Coopers Chingachgook


The Death of Chingachgook as the Apogee of the tragedy of
the Indian Nation in Cooper^s The Pioneers
The Pioneers, written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1823
opens the popular series of books about the adventures of
an inhabitant of the New England forests Natty Bampo ^ a
white man, a scout, and a hunter. However, the novelist
does not merely narrate the life of Natty, his main aim is
to present the whole situation on the Eastern Coast of
America in the seventeenth century. In The Pioneers, in
particular, Cooper writes about the new settlers in
America, about their conquest of the lands, and about the
tragic extinction of the Indian people, who had been proud
owners of the lands of America. One of the most important
moments in this book, and even in the whole cycle, is the
scene of the death of Natty Bampo^s best friend
Chingachgook, the last representative of the Indian tribe
of Mohicans. In this scene the author presents his most
important ideas about the vices of the new settlers,
hypocrisy of Christianity, and the tragedy of the native
inhabitants of the American lands. C! ooper actually makes
the death of the Mohican sound as a final chord in the
calamitous history of the Indian people, who under the
onslaught of European civilization are doomed to disappear.
He makes the dying Indian chief a symbol for his perishing
nation, presenting him at the last minutes of his life in
his national costume and believing in the Indian morals and
gods. Moreover, by misspelling his name on the gravestone,
Cooper redoubles the tragic implication that after the
death of Chingachgook his culture is forgotten and lost,
and a meaningful Indian name loses its importance for the
white people who come to live in the formally Indian
forests. Towards the end of The Pioneers the tragic story
about the Indians who were expelled from their lands by the
white Europeans, reaches its apogee. The scene of the
Chingachgook^s dying is full of sadness, pain, and
hopelessness. In a very meaningful way Cooper presents his
Indian hero on the threshold of death, sitting "on a trunk
of a fallen oak" (p.381). Thus he hints at the identity
between the old chief and the tree, implying that once
young and strong they both are now old and lifeless.
Moreover, as the fallen tree is now disconnected from the
company of the strong young forest mates, thus also
Chingachgook with his "tawny visage" (p.381) is lonely
among the liveliness of the newly established colonies. So
Cooper writes that in place of the once virgin forests
where the Indian people used to have their dwellings, now
"the settlers had scattered their humble habitations, with
a profusion that bespoke the quality of the soil and the
comparative facilities of intercourse" (p .38).
Chingachgook says how he looks around "but he sees no
Delawares. Everyone has a white skin" (p.396). Though
Chingachgook has been baptized and even acquired a
Christian name John, he still is a stranger among the white
people and does not want to continue living without his
nation. These are his own words in which he expresses this
feeling: "John has lived till all his people have left his
for the land of spirits; his time has come, and he is
ready" (p.384).
Moreover, Cooper underlines Chingachgook^s visual relation
to his people in order to present his tragedy as a model of
that of his whole nation. The author pays close attention
not only to his "tawny visage" (p.381) but also notices his
"long black hair," "high forehead & piercing eyes," and
earrings in the "enormous incisions of his ears" (p.381).
Even "a large drop" appears in the nose of the old Indian,
which makes his appearance even more dramatic and
meaningful. At the end of this long description Cooper says
that "the whole" exhibited "an Indian warrior, prepared for
some event of more than usual moment" (p.381). This is not
by chance that Chingachgook is called a warrior here ^ thus
the novelist introduces the idea that this man, even
baptized, holds on to his national way of life, to his
national habits and beliefs. With nostalgia recollecting
his youth, Chingachgook tells lady Elizabeth that then he
"struck his tomahawk into the trees" and made no baskets"
(p.382). H! e means that he did not undertake peaceful
occupations, but was a real warrior, defending his people
and providing them with food. All these descriptions show
the old Indian as a model for the Indian people who once
upon a time were proud inhabitants of the lands of America.
The Christian girl tries to remind the old warrior that
"those days have gone by" and "[his] people have
disappeared," that now he "learned to fear God and to live
at peace" (p.382), meaning that he has to remember that he
is a Christian and to live in accordance with the laws of
the whites. Starting from this point, Cooper brings up a
related idea about the ambiguity of the Christian religion
in the new American colonies. Recollection of laws of the
whites makes Chingachgook think about the times of war
between the whites for the American territories: "the white
man from Frontiac come down on his white brothers at Albany
and fight" (p.382). He also recalls English people "burying
their tomahawks in each other^s brains for this very land,"
(p.382), and the passing of the land from one^s hands into
other^s. So he questions for three times, using the words
of Elizabeth: "Did they fear God?" (p.382) and,
undoubtedly, finds no positive answer to this question.
Moreover, the nov! elist opposes the civil customs of the
Indians, who exchanged their land "for powder, blankets and
merchandise" (p.382) to the ways of the Christians who
"tored" the land from each other "as a scalp is torn from
an enemy" (p.382). Once again the aged Indian questions:
"Do such man live in peace and fear the Great Spirit?"
(p.383), and thus Cooper implies the doubt in the
righteousness of the Christian religion.
The Indians gave everything up to the white ruler ^ gave up
their country, "from where the blue mountain stands above
the water to where the Susquehanna is hid by the trees"
(p.382). But what have they got instead? The full
extinction of their nation and the desperate melancholy
that sounds in the words of Chingachgook when he says that
"there will soon be no redskin in this country. When John
has gone, the last will leave the hills, and his family
will be dead" (p.384). However, one hope is left in the
bosom of the Indian -- a hope "to go to the country where
his fathers have met" (p.384), a hope to reunite with his
lost nation. The tragedy of these people reaches its apogee
when Chingachgook desperately declares: "Fathers! Sons!..
all gone ^ all gone" (p.384) and the only thing left for
the old Mohegan is to his own, not Christian heaven, where
"all just red men shall live together as brothers" (p.384).
Thus Chingachgook dies, in his Indian way, listening to his
fathers ca! lling "from the far-off land, come" (p.396).
Dies with no Christian prayer on his lips, for he is an
Indian who by his last Indian prayer concludes the tragic
history of his moribund nation and the lost Indian land.
Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Cooper
intentionally places the last scene of the novel in the
graveyard. Here young Oliver and Elizabeth and the readers
find Natty Bambo, "stretched on the earth before the
headstone of white marble" (p.429) ^ the grave of his
Indian friend Chingachgook. Natty, being illiterate, asks
the young man to read the script written on the gravestone
that the stone "is raised in memory of an Indian Chief...
Mohican; and Chingagook" (p.431). Since in the Indian
culture a name of a man always bears some important
implications about his personality, misspelling of
Chingachgook^s name goes against all the rules of the
nation. Natty tells his young friend that "the name should
be set down right, for an Indian name has always some
meaning in it" (p.431), as Chingachgook, for example, means
a Big Serpent. However, though Oliver promises to correct
it, Cooper in the very misspelling of the name inserts a
very great meaning. By setting this moment ! in the very
last chapter of the book, he thus states that the Indian
culture dies together with Chingachgook, and the ensuing
generations of the white people are neither interested
neither in the culture nor in the history of the native
Americans, who gave up their land to the whites in exchange
for powder and wine. Thus on this note of desperation
Cooper finalizes the tragic history of Chingachgook, whose
death symbolizes the death of the Indian nation on the
American continent.
Thus into the momentum of the death of Chingachgook Cooper
inserts so many important ideas that it would be worthwhile
to write the whole book just for this moment. The
catastrophe of the Indians in America sounds in the tone of
one voluminous crescendo throughout the last chapters of
The Pioneers. As the last note in a symphony gives the
musician information in what key the whole piece is
written, thus the last scene of the novel taking place near
the gravestone of Chingachgook, implies the tragic tone of
the whole narration. The novelist bewails the mournful
extinction of the Indian nation, and irretrievable
disappearance of their culture. As a kind of a "poet"
Cooper sings a gloomy song to this nation, through his
writing presenting it with immortality and perpetuity.
Work cited
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or The Sources of
Susquehanna. New York: A Signet Classic, 1997


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