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Indians, by Arthur Kopit, was first staged at the Aldwych Theatre in London on July 4, 1968. It is a long one-act play that is about the genocide of the American Indians and the legendary figure of Buffalo Bill who is both sacrificial hero and sly showman. Indians is an experimental, absurdist piece that eschews conventional plotting and characterization. These qualities brought Indians a fair amount of criticism of the play's structure. Nevertheless, the power of this play's message and the new presentation that it attempts garnered Kopit admiration, launching his career as a playwright from collegiate productions to the professional realm.

The late 1960s, when Indians was first produced, was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. Minority groups, including the American Indians, were fighting for equal civil rights, which were legally granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Abroad, the U.S. government had involved itself in the Vietnam War against which many U.S. citizens protested. Kopit was inspired to write Indians after reading that the deaths of innocent people killed in the Vietnam War were viewed as the "inevitable consequences of war," reports Lewis Funke in the New York Times. Indians is a critical look at a brutal period in U.S. history—the consequences of which Americans were still trying to face and acknowledge in the early 2000s.


Arthur Lee Koenig was born May 10, 1937, in New York City, but his mother, Maxine, divorced his father when he was very young, and she then married George Kopit, a jewelry salesman. Kopit grew up on Long Island in New York and graduated from high school in 1955. He attended Harvard University on an engineering scholarship but discovered theater while there and spent a lot of time writing and directing plays. Kopit had seven of his own plays produced at Harvard's Dunster House Drama Workshop, six of which he directed. He graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in engineering. While traveling Europe the following year, Kopit wrote Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad in five days for a small contest at Harvard, which he won. The play was a wild success, eventually making its way to Broadway in 1963. Kopit also won the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for Oh Dad.

Kopit's accidental career in playwriting continued with Indians (1968), which was inspired by the Vietnam War. He saw what was happening in Vietnam as "a continuation of cowboys-and-Indians on another continent," Don Shewey wrote in the New York Times. Indians was the inspiration for the 1976 Robert Altman film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, starring Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The play was published in 1969 by Hill and Wang. Kopit received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969 and spent ten years experimenting with avant-garde theater before his next major play was produced. Wings (1978) is one of Kopit's most avant-garde plays and was inspired by his father who lost his ability to speak from a stroke in 1976.

The semi-autobiographical End of the World (1984) is drawn from the playwright's experience of being hired to write a play about nuclear weapons, a subject Kopit found very difficult to handle. The turn-of-the-century success, Y2K (2000), delves into fears about computers, security, and identity theft, themes which remained relevant even as technology continued to evolve.

Kopit married Leslie Garis in 1968. He has taught playwriting at Wesleyan University, Yale University, and the City University of New York. As of 2006, Kopit lived in Connecticut.


Scene 1

Indians opens with three glass cases displaying an effigy of Buffalo Bill, an effigy of Sitting Bull, and, in the last case, a buffalo skull, a bloodstained Indian shirt, and an old rifle. Buffalo Bill himself appears on stage, riding an artificial horse and his Wild West Show coalesces around him. He starts off speaking with confidence about his Wild West Show until a Voice interrupts him, telling him that it is time to start. Buffalo Bill is distraught. Indians appear and the Voice continues to urge him to start. Buffalo Bill goes on the defensive, declaring, "My life is an open book." He calls himself a hero and the scene ends.

Scene 2

Sitting Bull and his people are starving on the reservation where they have been relocated. The president (the Great Father) sends three senators out to investigate their complaints, and they bring Buffalo Bill along to help them. Buffalo Bill promised Sitting Bull that the Great Father himself would come, and Sitting Bull and his people do not understand why the Great Father did not come. They are very angry. Buffalo Bill tries to keep relations calm between the Indians and the senators. John Grass speaks first for the Indians; he tells the story of how the Great Father convinced them to take up farming but gave them poor farmland. The Great Father also sent Christian missionaries who beat the Indians. Now they are starving and the buffalo are all gone, and the Great Father has yet to fulfill his promises to give them clothing, food, and money. All they want is what they have been promised—and for the buffalo to return.

Scene 3

In a flashback, Buffalo Bill is shooting buffalo for sport, to impress the grand duke of Russia. He is thrilled with his success and then comments to himself that the buffalo are getting harder to find. His enthusiasm turns solemn. Spotted Tail, who has been watching from afar, confronts Buffalo Bill about shooting so many buffalo. Bill invites Spotted Tail to help himself to the meat and talks about how things are changing. He seems to feel some guilt but confesses to Spotted Tail that he hopes to be famous someday. The grand duke appears with his entourage, including reporter Ned Buntline. The grand duke gives Buffalo Bill a medal and asks him to come back to Russia. Buffalo Bill declines. Encouraged by Buntline, Buffalo Bill launches into a fantastical story of how he got into a fight with fifty Comanches and killed their chief. The grand duke declares that he wants to be like Buffalo Bill and kill a Comanche also. Buffalo Bill tries to explain that the Comanches are in Texas, and he is in Missouri. The grand duke fires into the darkness and kills Spotted Tail. Buffalo Bill is stunned, saddened. Buntline and the grand duke are thrilled.

Scene 4

This scene returns to the discussion between the senators and Sitting Bull's people. Buffalo Bill pleas with the senators to understand how important it is that Sitting Bull's Indians' lives are saved. "For it is we, alone, who have put them on this strip of arid land. And what becomes of them is … our responsibility."

Scene 5

The scene shifts to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Geronimo is announced and appears crawling through a tunnel. He is prodded by two cowboys into a cage. Geronimo shouts about his conquests over white people. Buffalo Bill enters his cage, walks up to him, turns his back, and then walks out. Geronimo is worked up to a fighting frenzy but does nothing to Buffalo Bill.

Scene 6

At the Senate Committee, Senator Logan asks John Grass to be more specific about the Great Father's promises. The senators deny knowledge of any promises. They discuss a treaty in which Sitting Bull's Indians sold the Black Hills to the U.S. government. The money from the sale is supposedly held in trust at a bank, and the senators will not give it to the Indians. Frustrated, Grass keeps trying to walk away, but the senators and Buffalo Bill make him come back. Grass describes where the treaties were signed and what was promised to them. The senators point out that the Indians do not know how to read and cannot be sure of the content of the treaties. Grass is confused and appeals to Buffalo Bill, asking him why he could not get his friend, the Great Father, to come himself.


  • Indians was loosely adapted into the major motion picture, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, directed by Robert Altman and starring Paul Newman. It was released in 1976 by MGM Studios and as of 2006 was available on VHS tape and DVD.

Scene 7

Scouts of the Plains, a play about Buffalo Bill written by Buntline, is being performed at the White House for the Ol' Time President and the First Lady. Buffalo Bills plays himself, as does Wild Bill Hickok. They are on a mission to stop the Pawnee tribe's "dreadful" Festival of the Moon and rescue the maiden Teskanjavila. Hickok is not really interested in acting and quickly abandons his lines. He argues with Buffalo Bill and then stabs and kills Buntline because he feels humiliated "‘[b]out havin’ to impersonate myself." Hickok then lustfully goes after Teskanjavila, hiding with her half-naked behind the curtain. Throughout the fumbled production, the Ol' Time President and the First Lady are blissfully unaware of the reality of what is happening in front of them. They think the play is fantastic. Buffalo Bill is left alone on stage, in a daze, spinning in circles.

Scene 8

At the Senate Committee hearing, Senator Logan challenges John Grass, insisting that it was the Indians who did not fulfill their terms of the Fort Lyon Treaty. Grass insists that the Indians did not know they were giving up their land in exchange for twenty-five thousand cows; the Indians thought the cows were a gift. The Indians understood the white people wanted to take the land, but they also seemed to think they could stay there. Grass tells the senators that they were intimidated into signing the treaty. When pressed by the senators, Grass says that he and his people prefer to live like Indians, not white people—and they want their promised money. Senator Dawes refuses because Indians only spend money on alcohol. Grass retorts that the Indians are only imitating white people, making all the Indians laugh and irritating the senators.

Scene 9

At the Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill is introducing his performers when the Voice returns, reminding him to include the Indians. Buffalo Bill is uncomfortable but complies. Indians set up for a recreation of their sacred Sun Dance while a very old Chief Joseph recites his surrender speech for the audience. Then Buffalo Bill introduces the Sun Dance. It is a gruesome and brave ritual particular to the tribes of the Plains, and Buffalo Bill's Indians are only imitating it because it has been outlawed by the government. John Grass appears, affixes the barbs to his chest, and goes through the ritual in the traditional fashion. At the end, he collapses and dies from loss of blood.

Scene 10

Buffalo Bill goes to visit the Ol' Time President and ask him to come to Sitting Bull's reservation and speak with the Indians personally. The Ol' Time President is riding a mechanical horse. He refuses to go to the reservation, saying that the Indians are beyond his help. Buffalo Bill pleads with him, and the Ol' Time President agrees to send a committee since he is so grateful to Buffalo Bill for his Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill knows that a committee is useless but cannot change the president's mind.

Scene 11

At the Senate Committee hearing, Sitting Bull is upset with Buffalo Bill that the Great Father (the president) did not come himself and sent stupid men instead. Buffalo Bill sees a fundamental, cultural misunderstanding between Sitting Bull's Indians and the senators. He tries to explain the Indian point of view to the senators: that plowing land to farm is harmful to their sacred earth and land ownership is a concept that does not exist in Indian culture. Senator Logan invites Sitting Bull to speak, and Sitting Bull tells them of the depravation his people are experiencing. He says he wants to live as white people do since the old way of life is gone. This stuns his Indians, but he continues by asking the senators to send enough animals, tools, and other material items for them to set up life as farmers. On the surface his demands are not unreasonable because he is only asking for what white people have, but his request is so enormous that it underlines how little the Indians have by comparison. Sitting Bull is also insulted that the senators do not recognize his authority as chief. Senator Logan belittles Sitting Bull, denies him any further speech before the committee, and closes the hearing for the day. Sitting Bull gets in the last word: "If a man is the chief of a great people, and has lived only for those people, and has done many great things for them, of course he should be proud!"

Scene 12

In a saloon full of cowboys, Jesse James is singing a song about a dead man. Buffalo Bill enters, asking for Wild Bill Hickok. Suddenly Buffalo Bill is involved in a stand-off against Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Hickok enters and he and Buffalo Bill go off to a corner to talk in private. Buffalo Bill is consumed with guilt for killing the buffalo and driving the Indians to starvation. But he does not believe he is responsible because he was only doing his job, while working for the government. He tells Hickok that Sitting Bull's Senate Committee hearing went poorly, and the government had Sitting Bull murdered. Buffalo Bill wants Hickok's help to know who he is so that he does not die wrong, in the middle of his show. Hickok calls forth a group of Buffalo Bill look-alikes. Buffalo Bill tries to shoot them down and begs for the show to close, but the Voice says, "Not yet " and reports that the rest of Sitting Bull's tribe were also murdered.

Scene 13

The bodies of Indians lay in heaps in the center of the stage. Colonel Forsyth tells two reporters that he and his men wiped out all the Indians in this tribe, making up for Custer's slaughter. He describes it as "an overwhelming victory" and an end to the "Indian Wars," although some call it a massacre. The colonel, his lieutenant, and the two reporters leave for the barracks, and Buffalo Bill stays behind to honor Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull's ghost appears, and Buffalo Bill yells at him for not listening. Sitting Bull points out that although Buffalo Bill was trying to help the Indians with his Wild West Show, he was also exploiting and humiliating them. Buffalo Bill reiterates his fear of dying in the middle of his show. Sitting Bull, just before he leaves, tells Buffalo Bill "how terrible it would be if we finally owe to the white man not only our destruction, but also our glory." Alone with the Voice, Buffalo Bill is excited to almost be done. He delivers a prepared speech about how Indian tribes across the United States were decimated by the government in various ways, but his speech is sympathetic to the government's position. While he is speaking, the dead Indians rise and surround him. Other Indians appear onstage as well. Individual Indians announce their names and that they are dying while Buffalo Bill is speaking. Buffalo Bill denounces any responsibility on his part or the government's for the termination of the Indian way of life. He cuts himself short and pulls Indian artifacts out of his bag and shows them to the audience. Buffalo Bill sits by his display of trinkets and falls silent. Chief Joseph repeats his surrender speech. The stage gradually fades to dark and then comes back to full light with the Roughriders circling. Buffalo Bill enters on a white stallion. Indians lurk in the shadows and move toward him as the lights fade again. When lights are restored, the stage is set with three glass boxes as seen at the beginning of the play.


Grand Duke Alexis

Grand Duke Alexis of Russia visits the United States, and Buffalo Bill escorts him on a tour of the wild west. The grand duke is excited by Buffalo Bill's cowboy lifestyle and kills Spotted Tail in an effort to be more like Buffalo Bill. The grand duke's simple-minded view of the Indians is similar to that of the Ol' Time President.

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid is a famous outlaw who appears near the end of the play at the Dodge City saloon.

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill is the central character of Indians. He is a cowboy, a scout, a showman, and a humanitarian. Wild Bill Hickok is Buffalo Bill's foil: whereas Hickok is hard-edged, dangerous, and interested in immediate satisfaction, Buffalo Bill is easy-going and hopes to be famous. Buffalo Bill's name, like his Wild West Show, is a mockery of American Indian naming conventions. The irony of his name is that it does not refer to a reverence for the natural world but instead Buffalo Bill's slaughter of enormous numbers of buffalo. Buffalo Bill, as a young man, tells Spotted Tail that his people must assimilate to survive. He also declares that he wants to help people and become famous. This sentiment sets the tone for the play. Buffalo Bill believes that in helping people, he is a good person and deserves accolades and fame. So when the American Indians continue to die despite Buffalo Bill's efforts to help them, he is demoralized and wracked with guilt. He believes the Indians are going about things all wrong and perhaps deserve what is coming to them. But he also has compassion for them as suffering humans and wants to help. Guilt and compassion do not seem to be enough to absolve Buffalo Bill of his mixed involvement in the decimation of the American Indians. Buffalo Bill wants to absolve himself of responsibility, but his monologue at the end of the play underlines his basic hypocrisy, which has been apparent since the beginning but clouded by Buffalo Bill's good intentions and clumsy follow-through. After the death of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill's monologue of self-absolution, Bill is reduced to pathetic peddling of American Indian trinkets—all he has left of his Indian friends.

Ned Buntline

Ned Buntline is a writer who chooses Buffalo Bill as the subject of his work. He wants to make Buffalo Bill famous, which the cowboy finds intoxicating. Buntline urges Buffalo Bill toward tall tales and unnatural behavior to improve his stories. Buntline's play Scouts of the Plains is performed at the White House, starring Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok as themselves. Like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Buntline's play is a sad caricature of the real experience. Buntline is stabbed and killed when Hickok realizes the humiliation Buntline's play is attempting to put him through. Like the American Indians, Buntline dies with Buffalo Bill standing there, doing nothing, unsure of whom to please next.

William Frederick Cody

See Buffalo Bill

Senator Dawes

Senator Dawes is one of three senators sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.

First Lady

The First Lady is married to the Ol' Time President. She is as delighted as her husband is with Buntline's play, which is performed by Buffalo Bill, Buntline, and Wild Bill Hickok. In true absurdist fashion, the First Lady does not seem to realize that Buntline's death and Tenskajavila's rape are real and not part of the script of Buntline's play.

First Reporter

First Reporter gathers information from Colonel Forsyth about the death of Sitting Bull.

Colonel Forsyth

Colonel Forsyth is responsible for the slaughter of Sitting Bull and his tribe. He does not see what he has done is a massacre even though many of the people killed were women and children. Instead, the colonel sees the attack as a victory that wins the U.S. government the war against the American Indians. He has not bothered to count the dead Indians, and they are left on the ground, being covered by snow, while the colonel goes inside the barracks for warmth and conversation.


Geronimo, an Apache leader, was renowned for his fierceness in fighting back against white aggressors. He appears in the play as a caged animal in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. It is unclear whether Geronimo is acting for benefit of the show or is actually imprisoned.

John Grass

Grass is an articulate Indian belonging to Sitting Bull's tribe. Grass is supposed to understand white people better than many in his tribe because he attended a white school. Grass even has a name that sounds more white than American Indian. Sitting Bull asks Grass to be the first to speak for the tribe at the Senate Congressional hearing, but Grass is unable to successfully negotiate an agreement. He states his tribe's grievances over promises made to them and signed in treaties, but the senators refute these claims, saying that these things they were promised were not actually detailed in the treaties and that the American Indians have not behaved in good faith toward their agreement. Frustrated, Grass makes fun of the senators which angers them and effectively ends the day's hearing. Grass next appears at the Sun Dance imitation going on at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He interrupts the performance and does the Sun Dance the traditional way with barbs through his chest, which is illegal according to the U.S. government. Although the Sun Dance does not have to be lethal, Grass pushes himself until he tears free of the barbs and falls to the ground, bleeding to death. Traditionally the Sun Dance is for penitence so this is probably not intended as suicide.

James Butler Hickok

See Wild Bill Hickok


The interpreter works for Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. He translates Russian and English between his duke and the American hosts.

Jesse James

Jesse James is a famous western outlaw whom Buffalo Bill meets briefly at the Dodge City saloon near the end of the play.

Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph appears in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a shadow of the powerful man he once was. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce is famous for helping his tribe escape and evade U.S. soldiers for years in the Pacific Northwest. His eventual surrender, when his people were starving and greatly diminished in number, was considered a significant victory by the government. Chief Joseph, weak and defeated, recites his surrender speech at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a way to earn some money. He now lives a half-life.


The lieutenant serves Colonel Forsyth.

Senator Logan

Senator Logan is one of the three senators sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.

Senator Morgan

Senator Morgan is the lead senator sent by the Ol' Time President to host a Senate Congressional hearing with Sitting Bull's tribe.

Ol' Time President

The Ol' Time President is a foolish man, caught up in the romantic view of the wild west as full of adventure, romance, and cowboys fighting Indians. He has no compassion for the American Indians and refuses to personally meet with Sitting Bull in case it would send the wrong message to other American Indian tribes.


Poncho is at the Dodge City saloon near the end of the play.

Second Reporter

Second Reporter is gathering information from Colonel Forsyth about the death of Sitting Bull. Second Reporter is more outraged than the first over the slaughter of Sitting Bull's tribe.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull is the leader of a Sioux tribe of displaced American Indians. Originally living in the Black Hills, Sitting Bull's tribe was displaced by the U.S. government when gold was discovered there. Sitting Bull spent some time working for Buffalo Bill in his Wild West Show. He appears to foresee his tribe's fate and tries to make the senators see the errors in their understanding of native ways, particularly in relation to ownership. The senators are rude to him, perhaps because they feel threatened. Sitting Bull and his people are killed in a raid commanded by Colonel Forsyth. His ghost visits Buffalo Bill soon thereafter and will not absolve the cowboy of his guilt. Sitting Bull's greatest sorrow is the thought of "how terrible it would be if we finally owe to the white man not only our destruction, but also our glory."

Spotted Tail

Spotted Tail is a Sioux Indian who is shot and killed by the Grand Duke Alexis for sport. Buffalo Bill pretends, for the sake of the grand duke and Buntline, that Spotted Tail was actually a dangerous Comanche warrior—from Texas.


Teskanjavila is the so-called Indian princess created by Buntline for his play Scouts of the Plains, which is performed at the White House. She is played by an Italian actress.


Uncas is the evil Indian chief created by Buntline for his play, which is performed at the White House for the Ol' Time President and the First Lady.

Wild Bill Hickok

Wild Bill Hickok is an unapologetic, classic cowboy and scofflaw. Hickok, because of his straightforward nature, is uncomfortable with Buntline's play in which he is supposed to perform as himself. He finds this to be shameful—just like the Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show—and refuses to go on. Hickok kills the writer and makes off with the buxom actress. Buffalo Bill seeks Hickok out at the end of Indians to ask him for help in identifying Bill's true self.



Kopit's primary theme in Indians is genocide (mass murder). Genocide is usually motivated by racial, ethnic, or nationalistic prejudices. Kopit was motivated to write about the U.S. government's genocide of American Indians because of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in which he saw a similar arrogance. In this play, Kopit unabashedly points out the unethical treatment, dispossession, suffering, and death brought upon the American Indians by the U.S. government. Bolstered by greed, nationalism, and presumed ethnic superiority, white Americans of European descent in the U.S. government of the nineteenth century repeatedly lied, cheated, coerced, and murdered the native inhabitants of North America. They perpetrated these crimes in an effort to gain fertile or otherwise rich land and to eliminate a culture that they saw as obstructing this appropriation. Indians represents some of the ways in which the U.S. government brought harm to native tribes people: the futile Senate Committee hearing, the wasteful hunting of buffalo, the surprise-attack slaughter of entire tribes, and even Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill tries to bridge the gap between his government and the American Indians, but although he understands the Indians more than many white people, he does not understand them well enough to find a solution amenable to both sides. Genocide has occurred throughout human history and includes events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as those in World War II Europe, in Rwanda, and in Darfur.

Guilt and Responsibility

Buffalo Bill feels guilty about his role in harming the native way of life. As a young man in the


  • In his play, Kopit explores the genocide of the American Indians at the hands of the U.S. government. Research another instance of genocide from world history and prepare a fifteen-minute presentation. Tell your classmates what the background of the genocide is, how and why it was carried out, and what, if anything, was done to stop it. When the presentations are complete, hold a roundtable discussion about what can be done to prevent future genocides from happening, using your collective knowledge to inform your ideas.
  • Buffalo Bill was a man of conflicting interests. He worked for the U.S. government but was also sympathetic to American Indians. Research the life of Buffalo Bill (whose real name was William Frederick Cody) and write an essay that compares his life to Kopit's presentation of him. Is Kopit's version accurate in fact and emotion? Explain.
  • Write a fifteen-minute monologue from the point of view of an American Indian, a settler, or a U.S. soldier. What problems does your character face and how is he or she dealing with them? Be as specific and detailed as possible. Perform your monologue for your class. Discuss as a class how the characters you have each created would interact with one another.
  • There are hundreds of different American Indian tribes across North America, from the Abenaki of the northeastern United States to the Hopi of Arizona. Although all of these tribes are recognized as native people and as such called American Indians or Native Americans, their customs vary dramatically. Choose two geographically separate tribes and research their customs and history. Create a visual aid such as a poster or diorama that exhibits these differences and put it up in your classroom or school hallway to share what you have learned with others.
  • There are food traditions particular to American Indians, although they can vary widely among tribes and across geography. Research dishes of an American Indian tribe. What unique ingredients do they use? How are they similar or different from foods eaten in the United States today? Select a dish to prepare and make it for your class. Have a potluck party and taste the different foods of native tribes of North America. Let everyone choose a favorite and explain why this choice appeals.
  • Which U.S. presidents held office during the nineteenth century? What were their policies toward American Indians? Who was the most sympathetic and who was the harshest? Write a report that examines the influence of the U.S. president on the treatment of American Indians. What responsibility do the presidents bear for the genocide of the American Indians? Can you imagine other ways in which this cultural clash between American Indians and European settlers could have been resolved? Explain.
  • Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was very popular. It traveled around the country claiming to educate and entertain audiences about the wild west. It toured for more than twenty years and at its peak employed over twelve hundred performers. In small groups, investigate the details of the Wild West Show and select a portion of it to recreate for your class. Use costumes, music, props, and sets as needed to establish the tone—but remember that the Wild West Show was a traveling production.
  • Research two incidents of genocide and write an essay that compares them. Explain why these genocides happened, who were the parties involved, and what (if anything) was done to curtail them. How did they end? Was anyone held responsible? What are the similarities and the differences between these two instances of genocide?
  • Write a play or story about a frontier. A frontier is a border land between what is familiar and what is not. Your frontier can be the Wild West, outer space, or uncharted island—use your imagination. For extra credit, incorporate some of the themes or stylistic devices used by Kopit in Indians.

employ of the U.S. Army, Buffalo Bill slaughtered thousands of buffalo, driving the species to near extinction. He is undeniably responsible, in part, for the destruction of the Indians although he did not directly lay his hand against them and even actively tried to help them. Buffalo Bill's guilt drives him to find ways to help the American Indians adapt to their new neighbors. He also wants to be famous. Joining these disparate ambitions, he starts up a traveling Wild West Show, which is hugely popular and even exhibits some famous American Indians such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph. Buffalo Bill's efforts to help and support the American Indians are finally ineffective in holding off the grim determination of the U.S. government to clear American Indians from the land they occupy. His solution, assimilation, is a different, slower death which also causes the American Indian culture to break down.

The Ol' Time President and Colonel Forsyth, in contrast to Buffalo Bill, actively and consciously participate in the destruction of the American Indians and feel no remorse because they have objectified the Indians as the so-called bad guys while they identify themselves as the good guys. This binary, us/them approach dehumanizes the opponent as the other. The only responsibility the president and the colonel feel is toward their own government, which, they believe, is threatened by the native way of life.

Wild Bill Hickok is portrayed as the stereotypical cowboy—brash and fiercely independent. He is so straight-forward that he never behaves contrary to his nature. He suffers no guilt because he does not second-guess himself and is not introspective. Near the end of the play, Buffalo Bill feels he has lost himself and asks Hickok for help, but Hickok's twisted solution of multiple Buffalo Bills only exacerbates Bill's guilty conscience. Consumed by remorse and yet confused because he believes he is a good man, Buffalo Bill is the one left suffering at the end of Indians; he is the most human and humane of the white people in the play.

Ownership versus Stewardship

The difference between the concepts of ownership and stewardship define the difference between white people and American Indians in Kopit's play. Western white people believe in individuality and property. One's success is intrinsically tied to one's wealth, which may be measured in possessions, property, and land. American Indians, by contrast, have a communal lifestyle in which property is shared collectively but not owned personally. American Indians see themselves as stewards of the land, responsible for its care. The land is a gift to them from the Great Spirit, and they see the land as a living entity which cannot be bought, sold, or traded but instead belongs to everyone. As Kopit expresses in his play, the Indians are baffled by the white men's request to buy their land, such as in the Laramie Treaty. The Indians accept the offer, seeing it as a type of gift since of course the land cannot actually be transferred from one person to other; however, the white men are offended that the American Indians are not upholding their side of the agreement, uneven as it was, because they understand the treaties to be legally binding documents. This misunderstanding fuels the arguments that American Indians are not as smart as white people and not as honorable.



Kopit uses a non-linear plot structure to build dramatic tension in this play which is largely based on historical events and is thus a story with which audience members are already familiar. At the center of action is Buffalo Bill and throughout the play, viewers see events from his youth, from the recent past, and the present time of the telling of his story which takes place toward the end of his life. Throughout the play, Buffalo Bill feels varying levels of guilt over his involvement in the genocide of the Indians, and this guilt seems to increase as he grows older. The non-linear plot may also be an acknowledgement of an American Indian world view, where history is perceived as cyclical. Kopit combines several threads of Buffalo Bill's life, but the image finally depicted is not of a humanitarian. Buffalo Bill has tried to connect with the American Indians but failed to be a hero or their friend.


Absurdism is a literary style that emphasizes the disconnection and meaninglessness in human experience. When the style is used in drama, the plays do not provide rational sequences or realistic portrayals of action, and these plays may collectively be referred to as theater of the absurd. Characters in absurdist plays are often disorientated and feel threatened, like Buffalo Bill. In Indians, Kopit shows how Buffalo Bill is overcome by guilt and cannot come to terms with what has happened to the American Indians. He is jumpy and rubs his head and squints often as if he has a headache. The other white men in the play are absurdist in their unreal, over-the-top behavior.

Theater of the absurd is highly unconventional and purposefully strives to keep the audience off balance. Kopit achieves this effect with his grotesque presentation of the Wild West Show and direct look at the brutality perpetrated against Indians. Theater of the absurd rejects language as a reliable means of communication and seeks to evoke myth and allegory to find alternative meaning. Buffalo Bill's attempts to serve as an interpreter between the senators and the Indians, between Hickok and Buntline, between the grand duke of Russia and the Indians, all underline a breakdown in language as an effective means of communication. The allegory of Indians is in its similarity in theme and outcome to the Vietnam War, which was contemporary with the first production of the play.


Tone is the writer or narrator's attitude toward the story, which helps to set the mood. Tone influences how readers feel about the characters and what happens to them. The tone of Indians is one of anxiety, outrage, and futility. Kopit knows there is nothing that can be done to change what has already come to pass, but if his message can be communicated to audiences, then perhaps genocide may be averted in the future. Kopit communicates his frustration and anger through Buffalo Bill's quiet desperation, the irresponsible behavior of the other white men in the story, and the edgy resignation of the American Indians. Indians is a play of difficult emotions, but Kopit avoids heavy-handed badgering by making Buffalo Bill a flawed yet somewhat sympathetic character.


Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was a protracted military conflict between North and South Vietnam, lasting from 1957 until 1975. Vietnam was a proxy war for the cold war going on between communist and democratic nations. The United States was involved in Vietnam on the side of the South Vietnamese starting in 1955, but it was not until the appointment of General William Westmoreland in 1964 that the numbers of U.S. troops engaged there rose significantly. It quickly became apparent that the U.S. military was unprepared for the guerilla style of fighting used by the North Vietnamese. Guerilla warfare is a decentralized approach that works well for defending against foreign invaders. U.S. soldiers, never knowing who was friend or foe, were demoralized. Their fear contributed to their perpetrating crimes against civilians. Many Vietnam War veterans suffered from psychological trauma as a result. In the United States, many people were outraged by what they learned from daily news reports. Large numbers of citizens, especially young people immediately affected by the involuntary draft, began to protest publicly against the war. These protests polarized public opinion, causing sharp division between those who disapproved of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and those who accepted the government's argument that the United States was defending democracy against communism. By the end of the Vietnam War, two to four million people—military and civilian and of all nationalities—were dead and South Vietnam, along with her allies including the United States, had lost the war.

American Indian Rights

American Indians, along with other minorities, gained civil rights protection with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still trying to bring American Indians into mainstream U.S. culture in order to do away with reservations. In the 1970s, a group called the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged several highly publicized protests to bring further awareness to the rights of native peoples. Their goals included improving living conditions, protecting Indians from police brutality, and working to remove Indian caricatures from sports. Their methods were sometimes dramatic, but AIM overall made progress in raising awareness and respect for the cultures of American Indians. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, American Indian tribes have federal rights of self-government, much like states have. Almost three million American Indians live in the United States, divided into 563 tribal governments. Efforts to disenfranchise some tribal governments continued in the early 2000s as their land was sought for the valuable resources it contains. Other areas of the country resist permitting the formation of tribal governments because of concerns over gambling and casinos, which are often built and run by tribes to generate revenue.

Theater of the Absurd

The term, theater of the absurd, was coined by Martin Esslin in his 1962 book of the same name.

It refers to existential playwriting that asserts the meaninglessness of life. Esslin formulated his theory of the theater of the absurd after reading Albert Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which the meaninglessness of life is a central idea. The four playwrights Esslin identified as being the forerunners of the absurdist movement are Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Arthur Adamov. Theater of the absurd is, in essence, a type of avant-garde presentation. It employs unconventional and unrealistic settings, characters, plot development, and dialogue. Experimental literature has been written for centuries. Avant-garde was coined in Paris in 1861 to refer to those works that test conventions and initiate change. Avant-garde works such as those produced by surrealist poets and cubist painters were especially popular in the early twentieth century, paving the way for the rise of theater of the absurd in the 1950s and 1960s.


  • 1860s: Buffalo Bill is a famous showman and western hero in his own time, having created the widely popular Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

    1960s: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are actors known for their performances as cowboys in western movies.

    Today: Clint Eastwood is still a figure readily identified with westerns, although his career is diverse. Genre blending of science fiction, anime, and westerns is popular.

  • 1860s: Approximately fifty million buffalo (American bison) roam the plains of North America but are being killed in large numbers for their hides and to protect farms and settlements and to remove a source of food from nomadic tribes of Native Americans.

    1960s: Buffalo slowly recover from their near extinction in the late 1800s when only twenty-three wild buffalo remained.

    Today: The National Bison Association estimates that there are four hundred thousand buffalo in North America.

  • 1860s: American Indians have no civil rights and are not considered citizens according to the U.S. government. Treaties between the Indians and the government are often misunderstood and betrayed.

    1960s: A movement grows to improve the civil rights of American Indians, who have been struggling against assimilation since they were made U.S. citizens in 1924. The American Indian Movement (AIM) organization is formed.

    Today: Tribes are autonomous entities within the federal government, much like states. Many tribes run casinos to generate revenue, but some feel that casinos contribute to the further destruction of their culture. American Indians are protected by the same anti-discrimination laws that shield other minority groups, but fights over land, resources, and sovereignty continue.


The 1968 opening of Indians in London was greeted with a mixture of puzzlement and guarded praise. People wondered why a show that was so thoroughly American would first be staged in Britain. Irving Wardle, reviewing for the London Times proclaims: "the play is one of the few necessary works to have appeared from the America of the sixties. Whatever holes you care to pick, it is a work of high ambition." Stateside, drama critic Clive Barnes, also reviewing the London production, writes that Kopit's play is "only partially successful" and that "the play is at its best at its most serious, when it is making substantial and documented charges against the Government." British critic Martin Esslin, writing for the New York Times, considers Indians to be both "moving" and "amusing."

When Indians was restaged in Washington, D.C., a year later, Julius Novick found it to be "more annoying than satisfying" and "not yet a good play," while acknowledging that the merits of this play establish Kopit as more than a one-hit wonder. Barnes also reviewed the D.C. production and found it to be greatly improved, structurally, over the London production. While Barnes is overall positive about the show, he tempers his review by observing that "there is still an odd strain of facetiousness in the play, although not nearly so much as before." In October 1969, Indians moved to Broadway where Barnes reviewed this third production, summarizing his position: "It is not the greatest play ever written—far from it. But it does, even by the freedoms of dramatic form it grandiloquently permits itself, extend our theater."

Lewis Funke, in the New York Times, takes a far more positive position, declaring that Indians is "one of the most theatrically spectacular productions to reach Broadway in years." But Walter Kerr's review of the Broadway production was more harsh: "Everywhere substance has been skimped. Sometimes the skimpiness is covered over by attitudinizing, sometimes it is covered over by moralizing (because we are guilty, must we accept weak dramaturgy?)." Indians was restaged twenty-two years later and received an even more negative review from Alvin Klein, who found the play to be shapeless and polemical. He writes in the New York Times that Indians "comes off as more diatribe than drama" and that it is "perhaps most unsettling for being so relentlessly penitential and uninvolving."


Carol Ullmann

Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses Kopit's characterization of Buffalo Bill and whether the character's efforts to help the American Indians are disingenuous.

Indians, by Arthur Kopit, is a difficult play to absorb because the message about the genocide of American Indians at the hands of the U.S. government is frank and unavoidably accurate. Buffalo Bill was a unique figure in this conflict historically because he had a foot in both camps. Advancements in civil rights since the 1960s have reduced the shock of Kopit's message, which was also intended to comment on the U.S. role in Vietnam. Critic Lewis Funke quotes Kopit as explaining his inspiration for Indians: "I was reading a newspaper in which General Westmoreland expressed regret for the accidental killing and wounding of innocent people in Vietnam. These, he said, were the inevitable consequence of war." This sentiment is repeated in the last scene of Indians when Colonel Forsyth congratulates himself on his so-called victory against Sitting Bull and his tribe.

One can always find someone who'll call an overwhelming victory a massacre…. Of course innocent people have been killed. In war they always are…. In the long run I believe what happened here at this reservation yesterday will be justified.

The fact is Colonel Forsyth's hope for justification never came. Buffalo Bill pursues justification even as he tries to help the American Indians survive, but to no avail. Throughout Indians, Buffalo Bill wants to be understood and forgiven; therefore, he seeks justification as a means toward understanding. The horror of what has happened to the American Indians at the hands of white people is too painful for a single person to contain. Buffalo Bill seems to be the only white person at the time who is taking in the whole of this experience, and his conscience is tearing him apart as a result.

The title of Kopit's play is deceiving because the focus is actually Buffalo Bill and not the Indians. The Indians, some named and many nameless, come and go throughout Buffalo Bill's story, already ghosts of their true selves. Even John Grass and Sitting Bull, who are the most animated of the Indians, seem to have seen their fates and know that they are going through the motions in a history that has long since become inevitable. It is this inevitability that Buffalo Bill cannot face because it means he has lost control—or never had any control to begin with. It means that his good intentions were not good enough.

Indians is not about what happened in the United States in the late nineteenth century, but why it happened. Indians is based on historical figures and events, so the audience already knows the basic plot. Kopit, an avant-guard, absurdist playwright, has elected to use a non-linear structure, weaving together several episodes in time without conventional regard to chronology. The play is framed by Buffalo Bill's public face, his Wild West Show. It is grotesque and opaque, repulsive in its unreality. The Wild West Show also appears near the middle of the play, both before and after the central three scenes which feature John Grass's testimony at the Senate congressional hearing and Buntline's play at the White House. These two Wild West Show exhibitions feature American Indians: Geronimo as a caged animal, Chief Joseph blandly reciting his surrender speech, and an imitation of the American Indians' sacred Sun Dance. In the scenes of the Wild West Show, beneath the bravado, one can see Buffalo Bill's nervousness. His nervousness stems from his guilt over the suffering of the American Indians, but Buffalo Bill also worries about his identity. He is afraid of dying onstage and being lost to history as a mockery of his true self. He is scared because he is no longer sure what his true nature is.

Buffalo Bill has only wanted to help others. The main, repeating episode in Indians is the Senate congressional hearing which makes up five out of thirteen scenes. In these scenes, no agreement or solution is achieved, no resolution even attempted between the government and Sitting Bull's Sioux. The senators, John Grass, and Sitting Bull, all speak their parts and seem incapable of understanding one another's point of view. They do not even try. Buffalo Bill intervenes, first begging the Indians for cooperation and later trying to explain each side's position to the other. But his pleas for middle ground are ignored. The Indians are stubborn, sad, and resigned. The senators are stubborn and ruthless. Buffalo Bill is thus defeated in his not-quite selfless quest to help. He can give jobs, money, and supplies to the American Indians, but he is incapable of changing history. Buffalo Bill is, by increasing degrees, hypocritical because although he wants to help American Indians, he believes more strongly in assimilation than in finding a way to live as neighbors. He does not understand the gravity of what he asks when he presses the American Indians to assimilate. Hickok senses it when he refuses to perform in Buntline's play. The American Indians performing in the Wild West Show also understand the humiliation of assimilation.

In scene 3, Buffalo Bill is seen at his youngest, shooting buffalo for sport and to entertain the grand duke of Russia. His infectious enthusiasm engages the duke, who takes up a gun and shoots the nearest Indian—Buffalo Bill's friend Spotted Tail. To bolster his career and reputation, Buffalo Bill barely reacts to Spotted Tail's death, staying in showman form. It is his first step down a long path of self-aggrandizement at the expense of his Indian friends. When Buffalo Bill employs American Indians to perform in his Wild West Show, so that they might have jobs and more easily assimilate to white culture, he fails to recognize the humiliation his show costs them.

Ned Buntline's Scouts of the Plains extends this humiliation to Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok recognizes the exploitation right away and refuses to perform. Although he is a scofflaw who kills Buntline and rapes the Indian princess Teskanjavila, Hickok never pretends to be anything different. He knows himself and is content with his life. Buffalo Bill, as he grows older and more confused about his role in history, yearns for Hickok's surety and goes to the saloon in Dodge City to find himself, with Hickok's aid. Hickok shows him a group of Buffalo Bills, declaring that now he can help more people because he can be in more than one place at once. This idea horrifies Buffalo Bill because he has grown to hate himself. He does not want to discover his true identity; he wants to become something else.

Buffalo Bill is a proud man with a troubled conscience. Through the various scenes, we see increasingly into his heart. He is disturbed by the harsh treatment of American Indians, which the audience sees when Buffalo Bill argues with the senators about their responsibility for the livelihood of Indians they have displaced. He even appears to understand something of the Indian worldview when he tries to convince the senators that the American Indians do not understand ownership the way white people do. But Buffalo Bill is haunted by the faces of dead Indians.

Buffalo Bill's sincerity is ultimately undermined in the final scene when, in a passionate, almost angry monologue, he argues the government's view that the American Indians were difficult to deal with and fought unfairly: "I am sick and tired of these sentimental humanitarians," he says in ironic reference to himself. All around Buffalo Bill American Indians are dying, and he, having failed at being greater than the sum of his parts, is reduced to selling Indian trinkets. He is a shadow of the great man he envisioned himself as being, reduced to arguing his own innocence with himself.

Buffalo Bill, as characterized by Kopit, is earnest but hypocritical. While he proclaims concern for American Indians, he believes that their only salvation lay in cooperation and assimilation, which assumes the supremacy of white culture over Indian culture. Early in Kopit's play, Buffalo Bill says to Spotted Tail, "things're changin' out here…. So if you wanna be part o' these things, an' not left behind somewhere, you jus' plain hafta get used to 'em…. you've got to adjust." His viewpoint of assimilation was one held by many Americans and was actively practiced by the U.S. government through the 1970s.

"No one who is a white man can be a fool," Spotted Tail says to Buffalo Bill after Buffalo Bill has slaughtered a hundred buffalo for sport. Spotted Tail's statement, as understood in the context of Kopit's play, is ironic: Buffalo Bill, at the center of this tale, is king of all fools.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Indians, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Vera M. Jiji

In the following review, Jiji explores four main theatrical conventions that Kopit employs in Indians.

Indians, Arthur Kopit's first major serious play was, in the words of one London reviewer, "one of the few necessary works to have appeared from the America of the sixties." It is not difficult to see why it merited such praise.

The play takes place on what Peter Brook would call "holy ground." Brook was speaking of that common groundwork of community feeling when he instanced "the great Kazan-Williams-Miller hits, Albee's Virginia Woolf, [plays which] summoned audiences that met in the true shared territory of theme and concern—and they were powerful events, the circle of performance was riveting and complete." In Indians, the true shared territory of theme and concern is not merely white America's guilt about its treatment of the red man, but of the black man, the yellow man, the native of Vietnam.

Kopit conceived of Indians when he heard General Westmoreland express regret for the accidental killing in Vietnam. Although the Vietnamese are never mentioned in the play, every spectator can identify as contemporary the press conference in which the victor rationalizes his sword—the U.S. Colonel who exterminated Sitting Bull and his tribe, justifying the measure on the ground that no more skirmishes between Indians and whites would now occur: "in the long run I believe what happened here at this reservation yesterday will be justified."

Kopit's choice of the Indian Massacres for his theme was most apt. Most white Americans are still unaware of the terrible events which led to the Indians' incarceration. On the simplest level, Kopit wanted to inform the audience as to how it had happened. But more than that, as the audience mourned for the dead Indians, they were to feel that no massacre could ever "be justified." Thus Kopit hoped to build from the sympathy Americans can now feel for the slain warriors whose remains adorn Museums of Natural (sic) History, to a sympathy for those still being slain. The bridge was to be the play's central character: William Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill.

It was a brilliant idea for a play. Cody had seen himself as the Indians' friend. But through his exploits as Buffalo Bill he had contributed significantly to the Indians' defeat. In the gradual loss of Cody's integrity, Kopit saw a ready-made mythic symbol of all ignorant exploiters. The Wild West Show, which converted slaughter and warfare to entertainment, was a documented symbol of American hypocrisy. As the audience watched Cody's impotent grief over deaths he had hastened, they were to be moved to alter their behavior lest the callous disregard of human life, the cruelty, self-justification, cowardice, and complacency shown by the white Americans toward another weaker people be unchecked. The play is all but too timely in its treatment of its flawed, guilt-ridden central character.

Kopit's desire to share his concern with his fellow Americans was shaped, however, by a sophisticated and ironic view of the limitations of propaganda art as a vehicle for expressing a message. That Kopit felt a direct political statement would not do is clear from the comments about the "value" of art built into the play itself, as we shall see. Since the oblique treatment of the theme seemed necessary to Kopit, the form was burdened with carrying much of the play's message.

Kopit had conceived of the form along with the theme. At the moment of hearing Westmoreland's statement, he happened to be listening to a symphony by Charles Ives in which chamber music is played against distorted marching band music. In the contemporary symphony, the grave, sweet, measured assonance of the chamber music clashed ironically with the harsh dissonance of the military band. Kopit intended to create the same irony in his play, the same discomfort with the dissonances of American military policy in the minds of his audience as the music created in his ears. Thus was the form dictated: in Kopit's words, "a mosaic, a counterpoint of memory and reality."

Kopit's form, then, is "a mosaic," in which various theatrical styles are employed: sometimes in alternation, sometimes simultaneously. This article is in two sections, for I intend to show first how Kopit counterposed four disparate kinds of theatrical conventions in the play, and second, why that "riveting circle of performance" remains incomplete.

The play is written in thirteen scenes. The first and last scenes use three presentational conventions: the theatre of fact, the Brechtian theatre of alienation (which derives, of course, from Shakespeare's theatre), and the expressionist theatre. Scenes Two, Four, Six, Eight, and Eleven actually constitute one long representational, naturalistic scene in which the protagonist appears as William Cody, a sensitive man who loves the Indians and is trying to intercede on their behalf with a Senate committee. In contrast, in Scenes Three, Five, Seven, and Nine, which are in the ironic Brechtian mode, William Cody is shown in his fictionalized persona as the opportunistic Buffalo Bill. Scene Ten is representational again, but is a flashback to action which is antecedent to Scene Two. Here Cody visits the President to plead for the Indians, but the President is willing to see him only because he had been entertained (in Scene Seven) by the nonsense of Buffalo Bill. Now the two sides of Cody's


  • The End of the World (1984), by Arthur Kopit, is a semi-fictional dramatization of the author's struggle to write about nuclear bombs.
  • Waiting for Godot (1954) is a two-act absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Two characters, outside a specific definition of time and space, await the arrival of a third person, named Godot, who never arrives, which illustrates the difficulty and essential meaninglessness of life, a tenet important in existentialist philosophy.
  • The Bald Soprano (1950) is Eugène Ionesco's first play, written when he was in his forties. It is loosely based on Ionesco's experience learning English by using an unusual method of memorizing whole sentences. Ionesco was one of the earliest of the theater of the absurd playwrights, and The Bald Soprano shows the breakdown of language to the point of dysfunctionality and the inability of people to relate to each other.
  • Waterlily (1988), by Ella Cara Deloria, is a novel that follows the life of a Sioux woman during the nineteenth century. Deloria, born at the end of the nineteenth century, was of mixed blood but was born and lived her life on Indian reservations in North and South Dakota. She was intimately aware of traditional Sioux life and filled her book with astonishing detail.
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), by Edward Albee, is a Tony Award-winning play about an unhappy couple, George and Martha, who invite another couple, Nick and Honey, over to dinner. George and Martha attack each other verbally, flirt with and insult their guests, and argue about a son who does not exist.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), by Tom Stoppard, is an absurdist play reminiscent of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In this play, two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet are seen drifting through the events of Shakespeare's plot, unable to change their situation.
  • Theater of the Absurd (1962), by Martin Esslin, is the defining text for absurdist, experimental theater in the 1960s. Esslin identifies four playwrights as being at the vanguard of the absurdist theater movement: Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, and Adamov.
  • In the title essay collected in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955), Albert Camus examines the importance of life and the possibility of suicide. It is from this essay that Esslin adapted the phrase "theater of the absurd."
  • Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1963) is Kopit's first professionally produced play. It is a wacky, farcical one-act play that he wrote in a just a few days. This play initially caused Kopit to be labeled as an absurdist playwright, though his later work showed that he was capable of presenting a wide range of theatrical models.
  • Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views (2004), edited by Samuel Totten, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, is a collection of essays that examine the history of genocide in the twentieth century as well as how and why these genocides occurred. The purpose of the contributors is to bring awareness to a topic often marginalized by those who choose to remake history.

personality are being seen together. In Scene Twelve, Cody's conscience torments him for what Buffalo Bill has done; the scene is pure expressionism and leads to the ultimate agon of Scene Thirteen. There, William Cody—Buffalo Bill expresses his anguish and ours. We have, then, a musical or rondo form, in which the themes and conventions are introduced in an overture, developed in ironic juxtaposition throughout the work, and recapitulated in a coda. Let us examine this process in Scene One in detail (using the New York production, for that is the basis of the published script).

As the audience comes into the theatre, it hears "strange music coming from all about" and finds itself facing three museum cases holding larger-than-life-size effigies of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill and Indian relics. The setting is contemporary (the figures represent the past) and documentary: there is no curtain, no realistic reproduction of a recognizable "set" or locale. Thus, the conventions are of the theatre of fact. These conventions are commonly understood to mean that the author has done massive research on his subject, and that what is shown onstage conforms to the demands of historical accuracy. Thus, the audience, clued in by the play's title and its antiseptic setting, prepares its collective mind to receive the facts—straight.

But then a "voice over" is heard calling "Cody, Cody;" Wild West music is played; spotlights crisscross the stage, and Buffalo Bill prances in on an artificial white horse, "a great smile on his face … proudly waving his big Stetson to the unseen surrounding crowd" (Scene 1). A great shift in the audience's relation to the play is thus quickly achieved.

When Buffalo Bill canters in, the audience faces a new set of conventions. Buffalo Bill is "acting" as the showman. From the first speech of Scene One, "Yessir, BACK AGAIN," to the last one of that scene, "I dunno what you folks know 'bout show business, but le' me tell you, there is nothin' more depressin' than playin' two-a-day in a goddam ghost town," he presents himself as a narrator about to start his own story: confidential, gossipy, at ease with his audience.

But his posture of self-confidence is undercut in several ways. First, the audience is placed in a false relationship to the event onstage. From the contemporary theatre-of-fact setting, the actor's entry has transported the audience into the past. Moreover, the audience is no "unseen surrounding crowd" come to see a Wild West Show. Its awareness that the play is forcing it into an unreal position already creates a sense of irony and Brechtian alienation. Then too, when Buffalo Bill begins to speak, the patently false relationship between his Wild West persona and his real personality is emphasized. After the solemn brooding silence of the effigies, his cheerful show-biz manner sounds a false note. The voice-over urges him on: "And now to start …" He replies by getting out of character as Buffalo Bill, showman, and losing his temper: "WHAT'S THE RUSH? WAIT A SECOND !" (Scene 1). Thus the character is introduced on two levels simultaneously: as William Cody, the man who can lose his temper, acting as Buffalo Bill, the cheerful performer.

Buffalo Bill's reference to a ghost town is followed immediately by the sudden appearance of some ghostly Indians "around the outside of the ring. The horse senses their presence and shies; Buffalo Bill, as if realizing what it means, turns in terror" (Scene 1). Thus, the third theatrical convention, expressionism, is introduced.

These Indians derive from Bill's imagination. They loom out of the darkness, embodying his guilty conscience. As he explains later, "I see them everywhere…. Took a drink from a river yesterday 'an they were even there, beneath the water, their hands reachin' up, I dunno whether beggin,' or t' … drag me under" (Scene 12).

By the end of Scene One, then, the audience has been introduced to three of the play's four themes: first, the play has reminded us, through the theatre-of-fact framework, of the death of the Indian culture in this country; second, through Buffalo Bill's appearance and speeches, it has offered an ironic, even burlesque commentary on part of the West's history; third, through the silent appearance of the ghostly Indians, it depicts Cody's inner struggle with the forces of his conscience, showing his degradation and remorse.

And Kopit introduces a fourth convention and fourth theme in the play's second scene. The transition to the naturalistic convention is handled by an actor in Indian regalia using direct address to the audience. "I am Sitting Bull." He explains the reason for the meeting with the Senate committee, which the audience is about to see, and introduces "William Cody," who enters on the cue line. When Cody addresses the Indians directly, the audience becomes invisible and the naturalistic convention has been established. From this point on in the play, Kopit will use the naturalistic convention exclusively to reveal the history of Sitting Bull's tribe. He has chosen a penultimate moment of high tension for his setting: a meeting between the tribe and a Senate committee which could, if it chose, save the Indians.

The audience's attention has been captured in this scene by the impending conflict. It knows that the Indians will lose, but it wants to see that fate realized theatrically. Primed by Cody's guilty response to the apparitions at the end of Scene One, and by its prior knowledge of Indian affairs, the audience finds John Grass' speech detailing the Indians' cause against the government very convincing. There is no reason to doubt that this is an imaginative recreation of what actually occurred during that historic meeting. In fact, John Grass' statement that "the buffalo had gone away" while the Indians had been learning to farm will be illustrated in Scene Three where Cody is seen again, at an earlier time of his life, shooting the buffalo for sport.

Why, when Kopit has begun picking up some narrative interest in the dramatic confrontation between Sitting Bull and the Senate committee, does he drop it in favor of returning Cody to center stage? Because the destruction of Cody's character must also be detailed. Thus Cody makes a significant choice in Scene Three. While the slaughter of a hundred buffalo with a hundred bullets to win a bet may be regarded with displeasure by the audience, it is probably forgivable. But when the Grand Duke of Russia shoots an Indian in the same cavalier spirit, Cody stifles his desire to protest the senseless murder. Instead, he spouts nonsense to the Grand Duke while Ned Buntline writes it all down.

Now Kopit, in Scene Three, has returned to Brechtian conventions. Thus the "buffaloes" are not handled realistically, but are "played by" Indians. When the Grand Duke shoots the Indian, the latter falls dead and immediately rises to tell the audience that it is a case of mistaken identity before he falls down again. The Duke, not astounded by this Ascension, merely wants to know what the fellow said. And Cody lies.

We should assume that in this scene Kopit is enlightening the audience through the Brechtian "Verfremdungseffekt." He is showing how "history" is made of lies, and how a foolish boy's head can be turned by publicity. Pretty soon, Cody will be believing the myth of himself as Buffalo Bill as distorted by Buntline. But there is a problem here. The burlesque elements in the scene, the obviously mock buffalo and obviously mock death, prevent the audience from taking Cody's moral turpitude seriously. In each of the first three scenes we have had to orient ourselves to differing conventions. Assuming that we are sufficiently entertained by the prospect of gore and anguish to give the play our full attention, we have had to turn from a suffering (and therefore sympathetic) Cody in Scene One to a weak raisonaire of a Cody in Scene Two, to a callow opportunist in Scene Three. When Scenes Four, Five and Six rotate rapidly between the meeting and a scene from Cody's life as Buffalo Bill which shows him at his most cowardly, the audience's detachment from the protagonist has gone very far. It is not retrieved until Scene Nine

In the meantime, in Scenes Six and Eight, John Grass is emerging as the play's "hero." Humiliated by the Senators for having signed the false treaty which he now wants to repudiate, he is sufficiently flawed to be human and sympathetic. To our antiheroic age, his is the noblest available response: to protest, though it be only with his own death that he may speak. These scenes are powerfully, effectively written.

But between them, in ironic juxtaposition, is a key scene: the play within the play, and this produces another problem. What is wrong about Scene Seven is not necessarily that it abrogates the tension building in the alternating representational committee scenes. Scenes Six and Eight are strong enough to bind audience interest right through. What is wrong is that the burlesque of Seven is simply too farcical, too silly, too inconsequential to be occupying our attention while important affairs are going on elsewhere.

Some telling ironic points are made in Scene Seven. For example, the President is shown enjoying "the girl. Note her legs. How white they are. For an Indian." The First Lady is pleasantly stimulated by Hickok's genuine violence. When Hickok stabs Buntline (whose collapse is ignored by everyone except Buffalo Bill) and proceeds to undress the "Indian maiden," only Buffalo Bill is concerned. In fact, he is left "in a daze" at the President's final comment: "Good show, Cody! Good Show !"

This scene has shown Buffalo Bill's increasing complicity in his own prostitution. In his quarrel with Hickok he remarks, "Ya see, Bill, what you fail to understand is that I'm not being false to what I was. I'm simply drawin' on what I was … [pause in script] and raisin' it to a higher level" (Scene 7).

More important, the play-within-the-play shows that the President is eager to swallow any cheap melodrama about the Indians. He is no more anxious to learn the truth than any other customer for the Wild West Show. There is a guilty partnership between Buffalo Bill who purveys such nonsense and the President who stands ready to accept it.

Last, the playlet offers an ironic comment on the worthlessness of any straight-forward propaganda play. Had the President been the least bit open to seeing what was before him, he would have found Hickok's senseless violence repellent. But Hickok stabs Buntline and prepares to rape the actress (who turns out to be compliant) and the President and First Lady merely applaud the show.

Kopit's construction of his play here has been hampered, perhaps, by the rich ore of his factual material. Certainly Buffalo Bill's life did have many such unsympathetic aspects. As William Coleman has recently shown, even the employment of "the beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and a weakness for scouts" is historically accurate. When Hickok appeared with Cody's show, the latter said, "I could not do much with him as he was not an easy man to handle, and would insist on shooting the supers in the legs with powder, just to see them jump." The change from gun powder to the stabbing of Buntline is both poetically and artistically justified. Kopit's point here, that the meaningless violence of the Wild West stereotype fed into and encouraged an equal real-life violence which had actual consequences, is an important aspect of his theme. The indifference of the President, the Italian actress and the First Lady (despite her remark that Buntline "looks kind of dead") are also important.

However, the playlet is already so bad that the additional twists of the Italian and German accents and the "seduction," while they may be historically accurate, are unjustified artistically. They distract the audience and provide another level of alienation when it is hardly needed. Since Buffalo Bill is responsible for the show, we lose any remaining sympathy for him as well as for his burlesque production. This is not to say that the play is ineffective at this point. As the measurement of the human pulse can indicate health or sickness, so the measurement of a play's rhythm and intensity can indicate much of its condition.

There is an effective beat of intensity which picks up from Scene Six when the audience begins to be strongly involved in the committee meeting. Scene Seven, though burlesque, has a second death onstage, a bit more serious than the first (insofar as Buffalo Bill's "dazed" condition indicates that the stabbing is real to one person of the half dozen or so on stage at the time). In Scene Eight, the earlier candor and dignity of the Indians gives way to exasperation and insults, culminating in a highly effective, angry exchange. The Indians, having demanded the cash that the government is "holding in trust" for them, are told that they would only use it to get drunk if they had it. John Grass retorts that, if this is so, "when an Indian gets drunk, he is only imitating the white men he's observed!" It is this retort, called forth by his personal humiliation, which engenders the vindictiveness of the Senators.

Scene Nine returns to the Wild West Show. As Scene Eight raised the tension of the committee meeting scenes, this scene too raises the tension of the Wild West scenes. But more importantly, Buffalo Bill's inner conflict becomes dramatized effectively for the first time in the play.

In Scene Nine, the manipulation of the Indians' courage into a source of audience titillation is continued. Chief Joseph repeats his heart-rending speech of surrender, explaining that he does so "twice a day, three times on Sunday," because Buffalo Bill has promised that, in exchange, his people will receive food. He distances the speech by "exaggerated and inappropriate gestures," and his comment: "after which, the audience always applauded me." After Chief Joseph's "act," the Wild West Show Indians are to perform an imitation of a religious rite involving self-mutilation. They "take the barbed ends of long leather thongs … and hook them through plainly visible chest harnesses" while Buffalo Bill explains that no one will be hurt.

Now John Grass appears. By the time he comes onto the scene, the audience's concern and sympathy for the Indians is strongly focused in him. Few people in the theatre will note that his appearance in Scene Nine is anachronistic, the Wild West scene in progress presumably occurring well before the committee meeting. He begins to perform the rite authentically. He "pulls the Indians out of their harnesses, rips open his shirt, and sticks the barbs through his chest muscles. He chants and dances. The other Indians, realizing what he's doing, blow on reed whistles, urge him on. Finally he collapses, blood pouring from his chest." Thus in this scene, the play's two strands are joined for the first time in the person of John Grass. He attempts to express the extremity of his need to be authentic as an Indian brave in the face of the show's whoopdedoodle.

Again Cody, seen as Buffalo Bill, must react silently to an onstage mutilation. But now, for the first time, as the actor gathers the fallen Indian tenderly in his arms, the audience can feel that Cody has taken the Indians' agony into himself. It is a physical, a corporeal and thus truly theatrical gesture: a feint, I would call it, in that the audience's gut sympathy moves from Grass' self-mutilated, physically heavy body to Cody, as Cody takes the weight of the body.

It is with that weight and sympathy behind him that the audience watches his vain appeal to the President in Scene Ten. The furious ending of the committee meeting in Scene Eleven is almost anticlimactic. The play is then over; the history is unfolded. What remains is only the agony of the protagonist, who has, at last, earned the audience's sympathetic hearing.

As the focus has shifted to Cody's inner conflict, the conventions shift again to pure expressionism. Thus Scene Twelve takes place in a ghostly saloon whose customers include Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Wanting to ease his conscience, Bill confesses his failure to warn Sitting Bull and begs Hickok to teach him to be authentic as Hickok was in the playlet scene. But Hickok has meanwhile adopted Buffalo Bill's solution; he brings on a group of apparitions, copies of Buffalo Bill personified in "a group of men … their faces … covered by masks of his face." Buffalo Bill tries to shoot them but, in true expressionist fashion, "they fall and immediately rise again. They slowly surround him. He screams as he shoots. They disappear" (Scene 12).

The psychological conflict between Cody's idealism and Buffalo Bill's callousness to the consequences of his actions has been one of Kopit's main themes, since he introduced the dual aspects of Cody's personality and his weak self-justification in the first scene. But after that, he has split the aspects in two.

This division of the main character into his contrasting aspects would appear on paper to be a brilliant notion, much more viable here than was, say, Eugene O'Neill's similar attempt in The Great God Brown and Days Without End. But the confusion which had vitiated The Great God Brown is still produced in Indians. Not only did Walter Kerr, for example, call the conflict undramatized, but Julius Novick, reviewing the Washington production, remarked that the play was half over before he knew it had a plot. When the personality is already split in two, it is very difficult to dramatize the agonizing attempt to harmonize its warring elements. The fact that Kopit almost succeeded is a tribute to his ingenuity. But the expressionism carried a good thing too far.

That the expressionism is a weak crutch here can be seen in that Kopit treats ghosts and apparitions differently, depending on whether the scene is expressionist or Brechtian. If the convention is Brechtian, Buffalo Bill has no fear of the ghosts. Thus he "translates" the ghost's remarks in Scene Three, reacts emotionally but without fear to the possibly dead Buntline and John Grass in Scenes Seven and Nine respectively, and talks to the dead Sitting Bull in Scene Thirteen with love. But he turns to the ghostly Indians in Scene One with horror. In the expressionist Scene Twelve he is terrified of the copies which have been made of him.

Kopit has structured Scene Thirteen as a reprise, in an attempt to bring the themes and disparate conventions together in consanguinity. There are Brechtian elements: "The Indians cover the center area with the huge white sheet, then lie down upon it in piles" (to represent their massacre). Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull have a philosophical discussion of their relationship in which both talk as if they were dead:

Oh, God. Imagine. For a while, I actually thought
      my Wild West Show would help. I could give
      you money. Food. Clothing. And also make
      people understand things … better.

(He laughs to himself.)
That was my reasoning. Or, anyway, part
of my reasoning.

(Slight smile)
Your show was very popular.

We had … fun, though, you and I.
Didn't we?

Oh, yes. And that's the terrible thing. We had all
      surrendered. We were on reservations. We
      could not fight or hunt. We could do nothing.
      Then you came and allowed us to imitate our
      glory…. It was humiliating! For sometimes,
      we could almost imagine it was real.

Thus we have the ghost of a real Indian describing himself and other real Indians playing fake Indians in order to feel like real Indians.

The "interview" between Colonel Forsythe and the reporters also works on several levels. It is supposed to be about the Indian massacre, but the tone and diction are strongly contemporary as the Colonel says, "Of course innocent people have been killed. In war they always are." The reporters enter in 1970's clothing. Thus the events of the play are "distanced" forward to our involvement in Vietnam.

The expressionist elements also appear briefly in the last scene. The Indian apparitions reappear, as do the "Roughriders of the World." Chief Joseph reprises his speech. (The use of another expressionist device, the bloody plastic masks, was Stacy Keach's idea, rather than Kopit's. Kopit— rightly, I think—would have preferred not to have them, for the play is moving, at the end, towards a simpler resolution.) The factual material, the philosophical query as to the nature of their existence,

the emotional response of anguish to the sense of guilt are to be heard and seen at the end in the context of the audience's recognition that a subject of great human significance has been explored "in the round," so that all its aspects have been voiced, and so that the play corresponds deeply to man's experience. Thus in Scene Thirteen various figures: the military, the "liberal" press, the government as quoted by Cody, express their views about the Indians' death. Cody meets the dead souls, Sitting Bull's at length, and expresses his sorrow in an ambivalent, highly moving, lyrical coda.

As I have shown, one of Kopit's purposes has been to teach the audience a lesson from history. Thus Buffalo Bill's recital of the facts of U.S. Indian policy in Scene Thirteen, deriving from the theater of fact, provides the outermost framework. At the beginning and end, we contemplate the remains: the museum cases and the trivial junk of Indian tourist trade. But we are expected to remember that the entire work represents a mosaic of Cody's memories, and is therefore as factual as memory can be. How factual is that?

Despite my great admiration for this play, I have shown why it failed to arrive at that riveting circle of performance for many of its audiences. The reasons are easy to see. Reviewers noted many of them. Stanley Kauffmann felt Kopit's language was inadequate. This objection, I feel, is valid, insofar as the substitutes for eloquence used in the play, except in Scene Nine, are external to the character and thus comparatively weak. Walter Kerr found the "argument unorganized, the conflict undramatized." But we have seen how carefully the argument is organized. However Kerr is right in saying that the conflict is undramatized, because the play has, as we saw, four distinct themes.

On the simplest level, Kopit uses the naturalistic convention for the committee scenes. As he allows John Grass and Sitting Bull to argue with the Senators, the audience may interject or accept uncritically Kopit's view of the Indians' suffering at the hands of the whites. But Kopit has not intended to write a propaganda play about the Indians which will have no more effect than the play-within-the-play had upon the sensibilities of the President. For he knows how easily people can turn any onstage horrors into "entertainment." Thus he has used the Brechtian techniques of alienation for his second aim; to force the audience to think critically about the material of the play.

The use of the voice-over narrator, the deliberate alienation of the audience from the play through the many distancing devices of the various other narrators (Cody, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph who narrates his own performance rather than putting on such a performance), the play-within-the-play for the President inside the Wild West framework inside the museum-theatre-of-fact framework, are all very complex alienation techniques.

To make the audience think, to make them appreciate the ironies of the situation, Kopit also uses many reversals of pretense and reality. The meeting between the Senators and the Indians appears real, but Scene Ten tells us that it too is but a meaningless performance, for the committee's visit is only a "gesture." The Indians have been condemned already. Which is real—the William Cody of the committee scenes who loved the Indians and played Buffalo Bill, or the Buffalo Bill of the Wild West show who played into the false myth of manifest destiny and destroyed the Indian way of life? Cody pretends to ride a prancing stallion; the Indians pretend to be wounded buffalo. The Wild West Show pretends the Sun Dance, but John Grass "really" performs it. The White House playlet pretends the rescue of a maiden by a Western Scout, but the Scout "really" knifes a comrade instead. Cody pretends a defense of his government's policy in Scene Thirteen, but embodies the living hell of the white man's guilt. The Brechtian method, with its refusal to allow the audience to fall into the complaisant position that it is being entertained by a fantasy, is heavily relied on. However, as the acerbic John Simon said, "now it may be right and desirable to make the audience temporarily lose its intellectual bearings, but it is risky, indeed unwise, to play games with its emotional responses, ceaselessly inflating, undercutting, manipulating, till assimiliation becomes impossible on any level."

As this example illustrates again, the Brechtian convention has never worked, per se. People do not learn from "facts." They learn only from facts tied to cases, examples, instances which may have captured their sympathetic attention. Brecht's plays work in spite of him, because he failed to alienate his audiences from the characters as he had wished to do. For example, Brecht wanted his audiences to see Mother Courage as stupid—to learn that one who ties herself to the war machine is bound to be mangled by its operation. Yet audiences continue to admire this foolish, persistent creature.

For Indians to "work," the audience must sympathize with Buffalo Bill even as it sees his weaknesses. Yet with all the brilliance with which Kopit has manipulated the manifold conflicts and conventions of the play, it fails to develop an organic forward motion until the split personality of Cody coalesces into one struggling human being. While the alternating structure is perfectly appreciable upon analysis, its effect in the theatre is to halt the flow of the audience's involvement and excitement. It is as if the play must begin all over again in Scenes Two, Three, and Five. Unlike the Ives' symphony in which two sets of conventions are simulaneously heard, the play's sets alternate here.

Kopit has done some interesting work before Indians, but there has always been an imitative element in his work which threatens to overwhelm it, so it loses its own structural autonomy in favor of a schematic imitation. Oh Dad, Poor Dad took off on Tennessee Williams. Chamber Music was an impressionist exercise. The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis was a parody on The Cherry Orchard, with the tarts' farts as the Rabelaisian counterpart of Chekov's delicate broken string. Indians was a major theatrical achievement, but Kopit was still too closely tied to the Brechtian conventions for the play to be completely authentic on its own terms. Perhaps in his next play, he will sever his dependence on authorial models and produce an authentic masterwork of his own.

Source: Vera M. Jiji, "Indians: A Mosaic of Memories and Methodologies," in Players: The Magazine of American Theatre, Vol. 47, No. 5, June-July 1972, pp. 230-36.


Barnes, Clive, "The Theater: ‘Indians’ in Washington," in New York Times, May 27, 1969, p. 43.

—, "Theater: Irreverence on London Stage," in New York Times, July 9, 1968, p. 30.

—, "Theater: Kopit's ‘Indians,’ " in New York Times, October 14, 1969, p. 51.

Esslin, Martin, "Osborne's Author and Kopit's Indians," in New York Times, July 21, 1968, p. D12.

Funke, Lewis, "Origin of ‘Indians’ Recalled by Kopit," in New York Times, October 15, 1969, p. 37.

Kerr, Walter, "But If the Play Is Sick at Heart," in New York Times, October 19, 1969, p. D1.

Klein, Alvin, "‘Indians,’ an Echo of Vietnam," in New York Times, October 20, 1991, p. NJ13.

Kopit, Arthur, Indians, Hill & Wang, 1969.

Novick, Julius, " ‘Liberty and Justice’—for Indians?" in New York Times, May 18, 1969, p. D3.

Shewey, Don, "Arthur Kopit: A Life on Broadway," in New York Times, April 29, 1984, p. 91.

Wardle, Irving, "Moral Pageantry from the West," in Times (London), No. 57295, July 5, 1968, Arts, p. 7.


Adams, Alexander B., Sitting Bull: An Epic of the Plains, Putnam's Sons, 1973.
      Adams's popular biography of the Sioux chief explores
      the complex relationships of Sitting Bull and
      his contemporaries, such as Crazy Horse, Buffalo
      Bill, Spotted Tail, and General Custer.

Brown, Dee Alexander, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:
An Indian History of the American West
, Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston, 1970.
      Brown's book was a breakthrough in historical
      interpretation at the time that it was published.
      Using primary sources, the author showed white
      Americans the Indian side of what happened in the
      late 1800s.

Cody, William Frederick, An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill
(Colonel W. F. Cody)
, Cosmopolitan Book, 1920.
      Buffalo Bill revised his autobiography until his death
      in 1917. The story of his life reads like a novel in
      some parts, with dialogue and action. Buffalo Bill's
      romanticized interpretation of the events of his life
      are reminiscent of Kopit's characterization.

Young Joseph, Chief of the Nez Perce, "An Indian's Views
of Indian Affairs," in North American Review, Vol. 128, No.
269, April 1879: 412-33,
(accessed September 21, 2006).
      Chief Joseph's essay explains the culture and laws of
      American Indians to white people who have been
      taught that North America's native inhabitants are
      savage and barely human.

views updated


One of the key concepts associated with American Indians in the period 1870–1920 was "absorption." Hypothetically, once it became clear that Indians had not and probably would not actually disappear, it was the objective of philanthropists and the government alike that Indians be "absorbed" into the United States as individuals; the fact that their land would be "absorbed" into the United States went without saying. Though there are deep complexities underlying this one word, there are two significant points with which to begin a discussion. First, the hypothetical absorption of native peoples into U.S. society, no matter how well-intentioned some of the idea's advocates may have been, merely masks the systematic destruction of tribal governments, through which native land would be made U.S. land. The idea of Indians' absorption signifies the political erasure of Indian nations. Second, native people by and large did not wish to be "absorbed." Native people acquired modern things and practices, some became Christians, some farmers; they struggled with all of the problems of rapid change that U.S. imperialism and modernity brought, but they did not wish to forget who they were or where they came from. Most important, they did not wish to surrender their autonomy, their governments, and their land. Borrowing from African American studies, historians have described this period of time as the "nadir" for native peoples in the United States, the time when they were at their weakest and when U.S. society and the U.S. government were at their most ruthless in oppressing them. While it was a low point, the period also saw the groundwork laid for the twentieth-century political and cultural resurgence of native peoples in the United States. Native people never were successfully "absorbed."


In North America but especially in the United States, the conflict with native peoples over land was construed as a grand conflict on world-historical terms between the living embodiment of savagery (Indians) and the pinnacle of civilization (white, Protestant Americans). The United States, Americans believed, was the most morally and politically developed nation in human history. Furthermore, Providence—God Himself—had ordained the conflict between savagery and civilization, which therefore could not have any other result than the triumph of Euro-American, Protestant, and by the late nineteenth century, capitalist, civilization.

Because European nations could not claim military supremacy in North America and also competed with one another for native alliance and land, they made treaties with Indian nations for trade, alliance, and land purchase. Treaties are contracts between nations, and legitimate contracts cannot be made with inferiors or incompetents; Europeans recognized native political autonomy, control of land, and government in the treaties. It is a remarkable fact of European imperialism in North America that people who regarded themselves as the pinnacle of human civilization made so many binding legal agreements with people whom they regarded as the model of the most primitive human society, whom they held to be inherently incapable of reason and moral behavior. This did not occur because of Europeans' moral superiority or goodwill, however; circumstances required it. In the nineteenth-century United States, while treaties with Indian nations were coerced and manipulated in every conceivable way in practice, these treaties still carried with them notions of not only the U.S. government's founding principles but also, particularly in the later nineteenth century, the government's moral responsibility as the most advanced and benevolent society toward its inferiors.

At the same time that they continued to make treaties with Indian nations, Europeans also began to define property and government in such a way so as to exclude native people from ever having a legitimate claim to either. Thus at virtually the same moment that they were forced to recognize the legitimacy of Indian nations on the one hand, Europeans attempted to define Indian nations out of existence theoretically on the other. By the late seventeenth century the English philosopher John Locke provided such a theory. Drawing on earlier justifications for colonizing distant lands, Locke argued that one had to engage in commercial agriculture on land to establish it as property and therefore lay a legitimate claim to it. Furthermore, Locke maintained, this particular kind of property was the origin of government itself, which existed to protect property so defined. The Indians of North America did not form governments; rather, they were "pre-political" because, Locke insisted, they were the earliest form of human society, savages who subsisted on the "spontaneous productions of Nature" rather than engaging in labor to produce a surplus for the market. Indians did not engage in agriculture as Europeans defined it; therefore they didn't have the capacity to form governments; therefore they had no real claim to the land.

This definition of property and government provides a structure for thinking about both native peoples' past and their possible future. Because native peoples were positioned as the origin of human society, in theory savages could be made civilized and therefore citizens if they were made Christians (the only true form of religious belief according to Europeans) and agriculturalists on the European commercial model. According to Europeans, the only civilized society, the only real government, was European government. The idea that Indians could be civilized and still be Indians and form their own separate national governments was inconceivable in this line of thought. Behind the narrative of the hypothetical civilization of Indians so prevalent in the late-nineteenth-century United States is the fact that Europeans sought to destroy native political entities in order to incorporate native land. Indians' hypothetical incorporation was not a form of democratic inclusion, no matter how well meaning its advocates sometimes professed themselves; it was, rather, a justification for their political erasure and the incorporation of their land under U.S. jurisdiction.


In the post–Civil War period, contrary to the prevailing idea earlier in the century, Euro-Americans found that Indians were not dying out naturally, at least not as quickly as it had been supposed they would, and Euro-Americans felt that something had to be done about the "Indian problem" that mystifyingly persisted into the modern age. The solution was to detribalize native people and, as has been noted, to "absorb" them into civilized society. The U.S. government pursued detribalization through various means. It first sought to confine native peoples to reservations through treaty agreements whereby they would sell most of their land


Early in the nineteenth century, whites argued that Indians had to be "removed" from the eastern United States—for their own good—where they could live beyond white contact and be worked on by missionaries. In the 1820s, the area west of the newly admitted states of Arkansas and Missouri and east of Mexican territory was designated Indian territory. During and after the 1830s, many other eastern, northern, and midwestern tribes, or portions of tribes, were "removed" to the territory. This was in addition to tribes that historically lived in the territory, such as the Kiowas, and tribes that had been pushed west over a number of years, such as the Osages.

The first groups to removed to Indian territory were the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States—the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. While small groups voluntarily moved west in the 1810s, most were forced to go to the territory in the 1830s. Though there were varying degrees of acculturation to Euro-American practices both among and within the tribes, many tribal leaders, particularly among the Cherokees, argued that their tribes had become "civilized" by converting to Christianity, seeking education, and encouraging farming. They did not desire to become citizens of the United States, however; on the contrary, the fact that they were civilized demonstrated that the sovereignty of the Indian nations should be inviolate. In light of this fundamental argument, what the U.S. government did to the Five Civilized Tribes in the nineteenth century puts the lie to the sanguine visions of Indian citizenship in the United States offered up by reformers.

After removal to Indian Territory, the Five Tribes reestablished their governments and legal systems, as well as printing presses and schools, providing a foundation for literacy not only in English but also in tribal languages. In addition to mission schools, the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks had all established extensive public educational systems, including, among the Cherokees, college-level institutions for men and women, by the 1840s.

After Five Tribes governments supported the Confederacy during the Civil War (the Confederacy promised to recognize their soveriegnty, and some tribal people were slave-owners), the United States renegotiated its prewar treaties with the tribes as punishment. The tribes were forced to give up territory to the U.S. government, ostensibly for the resettlement of other tribes, and for the building of two railroad lines through the territory. Between 1866 and 1885, numerous reservations were created in the ceded lands of Indian territory, including those for the Cheyennes and Arapahos; Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches; Wichitas and Caddos; Potawatomis and Shawnees; Kickapoos, Iowas, Sauks and Foxes; Pawnees, Otoes and Missouris; Poncas, Tonkawas, Kaws, Osages, Peorias, Wyandots, Eastern Shawnees, Modocs, and Ottawas.

It was not until the later nineteenth century that representatives of railroad, business, and land interests were able to secure enough political support to begin the disintegration of the Five Tribes in earnest. Because of tribal leaders' resistance, the Five Tribes and the Osages were exempted from the 1887 allotment act. In 1889, however, the United States established a federal court at Muskcogee, Indian territory, a blatant extension of U.S. authority. In April 1889 a 2 million acre tract of Cherokee land was opened up to white settlement, which began with a famous land rush. Fifty thousand settlers staked claims on one day. In 1890 the United States organized the Oklahoma territory, which consisted of the land opened to white settlement and most of the reservations. In 1893 the Dawes Commission convened to acquire Indians' "consent" for the allotment of the Osage Territory and the Five Tribes; in 1898 the Curtis Act provided for that allotment. In 1905 leaders of the Five Tribes held a convention in order to write a constitution for a native-run state called Sequoyah to be admitted to the Union; Congress rejected it. In 1907 after the divestment of land from Native Americans, the state of Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, and Native people within its boundaries were made citizens. In Oklahoma, the United States succeeded—for a time—in politically evaporating the Five Civilized Tribes.

to the United States. After establishing reservations, the government sought to distribute parcels of land to individuals, thereby undermining tribal forms of government that were based on communally held land. Acts of fraud and corruption associated with the allotment process further eroded the tribal land base. The government sent Christian missionaries to native people; extended federal jurisdiction over "major crimes" (murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, arson, burglary, and larceny) in Indian country through the Major Crimes Act of 1885; criminalized and sought to destroy native culture; and forced native children to attend federal and mission schools, including boarding schools.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s President Ulysses S. Grant instituted a "peace policy" that officially positioned Indians as "wards" of the government who needed the federal government's help and protection. In 1869 Grant established a Board of Indian Commissioners, a group of unpaid philanthropists, to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was infamous for its corruption. He also appointed General Ely S. Parker, a Seneca and a member of his staff during the Civil War, as the first native commissioner of Indian Affairs. Parker was later hounded out of government service on charges of malfeasance that were later proved false. Grant invited church leaders to nominate Indian agents, school superintendents, and teachers, which effectively put reservations under the control of churches. This policy lasted until 1882. The Indian agents served to further undermine native forms of government and the authority of tribal leaders, as they distributed rations, goods, and lands at their discretion. Indian police forces, loyal to the agent, began to be established on reservations in the late 1870s; this had the same effect of undermining tribal governance.

In 1871 Congress ended the treaty system by establishing that any agreement with Indian tribes had to be accepted by both houses of Congress rather than just by the Senate, as is the case with treaties. Historians have pointed out, at that time and since, that the government continued to make agreements with Indian nations that required at least the appearance of their consent—not quite denying native autonomy even then. In the later part of the nineteenth century the Supreme Court held that Congress had unilateral authority over Indian people, first in United States v. Kagama (1886), which upheld the Major Crimes Act, and then in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903), in which the Court held that not only did Congress have unlimited plenary power over Indian nations but also that it had always had that power. This is called the "plenary power doctrine."

Federal Indian policy was to a great extent driven by the arguments and energies of white reformers. Helen Hunt Jackson's (1830–1885) A Century of Dishonor (1881), an extensive account of white perfidy with respect to native peoples, argued that Indians could and indeed desired to become civilized and therefore U.S. citizens. She and her supporters argued that, while the treaties should be honored, they really should not have been made in the first place, because Indians in their primitive state were not capable of forming true governments. Still, Jackson and other reformers believed that the United States should honor treaties because it was a Christian nation that should not break its promises to an inferior and defeated race, and, furthermore, that it should assiduously work to raise up that defeated race to civilization and "absorption." Like other reform groups, the highly influential Indian Rights Association was founded in 1882 by Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast to advocate, its members insisted, for Indian equality. Like other reformers, they argued that Indians should be completely absorbed into U.S. society as Christians, farmers, and individual property owners. Their advocacy—they even had a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.—was a principal factor in the establishment of boarding schools and the passage of the Dawes or General Allotment Act (1887), the most infamous piece of legislation directed at native people during the period.

Known as the Dawes Allotment Act for its main architect, Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes, a longtime "friend of the Indian," the legislation provided for the distribution of plots of land to individual Indians, with the "surplus" opened up to white settlement. Indians who, after a twenty-five-year-long trust period, could prove that they had become "civilized" would then be granted fee-simple title to their land and U.S. citizenship. Between 1887 and 1917 native land holdings in the West shrank from 138 million acres to 48 million. After 1907 the secretary of the interior was given authority to bypass the twenty-five-year trust period and issue title to land to individual Indians; afterward, 60 percent of Indians given such patents lost their land.

As the Bureau of Indian Affairs extended its programs and native people grew weaker, its bureaucracy and budget grew, almost doubling in size between 1881 and 1897. The first government residential boarding school was founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1879; Pratt is infamous for remarking that his objective was to "kill the Indian to save the man." The schools followed the same pattern: their purpose was to divest native children of their language, culture, and practices, turn them into Christians and farmers or laborers, and thereby make them "civilized." In the case of native people, this meant preparation for a life of lower-class labor; the boys received vocational training and the girls were trained in the "domestic arts." Intellectual achievement was deemed beyond the capacity of native children. The schools gathered children of many tribes together; by the end of the nineteenth century there were twenty-five schools in fifteen states with a total enrollment of twenty thousand students, mainly in the West.


The symbolic absorption of Indians in U.S. culture enacts the political absorption of native land, telling over and over again the story of the triumph of civilization over savagery, the destiny of the nation that God ordained, and the participation of every American in that triumph. At bottom of every one of these manifestations is the necessity of justifying white occupation of native land, of explaining it and making it right. It is often remarked that there are savages and noble savages, and if the bad Indians are the usual conglomeration of inferiority and evil, the good Indians are at least good, even if they are all too happy to recede gracefully when their appointed time comes. The sympathy so common in representations of Indians is another manifestation of absorption. While the reformers wanted to absorb Indians and their land by making them like whites, at least on the surface, primitivists and nationalists who idealized Indians as the antidote to modernity on the one hand and the location of authentic American identity on the other absorbed Indians by idealizing them and locking them in an abstract past that never really existed. Such abstract representations reiterate the naturalness of Indians' disappearance and reestablish white Americans' benevolence.


John Wesley Powell, the founder in 1879 of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), sought to discover the laws of social evolution by studying primitive Indians, arguing that such study provided important information for government policymakers. Early anthropologists at the BAE included Frank Hamilton Cushing, who wrote Zuñi Fetiches (1883), A Study of PuebloPottery (1886), and Outlines of Zuñi Creation Myths (1896). Cushing was fond of dressing himself as a Zuni Indian; he also published articles on Indian topics in popular magazines of the time. James Mooney was a young newspaperman before he joined the BAE in 1885; he published The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee (1891), The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1893), The Siouan Tribes of the East (1894), Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians (1898), and The Cheyenne Indians (1907). One notable anthropologist not affiliated with the BAE was Daniel Garrison Brinton, who in 1884 became professor of ethnology and archeology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Brinton published many papers and books, including American Hero Myths (1882) and Aboriginal American Authors and Their Productions (1882). He also edited a series of works in what he called the Library of Aboriginal American Literature, including The Maya Chronicles (1882), The roquois Book of Rites (1883), and A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians (1884). Brinton's were some of the earliest anthropological works to designate the existence of a native "literature" (and to represent it in a particular way) and then to treat it as worthy of scholarly study.

By the end of the century anthropologists moved from the government and natural history museums to new university anthropology departments. Franz Boas, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University from 1896 to 1936, led this movement. He was a practitioner of "salvage anthropology": by the late nineteenth century anthropologists believed that they were in a race against time to find and document the primitive cultures rapidly being irrevocably changed by the spread of modernity—and only primitive cultures untouched by modernity were truly authentic and therefore to be studied. In one infamous instance, anthropologists kept a native man they considered the "last of his race" in a museum as a living exhibit for several years until the man died. In 1911 Ishi, a Yaqui about fifty years old, emerged from the California wilderness, where he and his remnant tribe had been avoiding whites since the settlers' genocidal slaughter of California Indians in the 1850s. Two anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman, brought Ishi to the University of California at Berkeley, where he lived in the university's museum while Kroeber and Waterman studied him. He died of tuberculosis in 1916.


One of the inescapable stock figures of Indians at this time was what has come to be called the "Vanishing American," which is essentially any representation of an Indian or Indians in which the underlying theme is their approaching, inevitable disappearance. Perhaps the best-known producer of such images, certainly today if not at the time, was the photographer and amateur ethnologist Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952). From 1907 to 1930 Curtis wrote a twenty-volume history called The North American Indian; each volume was accompanied by a folio of sepia-tinted plates, the most famous of which was published in 1904 and called "The Vanishing Race," showing a group of Navajos walking single-file into the distance, literally fading away. This was the first picture in the first volume of the series; observing that this picture "expresses so much of the thought that inspired" the project, Curtis wrote in the image's caption that what "this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future" (n.p.). Joseph K. Dixon's book The Vanishing Race appeared in 1913, illustrated with portraits of warriors and other Indians drifting off into the sunset. The most famous representation of the Vanishing American is probably James Earl Fraser's monumental sculpture The End of the Trail, showing a defeated warrior slumped over his equally defeated horse, which was first exhibited in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. It was immediately popular and reproduced as bookends, ashtrays, postcards, advertisements, paperweights, trinkets, prints, and on china and silverware.

Popular writers on Indians often associated themselves with the West and outdoor life. George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938) was a prolific writer of such material, publishing Indian-themed material in leading periodicals; books of "Indian stories," including Blackfoot Lodge Tales (1892), Blackfeet Indian Stories (1913), and By Cheyenne Campfires (1926); and historical works such as The Fighting Cheyennes (1915) and The Cheyenne Indians, Their History and Way of Life (1923). Frank Bird Linderman (1869–1938) published Indian Why Stories: Sparks from War Eagle's Lodgefire (1915) and then Indian Old-Man Stories: More Sparks from War Eagle's Lodgefire (1920). Indian Why Stories was printed for schools in 1918 as Indian Lodge-Fire Stories. Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) published The Book of the American Indian in 1923, with illustrations by Frederic Remington, but it consisted of stories that he had published in periodicals between 1890 and 1905. In addition to Remington, Charles M. Russell was another of the "cowboy artists" who made extensive use of Indian themes, vanishing and otherwise, in his work, which often appeared in the periodicals of the day.

Living native people were subject to the enactment of their own supposed primitivism and authenticity. Along with representatives of other "primitive" cultures around the world, native people were regular features of world's fairs—as at Chicago in 1893 and St. Louis in 1904—in living anthropological exhibits in which paying visitors could wander around their encampments and observe them living authentically. Wild West shows were also immensely popular. The originator of the form, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody (1846–1917) put together his first Wild West extravaganza in Omaha in 1883, touring the eastern United States and eventually Europe to wide popular acclaim. Performances included trick shooting, horse races, cowboy rope tricks, and set pieces like an Indian attack on a settler cabin or on the Deadwood stagecoach or a "reenactment" of Custer's Last Stand. Cody insisted that the Wild West—he never allowed the word "show" to appear—was utterly authentic. He traveled to reservations to recruit performers; given the conditions on reservations at the time, some native people were happy to go with Cody. Sitting Bull himself spent part of 1885 on tour with the Wild West. After the Wounded Knee massacre, several of the imprisoned leaders of the Ghost Dance movement toured Europe with Cody on the suggestion of the commanding general of the army, Nelson Miles. Like American military and political leaders before him, Miles argued that exposure to the grandeur of the "white race" would cause Indians to return to the reservations chastened and complacent. Wild West shows continued to tour until the 1930s.


Aside from Indian Territory, where a substantial native readership existed for native writing, most native writers wrote for white audiences. In this situation, the fantasy world to which Buffalo Bill contributed so much was the world in which native writers and political leaders had to operate. No matter what the topic of discussion, nearly every native person who stood before a white audience in any capacity was expected to appear suitably attired as whites' idea of what an "Indian" should look like. Intellectually Indians were in many respects flying in the face of their audience's expectations. Following the arguments of native writers earlier in the nineteenth century, they believed that Indians could be farmers and Christians and therefore civilized but could continue to live in autonomous and modern Indian nations. When at the end of the century there appeared to be no stopping the U.S. government in its efforts to erase native political society, many native leaders argued for U.S. citizenship. But U.S. citizenship was never the desire of the majority of native people, and for those leaders who advocated it in the period, it represented the only means left of establishing some measure of recognition. At the same time, most who argued for U.S. citizenship did not advocate the abandonment of tribal heritage. While the Society of American Indians was founded in 1911 by "progressive" native leaders—such as Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux), Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai), and Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Sioux)—to advocate for U.S. citizenship, the organization was also highly critical of white paternalism and sought to celebrate rather than denigrate the tribal past.

Anthropology was one the few areas in which native scholars could be recognized, at least to some degree, for their expertise. J. N. B. Hewitt, a Tuscarora, was a farmer, newspaper correspondent, and proprietor of a night school for men when he received funding from the Bureau of Ethnology in 1880 to study Iroquois languages and stories; in 1886 he joined the bureau to complete work on a Tuscarora-English dictionary. Hewitt transcribed Iroquois languages and ceremonies, but he left most of his work in manuscript. Francis La Flesche, an Omaha, also worked for the BAE and the Smithsonian Institution. He was trained by and collaborated with Alice Cunningham Fletcher, a philanthropist turned anthropologist, beginning in the early 1880s, working with her on The Omaha Tribe (1911). La Flesche also published an account of his experiences at mission school called The Middle Five (1900). Franz Boas encouraged Arthur C. Parker (1881–1955), a Seneca and the grandnephew of Ely S. Parker, to study anthropology at Columbia, but Parker instead concentrated on archaeology, becoming affiliated with the New York State Museum. Parker wrote over 250 articles, mainly on Indian topics, and several books for children. He was also a founder of the Society of American Indians and editor of its journal, American Indian Magazine. Other early native anthropologists included Jesse Cornplanter (Seneca), who published Iroquois Indian Games and Dances in 1913; James R. Murie (Pawnee), who published Pawnee Indian Societies in 1914 and, with Clark Wissler, Ceremonies of the Pawnee in 1921; and William Jones (Fox), the first native university-trained anthropologist. When he could not secure funding to support his research on the Ojibwas, Jones traveled to the Philippines to study indigenous people. He was killed there by Llongot people in 1907.

Reform writers included Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute, 1844?–1891) and Susette La Flesche (Omaha, 1854–1903), the older sister of Francis La Flesche (they also had a sister, Susan, who was the first native woman physician). The daughter of a Paiute leader, Winnemucca was educated for a time in a convent and became a teacher and interpreter for the U.S. Army. Her Life among the Paiutes (1883) is the first history and autobiography written by a native woman. She lectured extensively on Indian affairs in San Francisco, Nevada, and then the East Coast, where she supported allotment and spoke in the homes of distinguished supporters like Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Greenleaf Whittier. She wrote her book while on tour and sold it at lectures. After counterattacks from government bureaucrats, Winnemucca returned to Nevada, where she lectured and established a school for Paiute children; she died in Idaho after the school closed in 1887.

The daughter of a chief who advocated adaptation to Euro-American ways, Susette La Flesche was educated at mission and boarding schools; she became involved in politics and writing at a significant moment in the Indian reform movement. In 1879, after the Poncas (who lived near the Omahas in Nebraska) were removed against their will to Indian Territory, Standing Bear, their chief, led a group back to their ancestral land. The U.S. Army arrested Standing Bear and others and they were put on trial. The court in Nebraska then declared them legally "persons" and set them free, after which Standing Bear lectured to wide acclaim in East Coast cities on the abuses of the government, on a tour organized by Thomas Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald. La Flesche gave lectures on the tour as well and testified with Standing Bear before the U.S. Senate. She and Tibbles eventually married, and La Flesche began writing columns for the Omaha World Herald and The Independent. She also wrote short stories illustrating traditional native beliefs for the children's magazines St. Nicholas and Wide Awake.

Among northern and eastern tribes, Andrew J. Blackbird (Ottawa) published History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan: A Grammar of Their Language and Personal and Family History in 1887 and Elias Johnson (Tuscarora) published Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations in 1881. Like Winnemucca's Life among the Paiutes, these books incorporate traditional and contemporary history, ethnographic information, and elements of the author's autobiography in narratives that are generally supportive of modernization but that celebrate tribal history and culture. In contrast to Blackbird and Johnson, Simon Pokagon (Potawatomi, 1830–1899) was a celebrity among whites as an advocate for Indian causes. He published several booklets on birchbark—Red Man's Greeting (1893), The Pottawatamie Book of Genesis—Legends of the Creation of Man (1901), and Algonquin Legends of South Haven (n.d.)—as well as essays on Potawatomi culture and history. His authorship of the novel Queen of the Woods (1899) is currently questioned. A Vanishing Indian narrative with Pokagon himself as the central figure, the story concerns an Indian who becomes civilized, rejects civilization, then becomes a drunk, after which the novel becomes a temperance tract. There is a strong argument that this novel was written by the wife of his lawyer and publicist, Cyrus Engle. The novel does, however, incorporate Potawatomi words in the story and concludes with an essay on the Algonquin language.

E. Pauline Johnson (Mohawk, 1861–1913) appeared before white audiences in a stylized Indian costume only for half of her performance; in the other half she wore an evening gown. The daughter of George Henry Martin Johnson, a Mohawk chief, and Emily Susanna Howells, a cousin of the author and editor William Dean Howells, Johnson grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. She began performing her poetry in 1892, becoming well known in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States; she published her first book of poetry, The White Wampum, in 1895. A second volume, Canadian Born, appeared in 1903; Johnson then began contributing articles on Indian topics to a variety of periodicals. After retiring from performing she moved to Vancouver, where she published her versions of stories told her by the Squamish chief Joe Capilano in Legends of Vancouver (1911). Her poems were collected in Flint and Feather (1912), and, after her death in 1913, two collections of her short pieces were published: The Shagganappi, consisting of stories originally published in Boy's World, and The Moccasin-Maker, stories about both native and non-native women.

Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876–1938) was born in South Dakota and attended mission school and Earlham College in Indiana, where she won some renown in oratory. After working at Carlisle Indian Industrial School for a year, an experience she writes about in "An Indian Teacher among the Indians," she left to attend music school (she was a violinist) in Boston but later had to leave because of ill health. Between 1900 and 1904 she published autobiographical articles and versions of traditional stories in periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Everybody's Magazine. Frederic Remington provided illustrations for some of her articles. In 1901 she published Old Indian Legends (1901), a collection of traditional Sioux trickster stories about Iktomi, with illustrations by Angel DeCora (Ho-Chunk), who was also a teacher at Carlisle. Her articles were collected and published as American Indian Stories in 1921. After 1904, Bonnin turned her attention to lecturing, teaching, and community work on behalf of native causes, although while living in Utah, she collaborated with William Hanson, a professor at Brigham Young University, on The Sun Dance Opera, which incorporated traditional native music. She remained involved in the Society of American Indians until its demise, serving as the editor of American Indian Magazine in 1918 and 1919. In 1926, together with her husband, she founded the National Congress of American Indians, an intertribal organization that remains active today.

Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa, 1858–1939) was brought up by his traditional relatives after his father apparently died as a result of the 1862 Dakota war in Minnesota. Years later, however, he found that his father had not only survived, he had become a Christian and advocate of modernization, and when Eastman returned to his father at age fifteen he also acquired his father's outlook on life. Educated at mission school in North Dakota, Santee Normal Training School, Beloit College, Knox College, Kimball Union Academy, Dartmouth College, and Boston University, he became the first native man to become a medical doctor—although he was never able to make a living at it. While he was a government physician at Pine Ridge Agency, Eastman witnessed the effects of the Ghost Dance and the massacre at Wounded Knee; he met his wife, the supervisor of education Elaine Goodale Eastman, and left in 1893, disgusted with the corruption of the Indian Service. He thereafter worked for the Young Men's Christian Association, spent a brief period at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and in 1903, with the help of Hamlin Garland, got a job with the Indian Service assigning Christian names to Sioux people, which was supposed to help keep them from being swindled. He collected Ojibwa artifacts for the University of Pennsylvania museum, became involved in the Boy Scouts, and with his wife operated a summer camp for children. By the time he helped to found the Society for American Indians, Eastman had become a public figure, lecturing on Indian affairs, advocating reform of the Indian Service and civilization for native people.

Eastman is probably the most prolific native writer of the period. His earliest published works were mainly autobiographical and directed at juvenile audiences, emphasizing the closeness of Indians to nature and characterizing primitive Indian life as a model for American children, both of them familiar primitivist themes. Indian Boyhood (1902), his first book, collected articles previously published in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine. He next published three books of traditional stories, including Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904) that were, like Zitkala-Ša's Iktomi stories, retellings of traditional stories in an idealized, folkloric manner. Another collection of folk-tales was published as Wigwam Evenings in 1909. His work became more explicitly addressed to adults in The Soul of the Indian (1911), in which he describes his own version of Sioux spirituality that incorporates many Christian elements. He next published Indian Scout Talks (1914), which addressed the "Indian lore" aspects of youth organizations, a topic on which he published many articles in the period. Eastman's best work is probably From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). In this book, Eastman tells the story of his experiences with the civilized world, recounting his education, the massacre at Wounded Knee, his efforts on behalf of Indian reform, and his eventual disillusionment with white society.

See alsoAmerican Indian Stories; Assimilation; Battle of the Little Bighorn; Ethnology; Folklore and Oral Traditions; Ramona; Wounded Knee


Primary Works

Callahan, S. Alice. Wynema: A Child of the Forest. 1891. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Eastman, Charles A. From the Deep Woods to Civilization. 1916. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Grayson, G. W. A Creek Warrior for the Confederacy: The Autobiography of Chief G. W. Grayson. Edited and with an introduction by W. David Baird. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca. Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. 1883. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994.

Johnson, E. Pauline. The Moccasin Maker. 1913. Edited and introduced by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

La Flesche, Francis. The Middle Five. 1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and James W. Parins, eds. Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875–1935. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Posey, Alexander. Chinnubbie and the Owl: Muscogee (Creek) Stories, Orations, and Oral Traditions. Edited by Matthew Wynn Sivils. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Posey, Alexander. The Fus Fixico Letters of Alexander Posey. Edited by Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. and Carol A. Petty Hunter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Zitkala-Ša. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Secondary Works

Child, Brenda J. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light, 2000.

Dippie, Brian W. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Harring, Sidney J. Crow Dog's Case: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Hoxie, Frederick E., ed. Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Kilcup, Karen L. Native American Women's Writing c. 1800–1924. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.

Krech, Shepard, III, and Barbara A. Hail, eds. Collecting Native America, 1870–1960. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Maddox, Lucy. Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race, and Reform. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Mihesuah, Devon A. Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary 1851–1909. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Moses, L. G. Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883–1933. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Patterson, Michelle Wick. "'Real' Indian Songs: The Society of American Indians and the Use of Native American Culture as a Means of Reform." American Indian Quarterly 26, no. 1 (winter 2002): 44–66.

Senier, Siobhan. Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca, and Victoria Howard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Tully, James. "Rediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights." In his An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts, pp. 137–176. London: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Viola, Herman J. Diplomats in Buckskins: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Welch, James. The Heartsong of Charging Elk. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Maureen Konkle

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POPULATION: About 940 million

LANGUAGE: Fifteen official languages: Hindi; Bengali; Telugu; Marathi; Tamil; Urdu; Gujarat; Malayalam; Kannada; Oriya; Punjab;Assames;Kashmiri; Sindhi; Sanskrit; English widely spoken

RELIGION: Hinduism; Islam; Christianity; Sikhism; Buddhism; Jainism; some Judaism, Parsiism (Zoroastrianism), and animistic tribal peoples


India is the largest country in South Asia. The word "Indian" comes from Sindhu, a local name for the Indus River. Indians also call their country "Bharat," the name of a legendary emperor.

Indian history dates to the third millennium bc when Harappan civilization flourished in the Indus Valley. Aryan-speaking tribes from Central Asian began settling in northwestern India around 1700 bc. These groups eventually took over much of India.

At times, powerful kingdoms such as the Mauryan (321181 bc) and the Gupta (ad 319c. 500) empires have ruled. But, over the centuries, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Kushans, and White Huns invaded India. Muslims entered India at the beginning of the eleventh century ad and ruled much of the subcontinent for eight hundred years. The Mughal Dynasty conquered Delhi and ruled from the sixteenth century until the eighteenth century. Islam made important contributions to South Asian civilization and shaped a great deal of India's cultural heritage.

Europeans reached South Asia in 1498 when Portuguese sailors landed on the southwest coast of India. Over the next two centuries, Portugal, Holland, Britain, and France set up trading posts and factories. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company controlled most of the European trade in India, and Britain ultimately ruled the entire region.

The inability of British, Hindu, and Muslim leaders to agree on a successor state to the British Indian Empire resulted in the partition of the subcontinent (by the United Nations) into India and Pakistan in 1947. This has caused three wars. India and Pakistan continue to be hostile toward each other, particularly over the question of which country should control the beautiful mountain state of Kashmir.


Modern India has an area of about 3.2 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles), and a population of 940 million.

India stretches from Cape Comorin, 8° north of the equator, to its border with the disputed Kashmir region under Pakistani control. Pakistan lies to the west, and to the east, India shares borders with Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar (Burma).

India has three geographic zones. In the north lie the majestic Himalayas, which run for more than 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) and contain many of the world's highest peaks. Below the mountains lie the Indo-Gangetic plains. These lands run from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal and along the Indus and Ganges river valleys. The plains receive plenty of rain during the monsoon season and support much of India's agriculture. The Deccan Plateau forms the third geographical region. These are the uplands bordered by the Eastern and Western Ghats (mountains) that make up the interior of the Indian peninsula.

The seasonal rhythm of the monsoon sets a pattern of Indian life. Winters are bright and pleasant. In late February, temperatures start to rise until May and June, when daily maximums in the northwestern plains exceed 115°f (46°c). The hot season ends with the onset of rain. The monsoon reaches southwest India in late June and sweeps northward. Cherrapunji, in the northeast, is on record as the wettest place on earth, averaging nearly 453 inches (1,150 centimeters) of rain annually. For three months, water is plentiful and the land is green. At the end of September, the rains stop and winter approaches.

India has a wide range of ethnic and cultural diversity. It is less a nation and more a collection of countries. Throughout central and southern India there are tribal populations such as Mundas, Oraons and Santals, there are Dravidian groups in southern India such as Tamils and the Malayalam-speaking peoples in Kerala. In the north, Bengalis, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Rajputs, and Marathas are among the prominent groups. India shares many of its cultural groups with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Each region has its own mix of religion, caste (social class), language, and literary, cultural and historical traditions. These traditions existed long before modern nations were created, and many people identify strongly with them. Thus, one can be a Punjabi and either a Pakistani or Indian, or a Bengali and either a Bangladeshi or Indian.

Large Indian communities are also found in Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, South Africa, Fiji, the West Indies, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


A Hindi proverb states: "Every two miles the water doth change, and every four the dialect." India has 1,653 dialects. There are about twenty-four languages that are spoken by more than a million people.

Indian languages belong to four major linguistic families (groups of languages with a common ancestor). Austro-Asiatic languages (e.g., Munda, Ho, and Khasi) are spoken by tribal groups in central India and the northeastern hills. Bhotia and other languages in the mountain belt belong to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. Most Indian languages belong to the Indo-European or Dravidian families.

India today recognizes fourteen spoken languages as official: Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, and Sindhi. Sanskrit, the classical language of northern India, is also an official language. English is widely used for national, political, and business purposes.


Hindus have a rich mythology and folklore associated with their deities and epic literature. Muslims revere Sufi mystics, and Sikhs have martyred Gurus. Tribal groups have distinct myths and legends. A few historical figures such as Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Maratha leader, are seen as national heroes.

Most of India's national heroes, however, come from the struggle against British imperialism in the early twentieth century. Jawaharlal Nehru (18891964), the first prime minister of India, and his daughter Indira Gandhi (191784) are among the most important Indian national leaders. The best known figure, however, is Mohandas Gandhi (18691948), known worldwide as Mahatma ("Great Soul"). Mohandas Gandhi led India's independence movement. (Independence from Great Britain was granted in 1947.)


About 80 percent of Indians are Hindus. India, however, prides itself on the freedom of religion guaranteed by its constitution. Religious minorities include Muslims (14 percent), Christians (2.4 percent), Sikhs (2 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), and Jains (0.5 percent). Other religious groups include Jews, Parsis (Zoroastrians), and animistic tribal peoples. The practices and beliefs associated with Hinduism vary by region, and from person to person. It is often said that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life.

One major aspect of Hinduism that influences Indian society is the caste system. The Aryan-speaking peoples developed this system, which divides people into four categories: Brahmans (priests and scholars), Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (traders and farmers), and Sudras (servants and artisans). These categories are further divided by occupations, as well as by regional and cultural differences. However, most Indians fall outside the four categories and are referred to as Untouchables, the lowest caste. Although the system has its roots in Hinduism, most religious groups in this region of the world have adopted some aspect of the caste structure.


India officially celebrates the major holidays of its main religious communities. Hindu festivals include Shivaratri (dedicated to the god Shiva), Holi (the spring festival), Janamashtami (birthday of the god Krishna), Dasahara (the festival of the goddess Durga), and Divali (the Festival of Lights). The Muslim Eid festivals (Eid al-Fitr and Bakr-Eid ) and Muharram are holidays. The Christian holy days of Good Friday and Christmas are also observed, as are the birthdays of the founders of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

India also celebrates its Independence Day on August 15, the day in 1947 when British colonial rule ended. Republic Day, held on January 26, marks the inauguration of India as a Republic in 1950. Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, on October 2, 1869, also is a national holiday.


Most Hindu groups have some form of naming and head-shaving ceremonies. For Muslims, the circumcision of male children is the symbol of commitment to their religion, while for Christians it is baptism. Sikhs, Parsis, and tribal groups also mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. Marriage customs conform to the norms of each community, as do funeral rites. Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists cremate their dead, whereas Muslims and Christians bury them. Parsis and some Buddhist groups expose their corpses to vultures. Tribal funeral customs include both cremation and burial.


A common greeting among Hindus is Namaste, which means "Greetings to you." It is said while joining one's own hands, palms together and held upright, in front of one's body. In parts of India, the word Namaste is replaced with Namaskar. Salaam or Salaam alaikum (Peace be with you) is a typical greeting among Muslims, and Sat Sri Akal (God is Truth) is used by Sikhs. Shaking hands, Western style, also is acceptable.


Medical advances, immunization, and public health programs have raised the average life expectancy in India to just over sixty years. Inadequate sewage disposal, contaminated drinking water, and poor nutrition still pose health problems. India has a high rate of population increasealmost 2 percent a year, which presents one of the country's greatest challenges. For many poor people, however, children provide valuable agricultural help and improve a family's income. People living in poverty are estimated to represent between 24 and 40 percent of the population of India.

India contains some of the largest cities in the world. Greater Bombay (or Mumbai) has about thirteen million people, Calcutta has twelve million, and Delhi has ten million. Yet almost three-fourths of India's people live in rural areas.

India has 1.3 million miles (2.2 million kilometers) of roads. Buses and trains are the most common means of long-distance travel. Several airlines also operate in India.


The joint family remains popular. In the north, families tend to be patriarchal. A household consists of two or three generations of males and their wives and children. In southern India, joint families often are matriarchal. It consists of one's grandmother and her brothers and sisters, one's mother and her brothers and sisters, and one's own brothers and sisters.

Marriages often are arranged, and caste plays an important role. In northern India, marriage partners are usually unrelated. In southern India, however, cross-cousin marriage often occurs, and it is preferred that a man marry his mother's brother's daughter.


The common dress for Indian men is the dhoti. This is a long piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist. In southern India, the chest is usually left bare, while in the north a shirt may be worn. Turbans or some form of headdress are common in northern India. Both men and women also wear a kurta, a long tunic-like shirt, and pyjamas, loose baggy trousers. People wear leather sandals or other shoes. Shoes usually are removed before entering a temple or an Indian home.

Women typically wear the sari, a length of cotton or silk cloth wrapped around the waist, with one end thrown over the right shoulder. The choli, a tight-fitting blouse that leaves the midriff bare, is worn under the sari. The sari is worn differently in different parts of India. In Maharashtra, for example, rural women draw one end of the sari through the legs and tuck it into the waist. In some rural areas, women do not wear the bodice; they use the end of the sari to cover their upper bodies

In urban areas, Western-style clothing has become the norm for males.


A typical Indian meal consists of five or six dishes, served all on a thali. This is a round metal tray or plate that holds several little bowls (katoris ). Each bowl holds a different dish. In some areas, food is served on banana leaves. Food is eaten with the hand, preferably the right hand.

The term "curry" was used by Europeans to describe the spicy dishes they found in India, but curries are not always hot. The "heat" in Indian food comes from chilies. Other spices include cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, and cloves. Curries are eaten with lentils (dal) and pickles and chutneys. In northern and western areas, meals are taken with flat breads (roti). These breads are replaced by rice (chawal) in the east and south. Yogurt (dahi) also may be eaten. Meals often end with a variety of sweets or paan, betel nut served with lime and wrapped in a betel leaf.

Mughal-style cooking is found in the north, while dosas (thin pancakes of rice-flour) and idlis (steamed rice-bread) are popular southern dishes. Madras is known for its fiery curries, while Bengal is famous for its fish dishes. Goan cooking shows Portuguese influences.

Many Hindus avoid eating beef. Muslims generally do not eat pork. Tribal groups avoid the flesh of animals that are their clan totems.


It is estimated that over half of all Indians are literate (can read and write). However, this figure hides big differences between males and females, urban and rural populations, and among different social groups. Primary education is free but the quality of state-run schools tends to be poor. Still, education is important and many of India's universities have excellent reputations.


Indian culture dates to the Indus Valley civilization, but every group that has entered the subcontinent has left an imprint.

Hindu literature includes sacred texts such as the Vedas, the great Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, and the works of the great Sanskrit playwright and poet, Kalidasa (fifth century ad). Bharata Natyam and Kathakali are forms of classical dance, while the Raga is a form of classical Indian music.

Famous Hindu temples include Mahabalipuram, Khajuraho, and the Sun Temple at Konarak in Orissa. Buddhists cave paintings at Ajanta offer an impressive monument to that faith. The temple city of Palitana in Gujarat and the white marble temples at Dilwara (Mount Abu) in Rajasthan are temple buildings of the Jainist religion. Islam's many contributions to Indian culture include miniature paintings and the Taj Mahal.

The most popular musical instrument in India is the sitar, an instrument similar to a guitar. It is played with a steel plucker called a mazrab worn on the right index finger, while the left index finger slides over the frets on the neck of the sitar. One sitar, the drone, provides the rhythm to support the melody.

Rabindranath Tagore (18611941), a Bengali poet and novelist was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and the films of Satyajit Ray (192192) have received worldwide praise.


Over 60 percent of India's labor force works in agriculture. Despite this, India is highly industrialized. Its industries range from nuclear power production to garment making. Recent liberalization of the economy has seen faster growth and expanding trade, although many say these changes have not helped most of India's people.


Chess, dice, and card playing are old favorites. Traditional sports include cock fighting, camel racing, and wrestling. Hunting was a favorite sport and kabaddi (team wrestling) remains popular. Children's games include kite-flying, spinning tops, yo-yos, and hobbyhorses. Indians enthusiastically play or watch cricket and field hockey. Games such as soccer, tennis, badminton, squash, table tennis, and golf are also widely played.


India's film industry is enormous. Regional language films are produced in Calcutta and Madras, but the center of the industry is Bombay. "Bollywood," as it is known, produces love stories filled with action as well as singing and dancing. Film music is immensely popular. Film actors and actresses are pop idols and trendsetters, and their lives are followed with interest.


Folk arts in India range from wall painting to puppetry to regional music and dance forms. India is known for textiles, rugs, metalwork, bronzes, copper-and brassware, stone carving, pottery, woodwork, and jewelry.


Despite efforts at population control, India soon will be the world's most populous nation. This might worsen existing problems such as poverty, high unemployment, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Another growing problem is AIDS. It is predicted that 1 million AIDS cases and 10 million HIV cases will have been reported in India by 2000.

Many groups in Assam, Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and other areas are demanding more freedom. Sometimes groups even express a desire to gain complete independence from India. Muslims fear that a rise of Hindu fundamentalism will threaten India's commitment to secularism (nonreligious government). India's Constitution recognizes three categories of disadvantaged groups that need special representation and assistance. This "reservations policy" is as controversial in India as affirmative action policies are now in the United States.

Despite these problems, India continues its fifty-year-old tradition as the world's largest democracy.


Ardley, Bridget. India. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1989.

Barker, Amanda. India. Crystal Lake, Ill.: Ribgy Interactive Library, 1996.

Cumming, David. India. New York: Bookwright, 1991.

Das, Prodeepta. Inside India. New York: F. Watts, 1990.

Dolcini, Donatella. India in the Islamic Era and Southeast Asia (8th to 19th century). Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Kalman, Bobbie. India: The Culture. Toronto: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1990.

Pandian, Jacob. The Making of India and Indian Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Shalant, Phyllis. Look What We've Brought You from India: Crafts, Games, Recipes, Stories, and Other Cultural Activities from Indian Americans. Parsippany, N.J.: Julian Messner, 1998.


Consulate General of India in New York. [Online] Available, 1998.

Embassy of India, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corporation. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. India. [Online] Available, 1998.

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The pre–Civil War period of American history confirmed the determination of the American people to deprive Indians of their land regardless of treaty obligations, civil law, and humanity. Removal was the great fact of this period and the great political issue of the 1830s, given irresistible momentum by Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828, an event followed by the government's adoption of a policy to relocate the remaining eastern Indians across the Mississippi. Over and over a sad drama was enacted in which a tribe pleaded to be spared this deracination while the government urged willing compliance upon it. When that failed, the Indians would be forcibly removed with great suffering and loss of life. In major Indian wars of the period, Black Hawk War in Illinois and contiguous states (1832) and the Seminole Wars in Florida (1817–1818, 1835–1842, 1855–1858), Indian allies fought and died with government troops, thinking that their service would spare them from removal. They were treated no better than the defeated enemy. The Potawatomi chief who predicted ruin to tribes who warred against whites might have expanded his prophecy to include those who did not go to war as well. Hostile or peaceful, all were required to vacate the lands east of the Mississippi. As Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) wrote of this history in her landmark study, A Century of Dishonor (1881), "Every year has its dark stain. The story of one tribe is the story of all, varied only by differences of time and place" (p. 337).


The most flagrant example was the removal of the Cherokees from Alabama and Georgia. Early in the century this Indian nation had made a conscious decision to adopt every aspect of white American culture. The Cherokees became successful farmers (and slave-holders), converted to Christianity, and developed a written language. Soon they had a high rate of literacy. Their newspaper, the Phoenix, printed on their own press, was the first to appear in both English and a Native American language (1828). The usual racist arguments that the Cherokees were incapable of living as whites lived fell before such evidence, yet the states insisted that the Cherokees must go. While they tried to protect their land and possessions from impatient marauders, the Cherokees sought every remedy to avoid dispossession, including the courts, but when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor on 3 March 1832, President Jackson (1767–1845) refused to enforce the decision, falsely maintaining to the Indians that the federal government had no authority to prevent depredations against them. Jackson was more responsive to ultimatums made to him by the southern states and to the logic of population. Without federal protection, the 22,000 Cherokees could not resist the will of more than 300,000 Alabama and Georgia whites. Jackson's reelection by a large margin in 1832 ratified on the national level this will to implement the expulsion, which was then carried out under military supervision. Although other southern tribes had already been transferred under conditions of extreme hardship, no effort was made to avoid the same mistakes during the Cherokee migration, known to history as the Trail of Tears (1838–1839). As a consequence, 4,000 Cherokees died.

The Trail of Tears was simply the culminating episode in a familiar pattern. All Indians were strongly attached to their homelands; they had to be deceived, pressured, or coerced into moving—giving the lie to the promise of the Indian Removal Act (1830) that force would not be used to effect their departure. Inevitably they were moved, unable to oppose the surging white population that had the power to carry out its designs.

In his surrender speech after the Black Hawk War, Chief Black Hawk (1767–1838), a Sauk Indian, noted bitterly that "an Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaten up by the wolves" (McLuhan, p. 141). In truth, Indians were poorly prepared to engage such a formidable enemy as white America. Accustomed to living in small communities, they could never make common cause to the extent necessary to mount an effective resistance. Whites exploited tribal enmities, divided tribes into factions, and introduced vices that weakened the Indians' resolve and the fabric of their societies. Alcohol, in particular, reduced Indians to helplessness and tractability. Whether or not whites employed more reprehensible tactics, such as deliberately bringing smallpox and other epidemic diseases into Indian villages, as has so often been asserted, many hated Indians enough to be indifferent to the means used to clear the coveted land of their presence.

Nostalgia for the vanished Indian was often expressed in the literature of the time. This poem by Lydia Huntley Sigourney, the most famous American woman poet in the first half of the century, reflects the widespread presence of Indian place names in the United States.

Ye say they all have passed away, 
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave;
That 'mid the forest where they roamed,
There rings no hunter's shout;
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.

Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, Select Poems (Philadelphia: Frederick W. Greenough, 1838), p. 239.


By the 1840s, with Indians now a negligible presence in the eastern United States, the tide of westward settlement beyond the Mississippi began to exert pressure on Indians farther west. Here occurred what was arguably the greatest atrocity, the Massacre of Sand Creek in Colorado Territory (1864). Volunteers under the command of an ambitious zealot, Colonel John Chivington (1821–1894), attacked a peaceful band of southern Cheyenne camped close to Fort Lyon by the authority of the military. When Chivington's men withdrew, more than two hundred Indians, mostly women and children, had been killed, many revoltingly mutilated. Indian anger over this outrage sparked reprisal raids, but the federal government could not fully address the suffering of the settlers until the war ended. At Medicine Lodge, Kansas, a huge gathering of five southern Plains tribes met government representatives in the fall of 1867. In return for relocating on reservations, the Indians were promised various goods, including badly needed food, but a typical cultural misunderstanding resulted in a continuing state of hostilities rather than peace: while the treaty made its slow way through the political process, the Indians, having expected to receive the promised items immediately, felt angry and betrayed. They began attacking and burning settlements. In response, the army sent a former Civil War hero, George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876), against a Cheyenne winter encampment on the Washita River. A well-known advocate for peace, Chief Black Kettle (b. 1807) was among those killed in the ensuing battle (1868). Custer would later be best remembered for the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876), at which he and five companies of his regiment were killed by Lakota Sioux and allied tribes.

To the north the Sioux, led by the militant Oglala chief Red Cloud (c. 1822–1909), enjoyed the greatest success against white immigration. Red Cloud's repeated attacks on the Bozeman Trail, including an ambush that killed eighty soldiers from Fort Phil Kearney, Wyoming Territory, led the government to agree to abandon the three forts it had placed along the trail (1868). Like the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Red Cloud's War was only a momentary victory for the Indians. It was in this western theater of Indian-white conflict that a remark made by General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) became instantly popular as a serious statement: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Repeated waves of immigration released by the end of the Civil War in 1865 created the same conditions that had dispossessed and destroyed eastern Indians: in the decade after 1860 a million white settlers had crossed the Mississippi; in the decade after 1870 some two and a half million joined them. The major western Plains tribes—the Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and Arapaho—would all be subdued by force or hunger.


Although racism played a part in the removal of Indians, the country tolerated other nonwhite races confined to inferior positions. Two factors made its relations with Indians different. First and foremost was the desire for Indian land: the growing nation, which Jefferson had envisioned existing between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains, ultimately comprehended a continental expanse. This set the stage for the final thrust of Manifest Destiny that would place all Indian tribes on out-of-the-way reservations and permanently end their threat to the United States. Second, whereas other racial communities aspired to better terms of inclusion in American society, Indians remained radically unassimilated, preferring their own cultures to those of the settlers.

It was rare for either party to bridge cultural and linguistic gulfs in a systematic or meaningful way. The white world officially prohibited all forms of miscegenation, although it tacitly tolerated a fair number of white men having relationships with Indian women in the fluid space of the frontier. Indians seldom thrived in the communities of the dominant culture; some white men, however, were strongly attracted to the Indian way of life.

Given the rapid disappearance of Indians from the United States proper, Americans could readily believe that the continent's indigenous inhabitants were a vanishing race, withering away before the superior whites. An emerging "scientific" racism bolstered such views, which would gain momentum as the century progressed. Proponents argued that Indians were genetically incapable of civilization: whatever improvements occurred were due to interbreeding with whites. Samuel Morton's influential Crania Americana (1839) used his measurement of skulls to assert that the Indians (like other nonwhites) belonged to an inferior race. His compilation of cranial data convinced the eminent scientist Louis Agassiz that this conclusion had been empirically established. Josiah Nott and George Gliddon reiterated the denigration of the Indian in their huge and widely read compendium, Types of Mankind (1854). The views of scientific racism were also transmitted by historians such as Francis Parkman (The Conspiracy of Pontiac, 1851) and Lewis Henry Morgan (The League of the Iroquois, 1851) and by the writers of a new kind of American fiction.


Reduced to a powerless remnant in reality, Indians would now become part of a nationalistic branch of Romantic literature that saw their displacement as a critical episode in the settlement of the New World. Ironically, while they were fictionalized as figures of power, either as noble or ignoble savages, eastern Indians increasingly lived the marginalized and hand-to-mouth lives of a poverty-stricken minority. Their circumstances would spread westward along with the arrival of white settlers.

The first work to capitalize on Indians as a Romantic subject was Yamoyden, A Tale of the Wars of King Philip: in Six Cantos (1820), a narrative poem written by James Wallis Eastburn (1797–1819) and Robert Sands (1799–1832). One of the country's most influential critics, John G. Palfrey (1796–1881), hailed Yamoyden as fulfilling nationalistic aspirations to use early American history in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels were enormously popular in the United States. Palfrey, who elsewhere had denigrated the Wampanoag leader King Philip as ignorant and barbarous, objected to the presentation of Indians as noble savages in Yamoyden, although the poem imposes the standard conclusion of racial conflict by killing its Indian protagonist, Yamoyden, along with his white wife. Like many "good Indians" in the novels that followed this epic poem, Yamoyden gives his life to save a white person.

The novels with Indian characters that began to appear in the 1820s often borrowed a narrative framework from earlier nonfictional accounts of Indian captivity. These had found large audiences from the late seventeenth century when Mary White Rowlandson's story of her captivity (1682) became the first American best-seller. During the eighteenth century, however, the captivity became stylized and reified, with obligatory episodes and conventions. Many purportedly true histories were, if not outright inventions, undoubtedly heightened for greater effect. By the time of its appropriation by nineteenth-century novelists, the captivity narrative needed the revitalization that the freer treatment of acknowledged fiction could give it.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) perfected the form of the frontier romance in his Leatherstocking Tales (1823–1841), a popular series of fictions built around a frontiersman protagonist, Natty Bumppo, and his noble Indian companion, Chingachgook. The cast of characters included a white hero and heroine and assorted villains, both red and white. Many of the novels' "good" characters were captured by "bad" Indians, who were usually extravagantly described as blood-drinking devils. The action of The Last of the Mohicans (1826), the most ambitious of these tales, is driven by serial captivity married to a Romantic plot that requires the union of hero and heroine as well as the defeat of the enemy Indians.

Later in the century western settlers often blamed Cooper, as the foremost of a large group of contemporary writers, for a romanticized image of Indians that they found to be inaccurate to frontier experience. But this widely held view was unfair: the Romantic tradition in which Cooper wrote dominated American literature until the Civil War. Moreover, whether friend or foe, his Indians were always decisively portrayed as inferior. Like most of his countrymen at the time, Cooper stresses what he regards as differences between Indians and whites rather than a common humanity. Each race has its "gifts" or special abilities: Indians are proficient in wilderness skills, for example, whereas whites are masters of technology. Not surprisingly, because Cooper was a white author writing for white readers, his Indians can never fully acquire white habits and abilities and thus are doomed to extinction, but white characters can best the Indian on his home ground. Cooper has survived where so many of his contemporaries in the genre are unknown today because he transcends his predictable plots and racial stereotypes with a poetic sensitivity to the vanishing wilderness.

Two other writers of notable frontier romances, Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867), have been rehabilitated by the work of feminist recuperation. In Child's Hobomok (1824) a white woman whose fiancé appears to have been lost at sea proposes marriage to a noble Indian, the title character. The novel treats this union as anomalous from its bizarre beginning in the heroine's superstitious ritual to its end when the missing hero reappears and (re)claims her. Although Hobomok and his wife have had a child, he willingly relinquishes his family and simply disappears. His son is educated at Harvard and Cambridge, retaining—one can assume—no trace of his Indian heritage. Child's substitution of assimilation for genocide was extraordinary for her time. Although she became better known as an abolitionist, Child retained an interest in Indians, criticizing their treatment by the Puritans in The First Settlers of New-England (1828) and returning to the subject late in life with An Appeal for the Indians (1868). Sedgwick's popular novel Hope Leslie (1827) is even more exceptional in allowing a white woman, the victim of captivity, to marry an Indian and reject white civilization, yet not die. She and her husband are the only interracial couple in the frontier romance to be granted a happy ending, although their union produces no new generation, perhaps because of the prevailing view that the offspring of mixed-race unions combined the worst of both races. In any case this woman is not the novel's white heroine. Sedgwick's treatment of Magawisca, the good Indian maiden, is more conventional. She loves the white hero but understands that their different races must keep them apart.

If in the frontier romance both good and bad Indians generally die at the end—in keeping with the popular assumption that whatever their individual qualities, they belonged to a dying race—in one subgroup of this fiction a protagonist dedicates himself to tracking down and killing Indians. This single-minded devotion to genocide is explained as the result of a family trauma inflicted by Indians, at times the killing of parents and siblings, at others of wife and children. Such works as Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837) and James Hall's account of the historical Colonel John Moredock in Sketches of the West (1835), the source of Herman Melville's Indian hater episode in The Confidence-Man (1857), represent a central figure who lives like an Indian in order to hunt Indians. In keeping with the overriding superiority of whites, the Indian hater surpasses his quarry in seeking revenge, stalking, and killing—as well as in "wilderness skills"—and in so doing, relinquishes some of his acculturation as a white man. Driven by a compulsion to kill Indians that only ends with his death, the Indian hater cannot be contained within his own frontier society. Nevertheless, he embodies its feelings and values: he acts on the communal belief system about Indians that has produced him.

Outside the frontier romance, there were literary figures of stature whose attitude toward Indians was sympathetic. Among writers of fiction, Melville (1819–1891) is preeminent in portraying Indians as worthy of respect, whereas Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) often represents them as victims of Puritan intolerance. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) had a lifelong fascination with Indians, and Washington Irving (1783–1859) wrote an impassioned defense of King Philip as a warrior whose heroic qualities and achievements merited the respectful treatment of poets and historians. But Irving also realized that a truthful account of New World settlement, one that emphasized the "dark story" of wrongs done to Indians, would challenge the investment of white readers in the desirability of a settled Christian people supplanting nomadic heathens and in the greatness of the country's pioneer forebears.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) created the most popular version of the American Indian as noble savage with his long poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855), modeled on the Finnish epic Kalevala. Longfellow adapted legends and myths from the pioneering work of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, published in various volumes of Algic Researches. Longfellow's Hiawatha exists in prehistory; when the white man appears in his country, he gracefully withdraws, in keeping with the widely held American belief that Indians would simply die out.


Belonging to oral cultures, Indians left little trace as writers during this time, but their eloquence as speakers was often preserved in school textbooks. American children were especially familiar with the poignant farewell address of Chief Logan, who lamented with stark simplicity the massacre of his entire family. One exceptional case deserves mention: in a five-year period, a Pequot Indian named William Apess (1798–1839) published five works, including an autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), and a eulogy on King Philip (1836) that compares the Indian leader to George Washington. Apess liberated himself from servitude and parlayed his scanty education into a career as a Methodist minister, a writer, and an activist instrumental in securing the right of self-government to the Mashpee Pequots. The rest of Apess's life has left no historical trace. Scholarly interest in recuperating minority experience may unearth more evidence of Apess and bring to light nineteenth-century texts written by other Indian writers (a few exist in manuscript).

See alsoCaptivity Narratives; Cherokee Memorials; Ethnology; Hope Leslie;Indian Wars and Dispossession; "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man"; Leatherstocking Tales; Native American Literature; The Song of Hiawatha;Trail of Tears


Primary Works

Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited and with an introduction by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. 1824. Edited and with an introduction by Carolyn L. Karcher. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor. 1881. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1964.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie. 1827. Edited by Mary Kelley. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Secondary Works

Barnett, Louise K. The Ignoble Savage: American LiteraryRacism, 1790–1890. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1975.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Dippie, Brian W. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Jaskoski, Helen, ed. Early Native American Writing: NewCritical Essays. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Krupat, Arnold. "Native American Autobiography and the Synecdochic Self." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 171–194. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

McLuhan, T. C., ed. Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait ofIndian Existence. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstrey, 1971.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians,Making Americans, 1880–1930. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

Louise Barnett

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Indians. See Native Americans in the Military; Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with; Native American Wars.