The Vanishing American / The Vanishing Indian (1925)

12 Jun
Navaho children and baby goats;  Photo from Florence Barker photograph collection

Navaho children and baby goats;
Photo from Florence Barker photograph collection

The Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1922
Grosset and Dunlap, 1925

Zane Grey’s own great-grandmother was a Native American who married his Anglo ancestor.  These two ancestors might have been the inspiration for Nophaie and Marian in The Vanishing American. Yet the ending of the original story and its presentation of missionaries and Federal Indian Agents angered Zane Grey’s readers. For the purpose of saleability Harper Brothers had Zane Grey rewrite the ending and parts of the novel to better fit with the prejudices of 1925. (Great Adaptations).The Vanishing American - Zane Grey - Film

“The publishers delayed the book version because religious groups were offended by its portrayal of missionaries raping indian girls and stealing indian land. Grey was forced to kill his navajo hero rather than have him marry the white heroine and to tone down his indictment of missionaries.” (American Indian Education: A History)

Nophaie starts off this story as a seven year old boy herding his sheep. This was a job he had been doing since he was five. I think we/I often underestimate a child’s ability and desire to help out the family. Yes, they want to play, but as I look back at my own Norwegian history I see that children were valued and needed members of the family. They had what might be deemed hard jobs to do from an early age. Yet the children knew that the jobs they did were necessary and not make-do work.

This is what Nophaie was doing. He was being a valued member of his Navajo tribe, and he knew that as time passed the knowledge he gained would in the end give him the necessary abilities of an adult Navajo man.

But life does seldom goes the way we want it to. Nophaie is kidnapped along with the sheep he was watching. Nophaie is let go by the rustlers close to another Native American encampment. Before he reaches it another group of white people just grab him on the assumption that he must be saved. They take him with them to educate and civilize him – in line with the assimilation project going on at the time.

Eighteen years into the future Nophaie meets Marian Warner at Cape May. Nophaie has become Lo Blandy and a well-known US football player. Once again, life played its games and it drove Nophaie back to the Navajo people and his biological family. Then Marian, who was deeply in love with Lo Blandy, decided to come from Philadelphia to Oljato to be with Nophaie again.

Their ending is the one that had to be removed from the Harper & Brothers 1925 edition after all of the protests from the serial. Another thing Grey had to remove were the depredations of a missionary called Morgan and an Indian agent called Blucher. Both are crooks that either revel in sexual crimes or financial crimes against the natives over which they had power. Morgan and Blucher are, of course, the baddies of the story while Marian and Nophaie are the, for the most part, good ones. And therein lies the conflict that keeps us reading.

Sometimes I wonder if Zane Grey’s romanticizing Native Americans as “people of nature” comes both from a feeling of guilt over what the trespassers had done toward them. But perhaps there is also a sense of superiority that lies behind it – the kind that parents use on their own children when their children have done something “adorable”, or the way a dominant (the one in power) culture limits the minority culture through labeling. Personally I suspect both were a factor, along with the need to make money off his stories.

P.S. I wonder if the title “The Vanishing American” is a poke at Madison Grant’s extremely racist “The Passing of the Great Race“.


The Vanishing American on Gutenberg

Zane Grey’s Greatest Indian Stories: Nophaie’s Redemption – original ending








American Indian Education

American Indian Stereotypes in Early Western Literature and the Lasting Influence on American Culture

Great Adaptations

John and Louisa Wetherill (inspiration for Mr. and Mrs. John Withers)

Missionaries and American Indian languages

Struggling with cultural repression

The Myth of Progress

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Posted by on 2014-06-12 in Books


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