Posts Tagged ‘A Son of the Forest’

Depiction of Native Americans in A Son of the Forest


In his autobiographical text, A Son of the Forest, William Apess demonstrates that all of the poor characteristics that are attributed to Native American’s can actually be attributed to the white settlers who manipulated them. He seems to argue that the Native Americans are even superior to these white settlers in some aspects. This point of view and the opinions Apess expresses are starkly different from the other Euro-American writers we have seen who often describe Native Americans as, at best, beautiful savages who are altogether completely different from Euro-Americans and not understood. Perhaps this lack of understanding stems from the fact that many Euro-Americans at the time saw these seemingly unconquered lands as “[their] native lands” and failed to consider how their actions impacted anyone or anything around them (Irving 8). Apess counters this notion, stating “the natives… are the only people under heaven who have a just title [to call themselves natives]” (Apess 10). The inability of the white settlers to recognize Native Americans as true natives and respect them as such plays out negatively for the Native Americans in A Son of the Forest.

This negative impact is particularly seen in the Native American’s relationship with alcohol. As Apess describes the “introduction of this ‘cursed stuff’ into [his own Native American family]” we see the deterioration of both his relationship with his grandparents and their marriage (Apess 5). When first reading over the horrendous treatment he received from his Native American family, it seems that Apess has strong negative feelings about his brethren compared to his white relations who “lived  and died happy in the love of God” (Apess 6). However, upon further reading it is realized that he actually blames white settlers for the Native American’s faults with alcohol as they “seduced them into a love of it” and then manipulated them out of their land (Apess 7).  Apess further critiques the white settlers when later in the autobiography his companions try to convince him to steal but, without surprise, it was “not [his] brethren but [the] whites” trying to corrupt him into doing evil (Apess 35).

It was interesting to read into this perspective because Apess often had conflicting feelings about his lineage but on the whole he seemed to have a positive view of Native Americans that differed vastly from most of the texts we have studied.


Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 3-9, 30-34, 39-46, 50-54, 171-179. pub. University of Oklahoma Press 1956

1. Native Americans in A Son of the Forest

Native Americans in A Son of the Forest are depicted in an unusual manner. The text itself is the autobiography of a Native American, but he was taken in by white settlers at an early age to be a slave. The white settlers made William fear his brethren by telling him biased stories about the ongoing conflicts between the settlers and the Native Americans. The picture William paints of his life experiences is that of a Native American that has lost touch with his culture and becomes acculturated to a society that looks down upon his people, enslaves them, and beats them. William even goes so far in his life as to completely disregard his tribe’s beliefs and feels that they should convert to Christianity because he believed that Jesus was the savior of all people and that Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israel. The problem of alcoholism in Native American communities is portrayed by his grandparents who are violent alcoholics. The way William represents himself and his people is in a greater light than that of how Europeans depict his people since he still heavily blames the white settlers for the problems within Native American communities. Even though he blames the white settlers for what has happened to his people, he still considers Christianity to be, in a sense, the true religion. William seems very lost in a world he loathes, but yet still finds small slivers of comfort in. He portrays his people as if they are human beings instead of savages, but his writing also depicts how the arrival of the white settlers has slowly eroded the identity of William and his people. Native Americans are portrayed as a people who are slowly dying from within.

The ecological Indian stereotype is “the Indian in nature who understands the systemic consequences of his actions, feels deep sympathy with all living things, and takes steps to conserve so that earth’s harmonies are never imbalanced and resources never in doubt” (Garrard, 121). William doesn’t seem too concerned with his people’s traditional way of life, nor does he really fit into the stereotype of an ecological Indian. He is more concerned with being forgiven for his sinful ways and seems to constantly be in emotional and mental suffering for whatever sins he thinks he has committed. He doesn’t seem to know how to survive very long in the wilderness as evidenced by his reaction to becoming entangled in branches and trapped in a mire, “I raised my heart in humble prayer and supplication to the father of mercies, and behold he stretched forth his hand and delivered me from this place of danger” (Apess, 42). He fears the wilderness more than he finds it his home, so I doubt he holds many of the stereotypical Indian beliefs at his heart. His relationship to nature has been severed, though he sometimes goes home to see family, he never goes into detail about his time there which leads me to believe that he is completely disconnected from his people. His tribe’s relation to nature seems to still be strong from what I can tell from the text, but William himself is the poster child for the beginning of the destruction of an entire people’s way of life.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 121. Print.

Apes, William. “Ch. 8.” A Son of the Forest. New York: University of Massachusetts, 1831. 42. Print.