Faulkner’s Native America: Anti-imperialism in Go Down, Moses


When reading the works of William Faulkner, one will encounter many troubling themes: Incest, rape, misogyny, and racism are all present, as well as a few others. Given that Faulkner penned his stories pre-Civil Rights Movement, it is not shocking to find pejoratives used to describe people of color. In fact, to exclude those words in these post-Civil War stories might even make them seem inauthentic to the time and place in which they are set. Racial slurs make reading difficult, to be sure, but they were an ugly part of our collective American history, so perhaps we forgive Faulkner that sin. What becomes unusual, though, is Faulkner’s strange handling of Native Americans. Even though Faulkner found it necessary to use debasing, uncomplimentary names in reference to both women and people of color, Native Americans were not referenced in that manner within the Native stories in Go Down, Moses. The question then becomes did Faulkner truly show respect to the people whom he recognizes as having been wrongfully evicted from his beloved Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, or did he somehow use the Native connection to exude a spirit of “American-ness”?

Perhaps it would be fitting at the outset of this essay to recognize what may well be the obvious. The Native voice in the works of Faulkner is not truly “Native”. Our connection to indigenous people within these stories is made through the consciousness of characters who are at least partially white, and through the pen of a white author. While at different points Faulkner did utilize his rendition of the “black” voice, he did not do so with his characters who claimed Native blood. Faulkner’s use of voice within his stories could lead one to claim that no Native voice even exists within the stories—a claim with a tinge of validity, but not if we delve only slightly deeper into the annals of Southern literature.

The questions one must ask when thinking of the Native voice, or lack thereof, within the works of Faulkner are: do we need another Joel Chandler Harris, were the voices of Uncle Remus et al valid, and can Faulkner create genuine ethnic characters without (mis)appropriating the ethnic voice? The first two questions have already been explored in scholarly circles, and the answer is that we do not another author to misuse ethnic voice for some show of Southern sympathy and nostalgia, only giving us inauthentic characters who misrepresented an entire culture. The last question is something we can explore further within this essay, but first we will orient ourselves to the very place invented by Faulkner: Yoknapatawpha.

This invented place, the homestead of the Snopes, Bundrens, and  Compsons just to name a few of Faulkner’s characters, was said to have a Native significance in name by Faulkner himself. According to Jay S. Winston, Faulkner claimed that the very name Yoknapatawpha meant “water flowing through the flatland,” and that it might have sounded better to a “Chickasaw ear” than to the rest of the world, making us think it was truly derived from Native language (130). Winston suggests this particular definition gives the county an “Indian Eden before its fall” appeal (130). However, Winston goes on to say the meaning dissolves as H.B. Cushman studies several Southeastern Native tribes. He finds that what the word would really mean is “land ploughed” (130). If this is true, then some of the very “Native-ness” (i.e. hunting) described by Faulkner in Go Down, Moses is lost because the Native epicenter was that of the hunter and not agrarian (130). More importantly might not be what Faulkner thought the word might mean, but another interpretation of the word.

Winston goes on to tell us that Marc A. Nigliazzo identifies the word as meaning “yocona and patawpha,” which translates to “split land” (130). By this definition, Winston writes, we are given the duality of the Native experience—one “divided against itself,” represented by “Indian-ness and the destruction of the Indian” (130). It might have been accidental, but it is plausible that by naming his county, Faulkner captured an integral part of Native life—a life in which tradition was broken by modernity. Of note is that if we believe this latter definition of “Yoknapatawpha,” we can also appreciate true Native roots rather than a stereotypical, revisionist historian’s representation of what had occurred in Mississippi in order to make way for the cotton plantation.

Arnold Krupat writes in “Postoloniality and Native American Literature” that it is the move away from the oral traditions of Native American people into the Eurocentric tradition of the written word that proves not assimilation, but rather something he calls “anti-imperialism” (170). It is in a sense Native America’s way of turning the enemy’s first weapon, language, back upon them. Krupat quotes John De Forest who penned History of Indians of Connecticut as saying Native languages were “cumbersome and difficult to manage” (165). Krupat then wonders “Difficult for whom,” in recognition that the natural language of someone is only difficult for an outsider who might be unwilling to learn (165). If it is true, as Krupat paraphrases Daniel Brinton as saying, that “the essence of nationality is in a nation’s literature,” then Native Americans have been part of our landscape only since they adopted the written story, at least according to those who believe the oral tradition to be too low brow for respectable society. Many of us do recognize oral story telling tradition as equally as important to the fabric of our Nation as the written, but the written tradition and use of English were certainly the only way for Native Americans to be counted amongst the role of “Americans” during the late 19th century.

Interestingly, Faulkner, by giving his county in Mississippi a Native name, flips that aspect of nationality and language appropriation on its head, for if  Native Americans appropriating English and the written story is a show of  “anti-imperialism’, we might also say that a white Southerner using a Native American word—one not easy to understand or pronounce—would also be “anti-imperial” in nature, as he takes the language of the “others” and brings it back to a place of central importance, so much so that it is the name of an entire county. Faulkner redefines nationalism in his written works by making Yonknapatawpha a place where the “others” were European settlers who assimilated inside the Native world rather than the reverse. Although there is something to be said that this is a place undergoing change brought about by colonization—it is a place divided by tradition and modernity, but at its roots, it is Native American.

Faulkner seemingly felt a deep need to connect to the land in “Delta Autum” as he writes of Ike McCaslin’s observation of the land “watching it retreat year by year,” and his lack of desire to own land “because it belonged to no man” (337). It is Ike, the boy trained as a hunter by Sam Fathers, who carries out the Native traditions and thoughts, although he has not one drop of Indian blood in his veins. This is an interesting characterization because as Jay S. Winston quotes James Harvey Krefft as saying “The rise of Yoknapatawpha depends ultimately on the fall of red Yoknapatawpha,” yet as Winston remarks, “the absence of the Indian, which was so essential to the creation of the nation, now stands as a barrier to the ability of that nation, and its people, ever truly to feel at one with the land” (130). Ike, then, represents the disconnect between what one culture valued, and what another undervalued until it was endangered. Notably, Ike as well as Sam Fathers, also represent the importance of the oral tradition in Native storytelling, something hinted at by only one tiny phrase.

In “The Bear,” Ike combs through ledgers, investigating the McCaslin past, when we are given one particular entry that might seem fairly insignificant, but is certainly worth discussion. “Tomasina called Tomy Daughter of Thucydus @ Eunice Born 1810 dide in Child bed June 1833 and Burd. Yr stars fell” (255). This passage is, of course, leading us into the discussion in the story concerning not only miscegenation, but incest involving Tomy, and her son Turl. However, the line “Yr stars fell” is of note for us in our discussion. What could easily be dismissed as folklore from yonder years retains meaning even within contemporary Native culture.

Jimmie Durham, Native American (Cherokee) poet and artist writes in his poem “A Woman Gave Me a Red Star to Wear on My Headband,” “…In the history of my people it is found, /“In 1833 stars fell,” in a list of great events/ Such as, “In 1814 we won a battle against/ The soldier…” (131). There was an actual event in 1833 in which a meteor shower occurred (Lurie). This event, apparently, carries great meaning for Native people, as Durham likens it to a “great event” in which “a battle” occurred (131). Writing the mentioning of the stars falling off as nothing more than “folklore” is a misstep, as Paula Allen suggests in “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations”. According to Allen “The great mythic and ceremonial cycles of the Indian peoples are neither primitive in any meaningful use of the term, nor are they necessarily the province of the folk…”(267).

Peter Lurie suggests in “History’s Dark Markings” that this line reveals something of the novel’s “epistemological workings,” but only in that the remembrance of the darkening of the sky works to begin the darkening of the plot for Ike (37). While it makes perfect sense that the line does reveal some origin of the story, a meteor shower hardly represents darkness. Rather, it comes closer to representing something mystical—something valued as religious in Native culture, therefore, once again, connecting us to Native roots. While this is clearly written in the ledger, this would be the type of story passed through the oral tradition of Native culture. By showing appreciation for this tradition, Faulkner has again shown an anti-imperialistic tone. What Faulkner really does here is to allow his very white character to mimic the Native characters, a strange reversal of ethnic interaction.

Writing in “Indigenous Doom: Colonial Mimicry in Faulkner’s Indian Tales,” Bruce G. Johnson explains Homi K. Bhabha’s theories on “mimicry” and “cultural hybridity,” saying that “mimicry will therefore always produce the ironic gap of ‘difference’,” but Faulkner found a way the space between the cultures could be “partially bridged” (102). Faulkner, according to Johnson had a good working knowledge of the Native culture in his region (102). Faulkner, in a letter to Malcom Cowley, explains that “The line dividing the two nations,” speaking of Chickasaw and Choctaw, “passed near my home” (102). When asked directly about his knowledge regarding the Native ancestors of Yoknapatawpha, he said simply “I made them up” (102). According to Johnson, Elmo Howell has said that Faulkner had no real access to this type of information, and hated to research, so any representation of Native life would be highly inaccurate (102). Even though the authenticity of his characters might be doubtful, Faulkner may have fooled his critics by doing more research than they had believed as it is also believed that Faulkner owned at least one book concerning archaeological information about Mississippi, which included information about Native American life there from which he could have gleaned information about land ownership (102).

The ideal of private land ownership is part of what led to the demise of Native people in the United States, and Faulkner recognizes this in “Delta Autumn” when Ike thinks about the prospect of land ownership: “It belonged to all…He seemed to see the two of them—himself and the wilderness—as coevals…the two spans running out together…into a dimension of both time and space where once more the untreed land warped and wrung to mathematical squares of rank cotton for the frantic old-world people to turn into shells to shoot at one another, would find ample room for both…” (337). Ike McCaslin wants the hands of progress to turn back in time, giving back the land to all the people. It was what others deemed progress that destroyed the land, and Ike recognizes that the Native belief in communal ownership would preserve the land. Here, Faulkner shows that people of Native origin mimicking Eurocentric ideas would destroyed Native culture and the land, but he simultaneously sets his white character in a place where he is mimicking the Native culture—the colonizer engaged in anti-colonialism by mimicking “the others”.

Some might call this mimicry in celebration of the past a purely romantic notion, but according to Robert Woods Sayer in “Faulkner’s Indians and The Romantic Vision,” this ideal “should not be dismissed as hopelessly out of touch” (35).  “What most compellingly underlies its different expressions is an intuition of the radically different nature of Indian culture as against the civilization of modernity, and a conviction that in important ways the former is superior to the latter,” perceiving, according to Sayer, a “cultural dichotomy” (35).

To be sure, Faulkner engaged in some amount of romanticism concerning life in the South. Most of his work  contains slavery, or the effects of the Southern plantation on the world, as central to his novels. However, it is his Native characters, as Sayer suggests, who because they are “fraught with symbolic and even allegorical significance; and the meanings that they symbolically and allegorically convey are romantic in nature,” are truly, “in a real sense central to his work” (34). Sayer goes on to say that “one of the two modes of communion” for Native Americans in literature is one where “the essence of Indian identity—and superiority—seems to lie most crucially in attunement and oneness with nature” (35). Although, this observation of the representation of Amerindians is most likely true within the works of Faulkner—those with Native ties are more in tune with nature in Go Down, Moses—it seems an unfair observation to say this characterization somehow cheapens the Native connection in his work. In fact, in order to fight back against a society built around the destruction of nature for the furtherance of planter society, Faulkner needs to ground his characters in connection to the Earth. Since that human/earth connection is most strong in Native religions, it only makes sense that his characters, albeit seemingly romantic and stereotypical, are conservation minded. We must also not forget that Faulkner’s Native characters are not truly “Native,” but only mimicking their aboriginal ancestors, therefore, the character traits would seemingly have to be somewhat romanticized because they are something passed down rather than something organic.

Ike McCaslin, as we know, was  trained in his Native ideals by Sam Fathers, a man who was not full blooded Native himself. Fathers, whose name suggests a position of ancestry and leadership, was the descendent of “Ikkemotubbe himself, who had called himself Doom…and the quadroon slave woman” as we learn in “The Old People” (157). Fathers “whose face and bearing were still those of the Chickasaw chief who had been his father,” not only took on the genetic traits of his Native ancestors, but also carried on the tradition of hunting rather than falling to his mother’s traits, which undoubtedly would have included working on a plantation. He was a hunter, just as his ancestry might suggest. He “farmed no allotted acres of his own…performed no field-work for daily wages,” upsetting the balance expected to be kept by a man who was, by the one drop rule, black (TOP-161). In this sense, Faulkner might even suggest that freedom from slavery lies in not only rebellion against the institution, but a return to communal land ownership and Native traditions.

The idea of communing seems central to the hunting camp in which Ike hunts with the other fellows. This shared parcel of land is characterized as being a nature preserve of sorts—one that Ike has been coming back to for “more than fifty years,” but one which Ike observes in “Delta Autumn” as “drawing yearly inward as his life was drawing inward” (319). Ike himself had once convened with Sam Fathers, being initiated into the world of men, more specifically Native men, when Fathers marks his face with “the hot smoking blood” of his first kill in “The Old People” (156). In “The Men Who Killed Deer: Faulkner and Frank Waters,” Benjamin S. Lawson suggests that Ike “inherits and experience and a value system from Sam’s ‘vanquished and forgotten people’” (180). This mystical handing over of power suggests another break away from the dominating culture and traditions.

For the most part, the passing on of land ownership from father to son marked the passing of the torch in many Faulkner novels. It was land that gave these sons their power over women and slaves. However, in Go Down, Moses, Sam passes the proverbial torch to Ike through Native tradition, and it is up to Ike to continue the traditions, including communing with fellow hunters, regardless of the fact by the time we get to “Delta Autumn” Ike “no longer had any business making such expeditions” (320).

Ike’s dialogue suggests that perhaps he is on this expedition to teach more so than to hunt. Making a very strong conservationist statement, Ike says “The only fighting anywhere that ever had anything of God’s blessing on it has been when men fought to protect does and fawns” (323). In fact, one might say this statement not only speaks to preservation of nature, but denouncing war as well, including the Civil War mentioned only a page before. As Ike remembers the lay of the land pre-moderninty, he notices the changing landscape from the organic flora and fauna to neon lights and the sounds of trains (323-324). The only thing of somewhat natural nature, although manmade, but from natural, organic materials, are the Indian mounds, “raised by aboriginal hands as refuges from the yearly water and used by their Indian successors to sepulcher their fathers’ bones” (324-325). Ike thinks, “No wonder the ruined woods I used to know dont cry for retribution! he thought: The people who have destroyed it will accomplish its revenge” (347).

We build a nation not with bricks and mortar, but with nationalism—defined by the OED as “Advocacy of support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations” (OED). The concept so many find themselves confused in is that “country” is separate from “nation”. Country is the land, the rivers, trees, mountains, and things no one can really “own,” while “nation” is a thing people by default do own because they construct it.

For Indigenous people, being separate “Nations” from the one European setters constructed using the land of the Natives, immediately made them subalterns, outliers, “others”. In order to construct a nation that would withstand economic hardships, it was necessary for settlers to appropriate the land needed to build agricultural communities from those who had shared it before colonization. Native people were not complicit concerning the theft of sacred lands, and so we coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to enact a Biblical power in a government set on creating nationalism so strong, even the tragedy of genocide would not deter supporters. In return, Native people held as strong as they could to traditions of their cultures, passing them from generation to generation until they were forced to assimilate. Full assimilation did not necessarily take place, to the chagrin of many. For what might seem assimilation, use of written words and the English language, can easily be, as Arnold Krupat suggests, no more than a tool in the war against the oppressor.

Faulkner’s ancestral residents of Yoknapatawpha showcase this Native awareness and resistance. From the name of the very place Faulkner would spend his life’s work constructing, to the characters and actions contained within, Native ideals fuel at least of few of his stories—the name of the county is the backdrop for all his work. As romanticized and cliché as some of his characters are, Faulkner escapes misusing the Native voice, while defying American nationalism by telling the story of the American South, built on stolen land, and falling to its demise by a disconnection from the very Earth on which it was built. Disturbing as some of Faulkner’s themes may be, he redeems himself with not only his applauded literary form, but his anti-colonial themes contained in his Native stories.

 Works Cited

Allen, Paula. “Symbol and Structure in Native American Literature: Some Basic Considerations”

College Composition and Communications. 24:3. 267-270. 1973. PDF.

Durham, Jimmie. “A Woman Gave Me a Red Star to Wear on My Headband.” Harper’s

            Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry. Ed. Duane Niatum. Harper &

Row:San Francisco. 130-131. 1988. Print.

Faulkner, William. “Delta Autumn”. Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 319-347. 1970. Print.

“ The Bear.” Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 181-314 1970. Print.

“ The Old People.” Go Down, Moses. First Vintage International Ed. Vintage

Books. New York. 155-178. 1970. Print.

Johnson, Bruce G. “Indigenous Doom: Colonial Mimicry In Faulkner’s Indian Tales.” Faulkner

            Journal. Fall 2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 101-128. PDF.

Krupat, Arnold. “Postcoloniality and Native American Literature,” The Yale Journal of Criticism

  1. 7:1. PDF.

Lawson, Benjamin S. “The Men Who Killed The Deer: Faulkner and Frank Waters.” Faulkner

            Journal. 2002. 18:1/2. 179-191. PDF.

Lurie, Peter. “History’s Dark Markings.” The New Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner.

Cambridge University Press. New York New York:2015. PDF.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Nationalism”. www.oed.com.

Sayre, Robert Woods. “Faulkner’s Indians and The Romantic Vision” Faulkner Journal. Fall

2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 33-49. PDF.

Winston, Jay S. “Going Native in Yoknapatawpha: Faulkner’s Fragmented American and “The

Indian”.” Faulkner Journal. Fall 2002/Spring 2003. 18:1/2. 129-143. PDF.

(Cover image via: https://www.google.com/search?q=down+moses+cover&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=599&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=GGNTVYapOIuqsgH_noGoBA&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw#imgrc=pOgkPEzJ1LYZqM%253A%3BYqdM6DNC4uX-6M%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fi43.tower.com%252Fimages%252Fmm100063153%252Fgo-down-moses-william-faulkner-paperback-cover-art.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.tower.com%252Fgo-down-moses-william-faulkner-paperback%252Fwapi%252F100063153%3B200%3B308)


3 thoughts on “Faulkner’s Native America: Anti-imperialism in Go Down, Moses

  1. burkean

    Interesting essay, but I’m not sure I’d completely agree that Faulkner holds up “Native ideals” as an abstract quality. One interesting example that comes to mind is the history of Sutpen’s Hundred as told in Absalom, Absalom: I seem to remember that Sutpen bought or cheated the property from the Chickasaw Indian chief Ikkemotubbe, who also appears in “The Bear” and “Red Leaves”. Ikkemotubbe’s history seems to challenge an essentialist reading of Native “ideals” as a single quantity: Ikkemotubbe himself ends up Anglicizing his name and, as you point out, is linked to the (mostly) white inheritors of Yoknapatawpha County in complex ways. It’s interesting to me that both Absalom and “The Bear” emphasize the mixed heritage of the “whites”, complicating simple narratives of racial difference. Great analysis, thanks for the longread!


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