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Volume 7192

A Racial Rift on the Frontier
The Apache Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

A Racial Rift on the Frontier
The Apache Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson
There are those in American society today who call themselves progressive reformers. They like to point fingers, and one of their digits has, from time to time, been aimed at Tarzan of the Apes, as they accuse his creator of racism. It is a charge that has failed to draw popular support, in large part because race relations is a minor player in the Tarzan saga, dominated as it is by other, much broader themes. The same cannot be said, however, of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ two Apache novels. Race relations are at the thematic heart of The War Chief and Apache Devil, and it is difficult to discuss this saga at all without referring to the author’s interpretation of the historical racial tension between Apache and white man.

For Burroughs in the 1920s, it was just as controversial a subject as it is for an author today. In fact, The War Chief was rejected by the editor of “The Country Gentleman,” the first magazine to which Burroughs submitted it, because the editor did not think his readers would accept the independent Apache hero Burroughs had created. There is a difference, though, between the themes of race relations and racism. When an author directly or indirectly favors one race over another, he opens himself to criticism from the advocates of the slighted race. How skillful, then, was Burroughs when he wrote about the 19th Century struggle for possession of the American frontier? Is there a basis in those two novels for a charge of racism? Many who have read the two stories would quickly respond that, yes, Burroughs did favor one race — the Apache. Even some of his most well known reviewers have seen it that way, as illustrated by the following passages.

Indians, particularly Apaches, are treated with great sympathy in ‘The War Chief’ and ‘Apache Devil;’ their historically confirmed atrocities against white settlers are largely justified as the reaction against the treachery and aggression of the whites.” — Richard Lupoff, “Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure” (1965)

It is true that to a certain extent Ed was writing as a reformer, his indignation about the white man’s behavior is forcefully presented.” — Irwin Porges, “Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan” (1975)

What is notable is the fact that Burroughs is one of the first white novelists to portray the Apaches in particular and Indians in general with understanding and sympathy.” — Robert Morsberger, Introduction to “The War Chief,” Gregg Press edition (1978)

If Burroughs did intend to favor the Indians in his Apache novels, he no doubt received more criticism for it in the 1920s than he could expect today. In the politically correct atmosphere in which we live, such racism is acceptable. The reverse would not be (although the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the right). Laying aside for now the concept of political correctness, the purpose here is to test the nearly universal perception among Burroughs fans and scholars that the author portrayed the Apaches as a more virtuous race than the white Americans of that time.

As the statements from Lupoff, Porges, and Morsberger indicate, ERB’s Apache novels can be viewed more as a condemnation of the white race than an ennobling of the red one. However, by giving Shoz-Dijiji white ancestry and having him return to white society at the end of the second volume, ERB left the saga open to another interpretation, that white culture was being portrayed as preferable, despite all the surface criticism of it. In his article, “Civilization and The Noble Savage: The Apache Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” published in “Paperback Parade #10” (December 1988), Link Hullar summarized this argument:

Shoz-Dijiji, as the central character and most important of the noble savages, betrays Burroughs’ racism once again. Yes, Shoz-Dijiji stumbles upon white values, white morality, white ethics, and even falls in love with a white woman but Black Bear is not Apache. He is, after all, white himself. One can see here that, in spite of ERB’s balanced treatment of the different cultures, this undercurrent of racism remains. Shoz-Dijiji’s case shows that race is more important than environment. Even though reared as an Apache, Black Bear is too noble to resort to torture, begins to accept white notions of fair play and justice, and, by the end of the second novel, has made the decision to settle down on the ranch of Wichita Billings to pursue love and happiness in the white man’s world. Obviously, racism did not vanish in the pages of ERB’s Apache novels.

Romanticizing the Apache Race

Who is right? Did Burroughs uplift the Indian in his Apache novels, or was he merely romanticizing a race that had been subdued by a superior one — his own? It is not an easy question to answer. It requires the reader of Burroughs’ Apache novels to keep a watchful eye open for evidence of racial preference on either side.

First of all, Burroughs clearly portrayed both races as feeling superior to the other. Both raised their children to hate all members of the other race. ERB explained that Wichita Billings was raised “in an atmosphere of racial hatred, schooled in ignorance and bigotry by people who looked upon every race and nation, other than their own race and nation, as inferior.” This early education in racism was reinforced by the repeated use of the racial slur “Dirty Siwash” in reference to all Apaches and the use by several white characters of the infamous generalization, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” While painting the whites as racists, Burroughs also pointed out that the Apaches were guilty of the same thing. Geronimo taught the young Sho-Dijiji that all whites were cowards and liars, and that it was his duty as an Apache to “kill and torture and hate” the Mexicans and the Americans. Gian-hah-tah, Shoz-Dijiji’s boyhood friend, contended that, “The pindah-lickoyee are low born and fools. They are not fit for an Apache. “ The Black Bear himself considered it the “bitterest of insults” for it to be said that an Apache was white.

Burroughs had his hero act out his racial hatred on several occasions, such as when Shoz-Dijiji came upon three white prospectors drinking at a water hole. As he asked the rhetorical question, “What the hell are you doing here, you dirty white eyes?” the Apache shot arrows through the hearts of all three. In portraying both sides as being equally prejudiced toward the other, Burroughs comes across as an objective narrator, at least in this aspect of the story.

ERB carefully pointed out the importance of point of view in the struggle between Indian and white man. Blinded by racial hatred, neither could understand what motivated the other. Of Geronimo, ERB noted, “It was as impossible for him to get the viewpoint of the white man as it was for the white man to get the viewpoint of the Apache.” Toward the end of Apache Devil, Burroughs explained that, “in common with whites, Apaches possessed the very human trait of easily forgetting the wrongs they had committed against others, even though they might harbor those that were committed against them.” In his Apache novels, Burroughs showed how this inability of both sides to admit wrongdoing deteriorated into a cycle of revenge that last three hundred years. The whites won in the end, not because their culture was better or worse, but simply because they outnumbered the Apaches. Burroughs had an Indian Scout explain, “We cannot kill them all — they are as many as the weeds that grow among our corn and beans and pumpkins — for though we cut them down, they come in greater numbers than before, flourishing best in soil that is wet with blood.” Again, the author has be credited with presenting a racially balanced point of view (along with some vivid figurative language.)

Wichita Billings Humanized the Apaches

If ERB’s Apache novels, then, actually give a balanced view of the Apache wars, placing equal amounts of blame on both sides, why are the stories seemingly so sympathetic toward the Apaches? There are three reasons; all of them surface elements that have nothing to do with the narrative or actions of the characters. First, the story is told from the Apache point of view and so naturally comes off as understanding of it. For instance, the Apaches saw themselves as defenders of their homeland from invaders, surely an image with which the reader can sympathize. Burroughs even included the following stretch of a comparison. “The Black Bear killed not for the love of it but from a sense of duty to his people and loyalty to the same cause that inspired such men as Washington and Lincoln — freedom.” Second, Burroughs included many passages designed to humanize the Apaches. Burroughs’ mouthpiece for these sentiments is the character of Wichita Billings.

“Among themselves they are entirely different people from those we are accustomed to see on the reservation. No one who has watched them with their children, seen them at their games, heard them praying to Dawn and Twilight, to the Sun, the Moon and the Stars as they cast their sacred hoddentin to the winds would ever again question their possession of the finer instincts of sentiment and imagination.

“Because they do not wear their hearts upon their sleeves, because they are not blatant in the declaration of their finer emotions, does not mean that they feel no affection or that they are incapable of experiencing spiritual sufferings.

“Apaches do not esteem personal comfort as highly as we do and consequently, by their standards — and we may judge a people justly only by their own standards — we have not suffered as much as they, who esteem more highly than life or personal comfort the sanctity of their ancient rites and customs.

This passage, and others like it scattered throughout both novels, do not justify the atrocities of the Apaches, but rather were designed to show the reader that Indians possess qualities that whites generally find admirable. Finally, when ERB engaged in biting sarcasm directed at whites and their civilization, it has the effect of making the reader sympathize with the Apaches. For instance, in The War Chief, the author asked the reader to make allowances for Shoz-Dijiji, for, “had he had the cultural advantages of the gorgeous generals of civilization he might have found the means to unloose a poison gas that might have destroyed half the population of Sanora.” Such sarcasm is designed for the white reader to feel both shame for his own race and compassion for the Apaches. The same can be said for the following passage after the final surrender of Geronimo in Apache Devil. “Once again a Christian nation had exterminated a primitive people who had dared to defend their homeland against a greedy and ruthless invader.” Notice that none of the devices ERB used to create sympathy for the Apaches had anything to do with the actions of the Indians in the two Apache novels.

It appears that ERB’s favoritism for the Indians in his Apache novels is only surface deep. When it comes to actions and emotions, Burroughs portrayed both sides as being equally cruel, hateful, and insensitive. He never attempted to justify the actions of the Apaches, only to explain the motivation that prompted them.

The Apaches Neither All Bad Nor All Good

In accusing Burroughs of veiled white racism, Link Hullar made much of the fact that Shoz-Dijiji was really white, and that his refusal to torture implied that whites were inherently more humane than Apaches. One does begin to suspect just that early in The War Chief when, after killing his first white man, Shoz-Dijiji took the scalp but refused to mutilate the dead or torture the wounded. A hasty reader could easily jump to the conclusion that it was Shoz-Dijiji’s superior white heritage that caused him to act so humanely, while the lowborn savages around him gave in to the natural bloodlust of their race. However, Burroughs made it immediately clear that, in reality, Shoz-Dijiji was not the only Indian who refused to torture. “He was not the only exception among his fellows to the general rule that all Apaches took delight in inflicting diabolical sufferings upon the helpless.” Therefore, whether or not to engage in torture was a personal decision for each Apache, Burroughs suggested, and not a racial tendency. Besides, the author made it clear that some whites tortured Indians, as well as killing women and children. The choice to commit atrocities was a personal, not racial, decision on both sides. In narration, ERB clearly stated his point of view. “Apaches are human and as individuals of other human races vary in their characteristics, so Apaches vary. The Apaches were neither all good nor all bad.”

The characters of these two novels bear that out. Geronimo is portrayed as a good Indian, while Juh is a bad one. Lt. King is portrayed as a good white man, while Dirty Cheetim is a bad one. There is no clear evidence that any of Shoz-Dijiji’s actions in either book were dictated by his white heritage.

Hullar also saw Shoz-Dijiji’s willingness to enter white society as a concession to the victorious and superior race. However, Shoz-Dijiji was simply exercising the best option left open to him at that point. He could have shipped out for Florida with the rest of the tribe (and history has certainly proved he was wise in his refusal to do that). He could have lived a solitary life in the mountains, as he first intended to do, but the loneliness of that life caused him to return to the woman he loved, who just happened to be white. I say “just happened” because it cannot be said that his white blood drew him naturally to love a white woman. After all, Wichita Billings was not Shoz-Dijiji’s first love. That was Ish-kay-nay, an Apache woman, whom Shoz-Dijiji clearly loved deeply and would have married had she not died.

In fact, besides not being a reflection of the author’s racist ideas, Shoz-Dijiji’s white heritage is virtually irrelevant in the story. The sequence of events in the two novels could have been exactly the same had ERB made Shoz-Dijiji a full-blooded Apache. Shoz-Dijiji was raised an Apache and became a leader among them. That could have happened had Geronimo been his biological father instead of Jerry McDuff. We’ve seen that his decision not to torture enemies was a personal one, not related to race. Even if he had been an Apache, he would not have gone with the tribe to Florida. He had already made that decision before Geronimo told him about his real parents. In the end, Wichita Billings vowed her love for Shoz-Dijiji while still thinking him an Apache. His parentage played no important role in the story line.

ERB’s Concession to Sell Books

In the final analysis, it appears that ERB’s choice to give Shoz-Dijiji a white father instead of an Apache one appears to have been an economic decision, not a racist one. Burroughs knew he was writing for a white audience, and he knew his readers would have difficulty identifying with a hero of a different race. Also, ERB knew his white readers could never sympathize with a hero who tortured enemies and killed women and children. The white blood that flowed in Shoz-Dijiji’s veins, then, was a concession Burroughs made to sell books. The conclusion that it was a racist element in the story is simply not supported by Burroughs’ treatment of the character in the two novels.

Finally, it should be noted the whole debate about the effect of Shoz-Dijiji’s white blood on his character is minimized by the fact that he was, in reality, of mixed heritage, something Hullar seemed not to realize. While his father was white, his mother, Annie Foley was the granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian. Therefore, Shoz-Dijiji was at least one-eighth Indian by birth. If ERB were trying to make a point about the superiority of white culture, he surely would have made Shoz-Dijiji’s ancestry purely European, like he did with Tarzan. In fact, ERB’s Apache epic ends with a great irony. Throughout his youth and early manhood, Shoz-Dijiji was proud he was an Indian. In the end, though, he was told that he was totally white. He was never to know that the blood of both races flowed in his veins. One can understand Geronimo’s reason for withholding that information from his adopted son, but one cannot help but feel sorry for Andy McDuff, who was so suddenly and so completely cut off from a culture and a lifestyle that he so obviously loved. Critics like Link Hullar, who see racism in the presence of irony, have completely misread Edgar Rice Burroughs’ balanced and tragic interpretation of the Apache wars.

— the end —



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