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Mark Twain, Indian Hater

A continuation of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Mark Twain, Indian Hater:

Ever wonder what Tom and Huck did after they lit out for the territory? Fought savage and merciless Indians, that's what. Twain's work is full of nasty references to America's Native people.

The following is a masterful account of Twain's Indians, with excerpts from his work:

Unfortunately, Twain seldom takes up his pen to probe racist sentiments underlying American policy and feelings towards Native Americans. Instead, he inscribes a scenario of degeneration and innate savageness that he attributes as inherent to all Native Americans (albeit under the cover of deconstructing the harmful idealization of American Indians in literature). It is not until his 1897 travel book, Following the Equator, that Twain begins to evince a sympathetic tone toward American Indians and different aboriginal groups around the world. However, this tone is largely ambivalent, and is always tinged with a fatalistic note that reminds the reader that all aboriginals are destined to pass away as the Darwinian advance of civilization routes them out.

Rob's note:  I urge you to visit each link and see what the author has to say about the following works:

The Noble Red Man (1870)

Its tone is ambivalent, and while the narrator does assert that Indians are dirty, lying, thieving beggars, we as readers are unsure if we are to take him seriously, or accept his rhetoric as frustrated resistance against unrealistic narratives modeled in the Romantic fashion.

He is ignoble—base and treacherous, and hateful in every way. Not even imminent death can startle him into a spasm of virtue. The ruling trait of all savages is a greedy and consuming selfishness, and in our Noble Red Man it is found in its amplest development. His heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts. With him, gratitude is an unknown emotion; and when one does him a kindness, it is safest to keep the face toward him, lest the reward be an arrow in the back. To accept of a favor from him is to assume a debt which you can never repay to his satisfaction, though you bankrupt yourself trying. To give him a dinner when he is starving, is to precipitate the whole hungry tribe upon your hospitality, for he will go straight and fetch them, men, women, children, and dogs, and these they will huddle patiently around your door, or flatten their noses against your window, day after day, gazing beseechingly upon every mouthful you take, and unconsciously swallowing when you swallow! The scum of the earth!

All history and honest observation will show that the Red Man is a skulking coward and a windy braggart, who strikes without warning—usually from an ambush or under cover of night, and nearly always bringing a force of about five or six to one against his enemy; kills helpless women and little children, and massacres the men in their beds; and then brags about it as long as he lives, and his son and his grandson and great-grandson after him glorify it among the "heroic deeds of their ancestors."

Niagara (1871)

[A] disturbing anecdotal piece featuring Twain's novice narrator who meets the Indians he has read about, but with very different results.

"Noble Red Men, Braves, Grand Sachems, War Chiefs, Squaws, and High Muck-a-Mucks, the pale-face from the land of the setting sun greets you! You, Beneficent Polecat— you, Devourer of Mountains— you, Roaring Thundergust— you, Bully Boy with a Glass eye— the paleface from beyond the great waters greets you all! War and pestilence have thinned your ranks and destroyed your once proud nation. Poker and seven-up, and a vain modern expense for soap, unknown to your glorious ancestors, have depleted your purses. Appropriating, in your simplicity, the property of others has gotten you into trouble. Misrepresenting facts, in your simple innocence, has damaged your reputation with the soulless usurper. Trading for forty-rod whisky, to enable you to get drunk and happy and tomahawk your families, has played the ever-lasting mischief with the picturesque pomp of your dress, and here you are, in the broad light of the nineteenth century, gotten up like the ragtag and bobtail of the purlieus of New York. For shame! Remember your ancestors! Recall their mighty deeds! Remember Uncas!— and Red Jacket!— and Hole in the Day!— and Whoopdedoodledo! Emulate their achievements! Unfurl yourselves under my banner, noble savages, illustrious gutter-snipes—"

Roughing It (1872)

Here Twain's treatment of American Indians is similar to that of The Noble Redman; he is involved in deconstructing Cooperian myths and reinscribing a Native American culture of degeneration.

On the morning of the sixteenth day out from St. Joseph we arrived at the entrance of Rocky Canyon, two hundred and fifty miles from Salt Lake. It was along in this wild country somewhere, and far from any habitation of white men, except the stage stations, that we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent; inferior to even the Tierra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa. Indeed, I have been obliged to look the bulky volumes of Wood's Uncivilized Races of Men clear through in order to find a savage tribe degraded enough to take rank with the Goshoots. I find but one people fairly open to that shameful verdict. It is the Bosjesmans (Bushmen) of South Africa. Such of the Goshoots as we saw, along the road and hanging about the stations, were small, lean, "scrawny" creatures; in complexion a dull black like the ordinary American negro; their faces and hands bearing dirt which they had been hoarding and accumulating for months, years, and even generations, according to the age of the proprietor; a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other "Noble Red Men" that we (do not) read about, and betraying no sign in their countenances; indolent, everlastingly patient and tireless, like all other Indians; priceless beggars—for if the beggar instinct were left out of an Indian he would not "go," any more than a clock without a pendulum; hungry, always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline; hunters, but having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jackass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers, and embezzle carrion from the buzzards and cayotes; savages who, when asked if they have the common Indian belief in a Great Spirit show a something which almost amounts to emotion, thinking whisky is referred to; a thin, scattering race of almost naked black children, these Goshoots are, who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities—a people whose only shelter is a rag cast on a bush to keep off a portion of the snow, and yet who inhabit one of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit.

Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Injun Joe acts out of more than just an evil nature—he is evil because of his "Indian blood," a fact which the novel's characters reiterate repeatedly.

I tell you again, as I've told you before, I don't care for her swag—you may have it. But her husband was rough on me—many times he was rough on me—and mainly he was the justice of the peace that jugged me for a vagrant. And that ain't all. It ain't the millionth part of it! He had me horsewhipped!—horsewhipped in front of the jail, like a nigger!—with all the town looking on! HORSEWHIPPED!—do you understand? He took advantage of me and died. But I'll take it out on her.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians (approx. 1884)—unfinished story

The devious nature of the Indians who double-cross and then massacre the loving Mills family, and Peggy's implied brutal rape, eliminate any possibility of a positive racial relationship between whites and American Indians.

[Jim and Tom discuss Indians]

Dey's powful ornery lot, anyway."

"Who is?"

"Why, de Injuns."

"Who says so?"

"Why, I says so."

"What do you know about it?"

'What does I know 'bout it? I knows dis much. Ef dey ketches a body out, dey'll take en skin him same as dey would a dog. Dat's what I knows 'bout 'em."


[Tom lists every known positive stereotype about Indians]

"You reckon maybe you've been mistaken. Well, you have. Injuns ornery! It's the most ignorant idea that ever—why, Jim, they're the noblest human beings that's ever been in the world. If a white man tells you a thing, do you know it's true? No, you don't; because generally it's a lie. But if an Injun tells you a thing, you can bet on it every time for the petrified fact; because you can't get an Injun to lie, he would cut his tongue out first. If you trust to a white man's honor, you better look out; but you trust to an Injun's honor, and nothing in the world can make him betray you—he would die first, and be glad to. An Injun is all honor. It's what they're made of. You ask a white man to divide his property with you—will he do it? I think I see him at it; but you go to an Injun, and he'll give you everything he's got in the world. It's just the difference between an Injun and a white man. They're just all generousness and unstingeableness. And brave? Why, they ain't afraid of anything. If there was just one Injun, and a whole regiment of white men against him, they wouldn't stand the least show in the world,—not the least. You'd see that splendid gigantic Injun come war-whooping down on his wild charger all over paint and feathers waving his tomahawk and letting drive with his bow faster than anybody could count the arrows and hitting a soldier in any part of his body he wanted to, every time, any distance, and in two minutes you'd see him cantering off with a wheelbarrow-load of scalps and the rest of them stampeding for the United States the same as if the menagerie was after them. Death?—an Injun don't care shucks for death. They prefer it. They sing when they're dying—sing their deathsong. You take an Injun and stick him full of arrows and splinters, and hack him up with a hatchet, and skin him, and start a slow fire under him, and do you reckon he minds it? No sir; he will just set there in the hot ashes, perfectly comfortable, and sing, same as if he was on salary. Would a white man? You know he wouldn't. And they're the most gigantic magnificent creatures in the whole world, and can knock a man down with a barrel of flour as far as they can see him. They're awful strong, and fiery, and eloquent, and wear beautiful blankets, and war paint, and moccasins, and buckskin I clothes, all over beads, and go fighting and scalping every day in the year but Sundays, and have a noble good time, and they love friendly white men, and just dote on them, and can't do too much for them, and would rather die than let any harm come to them, I and they think just as much of niggers as they do of anybody, and the young squaws are the most beautiful beautiful maidens that was ever in the whole world, and they love a white hunter the minute their eye falls on him, and from that minute nothing can ever shake their love loose again, and they're always on the watch-out to protect him from danger and get themselves killed in the place of him—look at Pocahontas!—and an Injun can see as far as a telescope with the naked eye, and an enemy can't slip around anywhere, even in the dark, but he knows it; and if he sees one single blade of grass bent down, it's all he wants, he knows which way to go to find the enemy that done it, and he can read all kinds to trifling little signs just the same way with his eagle eye which you wouldn't ever see at all, and if he sees a little whiff of smoke going up in the air thirty-five miles off, he knows in a second if it's a friend's camp fire or an enemy's, just by the smell of the smoke, because they're the most giftedest people in the whole world, and the hospitablest and the happiest, and don't ever have anything to do from year's end to year's end but have a perfectly supernatural good time and piles and piles of adventures! Amongst the Injuns, life is just simply a circus, that's what it is. Anybody that knows, will tell you you can't praise it too high and you can't put it too strong.

[Huck later asks Tom about the above and Tom says it's fiction]

"Tom, where did you learn about Injuns—how noble they was, and alI that?"

He give me a look that showed me I had hit him hard, very hard, and so I wished I hadn't said the words. He turned away his head, and after about a minute he said "Cooper's novels," and didn't say anything more, and I didn't say anything more, and so that changed the subject.


[Huck talks with Peggy Mills]

She showed me a little dirk-knife which she got out of her bosom, and asked me what I reckoned it was for, and who give it to her.

"I don't know," says I. "Who did give it to you?"

"Brace." Then she laughed, gay and happy, and says, "You'll never guess what it's for."

"Well, what is it for?" says I.

"To kill myself with!"

"O, good land!" says I, "how you talk."

"Yes," she says, "it's the truth. Brace told me that if I ever fell into the hands of the savages, I mustn't stop to think about him, or the family, or anything, or wait an hour to see if I mightn't be rescued; I mustn't waste any time, I mustn't take any chances, I must kill myself right away."


[Huck describes an Indian attack on Peggy and her brothers]

I heard a trampling like a lot of horses, and when it got pretty near, I see that other Injun coming on a pony, and driving the other ponies and all our mules and horses ahead of him, and he let off a long wild whoop, and the minute he done that, the Injun that had a gun, the one that Peggy fixed, shot her father through the head with it and scalped him, another one tomahawked her mother and scalped her and then these two grabbed Jim and tied his hands together, and the other two grabbed Peggy, who was screaming and crying, and all of them rushed off with her and Jim and Flaxy, and as fast as I run, and as far as I run, I could still hear her, till I was a long, long ways off.


[Huck describes Brace Johnson's view of Indian religion]

He didn't talk very much; and when he talked about Injuns, he talked the same as if he was talking about animals; he didn't seem to have much idea that they was men. But he had some of their ways, himself, on account of being so long amongst them; and moreover he had their religion. And one of the things that puzzled him was how such animals ever struck such a sensible religion. He said the Injuns hadn't only but two Gods, a good one and a bad one, and they never paid no attention to the good one, nor ever prayed to him or worried about him at all, but only tried their level best to flatter up the bad god and keep on the good side of him; because the good one loved them and wouldn't ever think of doing them any harm, and so there warn't any occasion to be bothering him with prayers and things, because he was always doing the very best he could for them, anyway, and prayers couldn't better it; but all the trouble come from the bad god, who was setting up nights to think up ways to bring them bad luck and bust up all their plans, and never fooled away a chance to do them all the harm he could; and so the sensible thing was to keep praying and fussing around him all the time, and get him to let up. Brace thought more of the Great Spirit than he did of his own mother, but he never fretted about him. He said his mother wouldn't hurt him, would she?— well then, the Great Spirit wouldn't, that was sure.

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895)

If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases — no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

Following the Equator (1897)

Twain recounts an anecdote of a tragic encounter between an Australian squatter and black aborigines which becomes a telling metaphor for white contact with indigenous people.

Here is an instance. A squatter, whose station was surrounded by Blacks, whom he suspected to be hostile and from whom he feared an attack, parleyed with them from his house-door. He told them it was Christmas-time—a time at which all men, black or white, feasted; that there were flour, sugar-plums, good things in plenty in the store, and that he would make for them such a pudding as they never dreamed of—a great pudding of which all might eat and be filled. The Blacks listened and were lost. The pudding was made and distributed. Next morning there was howling in the camp, for it had been sweetened with sugar and arsenic!" (211)

A "defense" of Twain
Some might claim Twain attacked Indians solely to counteract the notions of James Fenimore Cooper and his fellow romanticists. But Twain didn't have to maul Indians to balance Cooper's politically correct stereotypes. A realistic portrayal of Indian life and culture would've sufficed. Nowhere does Twain offer such a realistic look.

Even if Twain's writing was ambivalent in pieces such as The Noble Red Man, that isn't the only issue. What Twain wrote is as significant as why he wrote it—if not more significant. I've pointed this out in postings such as Ethnic Humor and the "Joke of the Day."

Few people in the illiterate and uneducated 19th century could've understood Twain was satirizing Cooper's romantic novels—if indeed that's what Twain was doing. What they would've understood was Twain's vituperative language against Indians. He didn't present a nuanced view of Indians, he flat-out "savaged" them.

Twain wrote stories like Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Huck and Tom Among the Indians for boys. Should we assume they were familiar with Cooper's novels and deconstructed them by candlelight? Ridiculous.

For anyone who claims Twain wasn't responsible for his attacks because he put them in his characters's mouths, get serious. He was a man of letters who wrote essays and gave speeches as well as wrote fiction. More than half the examples here are from his nonfiction. His fiction and nonfiction are consistent; he slams Indians in both.

Twain did write a few positive things about Indians. They're listed at Mark Twain's Quotations—Indians. They're extremely minor—one is a note in a margin—and don't balance even one of the works quoted here, much less all of them.

Like others of his era, Twain harbored racist beliefs. He produced one indictment of America's racism—Huckleberry Finn—but even that was full of minstrel-style stereotypes. Jim the buffoonish slave is as ugly a caricature as Injun Joe the vengeful half-breed.

Around the same time, L. Frank Baum of Oz fame also denounced Indian people. Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. So much for our cherished childhood icons, eh?

Sure, these people were a product of their times, but that's little or no justification. Other writers before the 20th century—Benjamin Franklin, Francis Parkman, Helen Hunt Jackson—wrote positively about Indians. To say people didn't know better, and thereby excuse their racism, is a whitewash. It's not acceptable—not now, not then.

More on Twain's view of Indians
Romancing the Indian:  Sentimentalizing and Demonizing in Cooper and Twain

Related links
Is Huck Finn racist?
The Indian-Oz connection
Savage Indians
Uncivilized Indians

Readers respond
"[Y]ou can try to find out why Twain harbored such animosity, but I'm definitely not going to overlook it."
"Twain wasn't racist. He hated everybody. Read his later works, he was quite the misanthrope."
"I've known for years that Twain wasn't too great with anyone that wasn't a white American...."
"It is not fair to judge people from other times by our present day standards."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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