History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype©
by Wolfgang Mieder

The interest in the study of national character, stereotypes, ethnic slurs, and racial prejudice as expressed in proverbs and proverbial expressions has a considerable scholarly tradition. Paremiologically oriented folklorists and cultural historians have assembled collections of such invectives,

the three standard books being Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld's Internationale Titulaturen (1863), Henri Gaidoz and Paul Sébillot's Blasons populaires de la France (1884), and Abraham A. Roback's A Dictionary of International Slurs (1944).[1] Numerous scholarly articles have also investigated the stereotypical world-view expressed in proverbial speech, notably William Hugh Jansen's "A Culture's Stereotypes and Their Expression in Folk Clichés" (1957), Américo Paredes' "Proverbs and Ethnic Stereotyping" (1970); Mariana Birnbaum's "On the Language of Prejudice" (1971), Alan Dundes' "Slurs International: Folk Comparisons of Ethnicity and National Character" (1975), Uta Quasthoff's "The Uses of Stereotype in Everyday Argument" (1978); and Wolfgang Mieder, "Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes through Folklore" (1982).[2] This selected list of publications alone is a clear indication that considerable attention has been paid to proverbial invectives against minorities throughout the world. These unfortunate and misguided expressions of hate, prejudice, and unfounded generalizations are unfortunately part of verbal communication among people, and stereotypical phrases can be traced back to the earliest written records. Proverbial stereotypes are regretfully nothing new, but perhaps people are more willing today to question such dangerous slurs as they become more aware of their psychological and ethical implications. This at least is what a more enlightened citizenry should be hoping for at a time when tensions among political, racial, and ethnic minorities appear to be increasing.

While much is known about proverbial stereotypes among different nationalities and regions, and while numerous studies have been undertaken to study verbal slurs against Jews and African Americans especially in the United States,[3] there is a definite dearth of interest in the proverbial invectives that have been hurled against the Native Americans ever since Christopher Columbus and later explorers, settlers, and immigrants set foot on the American continent. As people look back at these slurs in the year when the world commemorates the quincentenary of Columbus' discovery of America, it is becoming ever more obvious that the native population suffered terribly in the name of expansion and progress. Native Americans were deprived of their homeland, killed mercilessly or placed on reservations, where many continue their marginalized existence to the present day. The early concepts of the "good Indian" or "noble savage" quickly were replaced by reducing the native inhabitants to "wild savages" who were standing in the way of expansionism under the motto of " manifest destiny".[4] Little wonder that Roy Pearce in his valuable book with the telling title Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (1967) can quote a thrasonical toast recorded in the journal of Major James Norris in 1779 as having expressed the early frontier truth: "Civilization or death to all American savages."[5] That means, bluntly put,

change your ways and assimilate the rules and life-style of the white conquerors and settlers or die. Anybody resisting this policy was "bad", and once the popular white attitude was geared towards the demonization of the Native Americans, the stage was set for killing thousands of them or driving the survivors onto inhuman reservations. The unpublished and little-known dissertation by Priscilla Shames with the title The Long Hope: A Study of American Indian Stereotypes in American Popular Fiction (1969) shows how this cruel treatment of the native population is described in literature,[6] while Dee Brown's best selling book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) gives a more factual account. This latter book contains a telling chapter with the gruesome proverbial title "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian",[7] the word "dead" meaning both literal death, and for those who survived the mass killings, a figurative death, i.e., a restricted life on the reservation with little freedom to continue the traditional life-style.

It is alarming that this awful invective against Native Americans, that became current on the frontier not quite a hundred years after that death threat expressed in the toast cited above, is still in use today, astonishingly enough both by the general population and the Native Americans themselves. Witness for example the book title The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians (1970) that was chosen for a collection of short prose and poetic texts in which these native inhabitants from Canada express their frustration with their marginalized life in modern society. How bad must their plight be if the editor Waubageshig decided to choose this invective against his own people as a title! The explanation is given in the introduction as follows:

Police brutality, incompetent bureaucrats, legal incongruities, destructive education systems, racial discrimination, ignorant politicians who are abetted by a country largely ignorant of its native population, are conditions which Indians face daily. Yes, the only good Indian is still a dead one. Not dead physically, but dead spiritually, mentally, economically and socially.[8]

Yes, this is Canada, but the same picture emerges for the United States, especially in the stereotypical view of the Native Americans in the motion pictures, as Ralph and Natasha Friar's study entitled The Only Good Indian ... The Hollywood Gospel (1972) illustrates for just that small sector of American culture. Even though some movies have shown the "good" Indian, most of them are guilty of "the enhancement and perpetuation of stereotype motifs of the Indian as drunken, savage, or treacherous, unreliable or childlike."[9] Similar prejudices can, of course, be observed in other forms of the mass media and everyday verbal communication through the use of jokes, songs, and proverbial slurs.

There is yet a third publication that carries part of the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" in its title, but this time it is a scholarly dissertation by the folklorist Rayna Green. Herself a Native American, she chose the title The Only Good Indian: The Image of the Indian in American Vernacular Culture (1973) for her voluminous and enlightening study. The proverbial title sets the tone - here is a meticulous account of the "popular" view of Native Americans as expressed by the American population of all age groups, all social classes, and all regions. The result is a shocking stereotypical image that permeates all modes of expression, of which linguistic examples are only a small part. Green includes a few pages on "Sayings, Proverbs, Proverbial Comparisons, and Other Metaphoric Usages"[10] that comment in a stereotypical way about Native Americans. A few lexicographers and paremiographers have also put together small lists of these invectives, and what follows is a selective number of phrases from these different sources with dates of earliest occurrence where they are available. Frequently found proverbial expressions are "To go Indian file" (1754, i.e., to walk in a single line), "To be an Indian giver (gift)" (1764), "To sing Indian" (1829, i.e., to act as one who defies death), "To do (play) the sober Indian" (1832, i.e., to remain sober or drink only very little to get the knives), "To play Indian" (1840, i.e. to not show any emotions), "To see Indians" (1850, i.e., to be in a delirium), "To turn Indian" (1862, i.e., to revert to a state of nature), "To be a regular Indian" (1925, i.e. to be an habitual drunkard), and "To be on the Indian list" (1925, i.e. to not be allowed to purchase liquor). The many proverbial comparisons repeat this negative image of the Native Americans as being of questionable ethical value: "As dirty as an Indian" (1803), "As mean as an Indian" (1843), "To yell and holler like Indians" (1844), "As wild (untameable) as an Indian" (1855), "As superstitious as an Indian" (1858), "To run like a wild Indian" (1860), "To spend money like a drunken Indian" (this text and all others stem from the late 19th century), "To stare (stand) like a wooden Indian", "Straight as an Indian's hair", "Red as an Indian", "Silent as a cigar-store Indian", "Drunker than an Indian", and "Sly as an Indian".[11]

Turning to bona fide proverbs that express slanderous views concerning the Native Americans, Rayna Green in her valuable dissertation observes that the text "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is "the only genuine proverb with reference to Indians in the [United] states."[12] If only that were true! Unfortunately there are some other proverbs which have gained currency in the folk speech of this country. Already from 1766 stems the equational statement "Indians will be Indians", which despite its lack of a metaphor clearly alludes to the fact that Indians will remain uncivilized savages no matter how hard the white soldiers and settlers try to change them.[13] Another proverb commenting on the impossibility to civilize the original inhabitants of this country is "An Indian, a partridge, and a spruce tree can't be tamed" which was recorded in 1853.[14] And there is also the slanderous proverb "The Indian will come back to his blanket" that was collected in Oregon around 1945.[15] It implies that even those Indians who have assimilated the ways of the white masters will in due time return to their primitive and traditional ways, i.e., "Indians will be Indians" as the proverb says. From the same time there is finally the proverb "Never trust an Indian" that was recorded in Kansas.[16] Who will be surprised then that the Hon. Alfred Benjamin Meacham, ex-superintendent of Indian Affairs, had the audacity to write in his suspect book Wigwam and War-Path; or The Royal Chief in Chains (1875) that it is irrelevant whether Indians are cheated by the Government or not: "It makes no difference. They are Indians, and three-fourths of the people of the United States believe and say that 'the best Indians are all under ground'."[17] At another place in his book Meacham poses the rhetorical question "Do my readers wonder now that so many white men, along the frontier line, declare that all good 'Injins are three feet under the ground'?"[18] And one year later, in his book Wi-ne-ma (The Woman-Chief) and Her People (1876), Meacham cites yet a third variant of this frontier proverb, namely "All good Indians are four foot [feet] under ground".[19] There can be no doubt about the sad fact that Native Americans were declared proverbially dead by the middle of the 19th century, especially after the end of the American Civil War, when United States soldiers joined bigoted frontier settlers in a mercilessly carried out campaign to kill off the native population of this giant land.

Such willfully planned and ruthlessly executed destruction of the Native Americans needed its battle slogan, a ready-made catch phrase that could help the perpetrators to justify the inhuman treatment of their victims. The proverb which gained currency at that time and which can still be heard today is the mindless and absurd American proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." It was indeed a devilish stroke of genius that created this dangerous slur. Its multisemanticity is grotesque to say the least. On the one hand it is a proverbial slogan which justifies the actual mass slaughter of Indians by the soldiers. But it also states on a more figurative level that Indians can only be "good" persons if they become Christians and take on the civilized ways of their white oppressors. Then they might be "good", but as far as their native Indian culture is concerned they would in fact be dead. Be it by physical or spiritual death, Native Americans were doomed victims of perpetrators who acted with manifest destiny on their side while so-called innocent bystanders did nothing to prevent the holocaust of the Native Americans.

The time was ripe for this all-encompassing and all-telling proverb, but whence did it come? Who coined such an invective that unfortunately fit the stereotypical world-view of three quarters of the population of the United States? A glance into The Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Second Session [of the] Fortieth Congress (1868) provides at least for now the terminus a quo for this slur. During a debate on an "Indian Appropriation Bill" that took place on May 28, 1868, in the House of Representatives, James Michael Cavanaugh (1823-1879) from Montana uttered the following despicable words:

I will say frankly that, in my judgment, the entire Indian policy of the country is wrong from its very inception. In the first place you offer a premium for rascality by paying a beggarly pittance to your Indian agents. The gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. Butler] may denounce the sentiment as atrocious, but I will say that I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian (and I have seen thousands) except when I have seen a dead Indian. I believe in the Indian policy pursued by New England in years long gone. I believe in the Indian policy which was taught by the great chieftain of Massachusetts, Miles Standish. I believe in the policy that exterminates the Indians, drives them outside the boundaries of civilization, because you cannot civilize them. Gentlemen may call this very harsh language, but perhaps they would not think so if they had had my experience in Minnesota and Colorado. In Minnesota the almost living babe has been torn from its mother's womb; and I have seen the child, with its young heart palpitating, nailed to the window-sill. I have seen women who were scalped, disfigured, outraged. In Denver, Colorado Territory, I have seen women and children brought in scalped. Scalped why? Simply because the Indian was "upon the war-path," to satisfy the devilish and barbarous propensities. [...] The Indian will make a treaty in the fall, and in the spring he is again "upon the war-path." The torch, the scalping-knife, plunder, and desolation follow wherever the Indian goes.
[...] My friend from Massachusetts [Mr. Butler] has never passed the barrier of the frontier. All he knows about Indians (the gentleman will pardon me for saying it) may have been gathered I presume from the brilliant pages of the author of "The Last of the Mohicans" or from the lines of the poet Longfellow in "Hiawatha." The gentleman has never yet seen the Indian upon the war-path. He has never been chased, as I have been, by these red devils - who seem to be the pets of eastern philanthropists.[20]

The sentence "I have never in my life seen a good Indian except when I have seen a dead Indian" is, of course, a mere prose utterance that lacks many of the poetic and formal markers of traditional proverbs save for its parallel structure. Yet it is easily noticeable that this subjective sentence contains the clear possibility of becoming shortened into the much more proverbial formula "A good Indian is a dead Indian". From what has been said before and from what is known today about the negative attitudes towards Native Americans on the frontier and the Indian territories during the second half of the 19th century, it can be stated with unfortunate certainty that James Michael Cavanaugh was expressing boldly in the House of Representatives what most Americans felt if not said as well.

Indians and death were tragically connected in the frontier world-view, and it should not be surprising that United States soldiers and their officers shared this negative view. Major William Shepherd described the general stereotype in his book Prairie Experiences (1884) as follows:

People who know nothing about Indians look at them at first with curiosity, which soon is mixed with a little contempt; but those who have had much to do with them in wars dislike their presence, and, knowing their habits, are often nervous and apprehensive of treachery. It would be a meritorious deed, from an Indian point of view, for a band to murder a single white man, if it could be done with perfect safety in regard to their skins. [...] The possibility of the Indian being converted to any civilized or useful purposes is a chimera; he will be a wild man, or he will die out; his inherited disposition will prevent his ever being a satisfactory member of a settled community. On the frontier a good Indian means a "dead Indian." Whether the Indians have deserved, or brought on themselves, the injuries they have suffered, and to what extent their treatment might have been ameliorated by honesty in the agents employed by the Government, and by a more humanitarian spirit in the people who have ousted them, can matter little at present. The Indian must go, is going, and will soon be gone. It is his luck.[21]

This cruel passage from 1884 can be contrasted with the thoughts expressed two years later by Vicar Alfred Gurney from England in his book A Ramble through the United States (1886). Notice that while Major Shepherd's statement that "on the frontier a good Indian means a 'dead Indian'" has not quite yet reached the final proverbial form, the Vicar makes it perfectly clear that Americans frequently expressed the proverbial remark "A good Indian is a dead Indian", thus attesting to the fact that the proverb was well established by 1886:

The story of Indian warfare is no doubt one of bloodshed, cruelty, and outrage; but, if they resented with the ferocity of savages the intrusion of the white men who appropriated their hunting grounds and gave them no quarter, let it not be forgotten that they responded generously to the appeal of those who, consecrated by the hands of poverty and pain, spoke to them in the Name of a crucified King, and proclaimed the gospel of peace and goodwill. Not yet, I think, are white men civilized enough to handle savages successfully. And of all savages the red man, perhaps, demands the greatest patience, courtesy, and forbearance. Not yet have we learnt to put in practice the divine method, though the experience of ages demonstrates the futility of every other, of overcoming evil, not with evil, but with good. The Government of the United States is at length earnestly endeavoring to do tardy justice to the conquered race; but it was distressing to hear again and again from American lips the remark that "a good Indian is a dead Indian." For my own part I cannot believe that a people whose dark eyes are so wistful and dreamy, whose speech is so musical, and whose language so full of poetry, can be hopelessly degraded, or doomed to extinction.[22]

Positive as this assessment by a man of the religious order might be at first glance, it does nevertheless endorse the attempts of "civilizing" the Native Americans into Christians, thereby destroying their traditional beliefs and culture. The difference between the soldiers and militant people of the frontier on the one hand, and the Christian missionaries on the other was one of degree, for both groups intended to change or convert the perceived savages by the sword or the word of God.

For the historical survey of the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", it is of considerable importance to notice for both of the passages cited from 1884 and 1886 that these early proverbial variants do not associate any particular person with having coined them. This was also not the case with the three variants about Indians belonging several feet below the ground that were cited earlier from the 1870's. It is also a well established fact that although "conceivably a proverb may for a time be associated with the inventor's name, all ascriptions to definite persons must be looked upon with suspicion",[23] as Archer Taylor observes correctly in his seminal book on The Proverb (1931). And yet, such an ascription of the proverb under discussion here was in fact started by Edward Ellis in his book The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time (1895). Entitling a short paragraph "Sheridan's Bon Mot", Ellis relates the following event from an eye-witness account of Captain Charles Nordstrom:

It was the writer's good fortune to be present when General Sheridan gave utterance to that bon mot which has since become so celebrated. It was in January, 1869, in camp at old Fort Cobb, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, shortly after Custer's fight with Black-Kettle's band of Cheyennes. Old Toch-a-way (Turtle Dove), a chief of the Comanches, on being presented to Sheridan, desired to impress the General in his favor, and striking himself a resounding blow on the breast, he managed to say: "Me, Toch-a-way; me good Injun." A quizzical smile lit up the General's face as he set those standing by in a roar by saying: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."[24]

This anecdotal paragraph with its author's obvious delight in telling the gruesomely "humorous" event appears of questionable authenticity at first. It is, of course, understandable that General Philip Sheridan (1831-1888) repeatedly denied having made such a statement, but there is no doubt that Sheridan was known as a bigot and Indian hater, as the historian Paul Andrew Hutton has shown in a chapter of his book on Phil Sheridan and His Army (1985) so appropriately called "Forming Military Indian Policy: 'The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian'."[25] It is of interest, however, that Hutton does not quote Sheridan's statement "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" but rather its more generalized and more powerful proverbial form "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" which became synonymous with the Indian policy of Sheridan and most other generals and soldiers. As Stephen Ambrose puts it so clearly in his account of the parallel lives of the two American warriors Crazy Horse and Custer (1975): "Frontier posts reverberated with tough talk about what would be done to the Indians, once caught, and it became an article of faith among the Army officers that 'you could not trust an Indian.' Sheridan's famous remark, 'The only good Indian I ever saw was dead,' was often and gleefully quoted."[26]

Naturally Sheridan has had his defenders who have tried to disclaim his having coined this proverb, and they are technically correct, for it will probably never be known whether the proverb developed from Sheridan's statement or whether his ill-conceived utterance was a subjective reformulation of the proverb already in currency. It must be remembered that James Michael Cavanaugh from Montana had expressed a quite similar sentence already in 1868 in the United States House of Representatives, and nobody is claiming that he originated this frontier proverb. Perhaps some day someone will in fact locate the proverb in its precise wording of "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" in print before Sheridan's January 1869 statement that could clear his name once and for all as the coiner of the proverb but not as a malicious and hateful Indian killer. Still in 1904 Brig. Gen. Michael V. Sheridan in his new and enlarged edition of the Personal Memoirs of Philip Henry Sheridan writes apologetically that "some 'fool friend' in Montana attributed to General Sheridan the expression that 'a dead Indian is the only good Indian,' and, though he immediately disavowed the inhuman epigram, his assailants continued to ring the changes [sic] on it for months."[27] Another scholar who tried to clear General Sheridan's name was Carl Rister who in his book Border Command: General Phil Sheridan in the West (1944) begins his preface with the following defensive remarks:

Sheridan's foes charged that he had said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." It is improbable that he made such a statement. That was not his policy. But he did believe that Indians must be taught that crime does not pay; that, if murder and theft were committed by either red man or white, punishment would be swift and sure. Moral suasion, he argued, could not always be used even among the most enlightened people; courts and law enforcement agencies were necessary. In this, Sheridan had enthusiastic support - not only of his officers and men, but also of the border people. To his enemies, Sheridan was haughty, unbending, and scornful; to his subordinates he was "Little Phil," a man of fiery temperament, caustic, impetuous, savage when his plans were not properly executed, never sparing himself or others, but fair and generous when the occasion demanded. Physically, he was a small man, but every inch a leader, strong and magnetic, honored, loved, and feared.[28]

As can be seen from this paragraph which attempts to whitewash this Civil War general who in the late 1860's turned his attention to fighting Indians, as so many other officers and soldiers did, the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" has become solidly attached to Sheridan's name, even though he did not state it in this precise wording. Having however said that "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead", and being known as an unscrupulous general who strongly believed in placing all Native Americans on well-guarded reservations and in punishing those mercilessly who did not follow his round-up orders,[29] it is understandable that the frontier's motto and proverb born in the 19th century's Indian wars on the plains became attached to his name in due time.

As already stated, it is not known which individual actually coined the proverbial slogan "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." It certainly was not General Philip Sheridan, nor was it an even more famous, or rather infamous, Indian fighter who made the following incredible remarks at a speech in January of 1886 in New York:

I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian. Turn three hundred low families of New York into New Jersey, support them for fifty years in vicious idleness, and you will have some idea of what the Indians are. Reckless, revengeful, fiendishly cruel, they rob and murder, not the cowboys, who can take care of themselves, but the defenseless, lone settlers on the plains. As for the soldiers, an Indian chief once asked Sheridan for a cannon. "What! Do you want to kill my soldiers with it?" asked the general. "No," replied the chief, "want to kill the cowboy; kill soldier with a club."[30]

The person who spoke this incredible passage was that "rough rider" who published his racist and expansionist views and an account of his exploits on the American frontier in his acclaimed book The Winning of the West (1889) - no one less than Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) himself who became President of the United States five years after delivering these hateful comments!

The fact that Roosevelt included the proverb in a speech in 1886 in the eastern city of New York, far removed from the racial strife at the frontier, is a clear indication that the proverb and its discriminatory message had permeated the American landscape by that time. It was not, however, until 1926 that Gurney Benham registered Philip Sheridan's utterance "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" as a political phrase in his Complete Book of Quotations.[31] Other lexicographers did the same, with H.L. Mencken in 1960 and Bergen Evans in 1968 attributing it mistakenly, but more or less fittingly, to another famous Civil War general participating in Indian fighting, namely William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891).[32] The editors of two more recent books of quotations from 1988 obviously realized this mistake and have gone back to giving Sheridan his due credit.[33] There are, however, also numerous authors of quotation dictionaries who list the actual proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" rather than Sheridan's phrase. As early as 1934 Burton Stevenson in his Home Book of Quotations has it both ways, citing the proverb as the major heading and then referring to Sheridan's statement in an explanatory note.[34] It is here that the partial identification of the frontier proverb with General Sheridan begins in a major reference tool. Seven years later the editors of the renowned Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1941) follow suit and go one step further. They merely cite the actual proverb and attach Philip Sheridan's name to it. The subsequent editors of the second and third editions of this classical work have identical entries, thus playing their lexicographical part in spreading the misinformation that Sheridan coined this stereotypical proverb.[35] The American competitor, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, does the Oxford editors one better. Christopher Morley as the editor of the 11th edition from 1941 lists Sheridan's remark "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead" for the first time in this important reference work. He repeats the same information in the 12th edition of 1949, but the editor of the 13th edition (1955) adds the following comment after quoting Sheridan's statement: "The phrase is more often heard in the version 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian'." Emily Morison Beck as the editor of the two subsequent editions of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (14th ed. 1968; and 15th ed. 1980) kept the identical entry, thus at least indicating to the readers that there is a difference between General Sheridan's personal quotation and the folk proverb.[36] Yet quotation dictionaries of lesser value and distribution have since 1942 usually just listed the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" with Philip Sheridan's name attached to it,[37] a scholarly phenomenon that shows how lexicographers blindly copy from each other.

Obviously paremiographers have also played their role in registering the folk proverb in newer proverb collections. It is interesting to note that it was the British scholar Vincent Stuckey Lean who listed the early variant "A good Indian is a dead Indian" as an American proverb for the first time in 1902 in his Proverbs Relating to the United Kingdom [...] together with a few English Estimates of other Nations and Places, after having found it in Alfred Gurney's book A Ramble through the United States (1886) that has been discussed above.[38] The next reference comes only in 1931, this time by the dean of international paremiology Archer Taylor, who in his book on The Proverb includes the terse statement that "'The only good Indian is a dead Indian' breathes the air of our western frontier."[39] Admittedly that does not say much, but it indicates that Taylor recognized this text as a bona fide folk proverb from the American frontier that had long currency throughout the United States without the need for at best an apocryphal attribution to General Philip Sheridan.

In 1944 Abraham Roback includes the slight variant "The only good Indian is a dead one" as an American "slogan originating in the Colonial period, when the Indians became a real menace, massacring hundreds of the new settlers" in his Dictionary of International Slurs.[40] While Roback is incorrect in ascribing the 17th or at least 18th century as the time of origin of the proverb, he does give an authentic picture of the socio-political problems that existed between the Native Americans and the early settlers. In a fascinating book on the Builders of the Bay Colony (1930) of Massachusetts and a specially enlightening chapter on "John Eliot [1604-1690], Apostle to the Indians", the stereotypical tensions are described by citing the 19th century proverbial invective as an appropriate description of this sad state of affairs:

That same autumn of 1646, the General Court appointed Eliot one of a committee to select and purchase land from the Indians, at the colony's expense, "for the encouragement of the Indians to live in a more orderly way amongst us." Yet from the start he encountered suspicion and hostility among his own people, whose attitude was always a heavy obstacle to his work. Frenchmen and Spaniards mingled easily with the American Indians; but the English pride of race forbade [this]. Your New England settler quickly acquired what has become the traditional attitude of the English-speaking pioneer: "A good Indian is a dead Indian." To him the native was a dirty, lazy, treacherous beast: "the arrow that flieth by day." and "the terror that flieth by night."[41]

Things might have become a bit more civilized in the colonies some good hundred years later, when influential thinkers like Patrick Henry in 1787 even advocated interracial marriages between Indians and whites. Reflecting on "The Indian Contribution to the American Revolution" , Leroy Eid comments that "One often hears that the frontier's motto was 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian.' Perhaps this cliché - born in the nineteenth century's plains wars - was true of some frontiers, but it was not anywhere universally true of the earlier frontiers where whites met vibrant and confident Indian cultures."[42] Nevertheless, it is a known fact that Native Americans were also exterminated or marginalized in the Colonies. That is exactly what the bigoted James Michael Cavanaugh meant in his 1868 speech in the United States House of Representatives cited above, when he said to Mr. Butler from Massachusetts:

"I believe in the Indian policy pursued by New England in years long gone. I believe in the Indian policy which was taught by the great chieftain of Massachusetts, Miles Standish [1584?-1656; military defender of New Plymouth and Weymouth colony]. I believe in the policy that exterminates the Indians, drives them outside the boundaries of civilization, because you cannot civilize them."[43]

Starting with Burton Stevenson's large volume The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases (1948), the major Anglo-American proverb collections all contain the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" with the notable exception of The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (3rd ed. 1970).[44] Smaller regional collections bear witness to the established proverbiality and currency of this stereotypical frontier wisdom throughout the United States. In fact, folklorist Helen Pearce includes six proverbial invectives with explanatory comments in a list of "Folk Sayings in a Pioneer Family of Western Oregon" which were in current use in her own family (which originally reached Oregon in the 1850's) when she collected them in the early 1940's:

There's no good Indian but a dead Indian.
(This attitude is ungenerous, but it is derived from the experience of some of the early settlers.)
He's an Indian giver.
(He is a person who gives something and takes it back again; an ungracious giver.)
He's off the reservation.
(He is running wild; or doing something unusual; or appears very green and unsophisticated. The saying is derived from the sometimes wild behavior of Indians when permitted to leave their reservations and enter the white man's towns.)
He was drunker than an Indian.
(The pioneers found that Indians did not carry liquor well; hence this pioneer saying about a person obstreperously drunk.)
He works harder than an Indian.
(Often ironically said in western Oregon, where most of the Indians worked very little.)
Wild as an Indian; sly (or cunning) as an Indian.
(These are examples of numerous uncomplimentary comparisons.)[45]

The proverb was also collected in 1963 in Pennsylvania and in 1965 in Illinois,[46] and the Folklore Archives at the University of California at Berkeley contain six additional citations that folklore students collected between 1964 and 1986 in California. The following comments by a fifty year old American informant to a student folklore collector in 1969 are quite telling:

The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
My informant learned this when she was a young girl [c. 1925] growing up in Carson City, Nevada. There was an Indian reservation near where they lived, and the whites of Carson City were very discriminating toward the Indians and looked upon them as quite inferior. She heard this used by many people in town. It was generally said as a comment after someone else would tell of the latest exploits of some "drunken" Indian. This comment meant that they were only good when they were dead, so all Indians alive are bad.
My informant believes that this phrase came out of Indian wars and was first said by either General Grant or Lee, she can't remember which.[47]

While this statement makes clear once again how confused the attribution of a proverb to a certain historical person can get, it is also foremost an alarming testimony of the widespread disrespect for Native Americans. A second text from the Berkeley Folklore Archives is dated from 1977 and includes horrid comments concerning the "humor" of this invective by the informant and insightful reactions by the student collector:

The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
Donald [Geddes] admits that this is a very racist statement. He doesn't really believe but can still find the humor involved with it. He remembers that people at college in Palo Alto used to say it a lot, circa 1955. But he didn't think he learned it from anyone in particular. He is sure that he heard it in a discussion concerning Indians, but always in jest.
I think that Mr. Geddes and his friends believe the saying more than they will admit. It reflects American culture because once long ago the Indians possessed our continent. Then we took it from them. When they protest, a good comeback is "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."[48]

A third student collector obtained the following even more recent information from a Californian informant in 1986 that also illustrates how this prejudicial proverb is part of the world-view of many Americans:

The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
My informant is a native of North Dakota where she tells me there were many Indian reservations. She learned this proverb when she was a very young child (c. 1923). She cannot remember any specific sources for the proverb; it was just something that you would hear at home or at school. People in North Dakota were extremely prejudiced against the Indians because they had the reputation of never working, always drinking. They were not very honest people and were believed by many to be murderers and looters. Indians were not respected by the white people at all. Thus, we can understand the reasoning behind the proverb.[49]

After all of this documentation from various published and oral sources my co-editors and I felt justified in ascribing a general geographical distribution throughout the United States to the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" in our recent Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992)[50] - blatant reality did not permit us to act otherwise, for exclusion of this proverbial slur would not only have been a scholarly dishonesty, it would also have hidden or whitewashed the ugly truth.

Just as this proverb persists in oral communication, so it also permeates written sources from scholarly books to novels, from magazines to newspapers, and even on to cartoons. In Mary Rinehart's detective novel The Circular Staircase (1908), for example, one finds the grotesque double statement: "Just as the only good Indian is a dead Indian, so the only safe defaulter is a dead defaulter."[51] While the proverb actually serves only to introduce a characterization of a male person obsessed with money, it nevertheless is used to describe this man's dishonesty by comparing him to the stereotypical devious Indian. This early reference also shows already what is to become a pattern in more modern uses of the proverb. Often it is not even cited, but rather it is reduced to the formula "The only good X is a dead X", giving its speaker or author a ready-made proverbial slogan with all the negative and prejudicial connotations of its original proverbial form. Merely four years after Rinehart's formulaic use of the proverb, Edgar Burroughs followed suit in his futuristic novel A Princess of Mars (1912), describing the heroine who despite "her tenderness and womanly sweetness was still a Martian, and to a Martian the only good enemy is a dead enemy; for every dead foeman means so much more to divide between those who live."[52] This variation maintains the victimization of the Native American but generalizes it to include enemies of any type.

It is amazing to see how this proverbial formula has been utilized as a slogan against the German enemy in particular during the first and second World Wars. Robert Graves reports the following account by a Canadian-Scot of war atrocities in his book Good-bye to All That (1929):

They sent me back with three bloody prisoners, you see, and one started limping and groaning, so I had to keep on kicking the sod down the trench. He was an officer. It was getting dark and I felt fed up, so I thought: "I'll have a bit of game." I had them covered with the officer's revolver and made 'em open their pockets without turning around. Then I dropped a Mills bomb in each, with the pin out, and ducked behind a traverse. Bang, gang, bang! No more bloody prisoners. No good Fritzes but dead 'uns'.[53]

In another British account by Bombardier "X" (pseudonym) with the title So This Was War! (1930), the editor Shaw Desmond writes in his introduction to this demythologization of World War I:

If you believe that "the only good Germans were dead Germans," and that every British Tommy lusted only to kill the Boche, and was without religion, read this boy [the bombardier] who writes: "We may curse and swear, but it's only bluster. Deep down in our hearts, we pray. The Germans must pray, too. They're in it, the same as we are. They have mothers, and wives, and children, and the same God as we have. It is very difficult, this War. I don't understand it a bit".[54]

From 1930 there is yet another British variant directed against the Germans: "There's only one good Boche, and that's a dead one."[55] There is no doubt that variants of the American proverb were used repeatedly by the British people against their German enemy, as can be seen from the cited examples and the statement "We used to say in the First War - the only good German's a dead German"[56] in Anthony Gilbert's novel Missing from Her Home (1969). Such variants show, of course, also the regrettable internationalization of the slanderous proverb and its underlying proverbial formula.

During World War II, Agatha Christie in her detective novel N or M? (1941) includes the following dialogue between a British woman and a German refugee that once again connects the traditional proverb by means of a telling wordplay with the Germans:

"You're a refugee. [...] This country's at War. You're a German." She smiled suddenly. "You can't expect the mere man in the street - literally the man in the street - to distinguish between bad Germans and good Germans, if I may put it so crudely."
He still stared at her. His eyes, so very blue, were poignant with suppressed feeling. Then, suddenly, he too smiled. he said:
"They said of Red Indians, did they not, that a good Indian was a dead Indian?" He laughed. "To be a good German I must be on time at my work. Please. Good morning."[57]

In yet another British war novel entitled Green Hazard (1945) by Manning Coles, one of the characters is described as a bit suspect by once again varying the proverb to a specific anti-German slogan: "Good chap, isn't he, though I find that placid manner rather terrifying sometimes. I know 'the only good German is a dead German', but he enjoys killing them. I don't. What's a duty to me is a pleasure to him."[58] And C. Day Lewis in his autobiographical work The Buried Day (1960) gives a final view of how British schoolboys knew of this proverbial slogan against the German enemy: "Certainly, racial hatred was not in the curriculum at Wilkie's [school]. We were not encouraged to think along the lines of 'the only good German is a dead German', nor were we affected by the adult hysteria which looted shops with German names above them and banned Beethoven from the concert halls. We played English v. German war games, of course, but they meant little more to us than Greeks v. Trojans [...]".[59] Besides the German enemy there were, of course, also the Japanese soldiers to contend with. It will surprise no one to learn that the proverb was adapted to fit this menace as well, as Richard Butler documents in his novel A Blood-Red Sun at Noon (1980) about the war theater in the Pacific: "'Ye believe all the propaganda our side have stuffed into your head - things like bishops blessing the flag and telling you God's on our side, not theirs. Generals telling you that the only good Jap is a dead Jap'."[60] In the late 1960's there also circulated the anti-Vietnamese variant "The only good gook is a dead gook."[61] And yet another "national" variant of the proverb appears in a book on early Spanish conquests in South America, stating that the native population doubtlessly thought of many of the intruders in terms of "The only good Spaniard was a dead Spaniard."[62] There is clearly no end to applying this powerful slogan against any military enemy as a propagandistic tool. Its adaptability as a national stereotype is clearly without limit.

The same is true for some of the following trivializations of the original proverbial invective. Some of them might even seem "humorous" in their absurdity, but it must not be forgotten that the actual proverb of "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is subconsciously juxtaposed to these seemingly harmless variations, thus continuing the slur against Native Americans in a camouflaged manner. In the following list it will be noticed that the texts are usually built on the structure "The only good X is a dead X", but there are also some cases where one of the adjectives is altered:

1933: The only good poacher is a dead poacher.[63]
1942: The only good teacher is a dead teacher.[64]
1957: The only good mouse is a dead mouse.[65]
1964: The only good raccoon was a dead one.[66]
1968: The only good cop (pig) is a dead cop (pig).[67]
1970: The only good snake was a dead snake.[68]
1970: The only good body's a dead one.[69]
1970: The only good grades are good grades.[70]
1980: The only good cow's a dead cow.[71]
1986: The only good photojournalist is a live photojournalist.[72]
1990: The only good fish is a fresh fish.[73]
1991: The only good priest [is a dead priest].[74]

As can be readily seen from these variants, they express to a large degree anxieties of people about such things as murders (in detective novels) or animals such as raccoons, snakes, and mice. Of the 12 examples cited above it might be worthwhile to cite at least the "mouse"-variant in its literary context. Paul Gallico in his novel Thomasina (1957) describes in many pages the art of "mousehole watching" that is being practiced by one of his characters for whom this is "a full-time job":

It isn't catching mice, mind you, that is the most necessary. Anyone can catch a mouse; it is no trick at all; it is putting them off and keeping them down [by locating the mousehole(s)] that is important. You will hear sayings like - "The only good mouse is a dead mouse," but that is only half of it. The only good mouse is the mouse that isn't there at all. What you must do if you are at all principled about your work, is to conduct a war of nerves on the creatures. This calls for both time, energy and a good deal of cleverness which I wouldn't begrudge if I wasn't expected to do so many other things besides.[75]

Sure, this is a bit of humor perhaps, especially if one continues to read another two pages of this seemingly futile exercise, but the careful reader might have a rude awakening when the "mouse"-variant of the traditional proverb brings to mind the fate of the Native Americans being hunted down by superior weapons and strength just like a defenseless little mouse. Behind the animalistic trivialization of the slanderous proverb hovers inescapably the historical truth of human extermination.

The step from a mouse to scorning another racial minority besides Native Americans is far too quickly taken, as is documented in Joseph Carr's novel The Man with Bated Breath (1934). There a prejudiced white man from the southern United States makes the following comment about an African American servant named Jesse: "'That is one of the houseboys. Honest enough if you discount the saying in these parts that the only honest nigger is a dead nigger."[76] That this proverb about Native Americans has, in fact, been easily transferred to African Americans is documented in George Bernard Shaw's compelling introduction to his drama On the Rocks (1934). With Nazi Germany on the rise, he prophetically writes about Germany's plans of racial purity and Jewish extirpation in a section entitled "Present Exterminations", and in the next few paragraphs he gives a horrifying account of what he calls "Previous Attempts" of racial or nationalistic purists ridding themselves of unwanted members of society:

The extermination of what the exterminators call inferior races is as old as history. "Stone dead hath no fellow" said Cromwell when he tried to exterminate the Irish. "The only good nigger is a dead nigger" say the Americans of the Ku-Klux temperament. "Hates any man the thing he would not kill? said Shylock naively. But we white men, as we absurdly call ourselves in spite of the testimony of our looking glasses, regard all differently colored folk as inferior species. Ladies and gentlemen class rebellious laborers with vermin. [...] What we are confronted with now is a growing perception that if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.[77]

Already in 1934 Shaw draws attention to the fact that racial fanatics refer to undesirable people as "vermin", thus robbing them of their basic human dignity. The Nazis did exactly that as time went on, degrading in particular the Jewish population with verbal and proverbial invectives to "vermin", as I have shown in my study on "Proverbs in Nazi Germany"[78] mentioned at the beginning of this essay. In the light of what happened in Germany and Europe under National Socialism in the many concentration camps, and in consideration of the harm done to Native Americans and African Americans or any other minority, any variant of the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" seems unacceptable, especially the "harmless" one about what to do with mice.

In the meantime the proverb as a direct slur against the Native Americans continues to be in use, an ever ready invective to be cited to keep the painful stereotype alive. In John Buchan's frontier novel Salute to Adventures (1915) a young man is willing to give the native population the benefit of the doubt by exclaiming "'But they tell me the Indians are changed nowadays. They say they've settled down to peaceful ways like any Christian'." But to this a more knowledgeable old-timer answers grimly and without any feeling of reconciliation or understanding about the plight of the original inhabitants of this land: "'Put your head into a catamount's mouth, if you please, but never trust an Indian. The only good kind is the dead kind. I tell you we're living on the edge of hell. It may come this year or next year or five years hence, but come it will'."[79] Fear and hate combine to a point of accepting such blind judgments, and in yet another detective novel by Carolyn Wells with the despicable title The Wooden Indian (1935) a person reacts to "the furious wars they [the Indians] waged" with the piece of wisdom, "'I agree with Ben Jonson [1573?-1637], or whoever said it, that the only good Indian is a dead Indian'."[80] General Philip Sheridan as the authoritative source is forgotten, and Ben Jonson will do just as well to add some credence to this cruel claim, even though he wrote his plays and poems in England in the early 17th century. Observe also such typical paragraphs as the following two: In Laura Ingalls Wilder's celebrated children's book Little House on the Prairie (1935) thousands of young readers found the following passage that must have ingrained the proverb in their minds:

Mrs. Scott said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, "Land knows, they'd never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice." She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.[81]

And in Rosemary Taylor's novel Chicken Every Sunday (1943) one reads "Miss Gilley was scared to death of Indians. Even though Father told her there hadn't been any bad Indians around Tucson for years, Miss Gilley still felt the only good Indian was a dead Indian."[82] Rationality is not part of stereotyping, but changing the truth and perpetuating lies are definite ingredients. And who would ever have thought that one of America's classical children's books played its part in spreading the frontier stereotype to younger generations who had nothing to fear from Native Americans living on isolated reservations!

There is no end in sight as far as eradicating this proverb from common parlance. Maxwell Bodenheim's comment in his book on My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (1954) appears to be saying something like that: "There is no good Indian but a dead Indian, we are told by the grandsons of men who have been scalped,"[83] i.e., the image of the Indian savages will always remain among us. The New Yorker magazine in 1957 even published a disgusting cartoon showing several Native Americans around a camp fire, with one of them observing: "I say the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Present company excepted, of course."[84] Is that so-called Eastern intellectual sophistication or rather a sign that even the crème de la crème of this society is not free of prejudice? Who then can be surprised to hear common people making such generalizations as "That only went to show that the only good Indian was a dead Indian"[85] or "'They're the Indians - and the only good Injun is a dead one, you can take that from me'."[86] And is it conceivable that people actually compose jokes around this most hurtful slander against Native Americans, just as terribly sick minds have come up with Auschwitz jokes?[87] The cartoon in the New Yorker just mentioned is a small example of this type of sick humor, but even more upsetting is a short story by Mack Reynolds with the suspect title Good Indian (1964). In its mere nine pages the author describes three Indians coming to see Mortimer Dowling, Director of the Department of Indian Affairs, who thought that "the last Indian died almost ten years ago". Yet here they suddenly are and awaken the Director out of his cushy job of doing nothing. The Indians claim that they have come to sign a treaty for themselves and the fifty-five surviving members of the Seminole tribe, and they are well prepared to do so with LL.D.s from Harvard. After some arguing back and forth they declare that they want Florida, and at the height of frustration the Director comes up with the idea that it is time to have lunch. This is where the author makes a break in his grotesque narrative, only to pick it up again with the Director sitting at his desk the next morning in absolutely miserable bodily shape. His receptionist Millie Fullbright observes how disgusting it was of him to get "absolutely stoned" when he finally had something to do for a change. But the hung-over Director only points with his finger at the signed treaty on his desk, upon which the receptionist exclaims in astonishment:

"Heavens to Betsy, the treaty. And all three of their signatures on it. How in the world did you ever -"
Mortimer Dowling allowed himself a self-satisfied leer. "Miss Fullbright haven't you ever heard the old saying The only good Indian is a dead -"
Millie's hand went to her mouth. "Mr. Dowling, you mean ... you put the slug on all three of those poor Seminoles? But ... but how about the remaining fifty-five of them. You can't possibly kill them all!"
"Let me finish," Mortimer Dowling growled. "I was about to say, The only good Indian is a dead drunk Indian. If you think I'm hanging over, you should see Charlie Horse and his wisenheimer pals. Those redskins couldn't handle firewater back in the old days when the Dutch did them out of Manhattan with a handful of beads and a gallon of applejack and they still can't. Now, go away and do a crossword puzzle, or something."[88]

The joke centers around the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", but the author does not only base his short story on this terrible stereotype, he also alludes, of course, to the other proverbial invective of being "drunker than an Indian". This is a tasteless, despicable, and racially motivated joke at the expense of Native Americans, and it shows the tenacity of proverbial stereotypes in today's United States of America.

Six years after Mack Reynolds' ill-conceived short story about the proverbial "Good Indian" appeared, Dee Brown published his masterpiece Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) that contains the already mentioned chapter on "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian" about the savage exploits of General Philip Sheridan and many of his officers and troops. Anybody having read this book and especially this chapter cannot possibly see any humor in this proverb that had its origin during the frontier wars. Far too long has it given justification to the literal and spiritual killing of Native Americans. In its poetic brevity is expressed the national shame of a people whose majority succumbed to the world-view that Native Americans had to give up their identity or be killed. The fact that this tiny piece of folk wisdom is still current today is a very sad comment on this society and its behavior towards Native Americans. As long as there remain prejudices and stereotypes about this minority population, the proverb will not cease to exist. Wherever it will be uttered or written, it will expose blatant inhumanity towards the Native Americans. A conscious attempt to refrain from using the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" might at least help to bring about some changes towards a better life for Native Americans, one of pride and dignity as is befitting for the indigenous people of this great country - better the proverb die a long overdue death than any Native American get hurt by it again.


  1. See Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Internationale Titulaturen, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Hermann Fries, 1863; rpt. with an introduction by Wolfgang Mieder. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1992); Henri Gaidoz and Paul Sébillot, Blasons populaires de la France (Paris: Léopold Cerf, 1884); and Abraham A. Roback, A Dictionary of International Slurs (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Sci-Art Publishers, 1944; rpt. Waukesha/Wisconsin: Maledicta Press, 1979).

  2. See William Hugh Jansen, "A Culture's Stereotypes and Their Expression in Folk Clichés," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 13 (1957), 184-200; Américo Paredes, "Proverbs and Ethnic Stereotyping," Proverbium, no. 15 (1970), 511-513; Mariana D. Birnbaum, "On the Language of Prejudice," Western Folklore, 30 (1971), 247-268; Alan Dundes, "Slurs International: Folk Comparisons of Ethnicity and National Character," Southern Folklore Quarterly, 39 (1975), 15-38; Uta Quasthoff, "The Uses of Stereotype in Everyday Argument," Journal of Pragmatics, 2 (1978), 1-48; and Wolfgang Mieder, "Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes through Folklore," Journal of American Folklore, 95 (1982), 435-464.

  3. See for example J.C.H. Duijker and N.H. Fridja, National Character and National Stereotypes (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1960); Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz, Social Change and Prejudice, Including the Dynamics of Prejudice (Glencoe/Illinois: Free Press, 1964); George E. Simpson and J. Milton Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities: An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); and Sander L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

  4. See Elizabeth Arthur, "The Concept of the Good Indian: An Albany River 19th Century Managerial Perspective," Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 5 (1985), 61-74; and Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins [University] Press, 1935).

  5. Quoted from Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore/Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), p. 55. The banquet where the toast was given is reported in the journal of Major James Norris, in Frederick Cook (ed.), Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan (Auburn/New York: Knapp, Peck & Thomson, 1887), pp. 225-226.

  6. See Priscilla Shames, The Long Hope: A Study of American Indian Stereotypes in American Popular Fiction, 1890-1950 (Diss. University of California at Los Angeles, 1969).

  7. Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. An Indian History of the American West (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990 [1st ed. 1970]), pp. 147-174.

  8. Waubageshig (ed.), The Only Good Indian: Essays by Canadian Indians (Toronto: New Press, 1970), p. vi.

  9. Ralph E. and Natasha A. Friar, The Only Good Indian ... The Hollywood Gospel (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1972), p. 264.

  10. See Rayna Green, The Only Good Indian: The Image of the Indian in American Vernacular Culture (Diss. Indiana University, 1973), pp. 56-65. A mere short paragraph (pp. 56-57) is dedicated to a general remark concerning the proverb "The only good Indian is a dead Indian".

  11. For references see Roback (note 1), p. 181; Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 1236; Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 866-876; Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, 1820-1880 (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 199; William and Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (New Yorker: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 189-190; Ramon F. Adams, Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West (Norman/Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), pp. 159-161; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (New York: Stein and Day, 1977), p. 88; Bartlett Jere Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 233; Neil Ewart, Everyday Phrases: Their Origins and Meanings (Poole/Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983), p. 77; James Rogers, The Dictionary of Clichés (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985), p. 141; Laurence Urdang, Walter Hunsinger, and Nancy LaRoche, Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1985), pp. 82, 560, and 709; Bartlett Jere Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 337; and Doris Cray, Catch Phrases, Clichés and Idioms (Jefferson/North Carolina: McFarland, 1990), pp. 114-115.

  12. Green (note 10), p. 57.

  13. Whiting, Early American Proverbs (note 11), p. 233.

  14. Stevenson (note 11), p. 2507; Taylor and Whiting (note 11), p. 199; and Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie Harder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 329.

  15. Mieder et al. (note 14), p. 329.

  16. Mieder et al. (note 14), p. 329.

  17. Hon. Alfred Benjamin Meacham, Wigwam and War-Path; Or the Royal Chief in Chains (Boston: John P. Dale, 1875), p. 515 I owe the following three important references from Meacham to Jan Harold Brunvand, A Dictionary of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases from Books Published by Indiana Authors before 1890 (Bloomington/Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1961), p. 75.

  18. Meacham (note 17), p. 198.

  19. Hon. Alfred Benjamin Meacham, Wi-ne-ma (The Woman-Chief) and Her People (Hartford/Connecticut: American Publishing Company, 1876), p. 35.

  20. Quoted from The Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Second Session [of the] Fortieth Congress (City of Washington: Office of the Congressional Globe, 1868), p. 2638. I owe the reference to this significant quotation to Stevenson (note 11), p. 1236. See also Mieder et al. (note 14), p. 329.

  21. Major William Shepherd, Prairie Experiences in Handling Cattle and Sheep (London: Chapman and Hall, 1884), pp. 61-63.

  22. Alfred Gurney, A Ramble through the United States. A Lecture Delivered (in part) in S. Barnabas' School, February 3, 1886 (London: William Clowes, 1886), pp. 28-29.

  23. See Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1931; rpt. Hatboro/Pennsylvania: Folklore Associates, 1962; rpt. again with an introduction and bibliography by Wolfgang Mieder. Bern: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 38.

  24. Edward S. Ellis, The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time (Cincinnati/Ohio: Jones Brothers, 1900 [1st ed. 1895), p. 1483.

  25. See Paul Andrew Hutton, Phil Sheridan and His Army (Lincoln/Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), pp. 180-200 (esp. p. 180).

  26. Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 310. I owe this reference to my colleague James Lubker.

  27. Brig.-Gen. Michael V. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs of Philip Henry Sheridan. With an Account of His Life from 1871 to His Death, in 1888. New and enlarged edition (New York: D. Appleton, 1904), vol. II, pp. 464-465.

  28. Carl Coke Rister, Border Command: General Phil Sheridan in the West (Norman/Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944; rpt. Westport/Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1974), pp. VII-VIII.

  29. See Rister (note 28), p. 127.

  30. I was unable to locate the entire speech in any of the many volumes on Theodore Roosevelt that I checked. The passage is quoted from Hermann Hagedorn, Roosevelt in the Bad Lands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), p. 355. Parts of this passage (always citing Hagedorn) are also cited in Albert B. Hart and Herbert R. Ferleger (eds.), Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia (New York: Roosevelt Memorial Association, 1941), p. 251; Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 209; Shames (note ), p. 32; and Thomas G. Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race (Baton Rouge/Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), p. 86. The latter book includes an important chapter on Roosevelt's prejudicial views of the "Indians" (pp. 69-88). It might be of interest that this statement did not make it into W.M. Handy's Maxims of Theodore Roosevelt (Chicago: Madison Book, 1903; rpt. Upper Saddle River/New Jersey: Literature House, 1970), but the compiler does cite Roosevelt's slogan "A good American is a good American" (p. 81).

  31. See W. Gurney Benham, Complete Book of Quotations (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1926), p. 459b.

  32. See H.L. Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), p. 585; and Bergen Evans, Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), p. 345.

  33. See Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, The Harper Book of American Quotations (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 55; and John Daintith et al., Who Said What When: A Chronological Dictionary of Quotations (London: Bloomsbury, 1988; rpt. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991), p. 167.

  34. See Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, 5th ed. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1947 [1st ed. 1934]), p. 976.

  35. See The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 400a; 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 499; and 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 505. See now also Paul F. Boller and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 118.

  36. See Christopher Morley (ed.), Familiar Quotations, 11th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1941), p. 594; 12th ed. (1949), p. 594; 13th ed. (1955), p. 653b; Emily Morison Beck (ed.), Familiar Quotations, 14th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), p. 742a; and 15th ed. (1980), p. 610.

  37. See Henry Davidoff, The Pocket Book of Quotations (New York: Pocket Books, 1942), p. 153; and J.M. and M.J. Cohen, The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations (Middlesex/England: Penguin Books, 1960), p. 364.

  38. Stuckey Vincent Lean, Lean's Collectanea (Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1902; rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1969), vol. I, p. 282.

  39. Taylor (note 23), pp. 9-10.

  40. Roback (note 1), p. 181.

  41. Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930), pp. 295-296.

  42. Leroy V. Eid, "Liberty: The Indian Contribution to the American Revolution," The Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought, 22 (1981), 290-291 (the whole essay on pp. 279-298). I owe this reference to my colleague Dennis Mahoney.

  43. See note 20.

  44. See Stevenson (note 11), p. 1236 (with 6 references from 1868-1943); Mathews (note 11), p. 715 (with 4 references from 1868-1948); Ramon (note 11), p. 128 (with 1 reference, but no date); John A. Simpson, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 98 (with 8 references from 1868-1980); Whiting, Modern Proverbs (note 11), p. 337 (with 24 references from 1908-1970); and Mieder et al. (note 14), p. 329 (with references to Simpson and Whiting).

  45. Helen Pearce, "Folk Sayings in a Pioneer Family of Western Oregon," California Folklore Quarterly, 5 (1946), 236-237 (the whole article on pp. 229-242).

  46. See Mac E. Barrick, "Proverbs and Sayings from Cumberland County [Pennsylvania]," Keystone Folklore Quarterly, 8 (1963), 170 (the whole article on pp. 139-203); and Frances M. Barbour, Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases of Illinois (Carbondale/Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), p. 98. Stewart A. Kingsbury also includes the proverb as an example of "Names in Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings," Festschrift in Honor of Allen Walker Read, ed. by Laurence E. Seits (DeKalb/Illinois: North Central Name Society, 1988), p. 130 (the whole article on pp. 116-132).

  47. This text was collected by Candace Bettencourt from Patricia Davis on March 6, 1969, in Berkeley, California. The student has added a note with a reference to Stevenson (see note 11), who mentions that the proverb is usually attributed to General Philip Sheridan. I would like to thank Frances Fischer and Alan Dundes for making this and the following two texts available to me.

  48. This text was recorded by Linda Armstrong from Donald Geddes on November 19, 1977, in Palo Alto, California.

  49. This text was collected by Anne Artoux from Marge Donovan on November 28, 1986, in San Mateo, California.

  50. See Mieder et al. (note 14), p. 329. It is interesting to note that David Kin's unscholarly Dictionary of American Proverbs (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955) does not include this proverb.

  51. Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1908), p. 354. I would like to thank Patricia Mardeusz, Barbara Lambert, and Ruth Nolan from the Reference Department of the Bailey/Howe Library at the University of Vermont for getting many of the novels cited below for me through interlibrary loan.

  52. Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), p. 72. The book was originally published with the title Under the Moon of Mars by Norman Bean (pseudonym) in All-Story Magazine as a six-part serial, February through July, 1912.

  53. Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1957 [1st ed. 1929]), p. 184-185.

  54. Bombardier "X" (pseudonym), So This Was War! The Truth about the Western and Eastern Fronts Revealed, ed. by Shaw Desmond (London: Hutchinson, 1930), pp. 11-12 (preface).

  55. Cited from Whiting, Modern Proverbs (note 11) p. 337. Whiting claims that this variant is cited in Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London: Faber & Faber, 1930), p. 16, but I was not able to find it in that work.

  56. Anthony Gilbert, Missing from Her Home (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 124.

  57. Agatha Christie, N or M? (New York: Dell, 1941), p. 27.

  58. Manning Coles, Green Hazard (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1945), p. 237.

  59. C. Day Lewis, The Buried Day (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 86.

  60. Richard Butler, A Blood-Red Sun at Noon (Sydney: William Collins, 1980), p. 207.

  61. I owe this reference to my colleague Kevin McKenna who remembers it from his student years at Oklahoma.

  62. L. Sprague and Catherine C. de Camp, Ancient Ruins and Archeology (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964), p. 270.

  63. Vernon Loder, Suspicion (London: William Collins, 1933), p. 173.

  64. Stephen Leacock, My Remarkable Uncle and Other Sketches (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1942), p. 64.

  65. Paul Gallico, Thomasina (London: Michael Joseph, 1957), p. 40.

  66. Leonard Lee Rue, The World of the Raccoon (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), p. 82.

  67. I owe this text to my colleague Kevin McKenna who remembers it from oral use as a student in Oklahoma.

  68. Arthur H. Lewis, Carnival (New York: Trident Press, 1970), p. 101.

  69. Tony Kenrick, The Only Good Body's a Dead One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), book title.

  70. Ernest Priestley, "The Only Good Grades Are Good Grades. A New Teacher Confronts the Grading System and Tells What He Finds," Changing Education, 4, no. 4 (Spring 1970), p. 17 (title of magazine article).

  71. Barry Wilson, "The Only Good Cow's a Dead Cow. Huge Profits from Subsidized slaughter for EEC Farmers on the Fiddle," New Statesman (February 29, 1980), p. 317 (title of magazine article).

  72. Howard Chapnick, "Since the Only Good Photojournalist is a Live Photojournalist, Beirut Underlines the Difference Between Dedication and Damnfoolishness," Popular Photography, 93 (January 1986), p. 18 (title of magazine article).

  73. Jacques Pépin, "Bluefish Fans Know This: The Only Good Fish Is a Fresh Fish," The New York Times, 140 (October 17, 1990), p. C10 (title of newspaper article).

  74. Mark Richard Zubro, The Only Good Priest (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), shortened book title.

  75. Gallico (note 64), p. 40.

  76. Joseph B. Carr, The Man with Bated Breath (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934), p. 33.

  77. Quoted from Bernard Shaw, Plays Political (London: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 144-146

  78. See Mieder (note 2).

  79. John Buchan, Salute to Adventures (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1915), pp. 74-75.

  80. Carolyn Wells, The Wooden Indian (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1935), p. 35.

  81. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953 [1st ed. 1935]), p. 211. The reference is located in chapter 17: "Pa Goes to Town".

  82. Rosemary Taylor, Chicken Every Sunday. My Life with Mother's Boarders (New York: Whittlesey House, 1943), pp. 6-7.

  83. Maxwell Bodenheim, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1954), p. 130.

  84. New Yorker (January 19, 1957), p. 38.

  85. Mignon G. Eberhart, El Rancho Rio (Roslyn/New York: Walter J. Black, 1970), p. 128.

  86. Anthony Price, The '44 Vintage (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1978), p. 118.

  87. See Alan Dundes, "Auschwitz Jokes," Western Folklore, 38 (1979), 145-157; rpt. with a postscript in A. Dundes, Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles & Stereotypes (Berkeley/California: Ten Speed Press, 1987), pp. 19-38.

  88. Mack Reynolds, Good Indian, included in John W. Campbell (ed.), Analog II (Garden City/New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 54 (the entire short story on pp. 46-54).

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405

© Wolfgang Mieder

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