Reviewed by Benjamin Whitmer
When I got the email from Brian Lindenmuth asking me to take part in a group review of the stories in a western noir anthology, I’ll admit I got pretty excited. Those are two things near and dear to my heart, and I could think of all kinds of interesting avenues for this hybrid genre to take.
Then I read the story assigned me, “The Conversion of Carne Muerto,” by James Reasoner. And that excitement died real quick, as I realized it was a minor variation of one of the ugliest stories in American literary history: that of the Indian hater. And that I was gonna have to explain exactly why I disliked this story so thoroughly, and that it was gonna take me a lot of words.
Following, I give it a shot. I hope you’ll bear with me. Most of the information has been ripped off whole-hog from Richard Slotkins’ Regeneration through Violence and Gunfighter Nation, Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, and Gary Clayton Anderson’s The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land. Hopefully I reworded and condensed everything enough to avoid the plagiarism charges I’m sure I deserve.
Colonel John Moredock
Though the story is older, running all the way back to Puritan writings, the Indian hater story was first introduced as such by a little-remembered Cincinnati author by the name of Judge James Hall in 1829. This flagship incarnation was first given us in The Westward Souvenir entitled “The Indian Hater.” It was the usual mess of racist fantasy posing as frontier reportage that made Judge James Hall’s literary career. In it, the protagonist’s family gets massacred by Indians and he’s taken captive. In captivity he becomes convinced that Indians are incapable of civilization, and, in his own words: “I made it a rule to kill every red skin that came in my way, and so long as my limbs have strength I shall continue to slay the savage.” That Hall is sympathetic to the protagonist’s mindset goes without saying; at one point Hall even explicitly compares him to Jesus Christ.
“The Indian Hater” was so popular that Hall actually reprised the narrative five times, even expanding the archetype into a full-length novel, Harpe’s Head. His most influential version, however, occurred in the quasi-historical figure of John Moredock, entitled “Indian hating. —Some of the sources of this animosity.—Brief Account of Col. Moredock” published in 1835. Though the tale itself is pretty much only remembered for being lampooned by Herman Melville in The Confidence Man, the basic tenants of Indian hating have consumed American popular culture since, providing a crippling national mythology which has been America’s foundational confidence game.
In the Colonel Moredock tale, however, Hall does us one service. He gives us the manner of Indian hating’s dissemination:
Every child thus [on the frontier] learns to hate an Indian, because he always hears him spoken of as an enemy. From the cradle, he listens continually to horrid tales of savage violence, and becomes familiar with narratives of aboriginal cunning and ferocity . . . With persons thus reared, hatred towards an Indian becomes a part of their nature, and revenge an instinctive principle.
Indian Hating is, in other words, a virus spread by narrative; it’s the constant proliferation of Indian-hating tales that cause it. And, actually, Hall’s tale would almost seem like a criticism of the Indian hating narrative but for one fact: all of his ruminating on the metaphysics of Indian Hating is only the preface to an Indian Hating narrative of his own: that of Colonel John Moredock.
Nick of the Woods
In its next popular incarnation, Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods published in 1837, Indian hating is taken a step further. Far from describing Indian hating as a being caused by stories told in Euro-American frontier families, Bird makes the argument that by showing the Indian as incapable of civilization and deserving of extermination, he is presenting readers with reality itself. As he writes in the preface, his novel was written during a period when,
the genius of Chateaubriand and of Cooper had thrown a poetical illusion over the Indian character; and the red men were presented – almost stereotyped in the popular mind – as the embodiments of grand and tender sentiment – a new style of the beau-ideal – brave, gentle, loving, refined, honourable, romantic personages – nature’s nobles, the chivalry of the forest . . . The Indian is doubtless a gentleman; but he is a gentleman who wears a very dirty shirt, and lives a very miserable life, having nothing to employ him or keep him alive except the pleasures of the chase and of the scalp-hunt – which we dignify with the name of war.
Of course, this is one of the oldest and longest running straw man arguments in the United States. One has to wonder if Robert Montgomery Bird actually read any of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. Though it is true that a very few Indians are romanticized – and only because they cast their lot with Euro-Americans – almost all of them are indistinguishable from the rapacious vermin found in Nick of the Woods or the works of Judge James Hall.
But, like Hall, Bird also gives us one of the invaluable keys to the makeup of Indian hating:
The single fact that [the Indian] wages war — systematic war — upon beings incapable of resistance or defence, — upon women and children, whom all other races in the world, no matter how barbarous, consent to spare, — has hitherto been, and we suppose, to the end of our days will remain, a stumbling block to our imagination.
This charge, that the Indian is the only race on earth that wages war against women and children, is the core of the Indian Hating story. Bird didn’t invent it – you can even find it in the United States’ Declaration of Independence – but no one has been more influential in spreading it in popular culture.
And, of course, it’s horseshit on its face. The history of Euro-American military engagement with American Indians has been an unbroken lineage of warfare on women and children from Manhattan to the mass graves at Wounded Knee. You can’t take into mind the Mystic massacre of 1637, the systematic braining of the Christian Delawares at Gnadenhutten , the winter campaigns of Phil Sheridan and George Custer, the Texas Rangers’ long history of indiscriminate butchery , or the Sand Creek massacre, wherein the Colorado First Volunteer Cavalry slaughtered an entirely peaceful camp and then made trophies of women’s genitalia to parade through Denver, without giving the lie to Bird’s assertion.
Then there’s the irony of Bird’s making any claim to realism at all, given the singular silliness of his actual novel. It’s the story of a Kentucky knight errant, Roland Forrester – knight of the forest, get it? – and his meeting with a schizophrenic Quaker superhero, Nathan Slaughter, who, though an erstwhile pacifist, spends the majority of his time butchering the local Shawnee and hacking crucifixes into their chests. Fair swooning damsels and swarthy rapists abound, as they tend to do. And, as is always the case in these novels, the soft-hearted Easterners, Roland and his fair damsel, are educated in the natural savagery of Indians, for which they must be exterminated.
Actually, the plot seems pretty irrelevant to Bird, serving as little more than a skeleton to drape with some of the most ingenious racist lingo ever put to paper. There’s “’tarnal-temporal, long-legged, ‘tater-headed paint-faces,” “bald head, smoke-dried, punkin-eating red-skins,” and, my personal favorite, a “niggur-in-law to old Satan.” I’m not even sure what the hell that last one means, but there’s no doubt it’s a bad thing.
All of these orgiastic proclamations of racism finally culminate in a climactic act of copulation, as Nathan Slaughter confronts the evil Shawnee leader, Black Vulture – otherwise known as “Niggur Nose” – in a tremendously unsubtle description of the homoerotic joy to be found in racial slaughter:
The knife took the place of the hand, and one thrust would have driven it through the organ that had never beaten with pity or remorse; and that thrust Nathan, quivering through every fibre with nameless joy and exultation, and forgetful of everything but his prey, was about to make. He nerved his hand for the blow; but it trembled with eagerness.
The irony of Bird’s claim of realism seems to have escaped his audience, however. Nick of the Woods was hugely successful, and remained in print throughout the twentieth-century, though often refashioned as a boy’s adventure story, with the “niggurs” edited into “savages.” It’s even referenced in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. And, of course, those who haven’t read The Leatherstock Tales still like to sit around opining about the all-too-romantic Indians invented by James Fenimore Cooper.
Which brings us to The Searchers, which Reasoner is most directly referencing in his story. Though some cinephiles have spent the last 50+ years going through impossible contortions to excuse John Ford’s genocidal epic, The Searchers, Ford’s tale is little different that of Hall or Bird. While it is true the protagonist is presented as somewhat excessive in his Indian-hating, the underlying argument as to the inherent savagery of the American Indian is left entirely intact.
The movie follows the Indian hater Ethan (Amos in the Alan LeMay novel by the same name, which the movie follows closely) and his sidekick, Mart, as they track down a Comanche band who annihilated Ethan’s brother’s family and took the female children into captivity. The tension of the novel resides in the fate of the youngest female captive, Debbie. As she gets older, it becomes likelier and likelier that she’ll become contaminated by sexual contact with the Comanche. As Lucy, Mart’s sweetheart makes the argument in the book – which is replicated almost verbatim in the movie:
“She’s had time to be with half the Comanche bucks in creation by now.” Laurie’s voice was cold, but not so brutal as her words . . . “It’s too late by many years. If they’ve got anything left to sell you, it’s nothing but a – a rag of a female – the leavings of Comanche bucks” . . . “Do you know,” Laurie said, ‘what Amos will do if he finds Deborah Edwards? It will be a right thing, a good thing – and I tell you Martha [Deborah’s mother, who was raped and killed] would want it now. He’ll put a bullet in her brain.”
The point is made again in both the novel and book. About midway through each we’re introduced to a collection of white women who’ve been raped into insanity by their captors. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” says one of the cavalry men who rescued them from captivity.
“They’re not anymore,” Ethan responds.
The tension created by Lucy’s looming gang-rape is embodied in the figure of Mart. In the novel, he is adopted, his entire family have been slaughtered by the Comanche, an act which has contaminated him such that he’s is torn between the savagery of the Comanche world and the civilization of the Euro-Americans. The movie tweaks this to some degree, adding an extra layer of racism by making Mart part Indian himself. Because, according to the conventions of the Indian hating genre, a drop of Indian blood can contaminate even the best Euro-American stock, one is led to wonder what side Mart will take as the narrative unfolds: will he commit to killing Debbie with Ethan/Amos, or join up with the Comanche if she is found to be married to an Indian buck? It’s a conflict that’s never really resolved, as in both the novel and the movie, Debbie is found unspoiled.
Whatever conflict Mart may feel about killing Debbie, he is resolutely educated out of any conflict he may feel about killing Indians via a series of Comanche assaults on white femininity. In the novel’s Indian-hating manifesto, which echoes Roland Forrester’s nearly identical epiphany at the end of Nick of the Woods, and which Easterners are led to by Hall, Mart proclaims:
“I see something now,’ Mart said, “I never used to understand. I see now why the Comanches murder our women when they raid – brain babies even – what ones they don’t pick to steal. It’s so we don’t breed. They want us off the earth. I understand that, because that’s what I want for them. I want them dead. All of them. I want them cleaned off the face of the earth.”
He’s learned what Ethan/Amos has been trying to tell him all along: that this is a war of genocide, and that one side must be exterminated.
Of course, the gap in this lesson is fairly simple to glean: all Euro-Americans have to do to end this war of extermination is to stop invading Comanche land and, well, cease attempting to wipe them out. The Comanche have no such recourse. They’re fighting for their homes; they have nowhere to go.
But there’s another gap in both the movie and book, and that lies in the historical pretext for The Searchers. The novel is based on the real-life abduction of one Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken at age nine by the Comanche. The hitch being that when the Texas Rangers, led by Captain Sul Ross, rescued Parker as an adult, butchering her adopted Comanche family in the process, she wasn’t exactly receptive to her reinstatement into Euro-American culture. She repeatedly tried to escape back to her Comanche people, and finally, when her half-Comanche daughter died of a “civilized disease,” refused food until she’d starved herself to death.
Moreover, the attack on the Parker Fort which resulted in Cynthia Ann Parker’s abduction was hardly the unwarranted attack on peaceful settlers described in both the novel and the movie. The Parker Fort was a staging ground for Ranger raids, including two raids on peaceful Wichita villages, which were completely wiped out.
And, most striking of all, is that in contrast to the Euro-American obsession with the defilement of white women, there is no evidence at all that any of the woman taken from the Parker Fort had been raped. In fact, the Comanche had strong cultural taboos against rape, just like the Shawnee, and pretty much every other Indian nation on the continent. A lot of those peoples had been fighting wars that included the taking of captives for a long time, and rape just seems to be one of the things they agreed to do without. Though Euro-American accounts automatically assumed sexual assault in the case of white women taken captive by Indians, actual evidence of rape occurring is most notable by its nonexistence – a trope that runs all the way back to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative of 1682.
Not that said nonexistence has ever managed to stifle the grisly imagination of Euro-America historians. Such as T.R. Fehrenbach, who, while writing about the Comanche raid on the Parker Fort, tells the reader, “There was never to be a single case of a white woman being taken by Southern Plains Indians without rape.”
“The Conversion of Carne Muerto”
Which brings me to the short story I’m supposed to be actually reviewing, “The Conversion of Carne Muerto.” It’s entirely true to the Indian hater form, right down to the typically dehumanizing faux-Indian names that Indian hating authors like to assign Indian antagonists — Carne Muerto, or Dead Meat being the name of the lead Comanche. I suppose it’s better than Nick of the Woods’ Black Vulture (almost certainly better than Niggur Nose, anyway) or The Searchers’ Scar, but only marginally.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers. But, then, if you’ve read the last couple of thousand words, you probably don’t need any. Carne Muerto is a Comanche taken prisoner as a teenager by the Texas Rangers and brought back to the fort. He’s been injured, and the story’s narrator, the camp doctor, takes a certain amount of pity on him, though not much.
Unfortunately for everybody involved, there’s a woman around. And, of course, she’s an Easterner, who has yet to learn the ways of the frontier. Something which starts up a discussion between her husband and Colonel John Ford (and, no, I’m not making that up). To give you a taste of it:
“Colonel, you can’t lock that prisoner up,” a woman’s voice said. “It would be inhumane. Why, he’s nothing but a boy, and he’s hurt!”
I looked around and saw the young woman with copper-colored hair, followed closely by the lieutenant, who looked worried and upset. He said quickly, “Begging the colonel’s pardon, we don’t mean to intrude—”
“Then don’t, Lieutenant Patrick,” the colonel said, not bothering to conceal his irritation at this interruption.
Still trying to fix things, the lieutenant said, “It’s just that Julia is new to the frontier and doesn’t understand—”
“I understand perfectly well, Bartholomew,” she said. “I understand that this poor young man needs help, and it’s my Christian duty to give it to him.”
Captain Ford said, “Ma’am, I believe in the Lord, too, but I’m not sure He’d want you getting mixed up in this.”
Long story short, Juliana decides to take Carne Muerto into her house to let him recuperate, and teach him Christianity in the process. And if you can’t figure out how her act of Christian charity ends up, then there’s not a whole lot else I can do for you.
Anybody who has read my novel Pike knows I’m not exactly brimming with politically correctness. Hell, my favorite western right now is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which ain’t a book known for its finer sensitivities. And I’m certainly not one to argue that protagonists must be likable. But all I can really say about this story, is, shit, it’s depressing. Putting a slight spin on the old Indian hating myths seems just about as artistically daring as tweaking Blood Libels and casting them as fresh material.
And, as always, one can’t but be reminded of all the arguments about African American rapaciousness used to justify the KKK lynchings of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The major difference, of course, being that outside of isolated spots like Stormfront.org, you don’t see those being bandied about much anymore. When it comes to American Indians, however, they’re still as standard as white bread.