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Nostalgia and Ideology

Philip J. Deloria—

In conjunction with Indian removal, popular American imagery began to play on earlier symbolic linkages between Indians and the past, and these images eventually produced the full-blown ideology of the vanishing Indian, which proclaimed it foreordained that less advanced societies should disappear in the presence of those more advanced. Propagandists shifted the cause-and­-effect of Indian disappearance from Jacksonian policy to Indians themselves, who were simply living out their destiny. “By a law of nature,” claimed the Supreme Court justice Joseph Story in 1828, “they seem destined to a slow, but sure extinction. Everywhere, at the approach of the white man, they fade away. We hear the rustling of their footsteps, like that of the withered leaves of autumn, and they are gone for ever. They pass mournfully by us, and they return no more.” These vanishing Indians were more highly developed forms of the classic, ruin/rock formation Indians that Freneau had envisioned forty years earlier. But Indians and Indian Others now appeared in a past that was wistful and commemorative rather than mythic and aged. Whereas Freneau placed Indians safely in ancient history, Story positioned them in a past so recent that one could yet hear their rustling footsteps and find their still-warm campfires. The two images mark the distinction between archaism and nostalgia, very different (but equally useful) narratives of the past.

Some of the best examples of the ideological force of the vanishing Indian appeared in the series of Indian plays that gained special popularity in the decade 1828-38. The dying chief Menawa, for example, offered a typical dramatic trope in The Indian Prophecy (1828), extending his blessings to the new nation (in the form of George Washington) before departing for the happy hunting grounds: “The Great Spirit protects that man [Washington], and guides his destiny. He will become the Chief of nations, and a people yet unborn, hail him as the Founder of a mighty Empire! Fathers! Menawa comes. (Menawa sinks slowly into the arms of his attendants, strain of music, curtain falls.)” Some of the most popular dying Indian figures included Metamora (1829), Pocahontas (1808, 1830), and Logan, whose famous speechreally the founding statement of the “last of the…” genreappeared in everything from popular newspapers and schoolbooks to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) to Joseph Dodd­ridge’s play Logan: The Last of the Race of Shikellemus, Chief of the Cayuga Nation (1823): “There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. Who is there to mourn for Logan?Not one.”

The Indian death speech brings us full circle to The Redskins and the justice­minded Susquesus, who, after reprimanding the anti-rent injins, declares, “You hear my voice for the last time. I shall soon cease to speak.” Susquesus and other vanishing Indians represented sophisticated refigurings of Tammany, who voluntarily climbed on to his own funeral pyre. In their dying moments, these Indian figures offered up their lands, their blessings, their traditions, and their republican history to those who were, in real life, violent, conquering inter­lopers. Not coincidentally, the first lodges of the Improved Order of Red Men were named Logan No. 1, Metamora No. 2, Pocahontas No. 3, and Metamora No. 4. Tribes named for Powhatan, Pocahontas’s father, and Uncas, Cooper’s penultimate Mohican, followed shortly after. By insisting that real Indians were disappearing or had already vanished, the Improved Order was able to narrate and perform a fraternal Indian history without having to account for the actions of real Indian people. This history was possible only when Indian removal policy was widespread and advanced.

The IORM dropped the Red Men’s abundant military titles and expanded the possible Indian-named ranks and metaphoric Indian nomenclature (fig. 9). Years became great suns, months became moons, minutes became breaths, money became fathoms, feet, and inches of wampum; the meetings were marked by the kindling and quenching of the council fire; a disbarred member was tomahawked; and so on. At meetings, Indian talk prevailed, creating the same metaphoric atmosphere that the revolutionaries had used to help them become Indian. The meaning of such metaphoric transformation, however, had taken on connotations of preservation and commemoration. Now, when the Red Men donned their florally decorated canvas costumes and met for arcane rituals in shadowy rooms, their practice of being Indian had little to do with revolution and crossing boundaries of national identity (fig. 10). It had little to do with the politics that attracted Tammany members and Red Men. Instead, the ritual had everything to do with custodial historythe preservation of a vital part of America’s past. The Improved Order painted itself as a gathering of historians, the worthy keepers of the nation’s aboriginal roots. “The value of the ceremonies of our Order,” one Red Man later observed, is their historical accuracy. They seek not merely to imitate, but to preserve. When the time comes that the Indian race is extinct, our Order will occupy a place original and unique, growing more interesting as years pass on, and becoming at once, the interpreter of Indian customs and the repository of Indian traditions. Could a higher destiny await any Organization?”

The commemorative renditions of vanished native people extended to the revolutionary Indians at the Boston Tea Party. Making Native Americans historical went hand in hand with a reverential remembering of the Revolution. Jefferson’s and Adams’s deaths on July 4, 1826, brought home the passing of the revolutionary generation, and the resulting campaign of nostalgia, remembrance, and reenactment faded in and out of public consciousness until midcentury. With this heightened consciousness of the passing of time, the idea of Indian-garbed rebellionespecially as it was being practiced by the New York anti-renterscould be locked, along with the Founders and the Revolution itself, in a revered, commemorative past tense.

From Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria. Published by Yale University Press in 1999. Reissued with a new preface in 2022. Reproduced with permission.


Philip J. Deloria is Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of Indians in Unexpected Places and Becoming Mary Sully, and coauthor of American Studies: A User’s Guide.


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