The Color Line, Beavers, and the Destructuring of White Identity in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans

Scott Michaelsen (University of Texas, El Paso)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1994 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 5, November, 1994.

Copyright © 1994, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]


In 1993 the American Indian College Fund ran an advertisement in the back pages of The New Yorker. It is an extremely terse ad. The ad is a single line of copy, and a single image. The text — in large, bold letters — reads:

What does this mean? “Culture,” that ultimately mysterious word in our own field at the moment, is at stake. And two particular cultures — “ours” and that of the “American Indian.”

On the one hand, the implication is that AmerIndian culture is in a kind of danger that only can be averted through a college education. It is at least cause for wonder that an Anglo educational institution must prop up Indian ways of being — that Indians needed an Anglo-style education, including an education in who they are, in order to continue to be themselves.

And, on the other hand, it is equally curious that Anglo-American culture must save Indian culture in order to save itself. Something ineffable within Indian culture holds the key to “our” survival. We might guess the implication: Indian spirituality, a close relationship to nature, an alternative to a competitive market economy, will save us from ourselves. From the standpoint of the implied reader of this advertisement, then, a very complex dialectic and economy is at work. Indians need Anglos (both their money and their methods of education) in order to be themselves, which allows Indians to shore “us” up, take care of “our” culture.

The image in the ad is also worth examining. It is a “white” feather nesting within a colored flame. This white/ colored image visualizes the ad copy, and imagines a day when that which is white (i.e., Anglo) is encased within that which is colored (i.e., AmerIndian). And the image visualizes complex cultural transfer, because the white image is in the shape of the feather, which so typically symbolizes “Indian-ness” and its relationship to nature, and the colored image is the flame, which symbolizes the knowledge provided by a college education. So the image promises a future when that which is “white” will be shaped like an Indian mind, and that which is “colored” will be shaped in the manner of an Anglo mind.

And it is even more complicated, and here is where the text is most useful for thinking. The border between the two images is not secured. The bottom of the white feather is not enclosed within the black border. The bottom of the white feather leaks out into the ad’s larger field of whiteness, not only escaping a complete nesting, but demonstrating that the black envelopes the white only as it itself is enveloped by the totality of that which it surrounds. The image is, finally, one in which whiteness reigns, though the white secures its own complex imaging of a preserved whiteness only by the introduction of a seemingly protecting coloredness. That which is colored is then both an external and internal border for the white.

It is perhaps predictable that the ad, through the use of the word “could,” imagines that such cultural transfer and inter-relationship between Anglos and AmerIndians are still to come, as if, in the late twentieth century, two separate cultures exist that can now — if we choose — inform, and even ground each other. This is a modified multiculturalist affirmation of difference. It is bare multiculturalism (“my culture is OK, your culture is OK”) combined with a vision of a more complex, mixed future, albeit with the distinction between cultures always preserved. Perhaps it goes without saying that this is a particular narrative of modernity; the world begins in simple difference or alterity (Europe and its others), and, following colonialism, it ends happily in complex reciprocity.

Judged as a politics, what such a narrative, or a model of both a present and an ideal future, necessarily leaves behind as a trail of debris is an opening for virulent forms of differentiation — on both sides. AmerIndians can, within the bare terms of the ad, use its language to indict whiteness in general as, at least, self-destructive. And Anglos can too easily use the rhetorical resources of the ad to produce simple reversals on the Fund’s implied message: AmerIndians’ saving contributions to Anglos looks to some like backwardness, technophobia, anti-modern tree-hugging, anti-capitalist laziness, and the like.

In other words, multicultural or liberal notions of difference are also, at one and the same time, fuel for a rhetoric of dislike or even hate. One always can read a narrative of differentiation either way, depending upon one’s largest political sensibilities. And unless one can imagine a world composed of nothing but liberal sensibilities (and this is, indeed, impossible, given that the differential field of political ideas demands that all positions within the field exist), the result is that virulent “whiteness” and coloredness continues. 1 Liberal politics, then, does nothing but help reproduce the conditions of hate.

Recognizing the traps of multiculturalism, however, does not necessarily plunge one into pessimism, because it is possible to rethink the question of difference — in this case, the question of the border “between” Anglo and AmerIndian cultures. It is not necessary to think the modern world as proceeding from separate and distinct cultures toward more complex formulations. One can, instead, think through the possibility that complexity — a profound interrelationship of the very ideas of European and indigenous American cultures, which the ad forecasts for the future — is, in fact, a product and a part of colonialist thought from its inception. The cultural tangles — the sorts of borders that strangely elide the difference between inside and outside — are a product of beginnings. What is typically described as identity “difference,” then, is nothing more than an effect of a fundamental identity relationship which makes it seem as if cultures are still to be “crossed” rather than, as David Murray has suggested, analyzed for their long “unities and continuities” and their “constant interplay” (Murray 3).

If colonialism in general produces the problematic rhetoric of the American Indian College Fund, then one possible project might be de-thinking — thinking backward — the status of the differences themselves, and to imagine a future not more but less complex or mixed, not concerned with saving cultures but with de-structuring one’s sense of them. The Fund cannot have its cake and eat it, too. The language of multicultural differentiation and mixture is betrayed by the black/white border within the image that does not successfully mark out where the cultural border lies, and how it can be crossed. In the image, the crossing always already has taken place, with the seemingly privileged figure of coloredness always already colonized.


A language of color (“white,” “red,” “black,” and all points between) is the most enduring legacy of colonial differentiation — far older and more pervasive than a language of “race,” for example. 2 James Fenimore Cooper’s language of differentiation, in The Last of the Mohicans, is primarily one of color. Even though Cooper’s text is highly overdetermined in this regard, and certainly the word “race” is used in the text, the terms “white” and “red” are ubiquitous. And this language, finally, is not a code or mask for an idea of race.

But it is possible to be beguiled by the speech that Cooper’s “bad” Indian, Magua, makes before the old chief, Tamenund, in Chapter 29, the novel’s single longest remark on the topic of differentiation. The speech distinguishes not only between red and white, but among red and white and black — this last being “animal.” Color serves as the prime marker of distinction, and color has a racial character. At the bottom of the scale of value, according to Magua, are the black bear and beaver. At the top is the “brighter and redder” skin of the Indian. And somewhere in between are people with “faces paler,” or “pale-faces.” Each has a quite separate and distinct way of being and purpose in the world, according to Magua. Each was created separately by the “Spirit,” and has a unique relationship to labor, property, battle.

Magua says these things, but we have good reason not to trust to the wisdom of Magua, since color does not work this way in the rest of the novel. In Cooper’s world, color is not something that one simply is born into, no matter how many times Hawkeye says that he is the “man without a cross.” Color in general in the novel is a code word for culture. The language of color is deployed in paragraphs that treat the topics of education style and manhood (31), and Christianity (78), for example. If Magua is correct about color and character, then the Mohican brave Uncas should be “red.” Hawkeye, however, tells Uncas that his has been modified by their friendship, that he is no longer quite the same red man as his blood relatives, the Mohican Tortoises: “the same blood runs in your veins, I believe [as in the Tortoises]; but time and distance has a little changed its color” (272). And Cora, clearly explained to be the product of a marriage between a white man and a mulatto mother, is said more than once near the end of the novel to be “white.” If Cora, for Cooper, is white, then color must be mutable in the novel. It is possible to be born with whatever blood, whatever skin tone, and become the color of another.

This is the project which the book develops for the one character who undergoes a major transformation or development over its course — Duncan Heyward. Heyward is, according to Cooper, an “adventurer in empiricism” (246), and his particular improvement living among reds is bound up with issues of gender (learning how to be a real man and friend to other men) and violence (drawing blood and witnessing death).

Heyward is a trained soldier, educated in the white world, and he is capable of many things, as the novel demonstrates. Heyward nevertheless makes endless mistakes as he journeys through the wilderness. But he catches on, now and then, to things that can be taught in the wilderness through interaction with Indian warriors and Hawkeye. He assists the latter in reading the signs of nature at a critical point on the trail (217). He also successfully (and appropriately) masquerades as a fool in order to rescue his beloved Alice from the Huron — thereby learning Indian “cunning.” And he is permitted to take an important part in the battle between Delaware and Huron that ends the novel.

These all are matters of the empirical, or the “really real.” Heyward goes to the wilderness in order to ground himself in the reality of life: to learn that “life is an obligation which friends often owe to each other in the wilderness,” as Hawkeye says (73). Life, finally, is about the “stern and unyielding morality” of us against them: “’tis their scalps, or ours!” (75). And the blood, drenched on the landscape, is that which is ultimately real about life in this world, as in the passage which describes the bloody ground around Fort William Henry after the massacre:

The whole landscape, which, seen by a favoring light, and in a genial temperature, had been found so lovely, appeared now like some pictured allegory of life, in which objects were arrayed in their harshest but truest colours, and without the relief of any shadowing. (181) Life is blood, according to the novel, and anything else is merely a shadow.

The question of the spilled blood several times is directly connected to matters of color in the novel. The topic of bloodline is referred to at moments of bloody conflict, and the notion of original, color or racial difference is undercut through reference to the spilling of blood — the opening up of the human body to see what is inside. In Chapter 8, Natty implores: “let us teach these natives of the forest, that white blood can run as freely as red, when the appointed hour is come” (77). And Magua, after the massacre, holds up his bloody hands and taunts, “It is red, but it comes from white veins!” (178). In both cases, the very idea of whiteness is undermined by the fact that whites, under their skin, are really red. Their blood, like AmerIndian blood and skin, is red, too. The repeated trope suggests that, under the skin, all whites are really “red.”

And that is what Heyward learns: through the course of the book, he finds his redness. He journeys dialectically backwards into the wilderness in order to seek that which is already red within him — in order, finally, to be better at being white. He is more fit to return to the settlements once his redness is uncovered, made explicit. Cooper figures a proper male, white identity as necessarily incorporating AmerIndian masculinity and its semiotics and epistemology. 3 In Mohicans, then, one can be a white man, ready to assume the tasks of the white world, because one is always already red. Heyward becomes at least a bit like an Indian in his practicality, his cunning, his reading the signs of nature, and his ability to draw blood. He undermines the concept of bloodline by becoming bloody red.

This is not to say that Cooper doubts that whites are more moral and more socially advanced than reds. For him, it is quite clear that whites have moved further along a hierarchical scale of development or civilization. But whites, in the process, have lost something along the way that can only be reclaimed by going back down the ladder of development, to a forgotten ground for proper being-in-the-world. In this sense, Cooper’s novel functions much like the American Indian College Fund ad. A sense of Indian culture must be saved and transmitted to white leaders like Heyward if they are to save themselves at the most fundamental level of right living.


Animals work in much the same way in The Last of the Mohicans. Though Magua argues that a sharp line divides the black animals from red and white, the novel shows that no such sharp line exists. Natty can become a bear and Chingachgook can be a beaver, for example. There is something to be claimed in this experience of animal masquerade — in the descent to the very depths of a human being’s animal existence — and this is clearest in the novel in the many passages about the beavers. Beavers, in several remarkable moments, are shown to be far more ambitious than red men, and have some qualities which make them instructive to whites. The beavers, whom Magua scornfully said were put on the earth to labor, are actually models for discipline, industry, and order.

The beavers’ mentality is worthy of consideration by both whites and reds. While Magua argues that beavers do not have much to offer in terms of the “virtue of wisdom” (282), one of Magua’s companions on the trail talks to beavers, and “intimated, though with sufficient delicacy and circumlocution, the expediency of bestowing on their relative a portion of that wisdom for which they [the beavers] were so renowned” (284-5). And Heyward learns, concerning the beavers, that “even the brutes of these vast wilds were possessed of an instinct nearly commensurate with his own reason” (230).

Beavers certainly amount to something less than civilized men in Cooper’s view, but they also bear a deep relationship to men. They picture a set of characteristics and values that remind men of what they should be, at bottom. Just as red men have something to teach whites about who they are, so too the black beavers’ presentation of a sound grounding for human beings (for human being) — their instinctual wisdom, intelligence, and industry — make them prime candidates for woodlands slumming. It is, finally, a matter of real interest that Magua refuses to recognize his relationship to the beavers, while Chingachgook can be mistaken for one and demonstrate both “sagacity” and “reason” during his masquerade (285). And Heyward’s mistaking black beavers for red men is instructive as well. In gazing down on beaver architecture, he imagines a better, even ideal, AmerIndia — one in which all of the existing real advantages of being red might be secured by absorbing that which is black.

One can usefully relate Cooper to Lewis Henry Morgan on this point. Morgan, in many ways the founder of modern anthropological research, wrote four classics of anthropology between 1851 and 1881, as well as nearly fifty magazine and journal articles on AmerIndians. In fact, Morgan wrote exclusively about AmerIndians his entire career, with one exception: in 1868, he published The American Beaver and His Works.

Both Cooper and Morgan, then, produced work about beavers and Indians. Morgan does not generate a colored reading of beavers, and yet his beavers map out a clear alternative to Cooper’s politics of identity. Morgan says that beavers are on a far lower level of intellectual development than either AmerIndians or Europeans. And yet Morgan’s view is that the similarities between beavers and human beings in terms of what he calls their “psychology” far outweighs the differences. There are differences of “degree” but not “in kind between the manifestations of perception, appetite and passion, memory, reason and will on the part of a mute [i.e., beaver]” (276). The beaver’s free paws permits the building of elaborate and thoughtful architectural structures “suggestive of human industry,” and which demonstrate a “free intelligence“ and “act[s] of progress from a lower to a higher artificial state of life” (viii, 146, 264). The “Supreme Being,” according to Morgan, may even have endowed beavers with a “moral sense,” a characteristic which Morgan presumes that his readers understand as the ultimate distinction between man and animal (249).

If all of this is true, says Morgan, then God wants beavers to share this world with human beings. Human beings must learn to respect the beaver, and grant it its place and even its “rights” (284). Morgan’s book, then, is a nineteenth-century animal rights document, designed to encourage its readers to think of “our relations to them ... in a different, and in a better light” (284).

But what can be learned from the beaver, if anything? Do the lower orders of being, as in Cooper, act as a kind of natural ground for purposes of constituting his readers’ identities? Morgan, like Cooper, writes at some length about mistaking beavers for Indians. Trappers and Morgan, too, in a personal aside, note that “the cry of a young beaver resembles very closely that of a child a few days old” (134). And Morgan relates a story about the successful domestication of the beaver by an Indian woman, her trapper husband, and their “half-blood” boy.

But beavers do not instruct or ground human life in Morgan’s work. All they can do is mimic human beings in certain respects, reminding human beings that purposeful and even moral life does not begin and end with humanity. Knowing something about the beaver enlarges people’s sense of the wonder and importance of all of God’s creations. Morgan’s view of beavers and beaver life is, to put it simply, bare multiculturalism. Let us live with them, he argues, and respect our common bond as well as our inevitable differences.

The whole of Morgan’s work, including that on AmerIndians, constitutes nothing but increasingly complex chartings of differences and distinctions among beings. Each step up the ladder of development is a matter of pure progress, with nothing lost along the way. 4 In Cooper, on the other hand, a process is at work by which the developmental leaps upward from animal to red to white come at great cost, and the very idea of whiteness must be secured by remembering the losses incurred — by remembering the forgetting of redness, for example. In this special sense, the very idea of whiteness is de-structured in Cooper’s text. Only a person who senses that proper whiteness rests on a red foundation can escape Cooper’s criticism.

But there are real limits to Cooper’s imagination in this regard. For example, color identities are not complexly grounded in the opposite direction. Black identity is not dependent on red or white identity. It is merely black. Nor is an AmerIndian identity dependent on whiteness. It is just red. This is so because Cooper and Morgan are united in their belief that the developmental ladder points one way only — up. For Cooper, only higher states of being and identity are complexly shaped. Only whiteness needs other colors in order to comprehend itself.

And it is important to make clear those things which Cooper is not in terms of his special identity politics. Cooper is not a multiculturalist when it comes to color, nor is he a color leveller. But even though both Cooper and the image from the American Indian College Fund ad colonize color in order to secure white identities, both point in promising directions in terms of a larger project of the de-structuration of color scheming. Whiteness in The Last of the Mohicans is a necessarily and happily contaminated category from its beginning. And that very thought might be worth preserving. Whiteness is not something that needs mixing. Rather, whiteness needs to recognize its always pre-mixed condition — the problem that it is already mixed if it is to be anything at all. And, just perhaps, it should not be anything at all.

Works Cited

  • Allen, Dennis W. “’By All the Truth of Signs’: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” Studies in American Fiction 9.2 (Autumn 1981): 159-79. Bieder, Robert E. Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1986.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Ed. John B. Thompson. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
  • Lugo, Alejandro. “The Problem of Color in Mexico: Colonial/Postcolonial Subjectivities.” Unpublished manuscript.
  • Morgan, Lewis Henry. The American Beaver and His Works. 1868. NY: Burt Franklin, 1970.
  • Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing & Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R. Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship. Berkeley: U California P, 1987.


1 I am borrowing the notion of “field” from Pierre Bourdieu, who argues:

The fact that every political field tends to be organized around the opposition between two poles (which, like the political parties in the American system, may themselves be constituted by real fields, organized in accordance with analogous distinctions) should not lead us to foget that the recurrent properties of doctrines or groups situated in positions that are polar opposites, ‘the party in favour of change’ and the ‘party of law and order’, ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, ‘left’ and ‘right’, are invariants which can be realized only through the relation to a given field. In this way the properties of political parties recorded by realist typologies can be immediately understood if they are related to the relative power of the two poles, to the distance which separates them and which determines the properties of their occupants, parties or politicians (and, in particular, their tendency to diverge towards the extremes or converge toward the centre), and which therefore also determines the probability of the central intermediary position — the neutral zone — being occupied. The field as a whole is defined a system a deviations on different levels and nothing, either in the institutions or in the agents, the acts of the discourses they produce, has meaning except relationally, by virtue of the interplay of the oppositions and distinctions. (185)

2 See Lugo.

3 See also Allen on this point.

4 See both Trautman and Bieder for readings of Morgan’s schema.