The Book of the American Indian

Written by Hamlin Garland
Pictured by Frederic Remington

Edited by Keith Newlin


In trailing about over the west for the last twenty-five years I have come into contact with some ten or fifteen tribes of these people and have made studies of them in their pathetic attempt to adapt themselves to our civilization, and in the hope of showing one or two little known traits of these "folks" I submit this book of stories in the hope that they will carry the reader a little way along the road by which my own conclusions have been reached. There are a thousand writers to emphasize the harsh and cruel side of the Indian. There are very few who care to dwell upon their commonplace every-day human side.

—Hamlin Garland, from a discarded introduction to The Book of the American Indian

         When The Book of the American Indian was first published in 1923, the Indians had long been resettled upon various reservations. The warfare between American Indians and white settlers had reached its height in the 1870s, and by the late 1890s virtually all tribes had been relocated to a vast system of reservations. By 1901, the 76 million people of the United States included about 270,000 Indians divided among more than 300 tribes on more than 160 reservations. Hamlin Garland’s stories were originally written between 1890 and 1905, during the difficult years of transition, when Indians were passing from free and independent peoples to government wards dependent upon a government dole. Unlike such writers as James Fenimore Cooper, Garland based his stories on careful, accurate observation occasioned by repeated trips to reservations throughout the West and upon interviews with Indians who were struggling to make a new life on reservations. His stories capture both the rebellious spirit of Indians still smarting from submission to an invader and the pathos inherent in what one reviewer called "the Indian of the last days, the Indian living, half submissive, half rebellious, in fear of the ‘agent’ sent by the great incomprehensible Government at Washington . . . the Indian who, with whatever sombre smouldering of revolt in his heart, had at last accepted the white man as master."

          The strength of Garland’s stories lies in their sympathetic depiction of the difficulties inherent in this "acceptance," for the Indians Garland encountered were just beginning to convert to an anglicized agrarian economy, and government policy was shifting from an earlier optimism that Indians would readily and eagerly merge into white culture to a more pessimistic assessment that saw indigenous peoples as incapable of fitting in with the dominant culture. In all of his stories, Garland reflects the stereotypes of his age: his Indian characters are a proud and tragic people facing with difficulty an unjust and at times brutal government bureaucracy. Garland was very much a product of the late nineteenth century, convinced that science, and particularly evolutionary determinism, could explain both natural and social phenomena, and just as convinced that white civilization was more "advanced" than others. He also was a writer with considerable compassion for others "less advanced" and sought through his writing to make conditions better for all people. This spirit of reform, coupled with a realism based on his own intimate acquaintance with Native Americans, separates his fiction from that of other white writers, who tended to demonize the Indians. To Garland, American Indians were above all else human beings with virtues and faults identical with those of other peoples. Indians were simply "less evolved" along the continuum of cultures. As Garland recalled thirty years after his travels among the reservations,

I took the red man as I found him. To me he was a product of his environment, like the eagle or the mountain lion. To call him a fiend, a devil, was unscientific. The question of his origin, the basis of his customs should not be clouded by racial or religious prejudice, nor confused by the hate of those who desired the lands he occupied. In short the red people were to me human beings who had come up along another line of civilization from ours. Although in some ways our inferiors, they possessed certain singularly noble traits.

Garland’s task in his Indian fiction was both to celebrate the nobility of American Indians and also to point to their shared humanity with the dominant culture. Garland’s attitude is at times condescending and paternalistic, but his stories are of interest for readers today because they illustrate a sincere and well-intentioned white reformer coming to understand a culture radically at odds with his own—and discovering in the process that his own culture is less "advanced" than he had supposed.

                . . . snip . . .

back from The Book of the American Indian, edited by Keith Newlin (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1005), pp. xi-xliii.