We are in the Heart of Indian Country

Cimarron Redoubt, Kansas, January 1873.

digital permission of Denver Public Library, Western History  Collection,  X-32132.

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-32132.

Two or three days ago Powder-Face came to make a formal call upon the “White Chief.” […] He is an Indian of striking personality—is rather tall, with square, broad shoulders, and the poise of his head tells one at once that he is not an ordinary savage.  

We must have found favor with him, for as he was going away he announced that he would come again the next day and bring his squaw with him. Then Faye, in his hospitable way, invited them to a midday dinner! I was almost speechless from the horror at the very thought of sitting at a table with an Indian, no matter how great a chief he might be. (left: Powder-Face, Chief of the Arapahoe Nation, c. 1869 -1874)

They appeared promptly, and I became interested in Wauk at once, for she was a remarkable squaw. Tall and slender, with rather a thin, girlish face, very unlike the short, fat squaws one usually sees, and she had the appearance of being rather tidy, too. […]   

digital permission of Denver Public Library, Western History  Collection,   X-32355.

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-32355.

Her hair was parted and hung in loose ropes down each shoulder in front. Her feet and hands were very small, even for an Indian, and showed that life had been kind to her. I am confident that she must have been a princess by birth, she was so different from all squaws I have seen. “Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888” (right: Chief Powder-Face, wife and son. c. 1869 – 1874)

Popular 19th century fictional novels such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales conjured up compelling narratives about the idealized Indians living in the pristine wilderness and sharing their way of life with his white brother Natty Bumppo. Fictional stories such as Cooper’s novels of escapism fed the imagination of their readers. 

Unknowingly, these early to mid 19th century novels such as Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans published in 1826 –along with the latter-day dime novels, also gave the adventurous woman hope against a limited pre-destined life not of her choosing.  As it happens, Roe mentions Cooper’s noble red men that were wholly unlike the ‘real Indians’ she first encounters in the town of Las Animas, near Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory,

When a very small girl, I was told many wonderful tales about a grand Indian chief called Red Jacket, by my great-grandmother, who, you will remember, saw him a number of times when she, also, was a small girl. And since then-almost all my life-I wanted to see with my very own eyes an Indian-a real noble red man-dressed in beautiful skins embroidered with beads, and on his head long, waving feathers.

The delightful little shopping trip into Las Animas had become a real life lesson about Indian hostilities towards the families and soldiers on the Army posts,

Well, I have seen an Indian-a number of Indians-but they were not Red Jackets, neither were they noble red men.  They were simply, and only, painted, dirty, and nauseous-smelling savages!  Mrs. Phillips says that Indians are all alike-that when you have seen one you have seen all.

Fictional literature had clashed with Roe’s idealism and the ugly realities of the army’s mission of Indian removal.  She’s shocked at the audacity of the Utes snarling disposition towards the privileged women. In reflection of Roe’s economic and class background, there was the expected protocol and homage to her position in society.  Instead, the larger than life Utes quickly change the idealized narrative. Fiction is contrasted against the shocking reality from the Indians refusal to submit to white superiority, or accept their destiny with a graceful exit.

Their [Utes] imperious way, never once looking to the right or to the left, they seemed like giants. We were pushed aside with such impatient force, they  would have stepped over us, and otherwise been oblivious to our existence.

Roe’s vitriolic criticism towards the real-life Indians was in stark contrast to the 19th century fictionalized sentiment about the Indian. Maybe she had expected something akin to Lydia Marie Child’s fictional noble savage Hobomok, who dutifully relinquishes his land and disappears into the night.  The convenience of the compliant Indian such as Hobomok was a fictional agreement written between the superior white man and his determination of the Indian. Hobomok states the simple truth of his existence against the mid-nineteenth century backdrop of Westward expansionism, “The purpose of an Indian is seldom changed.” 

Child’s novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times was published in 1824. The author revisits the clash of Euro-Americans and Native Americans into a revisionist invention of the ‘noble savages,’ who obediently serve and emulate the superior white race.  Even though, knowing his civilization, country, livelihood, family and life were under assault and condemned as a society of savages.  Child possibly saw the future of the Indian’s way of life disappearing under the flag of progress, and sympathized with the beleaguered Indian who had no other recourse but to go quietly into the night. Just like the rolling thunder of the locomotives racing across the plains, it too was blaring the high-pitched whistling of progress, and the oncoming boon of ‘Americanism.’ Westward expansionism was quickly overpowering the tribes and their way of life. 

Sherry Sullivan’s essay, A Redder Shade of Pale: The Indianization of Heroes and Heroines in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction examines ‘sympathetic’ literature and the complex impulses of cultural nationalism and the Indian as the country’s symbolic image. There was a deep level of guilt and concern over the destruction of Indian culture, “In conjunction with a conscious commitment to the idea of civilization and disillusionment in this age of progress and manifest destiny.”  Fictional literature had filtered the truth of a government’s single-minded blueprint for progress.  The army’s purpose on the Western frontier was to perpetuate Euro-American civilization and final subjugation of the Native American Indian Nation.   

Indian Camp Glacier Natl Park

Indian Camp – St. Mary, Glacier National Park,  Montana*

Roe doesn’t emphasize the primary directive of Lieutenant Roe’s role on the Army post, much less considered the provocation of a beleaguered civilization. Westward expansionism was -for the most part, a unanimous agreement between citizen and government.  

Army Letters… seventeen year span offers a detailed perspective about the conflicting realities of peacekeeping in-between the indigenous tribes, final subjugation of tribes, buffalo hunters, boomers and desperadoes encroaching on Indian territories. This and more against the backdrop of westward expansion with the wave of European immigrants and Americans leaving overcrowded cities to quickly claim land ownership. The Eden of the West also enticed a new breed of tourism including congressmen

President C.A. Arthur party at Yellowstone National Park

President C.A. Arthur party at Yellowstone National Park

and presidents seeking rugged adventure at Yellowstone, the first established U.S. National Park in 1872. Thus, qualifying the advent of imperialism laying claim of the territories and the vast untapped natural resources while waving the Indian as a symbol of The United States unique history.

*see links, sources and publications

Tweet