Coopers Chingachgook

Coopers Chingachgook

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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

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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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