A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did Native Americans really believe in the "happy hunting grounds"?

May 6, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Often in TV and movie westerns, when mourners gather around a fallen friend, the Native American of the bunch will say that the departed has gone to the "happy hunting grounds."  Is this a true Native American belief or script-writer fiction?

You're right to be skeptical, but wrong to blame it all on Hollywood. "Happy hunting grounds" has been part of the English language for close to 200 years. But it might still be a fake. If it's the real deal, it's an "Indianism," that is, a word or phrase characteristic of the English now or formerly spoken by Native Americans. Indianisms are often literal translations from one of the estimated 350 Indian languages that were spoken in what is now the United States and Canada. (In another context, the term can also refer to usage characteristic of the English spoken in India.) Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell a genuine Indianism from the invention of a novelist, scriptwriter, or amateur jokester.

An example of what is probably a genuine Indianism is "forked tongue" to indicate a liar or deceiver. The phrase is first noted in this sense in the 1775 book History of the American Indians. The author, James Adair, relates how some Indians speak of white lawyers as

hired speakers, who use their squint eyes and forked tongues like the chieftains of the snakes [meaning rattle-snakes], which destroy harmless creatures for the sake of food.

I guess lawyers haven't changed much in the last 200 years.

On the other hand, another supposed Indianism, "paleface," is probably an invention by--ahem--a paleface. The word is first noted in an 1822 letter by George A. McCall, with the word being spoken not by an Indian but by a white man dressed as an Indian. McCall quotes him as saying, "Ah, Paleface! what brings you here?"  It's possible but not probable that paleface was used by Indians before it was adopted by whites.

On to happy hunting grounds. The phrase is first found in the last chapter of James Fenimore Cooper's most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826. Cooper has his title character Chingachgook say (after the death of his son Uncas),

Why do my brothers mourn? why do my daughters weep? that a young man has gone to the happy hunting-grounds; that a chief has filled his time with honor?

Cooper was a novelist, and not above stretching the truth to tell a story. For example, although you would never know it from the title of his book, the Mohicans lasted. There are two related but distinct groups who have been called Mohicans. Historically, the name has most often referred to those who are properly called Mohegans. They are alive and well and rolling in casino chips in and around Uncasville, Connecticut. They are an offshoot of the Pequot, having separated from them during the colonial period. 

Sometimes in the past, and now officially, the name Mohican refers to the Mahicans or Muhheconnuk, who were originally from eastern New York and western Massachusetts and Connecticut. These Mahicans are usually considered to be one of many offshoots of the Delaware (Leni-Lenappe), but the Mahicans were already distinct from the Delaware by colonial times (a fact Cooper did not seem to appreciate). After the Revolutionary War, the largest band of Mahicans, known as the Stockbridge Indians, moved west and united with the Munsee (another offshoot of the Delaware) to form what is now called the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. They live mostly on a reservation in Wisconsin where they have a small casino and bingo hall. On the whole, Cooper's Mohicans have more in common with Mahicans than Mohegans, but he seems to have conflated the two groups to some extent. In either case, the rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

It's possible that Cooper's happy hunting grounds is a real Indianism, but the fact that it first appears in a fictional work inspires some doubt. Cooper's use of other Indianisms and supposed Indianisms in The Last of the Mohicans and other installments of The Leatherstocking Tales doesn't offer much clue one way or the other. He indiscriminately uses both genuine Indianisms like Great Spirit and terms like paleface that are probably spurious.

Regardless of the authenticity of the term, was Chingachgook accurately portraying how real Indians thought of the afterlife when he called it the "happy hunting-grounds"? Whether Mahican or Mohegan, Cooper's fictional Indian would have been part of the Algonquian culture, to which most tribes in what is now the northeastern U.S. belonged. The Algonquians believed in an afterlife, but their ideas about it were not well defined. In general, they believed every person (and animal) had two souls. The body soul or shadow was associated with the heart and provided the person with his memory and intelligence in life. It remained with the body after death forever, usually resting quietly. On the other hand, the free soul or "real" soul was associated with the brain and in life provided the person with his sensations and experiences. The Algonquians believed that the free soul wandered during sleep or while in trance and that after death it made the long journey to the afterlife.

The land of the dead, away to the south or west and sometimes called the "Big Sand," was universally believed to be a pleasant place, but the souls there carried no memories of their previous existence. The Algonquians did not concern themselves too much with what it was like. Some believed the souls there didn't need to eat, others believed they ate rotten wood (which doesn't strike me as very conducive to happiness). And, yes, some believed the souls ate meat, which they got from hunting the spirits of animals that also went there after death.

So at least some Algonquians believed in what might accurately be called the "happy hunting grounds." But I find no evidence that the Algonquians, or any other Indians, actually called it that before Cooper put it in his book. It's as if I, a godless heathen, were to call the Christian heaven the "happy harping grounds." It's not totally out of tune with the general idea of what heaven is supposed to be like, but there's no evidence any real Christian ever called it that.

I guess that about wraps it up. Or, as Crazy Horse (and countless Hollywood Indians) put it, "I have spoken."

Further reading:

O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English by Charles L. Cutler (1994)

Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians: A Study in Religious Ethnology by Åke Hultkrantz (1953). A more recent edition was published under the title Soul and Native Americans (1997).

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