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The Cannibals of Empire: Indian-Hating in a Hollywood "Classic"

As a small tribe on the Canadian border that most European-Americans had forgotten or would have preferred to forget by the 1940s, the Abenakis were never the first choice of dime novelists or Hollywood producers looking for "Injuns" to populate their reactionary fables. In some ways this neglect throughout the first half of the twentieth century was a blessing. Given the treatment of Native peoples in popular culture even until recent decades, the Abenakis were better off without the attention of the screenwriters and directors responsible for films such as Massacre (1912), The Indian Wars (1914), The Vanishing American (1925), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Allegheny Uprising (1939).

Their good fortune, such as it was, was shattered in 1940. As Hitler’s tanks raced across Europe and Japanese pilots trained for their raid on Pearl Harbor, MGM studios set their sights on an older foe, one whose on-screen defeat would remind European-Americans of their ability to crush even the most "bloodthirsty" enemies of progress and civilization. Only months before the Nazi and Japanese armies were confirmed as the new "savage Other" for European-Americans on which to set their sights, Hollywood turned its Technicolor gaze on the original Other, focusing on a tribe that escaped its notice in the past. In the hit movie Northwest Passage (1940), the Abenaki people became the sudden target of one of the most racist films ever released. If less notorious than nasty screeds like Birth of a Nation or The Searchers, Northwest Passage deserves recognition as their ideological equivalent, and should be treated as a black mark on the career of its director, the generally progressive King Vidor.

Northwest Passage starred Spencer Tracy as the colonial military leader Robert Rogers (1731-1795), whose "Rangers" had burned the Abenaki settlement of Odanak, in 1759. During the Seven Years War, Rogers’s men were supposed to serve as faux Indians after most of the real ones sided with the French, but instead of mastering the art of woodlands warfare and passing stealthily into symbolic redness, most of them were no match for highly skilled French marines or Native warriors who engaged them in the forests of New England. That Rogers ever became an Anglo-American hero is a tribute to the power of cultural mythologies to displace and dominate the historical record—as one historian has tartly observed, "What Rogers lacked as an irregular, he made up as self-publicist." His boastful and inaccurate Journals became a literary sensation in London in the mid-1760s, obscuring the real facts of his "adventures" with self-aggrandizing half-truths that did not quite conceal the grim realities on which they were based. Here is how Rogers described the fateful morning of October 4, 1759:

At half hour before sunrise I surprised the town when they were all fast asleep, on the right, left, and center, which was done with so much alacrity by both the officers and men that the enemy had not time to recover themselves, or take arms for their own defense, till they were chiefly destroyed except some few of them who took to the water. About forty of my people pursued them, who destroyed such as attempted to make their escape that way, and sunk both them and their boats. A little after sunrise I set fire to all their houses except three in which there was corn that I reserved for the use of the party. The fire consumed many of the Indians who had concealed themselves in the cellars and lofts of their houses.

Somehow, this massacre of semi-combatants and non-combatants became a defining event for Anglo-American culture in both the US and Canada, and over the centuries, as Rogers was wrapped in layer after layer of hagiographic gauze, he became an ideal subject for a Technicolor epic. Yet because Hollywood producers do not read obscure primary documents, Rogers’s leap to cinematic prominence required the intermediate step of a best-selling novel, which Kenneth Roberts penned in 1936. In crafting his "historical" narrative of the raid, Roberts expended little effort in disentangling Roger’s mélange of fact and fancy, which did not keep the book from being treated as a factual account. This was true not only in undistinguished newspapers, but also in the so-called serious press. As the book sat atop the best-seller list for almost two years, The Atlantic Monthly declared it "a great historical document, which historians will acclaim," while The New Republic endorsed its vision of the past for "anyone interested in the making of the nation," including, rather sadistically, "present-day Indians." I could not find a single reviewer who expressed concern about the treatment of Native people in the book when it first appeared.

Despite the unsavory nature of Roberts’s narrative, MGM was quick to capitalize on the success of Roberts’s novel, lining up a respected director (Vidor) and an A-list star (Tracy) to begin production in 1939. Ignoring the quest of a "northwest passage" that consumed much of the novel, the film version focuses on the raid on Odanak and the glorification of Major Roberts. In a green-fringed Robin Hood get-up that would let him pass as "Indian" in the cold forests of New England, Spencer Tracy’s Rogers is one of the early white protagonists who is even more Native than the Natives. One of his men brags that, "The smartest Indian alive can’t think half as much like an Indian like Major Rogers can," though the filmmakers’ judgment about "Indian thinking" seems clouded when we see the Abenakis depicted in the movie with an absurd trampoline-sized drum. The movie is filled with such inaccuracies, yet one aspect of the original event does filter through even the gauzy lens of Hollywood: the brutality of the raid, even in a film with a celebratory point of view, still seems far from heroic.

Northwest Passage is one of those rare texts in which everything was laid bare without anyone meaning to do so, thereby allowing the secret history of colonialism to seep through the celluloid and compete for recognition with the "official version" the filmmakers intended to honor—which is to say, the text is easily inverted. For example, the film is drenched with extreme expressions of bloodlust on the part of the colonists that might seem like warrior machismo on one light, but mental illness in another. Explaining to new recruits that his men eat like kings when prowling the North woods in their green stockings, Major Rogers declares, "Of course, now or then they have to stop eating to kill and Indian or two." Perversely, one of his men even combines the two activities, wrapping the head of a slaughtered warrior in a leather bag and then gnawing on pieces of it to curb his hunger. He even shares bits of the head with fellow Rangers (who, to be fair, do not realize what he is feeding them).

Perhaps because of the cannibalism and various scenes of orgiastic killing inflicted upon Abenaki people, Northwest Passage takes great pains to legitimize their slaughter through didactic speeches and asides. In explaining the need for attacking Odanak to his military superiors, Major Rogers reminds them how the Abenakis had "hacked and murdered us, burned homes, stolen women, brained babies, scalped strangers, and roasted officers over slow fires." Native people are described alternately as "red hellions," "red skunks," "weasels," "dirty," and fit for being "burned alive" or "skinned" if "their pelts were worth it," but the Abenakis are singled out for special opprobrium, suggesting that somehow they are the ultimate enemy. In several melodramatic speeches, the audience is told that the Abenakis had flayed and dismembered captured officers, pulling out their ribs one by one while the tortured man’s heart still beat and then "playing ball with heads" of such victims. The unpleasant fetish with dismemberment runs throughout Northwest Passage, as Vidor returns over and over to the vast quantities of white scalps that the Abenakis have taken, including once scene of over "700 scalps" blowing in the wind near Abenaki wigwams just before the raid.

In Vidor’s film, there’s a symbolic link between "historical", "barbaric" Abenaki violence and contemporary Fascist aggression overseas, one that is more than a product of an overheated imagination or a presentist orientation to the past. When the film was released in the U.S., the Department of Secondary Teachers of the National Education Association recommended Northwest Passage for classroom use because "the success of this hardy band of early pioneers symbolizes our own struggles against bitter enemies in the modern world." The film scholar Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has pointed out that another teacher’s guide endorsed the film for explaining everything from geography to art (one of the Rangers painted and killed Abenakis), claiming that through the "fine assortment of types" among the minor characters, "we glimpse early American characteristics of which we are rightly proud." Apparently, this "fine assortment" did not include the Ranger who descends into cannibalism, as the guide made no mention of him.

The Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac saw Northwest Passage as a young boy in upstate New York, and he still remembers the trauma of hearing some of the final words of the film: "Sir, I have the honor to report that the Abenakis are destroyed," Major Rogers tells his delighted superiors. While the rest of the audience cheered these words, young Bruchac sat silent in the theater, suddenly fearful. "That movie had made me afraid."

The popularity of Northwest Passage suggests a great deal about the general culture of Indian-hating in which Native youth grew up in the 1940s, as well as the specific degradation of Abenaki culture that they were forced to witness all around them. "In hindsight, we can easily say that the native people of North America were oppressed by three major forces," Chief Leonard George, a First Nations leader, recently said. "There were the government, religion, and Hollywood…" Celebrated as a Hollywood "classic," Northwest Passage weds this oppression to cinematic "art."


Randolph Lewis

Randolph Lewis lives in Oklahoma. He is a contributing writer to the Rail and can be reached at


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2004

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