Between Revolution and Racism: Colonialism and the American Indian in The Prairie

Francesca Sawaya (Cornell University)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 126-134).

Copyright © 1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

Analysis of the figure of the Indian in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper tends to fall into three main categories: analysis of Cooper’s sources and why or how he used or distorted them, analysis of the Indian’s role in relation to the debate about Cooper’s romanticism, and analysis of the dichotomies or problematics involved in Cooper’s representations in terms of racialist mythologies. All these modes of analysis have been helpful in working towards an understanding of the highly complicated and tangled text of race relations in Cooper; however, I would like to suggest that another way we can look at the figure of the Indian in his novels is in terms of American colonialism. By American colonialism I mean the two separate but perhaps related phases of American history in which a policy of colonization was effected. The first, of course, is the British colonization of the American continent, and the subservient rebellion by the colonists against Britain. The second is American colonization of America, more commonly referred to as expansionism. To some, it may seem that I am conflating two different historical events under the term colonialism, but I would argue that the term expansionism, to a certain degree, depoliticizes the actions that took place as America acquired territory. Instead, I would follow Walter LaFeber who defines colonialism in the American context as any “policy which attempted to obtain both formal political and economic control of a given area and which especially aimed to use this area as a source of direct economic benefits” (viii). I would suggest also that the parallels between the two phases of colonialism in American history are not lost on Cooper. In fact, to Cooper, the American Indian represents a problematic convergence of conflicting ideologies about American history: the rebellious colonial past and the consolidating colonizing present and future. To understand how colonialism works in the representation of the American Indian in Cooper. I want to turn to what Donald Ringe describes as “probably the richest thematically and the most complex intellectually” (27) of the early Leatherstocking tales, The Prairie. 1

I. The “American Borderer and His European Prototype”

Written in 1827 but set sometime in 1804, The Prairie is a fictionalized debate over the significance that the Louisiana Purchase will have for America and Americans. As has often been argued, the land itself is more than just the setting of novel’s action, it is rather an idea, a “neutral ground” (259), where different races and classes of American society battle for ascendancy over the territory. The novel begins with a discussion of “the purchase.” Cooper states that the land is a truly unifying and imperial acquisition where “party considerations” give way in face of “the wisdom of the measure.” The land is “vast,” “half-tenanted,” and “fertile,” and offers a great economic advantage. Lurking beneath this stated belief in unification, however, is the fear of instability. The “revolutions of the day” could have made the land “the property of a rival nation,” and Cooper implies that no single nation can control such a vast territory by stating that if ever time or necessity shall {127} require a peaceful division of this vast empire our purchase of the land “assures us a neighbour that will possess our language, our religion, and,” adds Cooper perhaps somewhat nervously given the contents of the novel, “it is also to be hoped, our sense of political justice” (9).

It is this anxiety of possession that underlies the action in the text. Where does natural or legal possession of, or natural and legal obligation to, things, land, and, people begin and end? The introduction of the squatter family of Ishmael Bush into the prairie foregrounds this question. The squatter takes both land and people that are not legally his. His illegal activities bring not only white law and civilization into the frontier (Middleton and Inez) but also disrupt what Natty calls ‘Prairie law’ (78) in the process. Bush argues that because ‘The air, the water and the ground are free gifts to man ... no one has the power to portion them out in parcels’ (78). ‘Natur’ denies that either any governor in the States (61) or any ‘red-skin’ (78) owns the land. He represents Natty Bumppo in the extreme, a parallel he himself makes by saying, ‘Come, trapper ... neither of us, I reckon, has ever had much to do with title deeds or County Clerks, or blazed trees’ (79). However, Bush is not an anarchist; he does believe there is a naturally based order of law: the patriarchal family. ‘Where the law of the land is weak,’ argues Ishmael, ‘it is right that the law of natur should be strong’ (93). His law and “the frail web ... of authority with which ... [he] had been able to envelope his children” (93) is that of the patriarch. But in Cooper, the law of the patriarch is a law that resembles nothing so much as a monarchical system of government, and the monarchical system of government is a failed system of colonial government.

The three novels about the American revolution that appeared before The Prairie deal with the British/American relation in terms of familial metaphors. In two of them, the father/guardian of the child must prove his worthiness as father or be displaced.’ Mr. Wharton’s “imbecility” in The Spy in choosing both his personal and political alliances and Colonel Howard’s inability in The Pilot to distinguish a just and true suitor and a just and true cause are symbolic of the failure of the English king to be the “true father” of America. The failure of the squatter as father, as originator of a new country is also manifest and may be worth exploring a little more in depth. From the beginning of The Prairie the family of squatters is shown as “indolent,” “listless,” and “sluggish” (14) if powerful, resistless, and brave. In the first scenes of the novel, the disunity of the family is made clear. There is a mysterious tent whose secret is controlled only by the Father and the Uncle, there is Ellen Wade stealing out on the sly to meet her lover, though knowing the impropriety of such an action, Doctor Bat making new alliances outside of the family, and most important, there are the Indians who, unwatched for, in the first dramatic action of the novel, literally snake their way into the family, in what clearly represents the fall. That is, the Sioux, whom Cooper describes as “treacherous serpents” (49), “reptiles” (53), “demon-like” (57), taking advantage of the squatters’ laxness, enter his camp and outwit him by mimicking him:

... [Mahtoree] was passing on, when Ishmael turned in his lair, and demanded roughly who was moving before his half-opened eyes. Nothing short of the readiness and cunning of a savage could have evaded the crisis. {128} Imitating the gruff tones and nearly unintelligible sounds he heard, Mahtoree threw his body heavily on the earth, and appeared to dispose himself to sleep. Though the whole movement was seen by Ishmael, in a sort of stupid observation, the artifice was too bold and too admirably executed to fail. The drowsy father closed his eyes and slept heavily with this treacherous inmate in the very bosom of his family . (54) (The italics are mine.)

The “internal” threat of the Indians, who are able to enter into the familial “bosom” by pretending to be part of that family, is a threat that the morally lax father creates.

This is more clearly delineated in the father/son conflict of Ishmael and Asa. Precipitated by Ishmael’s shooting at Ellen, which is viewed by his sons with “disapprobation” (90), and which action is justified by Ishmael only by patriarchal authority (’ ... remember I am your Father, and your better’ [90]), it flowers under the realization that the contents of the mysterious tents are not a “beast,” and that Abiram (as well as Ishmael) are not only ‘dealer[s] in black flesh’ but also that they ‘drove the trade into white families’ (92). Possession of the children and of the rights of the children is threatened by the illegal and unrighteous possession of others. The patriarch’s illegal possessions allow for the internal warfare in the family. Abiram kills Asa, Doctor Bat and Ellen Wade join with those who assault the family’s stronghold on the rock. The internecine warfare is the failure of the patriarch, a failure that is at the end spelled out in the family’s return to “the settlements” and subsequent disappearance from the pages of history (“the principals of the family, themselves, were never heard of more” [364]).

The resonance, here, for any Cooper reader is unmistakable. The family metaphor is more than just that; it is a metaphor reflecting an entire ordering of society. Just as the King had no right to the colonies, no right of inheritance, so does Ishmael Bush fail as the model of governance in the new colonies. The right of possession to the new colonies is not his. While the “resemblance between the American borderer and his European prototype is singular,” it is “not always uniform.” Bush and his family, as the Puritans before them, “pave ... the way for the intellectual progress of nations” (66), but unlike the Puritans, they leave no inheritors behind in the new territories.

Many people have argued that the end of The Prairie, with the retreat of all the white characters back to the settlements, suggests that westward expansionism is a movement doomed to failure, that Cooper believes the interior of America will not be filled by white settlers but will be left to the Indians. I would argue this is both true and not true. It is true that he disavows the “natural” or patriarchally structured and authoritarian methods of colonization that the Bush family utilize. That policy would merely be an unjust replication of the English colonization of America, which would breed its own internal dissent and ultimately fail. If the Indian to Cooper, in a certain sense, poses the same dilemma to Americans as Americans did to the British, represents a point where a desire for order and control are at conflict with a desire for nationhood, I would nonetheless argue that Cooper still has a triumphalist notion of American expansionism. For him, the difference between the British/American conflict and the American/native {129} American conflict is that the latter is racial as well as territorial (47273). While the fate of the Bush family implies that restraint is necessary in American expansionism, through and because of the racial aspect, Cooper is unable to sustain his nationalistic critique of colonialism. Instead, he ends by naturalizing the very policy he shows as self-destructive.

II. Men Without Crosses and Loathsome Deformities

Perhaps the most sophisticated theorist of the relationship between culture and colonialism, Gayatri Spivak, argues in her essay, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” that there are “two obvious ‘facts’” forgotten in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature: First, that imperialism “understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English,” and second, that literature had an important “role” “in the production of cultural representation” (262). Relatedly, Spivak argues that in reading the literature of colonialism, we must confront a “double bind” of “ethnocentric” interpretations and “reverse-ethnocentric benevolent” interpretation. That is, the native is often used as a figure against which the individualization of western heroes and heroines occurs in nineteenth-century literature. To understand the relation of ideology and history at operation in this context, she argues, we must in our interpretive work neither focus solely on the process of individualization of the western hero/ine nor must we be “driven by a nostalgia for lost origins” and thus look at the figure of the “’native’ as object for enthusiastic information retrieval” (264). Neither Ariel nor even Caliban, Spivak argues, are the ‘native,’ quoting Roberto Fernandez Retamar, ‘both are slaves in the hands of Prospero, the foreign magician’ (264). The figure of the ‘native’ is never that; s/he is always a part of the historical forces at work that seek to explain her/him. The point is that we must look at how “The stagings of Caliban work alongside the narrativization of history,” how these stagings are complicit in the process of individualization that has othered the ‘native.’ While Spivak’s focus in this essay is primarily on English and particularly English women’s literature of “the great age of imperialism” (262), the connections she draws between historical events and literary texts, as well as her refusal to search for some pre-historical truth are lessons that are instructive for the reading of Cooper and his American “savage.”

The point then in reading Cooper’s Indians is not to judge their authenticity or inauthenticity, the verisimilitude of the portraits that Cooper drew and whether or not they resemble the native American in the nineteenth-century. The discussion about Cooper’s textual sources and their level of reliability is an important one, but only insofar as it emphasizes the textualization or ‘worlding,’ as Spivak calls it, of the Indians and concepts about them. It is important to avoid such a search for the true native in Cooper and instead focus on how Cooper frames and contextualizes the Indian; how in dialogue with the historical currents of the time, he creates ideas about the Indian. The Prairie is a particularly fine text for examining this. The Indian here is paradoxically a figure at the same time placed center stage and offstage. That is, he is from the first pages of the text figured historically out of the text, figured as already contained as an oppositional force in the debate over expansionism: “It [the purchase] gave us sole command of the great thoroughfares of the interior, and placed the countless tribes of savages, who lay along our borders, entirely within our control” (9). While, on the other hand, the action in the novel is set where {130} there are ‘few’ whites and ‘hundreds, nay, thousands,’ as Natty says ‘rightful owners of the country’ (27). Additionally, unconvincing as the ending may be, in it Cooper clearly wants fictionally to avoid marginalizing the Indian in American history, and as William Kelly says, tries to launch “a new era of race relations” with “Hard-Heart ... becoming the figurative son of Natty and brother of Duncan Middleton” (121).

It is true that this is not the first time that Cooper makes the Indian figure as both actually already peripheral, a nondetermining force and as textually centrally determining, but the split is so very strong in The Prairie and so clearly at work in the portrayal of the Indians that it is noteworthy in the Cooper canon. Particularly of interest in this novel is the staging and restaging of “the traumatic scenario of colonial difference” (Bhaba 169), the first-time meetings of different races within a context where the precedence of one over the other has already been established. There are two scenes I want to look at briefly, which, I think, illuminate the colonialist attitudes at work in Cooper.

The first scene I am interested in occurs when Natty and his companions meet Hard-Heart. This is not the first scene where Indians appear in the book, but it is the first one that is thoroughly described since the Sioux earlier in the text have appeared generically and rather confusedly as “A band of beings, who resembled demons rather than men” (37). What is interesting about Hard-Heart’s appearance is that it begins as a parody of colonialist attitudes but ends as a replication of them. Doctor Bat discovers Hard-Heart hiding in a thicket of bushes. Recalling Cooper’s own depiction of the Sioux as “treacherous serpents” (49) and “wily snake[s]” (50), Doctor Bat describes Hard-Heart as a basilisk ... An animal of the order serpens’ (l82). He then attempts to classify this ‘Prodigy! a lusus naturae! a monster ... a specimen that ... completely bids defiance to the distinctions of Class and Genera’ (182). Not only is the western explorer’s mentality with its desire for novelty parodied here, but also the western scientist’s with its reduction of what one does not know to what one does in the classic use of knowledge as power. However, what is truly odd here is that despite the critique implicit in this parody of the western explorer-scientist, two pages later, Cooper himself begins to class Hard-Heart, to use western “science” to reduce the Indian to categories of thought that assume the precedence of western civilization. In a denial of individuality, Cooper writes that “a description of this individual may furnish some idea of the personal appearance of a whole race,” and then goes on to classify Hard-Heart’s facial characteristics as nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well known traces of his Asiatic origin” (186). Like Doctor Bat, who uses Latin to demonstrate his erudition, Cooper reveals the same biases in his valorization of the Roman over the Asiatic, and the same use of knowledge as power. The rest of the description does not attempt such scientificity, but interestingly balances subjective terms of praise (“gallant”) with contempt (“womanish”) (186). But if classification becomes the standard for the white response to the Indian, then admiration and/or desire are the Indian’s premiere response to the white. Hard-Heart, after being forced from his hiding spot by Natty’s gun, makes clear in conversation with Natty that he knows of the white man “much more by report than by any actual intercourse,” a fact which “was as much betrayed by the manner in which he regarded the females, as by the brief, but energetick, expressions which, occasionally escaped him” (189). Cooper’s description of Hard-Heart’s opinion of the whites significantly sexualized so that it reveals desire as well as {131} admiration, is worth quoting at length:

While speaking to the trapper, he [Hard-Heart] suffered his wandering glances to stray towards the intellectual and nearly infantile beauty of Inez, as one might be supposed to gaze upon the loveliness of an ethereal being. It was very evident that he now saw, for the first time, one of those females, of whom the fathers of his tribe so often spoke, and who were considered of such rare excellence as to equal all that savage ingenuity could imagine in the way of loveliness. (189)

This reaction, like Cooper’s physical description of Hard-Heart, serves generally not just for the individual but for the race, so that though there is a significant difference in Mahtoree’s response to Inez, as we shall see, it is nonetheless described in much the same language (216, but see also 258-59 and 270).

This motif of women as symbols of the white ways which astound, provoke, and elude the Cooper Indian is re-enacted with an interesting twist in another staging of the colonial scene of meeting that I want to discuss: Mahtoree’s marriage proposal to Inez and Ellen. In this scene, which has been overlooked in the major discussions of The Prairie, many of the themes we have been discussing come together. It is a reworking of the successful symbolic alliance between the Creole Inez and the Yankee Middleton. In that case, “The barriers of prejudice and religion were broken through by the irresistible power of the Master Passion, and family unions, ere long, began to cement the political tie which had made a forced conjunction between people so opposite” (156), so that in imitation of his nation, Middleton marries “the richest heiress on the banks of the Mississippi” “six months” after the Louisiana Purchase (158). No such marital, and consequently territorial/politica1, union can be envisioned for native Americans and Yankees. The native American cannot join Cooper’s American family. This fact is depicted not so much through the failure of Mahtoree’s proposal, but through the good, natural Indian versus bad, unnatural Indian dichotomy set up in the scene. Mahtoree’s ‘desperate villain[y]’ (283), as Natty calls it, is played off of his Indian wife, Tachechana’s guilelessness.

On the one hand, Mahtoree who aspires to the white women has been much in contact with white civilization:

He had held frequent communion with the traders and troops of the Canadas and the intercourse had unsettled many of those wild opinions which were his birthright, without perhaps substituting any others of a nature sufficiently definite to be profitable. (288)

The connection between his contact with white civilization and his depravity in aspiring to marriage with white women is made clear in the contrast immediately set up between him and Tachechana. Tachechana is pure Indian to Cooper, so natural that to describe her Cooper himself falls into the use of metaphors taken from nature that he usually reserves for the speech of his Indian characters. Tachechana’s “complexion” is “less dazzling” than that of {132} [Inez], but it “was, for her race, clear and healthy, her hazel eye had the sweetness and playfulness of the antelope’s, her voice was soft and joyous as the song of the wren, and her happy laugh was the very melody of the forest” (287). Mahtoree is the corrupted Indian, thus his response to white superiority is to aspire to it; Tachechana is the natural Indian, thus her response is to succumb to it. The difference in their reactions is dramatically played out after Tachechana hears Mahtoree’s marriage proposal to Inez and Ellen. Tachechana’s “ingenuous disposition” has already “freely admitted the superiority of the strangers, over the less brilliant attractions of the Dahcotah maidens” (288), but now she resists and bars Mahtoree’s exit with her body and their child. Wordlessly, Mahtoree responds, first, by making Tachechana “contemplate ... [Inez’s] loveliness,” and then when “abundant time had passed to make the contrast sufficiently striking,” he raises a mirror he had given her to her face and “placed her own dark image in its place.” The result is that Tachechana immediately acknowledges her own “deformity,” and finds it “loathsome” (293). Her face is marked at the moment for all the “years which in the vicissitudes of a suffering, female, savage life she was subsequently doomed to lead” by “a single expression of subdued anguish” (293-94). Tachechana then lays all her jewelry and her child at Inez’s feet.

There is much worth commenting on in this staging of the unnatural and natural Indian response to the white. First of all, there is the assumed fact that the white is superior, and that this is an immediately visible fact in race relations — even should these race relations be riddled with the unjust actions of the whites. Cooper can only imagine the Indian’s response to the whites as the racialist white reaction to the Indians; that is, he imagines the Indians as seeing themselves as other than themselves. To the Indian as well as to the white man, the Indian is not the true self but a variation, even a “deformity,” of nature. Even if this idea is put in terms of civilization and savagery, the racial terms of the argument are clear. The political import of the argument is also clear. In a book in which familial unity is the metaphor for political unity, that even the aspiration for interracial marriage should be entirely framed as an unnatural aspiration signifies a great deal. In addition, the Tachechanas and Hard-Hearts who admire but do not aspire to or resist, who accept their secondary status, 2 in Spivak’s description of this scenario, represent “an allegory of the general epistemic violence of imperialism, the construction of a self-immolating colonial subject for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer” (27). We can see in these “native’s” non-resistance to “civilization,” the truth of the necessity for and superiority of “civilization,” while at the same time we can indulge in a sentimental admiration for their “native” and authentically Indian nobility.

III. Conclusion

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said argues that in “such complex matters as culture and ideas,” one should not apply “mechanistically and deterministically” “big facts like imperial domination.” He elaborates:

My idea is that European and then American interest in the Orient was political according to some of the obvious historical accounts of it that I have given here, but that it was the culture that created that interest that acted dynamically along with brute {133} political, economic, and military rationales (12).

If in this essay I have somewhat failed to be other than mechanistic about the convergence of nationalistic and revolutionary metaphors from the American revolution with colonialist attitudes in the figure of the American Indian, it is in part because I wanted to stress how intimately Cooper’s texts are aligned with the “brute” realities of his day, with the racism, even sentimentalized racism that made American expansionism possible. I would suggest here that we need to read Cooper much more politically, not, as Said says, so as to denigrate his accomplishment, but rather so that “we can better understand the persistence and durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture ... [and] realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting” (14). Cooper’s thinking about the American Indian and the “significance” of western expansionism were enormously productive in their ambivalences and contradictions, and they were enormously influential, for good or for bad, at all levels of American culture from the nineteenth century till today. We must attempt to read the Cooper Indian within the context of American history and try to unravel how his creation was informed by the political, economic, and intellectual events and discourse of the day and how he came to work dynamically with them to consolidate as well as to critique American national hegemony.

Cornell University

Works Cited

  • Bhaba, Homi K. “Signs Taken as Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” Gates, 163-84.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Race,” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • Kelly, William P. Plotting America’s Past. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • LeFeber, Walter. The New Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963.
  • McWilliams, John, P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
  • Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
  • Spivak, Gayatri. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Gates, 263-80.


1 Of course, many of Cooper’s other novels are variations on this theme, but for this paper, it will only be important to note the colonial family metaphor.

2 I refer here to the much commented on scene in the novel where Hard-Heart refuses to ally himself with Mahtoree, in spite of the mutual threat they both face from the white man. In fact, it is Mahtoree who proposes the alliance, and it is suggested in the text that his proposal is merely a ruse to put Hard-Heart off his guard. It is worth noting here also that at the end of the novel it is, in fact, the two self-abnegating and pure Indians who are in alliance, rather than two tribes. That is, instead of envisioning any possible public alliance between Indian tribes, Cooper reverts to a private alliance, a private alliance between the two good/non-resistant Indians — Tachechana and Hard-Heart.