Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Native Americans [Indians]
Author:
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's adult life was framed by two of the defining events in nineteenth-century Native American history—the infamous "Trail of Tears" in 1838 and 1839, when Whitman was twenty, and the Wounded Knee Massacre at the end of 1890, just over a year before his death. During Whitman's teenage years, the Choctaws, the Creeks, the Chickasaws, and finally the Cherokees were moved across the Mississippi and into the Oklahoma territory. During the formative years of Leaves of Grass, many of the most explosive Western battles between natives and whites occurred, including the Pueblo uprising in 1847, the Grattan fight in 1854, and the Rains fight in 1855. As Leaves of Grass grew through its various editions, countless battles and skirmishes took place, and their names entered American memory: Birch Coulee, Canyon de Chelly, Rosebud, Warbonnet Creek, Sand Creek. By the time of Whitman's death, Wounded Knee had underscored the fact that active, armed Native American resistance to the United States was at an end. 

Whitman was not unaffected by Native American life and events. While his own experience with Native Americans was limited, it was not insubstantial. He encountered American Indians as a boy on Long Island and as a young editor in New Orleans. He admired Indian troops who fought in the Civil War, and he was the only major American poet to work in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior (1865), where he met several impressive Native delegations and had what he called "quite animated and significant" conversations with them (Prose Works 2:579). On his Western trip in the 1870s, he commented on the Indians he met in Topeka, and he visited a Chippewa settlement during his trip to Canada in 1880. 

Whitman's interest in Native Americans is evident from very early on in his writing. One of his earliest published poems is "The Inca's Daughter," about the noble suicide of a "captive Indian maiden" (Early 6), and his 1842 temperance novel, Franklin Evans, contains a long chapter ("The Death of Wind-Foot") that consists of a Native American revenge tale. A few years later, he wrote a novella, "The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier," about a deformed and treacherous amalgam of the worst qualities of the white and red races. He wrote frequently about Native Americans and their history in various newspaper essays and articles. In the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Indians appear in five of the twelve poems, including the poem that would later be titled "The Sleepers," where Whitman records a haunting dream-memory of a "red squaw" (section 6) who visits his mother for an afternoon and then disappears forever, and the poem later titled "Song of Myself," where he offers an extended tableau of "the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl" (section 10)—a scene that has been read as suggestive of the white domination of the Native, but also indicative of the possibility of a joining of the races and all they represented in nineteenth-century America. 

In a notebook he kept in the late 1850s, Whitman sketched out plans for a " poem of the aborigines " that would incorporate "every principal aboriginal trait, and name" (Notebooks 1:275). He never wrote that poem, but Leaves of Grass contains more Native American elements than is generally noted. In "Starting from Paumanok," for example, Whitman pauses to "pronounce what the air holds of the red aborigines," and he goes on to catalogue their names—"Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez"—and to lament the Natives' disappearance while celebrating the way they have "charg[ed] the water and the land with names" (section 16). Whitman loved Native American words—"All aboriginal names sound good," he announced in his American Primer (18)—and he argued that Native names should replace the various classical and European names that had been imposed on the North American continent. His own efforts at reinstituting Native names included his insistence on calling Long Island "Paumanok" and New York City "Mannahatta." Native words had an authenticity for Whitman: they fit the American landscape, and, absorbed into English, they tinctured the language with native sounds. Whitman was therefore annoyed with the word "Indian" because it was an example of European misnaming, the imposition of a misidentification upon a whole group of cultures, "a great mistake perpetuated in a word . . . calling the American aborigines Indians," he wrote, is a lesson in how "names or terms get helplessly misapplied & wrench'd from their meanings" (Notebooks 5:1664). He preferred the term "aborigine," with its echo of "original," but mostly he loved to list and say the various tribal names—"Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 16). 

While Whitman occasionally employed the language and assumptions of savagism—with its attendant belief in the inevitable demise of the Natives in the face of the United States' claim to manifest destiny—he also was capable of questioning and complicating those assumptions, as he did in "Song of Myself," where he calls for a new "friendly and flowing savage" (section 39) whose mysterious appearance would help unsettle the already too repressed American civilization. Whitman's attitudes toward Native Americans remained ambivalent and wavering throughout his life. He could condemn Natives in reductive and stereotypical ways—"The real reds of our northern frontiers, of the present day, have propensities, monstrous and treacherous, that make them unfit to be left in white neighborhoods" (Notebooks 2:565)—but he could also celebrate them as some of the noblest examples of humanity: "There is something about these aboriginal Americans, in their highest characteristic representations, essential traits . . . arousing comparisons with our own civilized ideals" (Prose Works 2:578-579). 

Finally, though, Whitman's evolutionary faith led him to accept the notion that Native Americans were doomed to extinction, the victims of a Darwinian struggle of races and cultures. He usually expressed sadness at this inevitable loss, as he did in his late poems "Red Jacket (from Aloft)," "Yonnondio," and "Osceola." These poems, written in the last decade of his life, were final acknowledgments of the importance he ascribed to the presence of Native Americans in the developing American poem; Whitman wanted to include them, even as they seemed to be disappearing as an active part of American history, and he wanted to afford them a kind of linguistic afterlife by employing their words, so that every time Americans spoke the names of the country's towns and states and rivers, their voices would echo with Native sounds. 

Whitman, then, was ultimately more interested in the representation of Native Americans than in their actual cultures. He knew George Catlin, the artist who portrayed Indian cultures; he kept a print of Catlin's portrait of Osceola on the wall of his Camden home, and he supported the movement to have the United States government purchase Catlin's collection of Indian paintings so that the nation could have a collective visual memory of the tribes. One of Whitman's favorite paintings was John Mulvany's Custer's Last Rally, and he wrote a long meditation about the painting's conflicted portrayal of the Natives, a portrayal that resonated with Whitman's own handling of the Custer battle in his 1876 poem "From Far Dakota's Cañons." 

Contemporary Native American writers have responded to Whitman's poetry in a variety of ways. Some, like Joseph Bruchac, find Whitman's poetry close in spirit and even style to Native American song and thus view him as a kind of spiritual brother. Others, like the Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny, attack Whitman's "indifference" to Natives and his complicit acceptance of manifest destiny. Still others, like the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz, record an ambivalent reaction to Whitman, curious about how the great poet of democracy reacted to the decimation of Native peoples, curious about why he did not say more than he did.

Bibliography 

Bruchac, Joseph. "To Love the Earth: Some Thoughts on Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 274-278. 

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 

Kenny, Maurice. "Whitman's Indifference to Indians." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 28-38. 

Ortiz, Simon. From Sand Creek. Oak Park, N.Y.: Thunder's Mouth, 1981. 

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. 1904. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987. 

____. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963. 

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984. 

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964. 


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