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Hawthorne and Melville/Sub-topic:Literary Links - Images

Learning Activities Related to Native Americans

Chief Big Thunder (Frank Loring)
Chief Big Thunder (Frank Loring) (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

1. This activity was created by Dr. Doug Rowlett from Houston Community College System, Southwest Campus, Stafford, TX.


In nineteenth-century Salem the frontier was a distant place only to be read about by most inhabitants, and interactions with living Native Americans were few and far removed. The occasional Native American visitor to Salem had become by Hawthorne's time a quaint relic, more curiosity than threat in most people's minds.

However, residents did read about them in the newspapers and in popular books and articles and were certainly aware of their place in the history of New England, and there were still a few people alive during Hawthorne's early years who could recount old tales from previous generations about "Indian depredations." While Hawthorne never wrote the kinds of Indian-centered tales that Fenimore Cooper did, a close examination of his stories and novels will show he did make more use of Native Americans than is at first apparent.

  • Margaret B. Moore's book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne provides useful information about Hawthorne's treatment of Native Americans. Read the synopsis cited above and then examine The Scarlet Letter for examples of Hawthorne's treatment of Native Americans in the novel . Note that the forest and its natural inhabitants are portrayed at times as dark, mysterious, and surely allied with the forces of darkness and iniquity and at other times as noble, enduring, natural, and even innocent. Consider how Hawthorne's attitude toward Indians in The Scarlet Letter may have informed his thematic treatment of the duality presented by God's Law on the one hand (civilized, restrained, white, and Christian) and Nature's Law on the other (savage, passionate, dark, and pagan).

  • Review Ellen Knight's article on the Squaw Satchem , the excerpt of John Winthrop's Journal for June 1630 , and review some of the original documents from the early Colonial period . What can you glean from these documents about the attitudes of early colonists toward the Native Americans they encountered? Now read Johnson's critical commentary on The Scarlet Letter and the excerpt from Colacurcio's The Province of Piety. Does Hawthorne's attitude toward Native Americans in The Scarlet Letter seem to agree with or to be at odds with the early colonists' perceptions of them? Is he mainly sympathetic or antipathetic toward them?
    Illustration by Frank T. Merrill of Shem Drowne’s Indian warrior weathervane that stood on top of the Province House in Boston
    Illustration by Frank T. Merrill of Shem Drowne’s Indian warrior weathervane that stood on top of the Province House in Boston (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)

  • Jarold Ramsey in Redefining American Literary History explores ". . . why, after four centuries of contact, America's first traditional literatures have had so little influence on our literary heritage." While his article deals mainly with Thoreau, explore the Hawthorne In Salem Web Site to find materials pertaining to Hawthorne to either support or refute his thesis that ". . . literary imaging of native life, of which there has been so much, must not be confused with literary assimilation of native imaginative traditions, of which there has been too little."

  • Read Hawthorne's "The Seven Vagabonds" and consider his thematic treatment of "vagabondage," in particular the repulsion and attraction he feels with regard to the tension between duty versus freedom. Hawthorne said at age 33 that "Our Indian races having reared no monuments, like the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, when they have disappeared from the earth their history will appear a fable, and they misty phantoms." . In other communications to his contemporaries, he discusses or alludes to his attitudes toward duty and freedom . Can his ambiguous attitude toward duty versus freedom be found in other short stories and novels (particularly The Scarlet Letter)? What does his attitude say to you about the place of the artist in the world and the conflict between his duties and responsibilities and the role of creativity and spontaneity in his life? Finally, explain the last sentence of "The Seven Vagabonds": "Finally, with a pensive shadow thrown across my mind, yet emulous of the light philosophy of my late companions, I joined myself to the Penobscot Indian, and set forth towards the distant city."

2. Explore Activities Related to “Main-Street”

A.) Images of American Indians

Make some observations on the portrayal of American Indians and the Indian-White relationship in these 19th century illustrations and art works. Categorize the ways Indians are presented during this period. As you view the images, it's important to remember that they present Indians through Euro-American imagination and ideology. Consider the following questions while analyzing individual illustrations or art works: What is emphasized in the work? What ideas and values are evident? What emotions does the work appeal to or communicate?

B.) The following websites provide additional American art images and articles on American art history.

C.) Artwork by American Indians of the Northeast

In the oral cultures of American Indians, artwork serves as a visual language that expresses the lives and worldviews of the people. Through signs and symbols, function and form each work speaks or tells a story rich in history and belief. Study the following images and observe on the form and design of each; consider the materials, as well. Describe what you find aesthetically pleasing or interesting. Explain how the object provides insight into the lifeways and culture, the beliefs and values of the creator. Make note of symbols or decorative motifs that you see as important or puzzling. In the 19th century, Euro-American ideas of "art" defined American Indian creations as "craft"-expressions of the primitive or naïve-not as sophisticated as the "high" art of the Western world. Do you agree? Collectively, how might these works, tell a different story, and offer an alternative view to the "official" white explanations of Indians and early American history?

D.) The following websites and links provide additional images of American Indian art and articles on American Indian traditions and artistic expression.

  3. Explore Activities Related to “The Duston Family”

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