Nature Transformed is made essays on virtues by grants from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. An early twentieth-century elementary school textbook quizzed pupils on their grasp of the lesson devoted to American Indians. What did the white people think of the Indians? What was one of the strangest things that the Indians did?
What strange things did the Indians believe about spirits? What strange things did the Indians do to drive the evil spirits away? Today it is difficult even to talk about the racial stereotypes once so confidently assumed. Stereotyping as a subject for study may be historical, but the emotions it arouses are eminently present day. Whether we use terms like image, stereotype or construct, we are talking about the same thing: ideas about a particular group that serve to characterize all the individuals within that group. Certain ideas entrench themselves as fundamental, and the rule of thumb is that such ideas are invariably self-serving—they promote the interests of the group that holds them, and they form the reality upon which that group acts. It is a given today that the idea of the American Indian has been historically significant.
It shaped the attitudes of those in the nineteenth century who shaped Indian policy. Indian policy—be it removal of the Eastern tribes in the 1830s, reservation isolationism beginning in the 1850s, or allotment of reservation lands and assimilation in the 1880s—cannot be understood without an awareness of the ideas behind it. The Indian woman was either a princess or a drudge, the Indian man an admirable brave or a fiendish warrior. These venerable images, dating back to the earliest European contact with American natives, found their most influential literary expression in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel Last of the Mohicans. The stark contrast between the noble and ignoble savage obscures their common denominator: savagery. Savagery referred to a state of social development below civilization and, in some calculations, below an intermediate step, barbarism. Such was the theory of the Vanishing American.