The Native American Behind the Stereotype in The Pioneers
Throughout the history of American literature, the Native American is rarely presented as a fully developed character; instead, he is degraded to a mere caricature, one deeply rooted in traditional racial prejudices. In his novel, The Pioneers, James Fennimore Cooper became the one of the first American authors to depict an Indian as a leading character; in fact, Cooper's depiction of the infamous Chinkachgook is widely considered to be the original archetypical basis for Native American figures as seen in American literature. However, Cooper's characterization of Chinkachgook, known by a variety of names, including John Mohegan and Indian John, is based solely on the white perspective, and as a result, is a highly unrealistic and historically inaccurate stereotype. Moreover, Cooper clearly romanticizes the character of John Mohegan, presenting him as a noble savage, but in doing so, Cooper both demonizes and sentimentalizes Native Americans as a people.
In order to more fully understand the historical inaccuracy of James Fenimore
Cooper's portrayal of the Native American, one must first examine Cooper's research and study of his subject. Though he was raised on the frontier of New York, Cooper had very little first hand knowledge of the Indians of the this area; in fact, he once wrote to a companion, "I never was among the Indians. All I know of them is from reading, and from hearing my father speak of them (qtd in Risetto)."1 Perhaps to compensate for his lack of personal familiarity with his subject, Cooper conducted extensive research on the Native Americans in New York, most notably Moravian missionary accounts of the Algonquin and the Iroquois. It is interesting to note that, in fact, Cooper drew the name of Chinkachgook, or John Mohegan, from these Moravian records, as it listed as the name of a real Indian and historical figure. However, Cooper rather carelessly misused these missionary accounts in his writing; in essence, he combined what he knew of several different Indian tribes, blended them into his own creation, and misnamed them as the single, fictional nation of "Mohegan." Even the information that Cooper relates as historical fact is riddled with errors and misconceptions, most clearly in his history of the Delewares.2 Beyond this, these Moravian accounts are representative of solely the white perspective of Native Americans, and hence, the voice of the Native American himself is, alas, entirely lacking in Cooper's research. This lack of Indian perspective is reflected in his writing, which tends to view the Native Americans solely in light of their relationship of the white man.
More specifically, the character of John Mohegan is the epitome of the white stereotypical view of the Native American as the "noble savage." In fact, The Pioneers represents the later years of Chinkagooch's...