In the nineteenth century, writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote best-selling works that shaped popular perceptions of Native American men. Historians and literary scholars have argued that literary characters representing Native men can be classified into two broad categories: Noble Savages and Bloody Savages. This article examines the literary origins and emergence of a third figure: the Comic Indian. Beginning with the various parodies of Longfellow’s Hiawatha in 1855, and continuing through the western humor of Bill Nye, this article examines how writers crafted comic characters that burlesqued stereotypical Native Americans. By the end of the century, the Comic Indian had become standard fare in U.S. literature. Understanding this history helps to explain why certain comic caricatures of Native men have persisted into the present and illustrates that humor can be used to justify genocidal policies.
Genocidal Jesting: The “Comic Indian” in U.S. Popular Culture, 1850–1900
Daniel J. Burge is an associate editor at the Kentucky Historical Society and coordinator of the KHS Research Fellowship Program. His forthcoming book (2022) is A Failed Vision of Empire: The Collapse of Manifest Destiny, 1845–1872.
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Daniel J. Burge; Genocidal Jesting: The “Comic Indian” in U.S. Popular Culture, 1850–1900. Pacific Historical Review 1 May 2022; 91 (2): 163–189. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2022.91.2.163
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