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"THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN IS A DEAD INDIAN": HISTORY AND MEANING OF A PROVERBIAL STEREOTYPE
WOLFGANG MIEDER  

"THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN IS A DEAD INDIAN"
HISTORY AND MEANING OF A PROVERBIAL STEREOTYPE

The interest in the study of national character, stereotypes, ethnic slurs, and racial prejudice as expressed in proverbs and proverbial expressions has a considerable scholarly tradition. Paremiologically oriented folklorists and cultural historians have assembled collections of such invectives, the three standard books being Otto von Reinsberg-Dºringsfeld's Internationale Titulaturen (1863), Henri Gaidoz and Paul S©billot's Blasons populaires de la France (1884), and Abraham A. Roback's A Dictionary of International Slurs (1944).1 Numerous scholarly articles have also investigated the stereotypical world-view expressed in proverbial speech, notably William Hugh Jansen's "A Culture's Stereotypes and Their Expression in Folk Clich©s" (1957), Am©rico Paredes' "Proverbs and Ethnic Stereotyping" (1970); Mariana Birnbaum's "On the Language of Prejudice" (1971), Alan Dundes' "Slurs International: Folk Comparisons of Ethnicity and National Character" (1975), Uta Quasthoff's "The Uses of Stereotype in Everyday Argument" (1978); and Wolfgang Mieder, "Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes through Folklore" (1982).2 This selected list of publications alone is a clear indication that considerable attention has been paid to proverbial invectives against minorities throughout the world. These unfortunate and misguided expressions of hate, prejudice, and unfounded generalizations are unfortunately part of verbal communication among people, and stereotypical phrases can be traced back to the earliest written records. Proverbial stereotypes are regretfully nothing new, but perhaps people are more willing today to question such dangerous slurs as they become more aware of their psychological and ethical implications. This at least is what a more enlightened citizenry should be hoping for at a time when tensions among political, racial, and ethnic minorities appear to be increasing.

While much is known about proverbial stereotypes among different nationalities and regions, and while numerous studies have been undertaken to study verbal slurs against Jews and African Americans especially in the United States,3 there is a definite dearth of interest in the proverbial invectives that have been hurled against the Native Americans ever since Christopher Columbus and later explorers, settlers, and immigrants set foot on the American continent. As people look back at these slurs in the year when the world commemorates the quincentenary of Columbus' discovery of America, it is becoming ever more obvious that the native population suffered terribly in the name of expansion and progress. Native Americans were deprived of their homeland, killed mercilessly or placed on reservations, where many continue their marginalized existence to the present day. The early concepts of the "good Indian" or "noble savage" quickly were replaced by reducing the native inhabitants to "wild savages" who were standing in the way of expansionism under the motto of "manifest destiny".4 Little wonder that Roy Pearce in his valuable book with the telling title Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (1967) can quote a thrasonical toast recorded in the journal of Major James Norris in 1779 as having expressed the early frontier truth: "Civilization or death to all American savages."5 That means, bluntly put, change your ways and assimilate the rules and life-style of the white conquerors and settlers or die. Anybody resisting this policy was "bad", and once the popular white attitude was geared towards the demonization of the Native Americans, the stage was set for killing thousands of them or driving the survivors onto inhuman reservations. The unpublished and little-known dissertation by Priscilla Shames with the title The Long Hope: A Study of American Indian Stereotypes in American Popular Fiction (1969) shows how this cruel treatment of the native population is described in literature,6 while Dee Brown's best selling book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) gives a more factual account. This latter book contains a telling chapter with the gruesome proverbial title "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian",7 the word "dead" meaning both literal death, and for those who survived the mass killings, a figurative death, i.e., a restricted life on the reservation with little freedom to continue the traditional life-style.

It is alarming that this awful invective against Native Americans, that became current on the frontier not quite a hundred years after that death threat expressed in the toast cited above, is still in use today, astonishingly enough both by the general population and the Native Americans themselves. Witness for example the book title The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians (1970) that was chosen for a collection of short prose and poetic texts in which these native inhabitants from Canada express their frustration with their marginalized life in modern society. How bad must their plight be if the editor Waubageshig decided to choose this invective against his own people as a title! The explanation is given in the introduction as follows:

Police brutality, incompetent bureaucrats, legal incongruities, destructive education systems, racial discrimination, ignorant politicians who are abetted by a country largely ignorant of its native population, are conditions which Indians face daily. Yes, the only good Indian is still a dead one. Not dead physically, but dead spiritually, mentally, economically and socially.8

Yes, this is Canada, but the same picture emerges for the United States, especially in the stereotypical view of the Native Americans in the motion pictures, as Ralph and Natasha Friar's study entitled The Only Good Indian ... The Hollywood Gospel (1972) illustrates for just that small sector of American culture. Even though some movies have shown the "good" Indian, most of them are guilty of "the enhancement and perpetuation of stereotype motifs of the Indian as drunken, savage, or treacherous, unreliable or childlike."9 Similar prejudices can, of course, be observed in other forms of the mass media and everyday verbal communication through the use of jokes, songs, and proverbial slurs.

There is yet a third publication that carries part of the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" in its title, but this time it is a scholarly dissertation by the folklorist Rayna Green. Herself a Native American, she chose the title The Only Good Indian: The Image of the Indian in American Vernacular Culture (1973) for her voluminous and enlightening study. The proverbial title sets the tone - here is a meticulous account of the "popular" view of Native Americans as expressed by the American population of all age groups, all social classes, and all regions. The result is a shocking stereotypical image that permeates all modes of expression, of which linguistic examples are only a small part. Green includes a few pages on "Sayings, Proverbs, Proverbial Comparisons, and Other Metaphoric Usages"10 that comment in a stereotypical way about Native Americans. A few lexicographers and paremiographers have also put together small lists of these invectives, and what follows is a selective number of phrases from these different sources with dates of earliest occurrence where they are available. Frequently found proverbial expressions are "To go Indian file" (1754, i.e., to walk in a single line), "To be an Indian giver (gift)" (1764), "To sing Indian" (1829, i.e., to act as one who defies death), "To do (play) the sober Indian" (1832, i.e., to remain sober or drink only very little to get the knives), "To play Indian" (1840, i.e. to not show any emotions), "To see Indians" (1850, i.e., to be in a delirium), "To turn Indian" (1862, i.e., to revert to a state of nature), "To be a regular Indian" (1925, i.e. to be an habitual drunkard), and "To be on the Indian list" (1925, i.e. to not be allowed to purchase liquor). The many proverbial comparisons repeat this negative image of the Native Americans as being of questionable ethical value: "As dirty as an Indian" (1803), "As mean as an Indian" (1843), "To yell and holler like Indians" (1844), "As wild (untameable) as an Indian" (1855), "As superstitious as an Indian" (1858), "To run like a wild Indian" (1860), "To spend money like a drunken Indian" (this text and all others stem from the late 19th century), "To stare (stand) like a wooden Indian", "Straight as an Indian's hair", "Red as an Indian", "Silent as a cigar-store Indian", "Drunker than an Indian", and "Sly as an Indian".11





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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Turning to bona fide proverbs that express slanderous views concerning the Native Americans, Rayna Green in her valuable dissertation observes that the text "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is "the only genuine proverb with reference to Indians in the [United] states."12 If only that were true! Unfortunately there are some other proverbs which have gained currency in the folk speech of this country. Already from 1766 stems the equational statement "Indians will be Indians", which despite its lack of a metaphor clearly alludes to the fact that Indians will remain uncivilized savages no matter how hard the white soldiers and settlers try to change them.13 Another proverb commenting on the impossibility to civilize the original inhabitants of this country is "An Indian, a partridge, and a spruce tree can't be tamed" which was recorded in 1853.14 And there is also the slanderous proverb "The Indian will come back to his blanket" that was collected in Oregon around 1945.15 It implies that even those Indians who have assimilated the ways of the white masters will in due time return to their primitive and traditional ways, i.e., "Indians will be Indians" as the proverb says. From the same time there is finally the proverb "Never trust an Indian" that was recorded in Kansas.16 Who will be surprised then that the Hon. Alfred Benjamin Meacham, ex-superintendent of Indian Affairs, had the audacity to write in his suspect book Wigwam and War-Path; or The Royal Chief in Chains (1875) that it is irrelevant whether Indians are cheated by the Government or not: "It makes no difference. They are Indians, and three-fourths of the people of the United States believe and say that 'the best Indians are all under ground'."17 At another place in his book Meacham poses the rhetorical question "Do my readers wonder now that so many white men, along the frontier line, declare that all good 'Injins are three feet under the ground'?"18 And one year later, in his book Wi-ne-ma (The Woman-Chief) and Her People (1876), Meacham cites yet a third variant of this frontier proverb, namely "All good Indians are four foot [feet] under ground".19 There can be no doubt about the sad fact that Native Americans were declared proverbially dead by the middle of the 19th century, especially after the end of the American Civil War, when United States soldiers joined bigoted frontier settlers in a mercilessly carried out campaign to kill off the native population of this giant land.

Such willfully planned and ruthlessly executed destruction of the Native Americans needed its battle slogan, a ready-made catch phrase that could help the perpetrators to justify the inhuman treatment of their victims. The proverb which gained currency at that time and which can still be heard today is the mindless and absurd American proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." It was indeed a devilish stroke of genius that created this dangerous slur. Its multisemanticity is grotesque to say the least. On the one hand it is a proverbial slogan which justifies the actual mass slaughter of Indians by the soldiers. But it also states on a more figurative level that Indians can only be "good" persons if they become Christians and take on the civilized ways of their white oppressors. Then they might be "good", but as far as their native Indian culture is concerned they would in fact be dead. Be it by physical or spiritual death, Native Americans were doomed victims of perpetrators who acted with manifest destiny on their side while so-called innocent bystanders did nothing to prevent the holocaust of the Native Americans.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

And in Rosemary Taylor's novel Chicken Every Sunday (1943) one reads "Miss Gilley was scared to death of Indians. Even though Father told her there hadn't been any bad Indians around Tucson for years, Miss Gilley still felt the only good Indian was a dead Indian."82 Rationality is not part of stereotyping, but changing the truth and perpetuating lies are definite ingredients. And who would ever have thought that one of America's classical children's books played its part in spreading the frontier stereotype to younger generations who had nothing to fear from Native Americans living on isolated reservations!

There is no end in sight as far as eradicating this proverb from common parlance. Maxwell Bodenheim's comment in his book on My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (1954) appears to be saying something like that: "There is no good Indian but a dead Indian, we are told by the grandsons of men who have been scalped,"83 i.e., the image of the Indian savages will always remain among us. The New Yorker magazine in 1957 even published a disgusting cartoon showing several Native Americans around a camp fire, with one of them observing: "I say the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Present company excepted, of course."84 Is that so-called Eastern intellectual sophistication or rather a sign that even the cr®me de la cr®me of this society is not free of prejudice? Who then can be surprised to hear common people making such generalizations as "That only went to show that the only good Indian was a dead Indian"85 or "'They're the Indians - and the only good Injun is a dead one, you can take that from me'."86 And is it conceivable that people actually compose jokes around this most hurtful slander against Native Americans, just as terribly sick minds have come up with Auschwitz jokes?87 The cartoon in the New Yorker just mentioned is a small example of this type of sick humor, but even more upsetting is a short story by Mack Reynolds with the suspect title Good Indian (1964). In its mere nine pages the author describes three Indians coming to see Mortimer Dowling, Director of the Department of Indian Affairs, who thought that "the last Indian died almost ten years ago". Yet here they suddenly are and awaken the Director out of his cushy job of doing nothing. The Indians claim that they have come to sign a treaty for themselves and the fifty-five surviving members of the Seminole tribe, and they are well prepared to do so with LL.D.s from Harvard. After some arguing back and forth they declare that they want Florida, and at the height of frustration the Director comes up with the idea that it is time to have lunch. This is where the author makes a break in his grotesque narrative, only to pick it up again with the Director sitting at his desk the next morning in absolutely miserable bodily shape. His receptionist Millie Fullbright observes how disgusting it was of him to get "absolutely stoned" when he finally had something to do for a change. But the hung-over Director only points with his finger at the signed treaty on his desk, upon which the receptionist exclaims in astonishment:

"Heavens to Betsy, the treaty. And all three of their signatures on it. How in the world did you ever -"
Mortimer Dowling allowed himself a self-satisfied leer. "Miss Fullbright haven't you ever heard the old saying The only good Indian is a dead -"
Millie's hand went to her mouth. "Mr. Dowling, you mean ... you put the slug on all three of those poor Seminoles? But ... but how about the remaining fifty-five of them. You can't possibly kill them all!"
"Let me finish," Mortimer Dowling growled. "I was about to say, The only good Indian is a dead drunk Indian. If you think I'm hanging over, you should see Charlie Horse and his wisenheimer pals. Those redskins couldn't handle firewater back in the old days when the Dutch did them out of Manhattan with a handful of beads and a gallon of applejack and they still
can't. Now, go away and do a crossword puzzle, or something."88

The joke centers around the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", but the author does not only base his short story on this terrible stereotype, he also alludes, of course, to the other proverbial invective of being "drunker than an Indian". This is a tasteless, despicable, and racially motivated joke at the expense of Native Americans, and it shows the tenacity of proverbial stereotypes in today's United States of America.

Six years after Mack Reynolds' ill-conceived short story about the proverbial "Good Indian" appeared, Dee Brown published his masterpiece Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) that contains the already mentioned chapter on "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian" about the savage exploits of General Philip Sheridan and many of his officers and troops. Anybody having read this book and especially this chapter cannot possibly see any humor in this proverb that had its origin during the frontier wars. Far too long has it given justification to the literal and spiritual killing of Native Americans. In its poetic brevity is expressed the national shame of a people whose majority succumbed to the world-view that Native Americans had to give up their identity or be killed. The fact that this tiny piece of folk wisdom is still current today is a very sad comment on this society and its behavior towards Native Americans. As long as there remain prejudices and stereotypes about this minority population, the proverb will not cease to exist. Wherever it will be uttered or written, it will expose blatant inhumanity towards the Native Americans. A conscious attempt to refrain from using the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" might at least help to bring about some changes towards a better life for Native Americans, one of pride and dignity as is befitting for the indigenous people of this great country - better the proverb die a long overdue death than any Native American get hurt by it again.

 

 

Notes

1 See Otto von Reinsberg-Dºringsfeld, Internationale Titulaturen, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Hermann Fries, 1863; rpt. with an introduction by Wolfgang Mieder. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1992); Henri Gaidoz and Paul S©billot, Blasons populaires de la France (Paris: L©opold Cerf, 1884); and Abraham A. Roback, A Dictionary of International Slurs (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Sci-Art Publishers, 1944; rpt. Waukesha/Wisconsin: Maledicta Press, 1979).

2 See William Hugh Jansen, "A Culture's Stereotypes and Their Expression in Folk Clich©s," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 13 (1957), 184-200; Am©rico Paredes, "Proverbs and Ethnic Stereotyping," Proverbium, no. 15 (1970), 511-513; Mariana D. Birnbaum, "On the Language of Prejudice," Western Folklore, 30 (1971), 247-268; Alan Dundes, "Slurs International: Folk Comparisons of Ethnicity and National Character," Southern Folklore Quarterly, 39 (1975), 15-38; Uta Quasthoff, "The Uses of Stereotype in Everyday Argument," Journal of Pragmatics, 2 (1978), 1-48; and Wolfgang Mieder, "Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes through Folklore," Journal of American Folklore, 95 (1982), 435-464.

3 See for example J.C.H. Duijker and N.H. Fridja, National Character and National Stereotypes (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1960); Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Social Change and Prejudice, Including the Dynamics of Prejudice (Glencoe/Illinois: Free Press, 1964); George E. Simpson and J. Milton Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); and Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

4 See Elizabeth Arthur, "The Concept of the Good Indian: An Albany River 19th Century Managerial Perspective," Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 5 (1985), 61-74; and Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins [University] Press, 1935).

5 Quoted from Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), p. 55. The banquet where the toast was given is reported in the journal of Major James Norris, in Frederick Cook (ed.), Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan (Auburn/New York: Knapp, Peck & Thomson, 1887), pp. 225-226.

6 See Priscilla Shames, The Long Hope: A Study of American Indian Stereotypes in American Popular Fiction, 1890-1950 (Diss. University of California at Los Angeles, 1969).

7 Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. An Indian History of the American West (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990 [1st ed. 1970]), pp. 147-174.

8 Waubageshig (ed.), The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians (Toronto: New Press, 1970), p. vi.

9 Ralph E. and Natasha A. Friar, The Only Good Indian ... The Hollywood Gospel (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1972), p. 264.

10 See Rayna Green, The Only Good Indian: The Image of the Indian in American Vernacular Culture (Diss. Indiana University, 1973), pp. 56-65. A mere short paragraph (pp. 56-57) is dedicated to a general remark concerning the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian".

11 For references see Roback (note 1), p. 181; Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 1236; Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 866-876; Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, 1820-1880 (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 199; William and Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (New Yorker: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 189-190; Ramon F. Adams, Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West (Norman/Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), pp. 159-161; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (New York: Stein and Day, 1977), p. 88; Bartlett Jere Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 233; Neil Ewart, Everyday Phrases: Their Origins and Meanings (Poole/Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983), p. 77; James Rogers, The Dictionary of Clich©s (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985), p. 141; Laurence Urdang, Walter Hunsinger, and Nancy LaRoche, Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985), pp. 82, 560, and 709; Bartlett Jere Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 337; and Doris Cray, Catch Phrases, Clich©s and Idioms (Jefferson/North Carolina: McFarland, 1990), pp. 114-115.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

80 Carolyn Wells, The Wooden Indian (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1935), p. 35.

81 Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953 [1st ed. 1935]), p. 211. The reference is located in chapter 17: "Pa Goes to Town".

82 Rosemary Taylor, Chicken Every Sunday. My Life with Mother's Boarders (New York: Whittlesey House, 1943), pp. 6-7.

83 Maxwell Bodenheim, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1954), p. 130.

84 (January 19, 1957), p. 38.

85 Mignon G. Eberhart, El Rancho Rio (Roslyn/New York: Walter J. Black, 1970), p. 128.

86 Anthony Price, The '44 Vintage (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1978), p. 118.

87 See Alan Dundes, "Auschwitz Jokes," Western Folklore, 38 (1979), 145-157; rpt. with a postscript in A. Dundes, Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles & Stereotypes (Berkeley/California: Ten Speed Press, 1987), pp. 19-38.

88 Mack Reynolds, Good Indian, included in John W. Campbell (ed.), Analog II (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 54 (the entire short story on pp. 46-54).

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
USA


 
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