Thoreau’s Indian Problem: Savagism, Indigeneity, and the Politics of Place

In: Thoreau in an Age of Crisis
John J. Kucich
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With “Thoreau’s Indian Problem: Savagism, Indigeneity and the Politics of Place,” John J. Kucich tackles an often-thorny knot: reconciling what many of Thoreau’s friends and compatriots called his “Indian wisdom” with his virtual silence concerning the large-scale dispossession and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples across the United States. It remains an uncomfortable fact, Kucich points out, that despite Thoreau’s spending many unforgettable days with his Penobscot guides Joe Attean and Joe Polis, these experiences “did not lift him out of the orbit of savagism,” nor did they move him to call his nation and neighbors to account on indigenous people’s behalf, as he did with those who were enslaved. Yet all this notwithstanding, Kucich suggests that Thoreau’s larger project of becoming indigenous to place centered on “realizing the interconnectedness and reciprocity that extends to all members of the human world, and far beyond it.” In this sense, Thoreau did learn much from his Maine Woods guides, as well as from his extensive readings in Native American history. Kucich argues that ultimately, however, Thoreau’s project was a personal one; he was less interested in bringing “Native peoples into nineteenth-century American society” than in using “their cultural difference as a way to [personally] counter what he saw as its stultifying and damaging norms.”

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