Posts Tagged ‘Ecological Indian stereotype’

Paper Topic: Exploring the Ecological Indian trope in James Seaver’s A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison and William Apess’s A Son of the Forest

For my final paper, I am interested in exploring the trope of the Ecological Indian because I found it one of the more captivating topics we discussed in class. More specifically I want to look at how damaging this trope is to those who do not fit into its strict guidelines. This is seen in the narratives of William Apess (a Native American struggling to fit into white society) and Mary Jemison (a white woman who adopts the Seneca ways after being held captive by them). I think the stereotyping of races is something we will always run into and it is interesting to read the nineteenth century perspective and problems encountered. For those who don’t perfectly fit the mold of either white colonist or Native American, this trope seemed to cause some valid personal identity questioning. This is a significant topic to explore because this is a problem still seen today as Americans become more integrated and culturally diverse- people are left to wonder what constitutes their racial identity and what heritage and culture to cling to.

I first read Mary Jemison’s story my freshman year and I hope that by revisiting it three years later, I will be able to pick up on different aspects of her story and focus more on the Ecological Indian trope. I feel very familiar with the trope because of our class discussion and Garrards analysis of it. In both of my chosen narratives, I see the problems with the Ecological Indian stereotype because neither main figure (Mary Jemison or William Apess) fits into it in an ideal way (which is the inherent problem with the trope even with full Native Americans!). They both give examples of other Native Americans that seem to fit the noble or savage description but because they are both a mix of what is seen as white and Native American- they are left with little identity!

Questions I hope to Answer:

  1. How is the Ecological Indian trope portrayed in these texts? How is it proved wrong, right, and conflicting?
  2. What are the implications of showing some Native Americans that actually do seem to fit the Ecological Indian bill as brutes or Noble Savages.
  3. What kind of impact did this stereotype have on Native Americans and mixed races during the nineteenth century? What does it still mean today?
  4. What means more: your blood connection or a race or you cultural connection to a race?


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.