Opinion: America’s obsession with killing Indians hasn’t died
When I was a toddler, I watched my mother fixate on her typewriter as she hammered out her first work of nonfiction, The Lasting of the Mohegans, a book documenting the stories and survival of our people. At the time, I didn’t know why we were at war with the word “last” — but even then, I understood that changing the word meant our survival.
I knew then as I know now that stories are medicine, that they have the power to heal just as they have the power to harm. Any time we tell a story, we must think carefully about what it is doing for the world.
According to Variety, a new version of The Last of the Mohicans is coming to television — this time as a series from Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, “Bond 25”) and Nicole Kassell (Watchmen). The source material, written in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper and now considered an “American classic,” presents a fictionalized version of the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War) and is set in New York. Its most recent iteration arrived in 1992 in the form of a feature film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and a then relatively unknown Native actor, Wes Studi. While the novel was written at a time when settlers evangelically promoted the myth that Indigenous people were disappearing, the fantasy has endured, and Fenimore’s fiction has often been taken as fact.
I became a theater director because I know that storytellers are world builders, and I was tired of people imagining a world in which I and other citizens of the Mohegan Tribe do not exist. When I directed The Magic Flute in 2015 in Cooperstown, New York, (named, ironically, for James Fenimore Cooper’s father), a journalist decided to caption an image from the production with echoes of Cooper’s fictional world. Instead of writing “directed by Madeline Sayet,” he wrote, “directed by Madeline Sayet, a Mohican princess.” The caption revealed a truth: I was not a Mohegan director in this journalist’s eyes, I was a character from Cooper’s world, a trope from a story penned by a white man centuries before — and he was still writing my story.
So I have to ask: Why tell The Last of the Mohicans again? There have already been nine film versions of the story, and casting decisions can’t redeem it. Producing any version of The Last of the Mohicans perpetuates erasure and reinforces genocide — and those sentiments begin with the title. Then there’s the way the attached talent talks about the story: “I am profoundly excited … to be bringing a new light and perspective to this period in our history,” said Nicole Kassell, while Fukunaga has said, “We have the chance to revive the forgotten ancestors that define American identity today.” Both of their quotes fill me with dread that this new version will continue to promote Cooper’s work as factual history when the reality couldn’t be more different.
The Last of the Mohicans ends with the death of a Mohegan named Uncas. In actuality, the real Uncas was not in upstate New York at the time, and was not from there. Uncas was the chief of the Mohegans in Connecticut, not the Mahicans in New York. But most importantly, Uncas was not the last: He is my ancestor. I exist only because he survived.
Despite what Fukunaga says, my ancestors aren’t forgotten, and their story is far more interesting than that of the fictionalized characters in Cooper’s imaginary tale. Mine is a storyline of resilience, yet in Cooper, Kassell and Fukunaga’s world, I don’t exist — and that erasure begins with the title, never mind the content.
Making yet another Last of the Mohicans isn’t just damaging, it’s lazy and unimaginative. Think of the new “American classics” being written by Native people. In 2019 alone, Tommy Orange’s There, There became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Joy Harjo became Poet Laureate, Larissa Fasthorse won the Pen America Literary Award for Theater, while Lisa Brooks’ Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Phillip’s War won the Bancroft Prize. These are only a few examples of groundbreaking Indigenous writers telling Indigenous stories. These are stories of resilience and survival — stories that could have positive impacts on the world around us and contribute to the visibility, and inspiration, of Native people. Instead, The Last of the Mohicans will continue to tell us that we don’t exist.
The United States government’s policies to erase Indigenous peoples have ultimately failed, but the myths those policies created are still here, as is the desire to retell stories, like Cooper’s, time and again. It’s time for those storytellers to leave those stories behind and accept we exist.
It’s time to tell a different story. A new story. A powerful story. A healing story. Uncas, my ancestor, chief of the Mohegans, wasn’t the last and he never will be. He is the reason I am alive today, and I am exhausted by how little this conversation has moved forward since my mother was my age, writing her rebuttal on her typewriter.
Madeline Sayet (Mohegan) is a Forbes 30 Under 30, NCAID Native American 40 Under 40, TED Fellow, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow and recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award from President Obama for her work as a director and writer.
I am over the moon with how strong our school-community relationship is, how easy it was to grow, and surprised by the willingness of my community, students and parents alike, to move in this direction too.