J.R. Poynter and the American Indian

J.R. Poynter, author of Entewa, the Mountain Bird, had an attitude towards Native Americans that was typical of 19th century Americans — ambivalent. It may have been based as much on his reading of popular American authors as it was on actual encounters with Indians. At least it can be said that, although he asserts all his opinions are derived from “personal observation,” these are expressed in the language of romantic primitivism. He couldn’t help but see the California Indians from a distance and through the lens of Euro-American literature.

On the one hand, he asserts that the Indians of the Sacramento Valley are an ignorant and dirty lot, but on the other hand, their brothers of the mountains are as noble and independent as the valley Indians are degraded. This degradation he attributes to their contact with Spanish civilization.

With this mongrel race which is now found in and along the valley, we have no inclination to say but little if anything in extenuation of their habits and condition. Since the first establishment of the Missions in the country, they have gradually, step by step, receded from that glorious state of primitive independence and freedom, always taking from the Spaniard in their amalgamation, all their hateful habits and vices, without inheriting a virtue, or single principle, to guide them in their wanton and licentious course . . .

So their condition is the fault of their mixing with the worst of Europe: southerners and Catholics. Poynter has no qualms about labeling them filthy, lazy, uncouth and ill-shapen. (It’s pretty hard to read.) And yet their brothers of the mountains are just the opposite.

But leave the valley — go with us into the deep defiles and unknown fastnesses the yonder mountain, to the home of the Unco-sho-sho-nees, where the whiteman, until late, has never trod and his immoral nature is unknown.  . . . Is there anything at all in these Indians resembling those of the valley? No! you will unhesitatingly answer; for they are superior in war, nobler in person, loftier in bearing, prouder in feeling, and withal possess the means and capacity to lord it over these Indians of the valley, upon whom they look down with the most sovereign contempt, and whom they are, and ever have been, time out of mind, engaged in the most deadly hostility.

Poynter then goes on to tell a garbled legend of how the Unco-sho-sho-nees, or happy Sho-sho-nees, were driven from their eastern homeland and led by a young chief to the shores of the Sacramento Valley (then a great inland sea), where they lived “amidst delightful scenes and refreshing pleasures of their new homes.”

These then are Entewa’s people, strong, courageous, and free — true exemplars of the Noble Savage.

And so you get a conversation like the following, between Giles, the young backwoodsman, and Weedow, a hardened old mountaineer. Enjoy the dialect dialogue!

“Nobler? how? w’y as to noblerty, I b’leeve an Ingen’s got more ern the pale-faces. I would’nt gin the free bo’n soul an’ ginerous heart of er Ingen, for all the good you might squeeze out’n a dozen of yer starch ear’d civilized pimps, struttin’ yer city streets ‘ith thir store clothes on, an’ ey’in er honest countryman, ‘ith a sassy grin — drot ther hypocritin picturs.”

“Pshaw! nonsense boy. When you’ve passed as many years, and learned on Ingens much as I know, you’ll change them senterments — never a nation yit could produce sich a sit of traitors, deceivers, hypocrits, thieves, murd’rers and abominators like the Ingen nation, and never will.”

“Good God, Weedow! I jist know better — ef you’d rob the white peeple of ther power, leave em the sense an’ courage they’ve got already, an’ treat ’em as the Ingens are treated, I tell yer, this yeath would knock the ‘sites’ off’en the devils own stampin’ ground; but it’s no use er talkin’ we’ve ollers differ’d and ollers will — I’ve lived too long and seed too much of Ingen life, young tho’ I am, to be mistaken ’bout this.”

There Poynter expresses the two sides of the white American view of Native Americans, and he never does find a way to reconcile them.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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