How novels and Hollywood re-invented the American Indian

Rich Hall's documentary Inventing the Indian was a fascinating look at how American media has distorted the culture of native Americans

American comic Rich Hall presented one of his irregular documentaries on the BBC this week. It was called 
Inventing the Indian, and it’s still available on iPlayer if you want to check it out.

It was a fascinating look at how Hollywood in particular, and white America in general, has portrayed and distorted the culture and history of the native American over the years.

Interestingly, Hall traced the problem back to 
James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans. He alleges that the book is shot through with ‘the trope of white, European superiority that would appear again and again in books and films’ and sums it up as a ‘spectacular historical misrepresentation’.

Well, maybe, but it is a work of fiction, so ‘misrepresentation’ is a hard charge to make stick. And, Chingachgook, the Mohican of the title is one of the book’s heroes – although not, despite what the title suggests, the main one. That honour goes to Natty Bumppo, a white man (brought up by the Mohicans) whose name also sounds like it should be a dance (c’mon everybody, let’s do the Natty Bumppo!).

It is true, though, that the cliché of the ‘noble savage’ can be traced back to the book. And that every single evil character in it is an Indian.

Then there’s that title. Doesn’t seem to hold much hope for the Mohicans, does it? And, indeed, at the time of writing there was a belief that the native American race might fail to survive.

The tribe is, however, still in existence. Not in upstate New York, where they originated, but in Wisconsin, where they were relocated by the US government around the time Cooper was writing his novel.

So, whilst Hall was maybe a bit harsh on 
The Last of the Mohicans, his overall point about fiction’s implicit compliance with America’s consistently shocking treatment of its aboriginal people does hold water. And the programme is worth watching. But, the book, despite Hall’s withering review that comes in the first 10 minutes, is also worth reading.

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