Can the Twain Meet through Acculturation? The Cultural Hybrids in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales

Aiping Zhang (California State University at Chico)

Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 102-106).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Brooding over the frustration with the wrangling cultural clashes between the British colonizers and their colonized natives, Rudyard Kipling laments in “The Ballad of East and West,” “Oh, East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” 1 Amazingly, such a frustration was also wide spread among writers on this side of the Atlantic. Many writers sought to provide justification for the conquering of Native Americans by creating a stereotypical image of the “savage” who must either be tamed or destroyed. Other writers, such as Cooper, adopted a more complex approach. While still clinging to some of those stereotypes, Cooper was not inherently hostile toward Native Americans. He knew that cultural clashes were inevitable when the Westerners imposed their beliefs and values on the natives. What he suggested is not a blatant elimination of the ethnic culture of Native Americans, but rather an insidious eclipse of their ethnicity through a process of what later anthropologists called “acculturation”: an adaptive appropriation of elements of one culture into another. In this case, it is an appropriation of white culture into the Native American way of life.

The term “acculturation” was not in use during Cooper’s time, because it first appeared in the writings of an American anthropologist, J.W. Powell, in 1880, and it did not finds its way into The Oxford English Dictionary until 1989. But the concept of cultural adaptations between a subordinate and the dominant culture was by no means a new phenomenon in the history of the encounters between the East and the West. In fact, it is the most important issue in colonial writing. According to Jeffrey Meyers’s definition, “Colonial novels consider the cultural conflict that develops when Europe imposes its manners, customs, religious beliefs and moral values on an indigenous way of life.” 2 For years, scholars have differed in defining the nature and aspects of acculturation, but agree that acculturation occurs on two levels, individual and group, and has three types of operation: first, people of different cultures voluntarily adopt cultural traits from each other because of prolonged contact; second, the dominant culture imposes its ideas and values upon the people from non-dominant cultures; third, people from different cultures respect and appreciate each other’s culture. Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans and the white settlers in The Leatherstocking Tales shows us a prime example of how acculturation operates in various types, steps, and on various levels. It is so comprehensive and credible that many see it as what had charmed the reading public at home and abroad and “determined how the world was to regard the American Indian” for a long time. 3

By the time Cooper started writing The Leatherstocking Tales, the native population had been virtually eliminated from the upstate New York area, and “the frontier had been pushed across the Missouri.” 4 Cooper himself had little or no personal contact with Native Americans, just like the vast majority of his contemporary readers, who, to borrow Randall C. Davis’s words, “accepted without hesitation the distinction between ‘savagism’ and ‘civilization’ as an explanation for Native Americans’ perceived inabilities to assimilate neatly into Euro-American society.” 5 Though widely viewed as a sympathizer, if not a staunch advocate, for Native Americans, “Cooper was ambivalent about the westering advance of the society to which he belonged.” 6 Perhaps that is the reason why he did not clearly reveal in The Leatherstocking Tales his stand on the cultural clashes between the whites and the natives, especially the removal of the native from their lands. He seems to be more concerned with the ways of acculturating the native into the white society. While believing in the superiority of the Western civilization and the justification for dispossessing the “uncivilized” Native Americans, the typical mentality in the 19ᵗʰ century America, Cooper did not advocate a total elimination of the Native American way of life. But his solution to the cultural clashes between the two is the Native American appropriation to the Western culture through “acculturation,” rather than “assimilation.” The former calls for a voluntary or forced acquisition of the culture of the dominant group, a kind of cultural modification from one group of people to another, or more specifically, a process of cultural adaptation by the subordinate people toward the dominant people’s culture within the context of social advancement in American society at that time. The latter indicates the disappearance of group identity through nondifferential association and exogamy, which requires a mutual effort of both dominant and ethnic groups. Cooper was keenly aware that, to his contemporaries, that was something to be wished for but entirely non-feasible. His perception of the encounters between the European colonizers and their colonized natives convinced him that the acculturation occurring during the process of the Western overseas expansion was basically a confrontation between two different racial and cultural identities, or rather a unidirectional imposition upon the “host” but conquered society. Disgusted with attempts to justify colonialization by creating stereotypical images of the “savage,” Cooper was more interested in the encounter and contrast between the static man of primeval nature and the representative of an [103] advancing civilization. Even though he used some clichés of the time in portraying the “uncivilized” traits of his Native American characters, Cooper became the first American novelist who featured Native Americans and their culture prominently but credibly in his work. At least, Cooper tried to declare that the acculturation that took place in the White-Native American encounters was a two-way appropriation, even in a limited sense. He wanted to show that while acculturation mostly occurred in the form of Native Americans gradually conforming to white cultural standards, the white colonists could and did appropriate certain elements of native culture, particularly those practical elements which proved useful under colonial conditions. Such an acculturation was a conscious move on the part of the white colonists because, as David Murray observes, “Given the context of radical inequality of power between the two cultures, representation and comprehension of Indians by whites involves an appropriation, even an expropriation, parallel to the economic expropriation which is its context.” 7 They believed that it would lead to a greater knowledge of the natives by the colonists, which in turn would lead to a greater ability to exploit the natives and eventually to a complete appropriation of them. It is widely documented that Cooper admitted his support for what the white settlers did in their westward expansion-he actually acknowledges in The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking Tales to be written but the next to last in the sequence of events, that “the Europeans, or, to use a more significant term, the Christians, dispossessed the original owners of the soil” 8 — and justified it by saying that it was part of the noble mission of Christianity and therefore “part of a universal moral progress which it was the special destiny of American to manifest.” 9 However, it is equally undeniable that he appreciated some aspects of the native culture. On the one hand, Cooper saw acculturation as ultimately desirable and encouraged it in his fiction, but he revealed the distinct limits to its potential on the other, because he was not certain whether a two-way acculturation would ever be accomplished and work out well for both cultures.

While exploring the multi-level cultural clashes between the European settlers and the Native Americans, Cooper creates some acculturated natives and whites, who enter a middle ground between the conflicting cultures and, while retaining their own cultural identities, appropriate the best elements of each other’s culture. The portrayal of John Mohegan is essentially a study of an acculturated native, being transformed into a Europeanized and Christianized man, respectful, harmless, and religious enough to coexist with the whites. Mohegan is an aged Indian in The Pioneers, but he appears in later Leatherstocking novels as the more youthful Chingachgook, the father of Uncas. In many ways, Mohegan is a largely acculturated Indian. Cooper presents Mohegan in that image upon his first appearance in The Pioneers, “From his long association with the white-men, the habits of Mohegan, were a mixture of the civilized and the savage states, though there was certainly a strong preponderance in favor of the latter. In common with all his people, who dwelt within the influence of the Anglo-Americans, he had acquired new wants, and his dress was a mixture of his native and European fashions” (85-86). Though he was not the only Indian who picked up cultural traits from the whites through bilateral contact, as Cooper informs us here, Mohegan went several steps further in his acculturation.

Perhaps, the most conspicuous sign of John Mohegan’s acculturation is his oddly mixed name. By calling him John, a common English and Christian name, Cooper seems to resist any attempt by the reader to associate Mohegan with all the other wild-looking barbarians. Interestingly, Cooper does not let Mohegan appear in completely European attire, but we see him wearing his long and coarse hair, his blanket and buckskin leggings, and displaying many of his Native American traits from time to time. He is not entirely like the kind of Indians defined by the famous ethnohistorian, James Axtell, whose “degree of acculturation could almost be read in his appearance.” 10 But the fact that he has changed his traditional Indian garb speaks volumes about his willingness and potential to be “civilized” by the white settlers; the medal of George Washington he is wearing further indicates his acceptance of and association with European thoughts and values. Looking from another angle, the colonizers’ side, Mohegan is already set apart from other “uncivilized” and hostile Indians. He is presented as a representative of what Rousseau called “natural man and his inherent goodness,” just the opposite to those “savage reactionaries” like Magua, who seems to give way to his “savage” wickedness and confront the intrusion of white culture with violent defiance. A strong proof can be found in the scene where Judge Temple, who is acting as the representative of the white authority through his capacities of the judge and the principal landholder of Templeton, extends his hand to Mohegan and says, “Thou art welcome, John” (87). Here, the extension of hand and the first-name greeting to an Indian apparently symbolize Mohegan’s considerable, if not complete, conversion toward the white culture. Otherwise, such a treatment for a barbarian and violent Indian would be absolutely unthinkable. The irony is that, as if he is still uncertain whether his reader can realize the high degree of Mohegan’s acculturation, Cooper gives our Indian friend another chance to show his newly acquired moral visions by stretching this handshaking scene with a dramatic twist. Unexpectedly, both to Judge Temple and the reader, Mohegan refuses to take the Judge’s hand. On the contrary, he starts blaming the Judge for shooting a young white hunter, because, as he has learned from the whites, people like the Judge “do not love the sight of blood” and hands like the Judge’s “should do no evil!” (87). Having immersed himself so deeply in the widely propagated myth about the white virtues and righteousness, it seems impossible for Mohegan to comprehend any white man’s doing that which goes [104] against the white beliefs and codes. Only when he is eventually convinced by Judge Temple and Mr. Grant that the shooting was an incident and therefore Judge Temple was innocent does Mohegan shake hands with the Judge and say, “He is innocent — my brother has not done this” (87). Again, here is another irony. The word “brother” Mohegan used in addressing the Judge is as deceiving as the name “John,” which the Judge used in greeting Mohegan, since Mohegan is not really a “John,” at least not yet, and the Judge is not really a “brother” figure to Mohegan, at least the Judge does not take it wholeheartedly.

Then, how acculturated is John Mohegan? As Christianity is the core of Western culture, the conversion to Christianity is naturally a primary criterion for any transformation of “uncivilized” being. Cooper certainly understands this well, as he painstakingly stages the scene of Mohegan going to the religious activities and services. First, we see Mohegan listening to Mr. Grant’s patronizing lectures and at one point even offering to act as a missionary; then, we spot him entering the town church during the service accompanied by his Indianized white friend, Natty Bumppo, and sitting down alongside Judge Temple, as if he were also a prominent figure in this Christian gathering. During the service, he is “immovable, but deeply attentive” (125), just as are all the others in the church. From that handshake with Judge Temple to this church visit, Cooper has been trying meticulously to paint the image of Mohegan as a fully acculturated man, who is no longer a “savage” and dangerous Indian, but instead a respectful and harmless Christian, “civilized” enough to be accepted by the white culture. What is untold in this whole episode of Mohegan’s transformation, however, is Cooper’s innate belief in and pride for the superiority of the European culture. This is evidenced by the premise under which Mohegan goes through his acculturation. He has to recognize and be willing to accept the perceived superiority of Christianity and Western civilization. Specifically speaking, he must admit the inferiority of his own religion and culture, and discard all the traces of them in himself as thoroughly as possible. He must worship the white man’s God, speak their language, English, and adopt their hobbies and manners. A case in point is the scene when Mohegan sits in a tavern surrounded by a bunch of white settlers who are singing in ear-piercing tones. One of them asks him, “Well, old John, what do you think of the music? As good as one of your war-songs, ha!” Mohegan’s answer is simply “Good” (164). The reference to the Indian “war-songs” and the “ha” at the end of the question instantly reveal the condescending tone in the white settler’s voice. Needless to say, the Indian “war-song” which was always considered to be an essential and well-cherished part of their tradition is rendered as inferi Mohegan’s white civilizers.

However trivial it may seem, this short exchange between Mohegan and the singing settler corresponds to Cooper’s earlier presentation of the mixed provenance of Mohegan’s attire both in implication and technique. If Mohegan’s attire is not European enough to justify his total acculturation to white culture, Mohegan’s short and gloomy answer to the singing settler’s question about the music is obvious enough to reveal his reluctance to sever all his innate ties to the Native American traditions. His reluctance is strongly proved by what happens moments before his death near the end of The Pioneers. Knowing that the time of his death is drawing near, Mohegan completely reverts to his Indian tradition, painting his face and body, decorating himself with Indian ornaments, rejecting European clothing, and losing his ability to make baskets. Most importantly, however, Mohegan’s belief in Christianity is gone, but his love for the Indian faith is back. Ultimately, Mohegan dies as an Indian, ascending to his Indian paradise. For him, as he describes in his last words, “The path is clear, and the eyes of Mohegan grow young. I look — but I see no white-skins; there are none to be seen but just and brave Indians” (421). On the surface, Cooper might want us to be sad and, even, shocked to discover that Mohegan has never been as wholly “civilized” as he seems. His ulterior aim, however, is to use the reversal of Mohegan’s acculturation, or what might be called the “deculturation” of Mohegan, to warn his contemporaries that the transformation of Native Americans through acculturation will never succeed. As he declares through the mouth of Natty Bumppo, “It’s hard to keep them from going back to their native ways” (421).

Cooper’s portrayal of John Mohegan in The Pioneers embodies his own ambivalence toward the ideal of coexistence between the white settlers and the Native Americans. On the one hand, he believes that such a coexistence is desirable, but should be defined and facilitated on the white men’s terms; on the other hand, he is frustrated over the impossibility of appropriating the natives into the white way of life. It is important to point out, however, that Cooper’s interest in the acculturation of the Native Americans is not entirely for their well being, but rather for a wider and stronger dominance of the white culture in the early 19ᵗʰ century America. He never doubts that a comprehensive knowledge of the indigenous culture would give the white colonizers a greater advantage and ultimately a tighter control over the colonized native. But knowing this is one thing and actually trying to obtain it is another. Due to a combination of the colonial mentality and the racial assumptions among the white settlers, it would not be feasible for Cooper to advocate a collective, sincere, and well-organized effort for that purpose. What Cooper did is to create a white counterpart of John Mohegan in Natty Bumppo, alias Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, etc., a white man who changes his name, and “who puts Western civilization behind him to live in the woods, and in whose personality are joined the natural freedom of the wilderness and the moral conscience of civilization”. 11 True, just as John Mohegan is the first of his kind in American literature, there seems to be no one like Bumppo from his race before. As the hero of all five [105] Leatherstocking Tales, Bumppo is definitely a more prominent figure in the early American literature, and has been known as “the archetypal Westerner whose legend is the essential myth of America” ever since.” 12 His uniqueness lies in the fact that he is the first white man to be integrated into the native society perfectly, not as a missionary, a settler, or a trader, but as a companion, friend, and helper.

As we have seen in the portrayal of Mohegan, Cooper’s characterization of Bumppo relies on suggestive traits in his appearance and personality. During his continuous and life-long contact with the Indians, Bumppo dresses, speaks, hunts, and lives like an Indian and makes close friends among the Indians. While Mohegan picks up a Christian first name but maintains his Indian last name, Bumppo has a totally non-Western name, as if the symbolic naming is selected to mark his departure from his white culture. But that is an obvious deception, for Cooper never intends to turn Bumppo into an Indian. It would be a mistake to see Bumppo as one of the few Englishmen during the colonial period who were willingly integrated into Indian tribes “by running away from colonial society ... by not trying to escape after being captured, electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.” 13 Bumppo started his contact with the Indians on his own and, despite being away from the white culture for over seventy years, had never renounced all his “white” attributes. At his core, he is never completely acculturated into a native. He is a cultural synthesis at most, and a kind of ideal double agent who can initiate, promote, and facilitate the acculturation between the colonizers and the colonized. Thanks to the 19ᵗʰ century taboos among the white settlers, Cooper makes an extra effort in The Leatherstocking Tales to stress the differences between the white and the native as a matter of race, so as to ensure that Bumppo is not viewed as a “half-breed,” a runaway colonist, or a total convert, because how Bumppo is viewed by Cooper’s white audience is the key to his credibility. In The Pioneers, rumors travel around in Templeton that “in his youth, he [Bumppo] was an Indian warrior, or what is the same thing, a white man leagued with the savages” (263); in The Last of the Mohicans, Bumppo himself states, “All who know me know that there is no cross in my veins”; 14 in The Prairie, Bumppo insists, “It is not to be grainsayed, that my feelings as well as my skin are white.” 15 He is also, as Forrest G. Robinson suggests, “the novel’s most vigorous spokesman for civilized values.” 16

In his physical appearance, Bumppo’s racial affiliation is deliberately indeterminate and murky. When he is first introduced near the outset of The Pioneers, Bumppo is wearing a coat with Indian ornaments. In The Last of the Mohicans, as in later novels, Bumppo is described as “one whose skin in neither red nor pale” (500). People, including whites, find it hard to identify his color. In his daily life, Bumppo is a perfect alloy of both cultural characteristics. He learns to speak native languages, to fish, to hunt, and to battle as well as any Indian man. In his belief, it is the only way to deal with the native effectively. As we see in The Last of the Mohicans, he warns a young officer, “Whoever comes into the woods to deal with the natives, must use Indian fashions, if he would wish to prosper in his undertakings” (66). While discussing the issue of acculturation in The Leatherstocking Tales, D.H. Lawrence observes that “there can be no fusion in the flesh. But the spirit can change. ... The white man’s spirit ... can cease to be the opposite and the negative of the red man’s spirit. It can open out a great new area of consciousness, in which there is room for the red man’s spirit too.” 17 He knows all the things the colonizers need to know about the Indians, but he is not interested in working for them, at least not all the time. Besides, his only consistent companions in The Leatherstocking Tales are Chingachgook and Uncas, and they always live between the whites and Indians but away from either environment. As he ages in the wilderness, Bumppo runs around between the receding frontier and the approaching white settlement, not only because he wants “to escape the wasteful temper” of his people, 18 but also because he has already become too “nativized” to go back to his civilization. By virtue of his knowledge of both cultures and his lack of permanent attachment to any communities, native or white, Bumppo is able to act as a cultural mediator, serving as an interpreter, an ambassador for both races, and a critic of the injustices by the whites; he is also able to work as a promoter of racial harmony and cultural acceptance, enhancing mutual understanding through eliminating misconceptions between the whites and Native Americans, and preparing the native for the encroachment of the white culture through facilitating cultural exchanges between them. What should be pointed out, however, is that Bumppo remains white deep inside himself all along; he has never intended to give up his white heritage. When he approaches death in The Prairie, it is no surprise to see Bumppo undergo a similar “deculturation” as John Mohegan did, claiming that he wants to die as a white man, not a native. Furthermore, that he is more tolerant and supportive toward Native Americans than his contemporary white society should not conceal the fact that what Bumppo has done as a cultural double agent mainly serves the interests of the dominant culture from which he comes, more specifically, the white conquest of the native and the advancement of the Westward expansion.

At a time when the vast majority of the white men refused to recognize anything worthy or even human in the Native Americans, Cooper’s attempt to portray Natty Bumppo as a synthetic character of both white and native traits should be commended and seen as a big step toward the beginning of a national sensibility toward racial and cultural differences. “Because,” as John McWilliams observes, “Hawkeye’s cultural relativism is well in advance of Cooper’s time”. 19 “Many critics of Mohicans have been fascinated by its complex treatment of racial issues and especially of racial [106] mixture. ... Cooper is remarkably successful in allowing all this forbidden stuff to rise to the surface and the text inscribes the explicit suppression ... and the celebration of the possibility.” 21 It would be wrong to see The Leatherstocking Tales only as “dramatizations of ‘savagism’ in America, allegorically and symbolically justifying the white conquest of America by portraying it as an historically inevitable march of progress across the continent.” 21 What Cooper tries to show is that while acculturation could exchange the better qualities between cultures, no acculturation from either side would be complete. As Natty Bumppo says in The Pathfinder, “The white man has his difficulties in getting redskin habits, quite as much as the Indian in getting whiteskin ways. As for the real natur’, it is my opinion that neither can actually get that of the other.” 22 Cooper’s answer to the question about the possible coexistence of two opposing cultures is a definite “no.” In his view, the “twain” will never meet through acculturation, at least not in his time.


1 Rudyard Kipling, Departmental Ditties and Barrack-Room Ballads (New York: Doubleday, 1913), “Ballads” 3.

2 Jeffrey Meyers, Fiction and the Colonial Experience (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973), vii.

3 For more information, see Paul A.W. Wallace’s discussion of Cooper’s impact in his article, “Cooper’s Indians,” New York History 35 (1954), 423.

4 Elizabeth I. Hanson, The American Indian in American Literature: A Study in Metaphor (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), 10.

5 Randall C. Davis, “Fire-Water in the Frontier Romance: James Fenimore Cooper and ‘Indian Nature’, in Studies in American Fiction 22:2 (Autumn 1994), 215.

6 Terence Martin, “From Atrocity to Requiem: History in The Last of the Mohicans,” in New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 47.

7 David Murray, “From Speech to Text: The Making of American Indian Autobiographies,” in American Literary Landscapes: The Fiction and the Fact, eds. lan F.A. Bell and D.K. Adams (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989), 30.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers [1823] (New York: Penguin, 1988), 83.

9 Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953), 212.

10 James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 59.

11 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “The Romance of the Colonial Frontier: Simms, Cooper, the Indians, and the Wilderness,” in American Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson, eds. J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 113.

12 Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1969), 118.

13 Axtell, op cit., 170.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans [1826] (New York: Lancer, 1968), 314.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie [1827] (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 370.

16 Forrest G. Robinson, “Uncertain Borders: Race, Sex, and Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans,” in Arizona Quarterly 47:1 (Spring 1991), 1.

17 D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 61.

18 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie, 213.

19 John McWilliams, The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995), 63.

20 Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels: A Secular Reading (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 266.

21 For more information on this issue, see Gary Ashwill’s “Savagism and Its Discontents: James Fenimore Cooper and His Native American Contemporaries,” in American Transcendental Quarterly 8:3 (Sept. 1994), 211.

22 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder [1840] (New York: Airmont, 1964), 27.