The Indian, ecological, noble, savage and otherwise in Catlin and Dickens

1. I am really interested in Native Americans and specifically the stereotypes associated with their culture. The idea of the noble savage and the ecological Indian are very relevant for this class because they shown up in several of the pieces we have read. I am working with Charles Dickens “ The Noble Savage” where he works to undo the idea of the noble savage, specifically picking apart Catlin’s depiction of Indians in ” Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians”

2. I have the discussions and notes from class on Catlin as a good foundation to start working. I have Catlin’s narrow view of the natives as another species of animal on the prairie and I’ve just begun dissecting Dickens piece, but he disagrees vastly with Catlin so it will be interesting to pose the two against each other, and see if they work together at all. My plan is a full analysis of the Native American, in all the lights that are shed upon him, and I’m still working on a question from which to base my writing.

3. Questions

1. What question could I pose as a starting point for my research? I feel like we covered the simple and obvious ones in class and I’m struggling to come up with something original, but I know I want to work with this topic.

2. Is there any chance that Catlin was writing to appease the already set views of Americans and how many thought about Indians? If so how will this affect my writing about his work, especially in comparison to Dickens?

3. Was Dickens piece well read and received? Does he have any authority on the subject at all? And for that matter does Catlin?

4. Catlin presents the savage a valiant and strong, while Dickens makes several references to his weakness, are these the only qualities allowed to the depiction of Indians at the time? Are there other works that show the range of human emotions Indians most certainly had?

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 11:08 am

    4. Catlin presents the savage a valiant and strong, while Dickens makes several references to his weakness, are these the only qualities allowed to the depiction of Indians at the time? Are there other works that show the range of human emotions Indians most certainly had?

    I find this question most interesting. I really love your topic, and think there is a lot to work with. What would be especially helpful is if you could find a writing about Native Americans that sheds light upon their everyday lives and how “normal” they are. Although Apess attempts this, he doesn’t really achieve it. Another question that I would pose to you, then, would be:

    Are there any works available that DON’T stereotype native americans in some way or another? How does Dickens’ reversal of Catlin’s stereotypes affect the native image further?

  2. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    I agree with the above post that finding a text that does not stereotype them. The most interesting question for me was “2. Is there any chance that Catlin was writing to appease the already set views of Americans and how many thought about Indians? If so how will this affect my writing about his work, especially in comparison to Dickens?” I think its important to know who his audience was and their opinion of the subject. A question I would ask is:

    6. How can the ecological indian be used with a trope that both Catlin and Dickens used and how did it add or take from the significance?

  3. I am choosing to write my paper on the Ecological Indian as well so I am very interested in this topic as well. I really thought you could do a lot with this question: Catlin presents the savage a valiant and strong, while Dickens makes several references to his weakness, are these the only qualities allowed to the depiction of Indians at the time? Are there other works that show the range of human emotions Indians most certainly had?

    You can explore the problems that come about by there being such black and white distinctions between the acceptable feelings for Native Americans at the time. Another question you could think about: What are some of the literary examples (perhaps in Dickens) that showcase Native Americans breaking the mold of the Ecological Indian (this is seen in Sigourney when the Native American mother reacts so strongly about her baby in the car scene)

  4. I think it’s interesting that there would need to be somebody to try and “deconstruct” the ecological indian stereotype. Maybe the stereotype is there for a reason – Indians are pretty ecological! I think it would be interesting to explore to what extreme Dickens “deconstructs” the stereotype, and if he is at all balanced, so I like question #4.

    8. Does Dickens push to the other extreme of the stereotype, and if so, why? And if he is more balanced, what is the effect on the reader?

  5. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    I like the implications of question four as a comparison of different texts is always vital in establishing a broader argument. However, I do not believe that Apess should be discarded simply because his work contains contradiction and a problematic sense of identity (and its hella boring to boot). Even if Apess is not an ideal candidate for analysis of this topic as he is seemingly trapped between worlds and is seemingly not very in touch with his native-ness, perhaps you could find one or two other Native American authors that have not been compromised by the ideological desolation of assimilation and and that represent different elements of the incredible diversity that once existed among native nations (not simply the Sioux as many writers tend to focus on).

    9.) How do the conceptualizations put forth by Dickens and Catlin clash with more truthful and genuine perspectives that come directly from culturally uncompromised Native Americans?

  6. I agree that question 4 is the strongest, mostly because while the two authors present polar opposite views of the ecological Indian it would be interesting to look for the shades of gray in their descriptions. Questions 2 and 3 could be incorporated as well, although judging whether Dickens was “well read and received” or if Catlin was trying to appease Americans might be tough just because it’s difficult to gauge the feelings of the reading populace of the time.

    10. Despite having different agendas, what are the similarities between Catlin and Dickens’ texts?

  7. I find your 3rd question the most interesting. Although Catlin does portray the Indian as strong as valiant, I find that he also has racist undertones. This is a possible question you could explore in your paper.
    11). Even though Catlin appears to be lauding the Indians, he also has a very condescending attitude towards them and equates them to buffalo. How does this affect his perspective and how his piece is received?

  8. I also like that you are comparing the deconstruction of the ecological Indian stereotype with Catlin’s work that follows the stereotype. One flaw of the ecological Indian stereotype is that it robs Indians of their culture and assumes all Indians tribes are the same. I think question 4 has the most potential for your paper, so

    12.) Is it possible that Catlin and Dickens were observing different groups of Indians with completely different cultures and values? Perhaps Catlin portrayed the Indians as valiant and strong, because those he saw were. And vice versa with Dickens. How would this effect their writings or did what they actually observed even determine what they wrote?

  9. I think that this will make for a really interesting paper. The questions re: including Native American perspectives are especially useful. That doesn’t mean that you need to incorporate a third text necessarily, but could give an overview of the type of Native American narratives/autobiographies were circulating around the time that Catlin and Dickens wrote these pieces. Also, you should consider whether Dickens is simply dispelling the ecological Indian stereotype and humanizing Native Americans or creating another stereotype (the ignoble Indian), as many of your peers have suggested.

    Here’s the question I’d like to add:

    How is nature valued in Dicken’s text? What does he deem “natural,” for example? In his conception of nature, natural order, etc, where do Native Americans fit in?

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