indian Americans within the three common parameters of racial misconceptions namely the bloodthirsty savage, the noble savage and the halfbreed. The bloodthirsty savage stereotype indicates that Indian Americans are generally violent and have acquired a taste for killing whites. The noble savage seeks to dispute the existence of actual nobility by associating the trait only with the Indian Americans who were working with the whites and European Americans to further the agenda of the government at the time. The halfbreed on the other hand is a portrayal of the evils of incomplete adaptations, with the term mainly referring to individuals of the Indian American community who have only embraced civilization partially. Dime novels thus generally do a great job of demonizing the Native Americans and portraying them as irredeemably dangerous people.