Cowboys and Indians—and the Racism Myth

by Samuel Hux (May 2016)

I’m deep into a work-in-progress on race-obsession which this essay is a part of: not race-prejudice, for I’m confident that the notion that “this is a racist society we live in” is nonsense, product of an inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to read significant historical change. The particular race that cliché refers to is, of course, African-American. But American society—or rather that significant part of it so obsessed— does not limit its clichés to that one group, would rather share with us all its superficial knowingness and unearned certainty that other groups as well are embraced by the “white man’s” contempt. And that confidence that the white man’s contempt is boundless is what I am thinking about now in this excerpt.

By “obsession” I mean initially of course what most people would, as in “just can’t stop thinking, and talking, about”—but not that alone and not even primarily that. Since my understanding of obsession may be somewhat eccentric, let me calmly get this right.

One the one hand: A person, or a sub-culture or larger, decides a particular social phenomenon is a virtue or a vice, and if a virtue expresses pride, and if a vice condemns. So far, O.K., apparently. But the person or sub-culture or larger does not stop there. For, with no evidence, inadequate evidence, or at best ambiguous evidence, he or she or it insists that the virtue or vice, especially a vice, is a characteristic of the culture at large or at least the significant segment of the culture that is under consideration. And he, she, or it, is so very confident in the condemnation as to have no awareness at all, none at all, that the condemnatory judgment is based on no evidence, inadequate evidence, or at best ambiguous evidence.

On the other hand, an inventive variation of the above: A person or sub-culture or larger decides a particular social phenomenon is a virtue or a vice, and if a virtue expresses no particular interest, and if a vice condemns. However, if the social phenomenon is perceived, with no evidence, inadequate evidence, or at best ambiguous evidence, as a vice—so much more interesting than a virtue!—the person or sub-culture or larger may claim the “vice” as his or hers or its own, and take pride in the admission as if the admission is a virtue, as if to say, “Look how fiercely honest and brave I am to own up.” An example I recall from the past: the late political theorist John Roche back in the heady days of the civil rights revolution, observing the phenomenon of fashionable liberal guilt, wrote, “At one faculty meeting men who could not hit a barn door with a shotgun announced that they had ‘killed Martin Luther King.’”

Avoiding the political for now, and in eccentric pursuit of the obsessional, I propose some speculations on a cultural event, a powerful movie from more than a half century ago. I hope the reader is as much a movie fan as I am. Failing that, I hope the reader is liberal with his or her patience.

Ethan is a hard man with no place in “ordinary” life: impossible to imagine him settling down as a rancher like his brother Aaron. This is true of the character in Alan LeMay’s novel (a fine work, but not in the same league with John Ford’s film and Frank Nugent’s script), and more so in the movie. It is hard to imagine what he would be doing if he were not on The Search. But sophisticated critical responses—represented just about perfectly by the distributor of critically correct opinion, the late Roger Ebert—has Ethan not simply a hard man but an unredeemable “racist without apology.” That’s why he wants to kill Debbie: she has become no more than a Comanche, “the leavin’s of Comanche bucks,” as another character says.

Ebert’s view is not a minority position. It is something like intellectual consensus by now that Ethan is nothing less than an unapologetic racist. Nonetheless he is perceived even by his “accusers” as being much more than that. (Even the mentally-challenged Ebert cannot disguise a faint admiration for him.) Ethan is admirable in so many ways. He pursues a goal of absolute justice as he understands it. He is totally committed to the search even though it means five years of deprivation, although, were he to give it up, he would be, as the lone legal heir of his brother Aaron, assured of economic comfort for the rest of his life. He is the bravest of the brave, manly in the classical sense so far removed from that machismo which will always smack of the faintly to greatly neurotic. No one in danger would not wish Ethan standing beside him. And almost any male not biologically determined or ideologically committed to the dismissal of traditional masculine virtues doesn’t to some degree, at least in his imagination, hunger to “be” Ethan—even filmly bookish movie critics leading unadventurous lives in theatres and their studies. 

So how to put these contradictions together? We admire Ethan. We condemn him as racist. (By “We” I don’t mean “me”—the “Royal We”—this is not a confession. I’m thinking of the fellow on the other side of the room whose soul I am imagining inhabiting.) When we admire Ethan to the point of identification and yet “admit” he’s racist, we are giving ourselves great credit for being big enough to admit our failures—look how brave I am to own up—and implicitly complimenting ourselves on our complicated character which paradoxically, we think, absolves us from what we have admitted to. Human beings, especially intellectual ones, can be an odd lot. But, racist, Ethan? I’d like to examine the “evidence.” 

Although Ethan saved the infant Martin’s life years before the events of the film after the raid in which Martin’s mother was killed, he claims not to think much of this one-eighth Indian.  (Nonetheless, he travels years with Martin as his sidekick and selected heir. Irrelevant?) Early in the search Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian so he can’t find his way to the happy hunting grounds. (A day at most after his relatives are murdered or abducted.) When he and Martin examine several females rescued from Comanche servitude and finds instead of Debbie a handful of pitifully insane women, he responds to a soldier’s comment that it’s hard to think they are white with “They’re not white anymore.” (“White” means white, yes—but also “civilized,” which the women no longer are. And if the identification of “white” with “civilized” means culturally retarded Ethan was living in the nineteenth century, well yes he was.) In one snowy scene Ethan wantonly shoots buffaloes: “Least, they won’t feed any Comanches this winter.” (O.K. I agree he doesn’t like Comanches.) In context, this is pitifully poor “evidence” of, in Ebert’s words, a “racism that justified genocide.” Ultimately, the racism argument has to rest on the notion that Ethan wants to kill Debbie, the daughter of his brother Aaron and Aaron’s wife Martha, with whom (and more later) Ethan is clearly in love. I would like to examine the “evidence” for his murderous intentions.

Let me sum it up. Ethan truly wants to kill Debbie because she is the violated daughter of the woman Ethan hopelessly loves. There is never a sliver of a chance that Ethan will kill Debbie because she is the violated daughter of the woman Ethan hopelessly loves.

My analogy with Islamic State was not idle. The Comanches, no matter how loyal to tribe members, were exceptionally savage to outsiders, with nothing noble about their savagery. As Frankel writes, “They butchered their prisoners—torturing, amputating, eviscerating, mutilating, decapitating, and scalping—for entertainment, for prestige as warriors, and for the belief that to destroy the body of an enemy was to doom his soul to eternal limbo.” (Recall Ethan’s shooting out the eyes of a dead brave.) While it is true that some women captured became loyal and satisfied “Comanches” themselves, they were the lucky ones who became subject to internal tribal ethics, so to speak, and Frankel tells their stories. But he also tells other stories: for instance, that of Rachel Plummer, who gave birth to a son five months after her capture. Frankel summarizes one moment from her narrative: “One cold morning when he was around six weeks old, a half dozen men surrounded her as she was breast-feeding him. While several of the men held her down, one took the baby by the throat and held tight until the infant turned blue and lost consciousness. Then others took turns throwing him in the air and letting him fall on the hard ground. They handed the lifeless body back to Rachel, but when the baby began to breathe again they grabbed him one more time, tied a rope around his neck, and dragged the corpse for several hundred yards. ‘My little innocent was not only dead, but literally torn in pieces,’ Rachel would write in her narrative.” 

Perhaps Rachel—and her baby—had it coming? After all, shouldn’t we consider the fact of the Cherokee “trail of tears” and that more than Crazy Horse’s heart would be buried at Wounded Knee? One of the virtues of Ford’s film, I suggest, is that it reconstructs the mind of the time and does not dance with wolves. 

An interesting aside: Frankel tells us that a graduate student in philosophy at Stanford in the ‘80s, JoEllen Shively, “arranged for Indian and Anglo focus groups to watch the film for her Ph.D. dissertation. She reported that 60 percent of the Indians .  .  . identified with John Wayne.  .  .  .   None of the Indians identified with Scar.” This is interesting but need not mean a hell of a lot, too many unexplored variables (for instance, maybe the Indians were thinking of John Wayne! instead of Ethan Edwards). But it doesn’t tell us nothing. The following observation—not an aside—tells us a great deal.

I suppose it was inevitable, given the fact that the establishment of the colonies and the founding of the nation depended to an unavoidable degree upon what today might be called, not really judiciously, “ethnic cleansing,” that the Indian would play an enormous role in our national mythologies. What would Hollywood, for obvious instance, have done without him, long after James Fenimore Cooper ennobled him? I don’t think it was inevitable, however, that our obsessions should be so inventive. Unless, that is, it was inevitable that our popular culture like our politics should be so often and at such prolongation governed by the liberal mind.

In spite of the fact that there was no felt need of incarcerating German Americans on the east coast (as the fear of a German invasion did not exist), nor the possibility of such in any case (as Americans of German descent in most cases had disappeared into an assimilated mass over a long period .  .  . and I wonder what fraction of little me could have been encamped), and in spite of the different strategic decisions made with respect to Japan and Germany (no, I cannot imagine the Bomb being dropped on Germany—and killing other Europeans besides the Krauts), Americans developed a hatred of the German as intense as their hatred of the Asian members of the Axis. No one then and no one now, however, called or calls that hatred “racist” (or rather “ethnic”). It was merely “understandable.” But if the Germans were despised not because they were German, but because they were perceived as Nazis (a word whose tone is hard to imagine by people innocent of history), the Japanese were despised not because they were Japanese, but because they were perceived (with evidence not to be ignored in a time of great crisis) to be a murderous lot. (My apologies to my current Nipponese acquaintances). To call American attitudes toward the enemy 1941-45 “racist,” you have to do so on no evidence, inadequate evidence, or at best ambiguous evidence.

Enough already! GenugMou ii yo! I don’t know how to say it in Comanche.




Samuel Hux is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.


To comment on this essay, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting essays such as this, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Samuel Hux, please click here.