I am from Seattle, Washington. While we have a great Native American heritage, outside of city names, fifth grade social studies, and different types of salmon, most people where I’m from don’t know shit about Native Americans. Yes, it’s pretty sad. Especially as Seattle is named after Chief Seattle, a Duwamish tribe chief. There are four or five busts/statues of him around Seattle, but if you asked a native Washingtonian who he was, I bet you nine times out of ten, they will have no idea who he is.
Which is odd because most people in Washington claim to strongly support rights for Native Americans and ecologically preserving their sparse reservations. Now, in now way am I making a sweeping claim. I do think that many of my fellow Washingtonians would support Native American culture, if given the chance. And I do think that there should be more of an emphasis placed on Pacific Northwest History and Native American history beyond elementary school. Because how Native Americans are still treated by people is embarrassing and simply shameful, which makes it doubly hard to learn about a culture that we know is still being maltreated to this day. It’s almost as awkward as watching a slideshow of my professor in Guatemala; he stuck out like an albino rice puff in his flowered t-shirts and custom sandals, standing next to a child in a tattered Nike shirt and bare feet.
But all of that to say, it’s really hard for me to read literature about Native American’s written from a caucasion point of view. Like my review of Memoirs of a Geisha (which was written by a white guy from Tennessee) while I do support cross-cultural examinations, fiction, and exploration, but I do think that it’s hard to balance between creative self-expression on the author’s side, and respecting the feelings and lives of those you are writing about. For example, my senior thesis class was on literature from the Vietnam conflict. My professor was a Vietnam veteran. And while it was incredible to hear about his experience, and to get his personal views on the accuracy of various texts about the war, it was also really difficult to “feel like I had a right” to talk about something as if I had been there, when he really had. Do you know what I mean? Comment below about your experiences.
All of that to say, I read this book with a little bit of reluctance, and write even more reluctantly. If you are Native American and reading this, please take no offense at my humble attempts to interpret Cooper’s famous novel. If you are not Native American and reading this, please take no offense at my humble attempts to interpret Cooper’s famous novel.
Now, let’s begin.
Cooper, with his Natty Bumpo books (Last of the Mohicans being the most famous of them), creates a whole new genre of Frontier Novels. Unfortunately, this genre has generally degraded into the category of dime western novels, but that is a different matter all together. What I find most interesting about this book is the lines drawn between the relationship of New England’s “civilization” and that of nature. Cooper starts the novel with quite a long description of the untamable character of nature, and how she is not to be controlled by any living man. The English style of fighting on a flat, open countryside is not to be abided in this wild land. However, you have the Native Americans who communicate with nature and have such a powerful relationship with her, that they seem to be able to understand, predict, and bend nature to their wishes, while the English struggle with nature and are never at ease with nature throughout the entire novel. Constantly, the Natives have to babysit the Englishmen to keep them from literally being killed by Magua or the Hurons. The blend of this, however, can be seen through the character of Hawkeye, who is white by birth, but lives the lifestyle of the Native Americans, and is much more comfortable with the company of Uncas, over that of the english. He is pictured as the rugged, utopian blend of both the old culture and the new; and possibly what Cooper hoped to see came of the merging of the two cultures.
Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, we also see clues that Cooper knew better than the audience of the impossibility of that idea. Cooper accurately predicted both Native American and English sentiment concerning interracial relationships through the characters of Cora and Uncas. Cora (though she is actually mixed race by birth) is defined through the novel as being white, while Uncas is a pure-blood native. They develop a tender relationship, which Hawkeye, surprisingly, sees as actually being unnatural and mistrustful. Perhaps Hawkeye felt like that because he knew that such a relationship would be doomed to fail? Or was he just a close-minded character? Either way, we see the “dangers” of interracial relationships as being doomed to fail because, of course, the two star-crossed lovers are murdered in the very climax of the novel, and are unable to consummate their relationship. On the flip-side, of course, we have Magua’s obsession with Cora, and the constant unspoken threat of rape/defilement of Cora at the hands of Magua; although at the end when we see his final stroke of possible mercy or tenderness, right before he is struck down, as readers we are left with mixed emotions/understandings as to how violent Magua’s relationship with Cora was, and that while he was using her to hurt her father, he still thought deeply of her. What were Cooper’s real feelings about the union and mix of Native Americans and the English? Judging from the failed relationships we see that we are meant to sympathize with, sadly perhaps Cooper saw them as a positive step towards unification, and yet an impossibility due to the close-mindedness on both sides.
Which, it seems sad to say, hasn’t really gone away, has it?