Frankenstein and Native Peoples: an Expression of Irony

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein weeps over the monstrous acts committed by Christian Europeans

If it weren’t for my good friend Peter d’Errico, I would not be familiar with the fact that Mary Shelly mentions American Indians in her famous horror book Frankenstein. Peter is one of the few people that I know who has actually read the book rather than simply rely on the Hollywood versions of the story. In Shelly’s Frankenstein, a young Arabic woman named “Safie” is instructed by Felix, her tutor. One of the books he used for her instruction was Count Volney’s Ruins of Empire. Of these lessons, Shelly’s monster says, “I heard of the discovery of America, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.”

What a skilled expression of irony: Shelly’s monster weeps over the monstrous acts committed by Christian Europeans against the Original Peoples of the hemisphere typically known as “the Americas.” There’s another irony regarding Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, a book which some scholars say is one of the earliest work of science fiction: Her story was first performed as a play in 1823, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court created a great work of legal fiction about the original inhabitants and nations of the continent. That legal fiction is the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, which has resulted in so much destruction for our original nations, and is still regarded as active legal precedent today.

The Supreme Court’s fiction in the Johnson ruling follows what John Steinbeck called “the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.” The Johnson ruling is a pattern of reality created by the mind of Chief Justice John Marshall, using ideas available to him from a preexisting and underlying pattern of domination found in the English language. One idea that Marshall created in Johnson on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court is that the liberty of the original nations of the continent had been “necessarily diminished” by “Christian people” supposedly “discovering” lands “inhabited” by non-Christians (“natives, who were heathens”).

Given the Marshall Court’s effort to use the expression of ideas in the Johnson ruling as a means of trying to end the liberty of the Original Nations of the continent, how ironic that the Liberty Bell cracked during Marshall’s funeral procession in Philadelphia. In his book John Marshall, Alfred Steinberg describes what happened in Philadelphia in 1835:

While his [Marshall’s] body was being borne along Philadelphia’s streets to the dock to be returned to Richmond [, Virginia], city authorities paid him a great honor. They ordered the Liberty Bell, which had tolled the independence of the United States from the belfry of Independence Hall on July 4, 1776, to be tolled in Marshall’s honor. At its striking, the bell suddenly cracked and a great cleft appeared in its side.

What ironic synchronicity: The Liberty Bell died during an effort to ring a death knell in honor of Marshall whom the people of the United States held in such high regard, but had done so much in an effort to kill the original liberty of our nations. Mary Shelly used Frankenstein as a means of commenting on such injustices. Upon witnessing the instruction of young Safie, the monster asks a question that seems to capture the contradiction between the injustice of the Johnson ruling written by Marshall and the high regard in which the American people held the chief justice.

Regarding the history lessons he had witnessed, Frankenstein states, “These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” The monster continues with a comment that seems to capture the contradictory views of Marshall, depending on one’s perspective: “He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that be conceived of noble and god-like.” The monster then says, “For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased…”

Here Frankenstein seems to be suggesting that historic “details of vice and bloodshed” provide an answer to the question, “Why are there laws and governments?” This does not, however, address laws and governments being used as a means of carrying out vice and bloodshed, such as we find in the history of the laws and governments of the United States (the federal government and the state governments) being used against the original nations of the continent, and resulting in the kinds of tragic tales over which Mary Shelly’s monster wept.

Frankenstein continues with his reflections when he says, “Every conversation of the cottagers [the villagers] now opened new wonders to me.” He continues:

While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian [Safie], the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent [ancestry], and noble blood.

Property is the primary focus of the Johnson v. M’Instoh ruling. Marshall indicated this when he wrote at the outset of the ruling that “the right of society to prescribe those rules by which property may be acquired and preserved is not and cannot be drawn into question.” The Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, which is an integral part of the property law system of the United States resulted in “immense wealth” for the United States, and “squalid poverty” for the original nations of the continent.

Dr. David Nichols in his book Lincoln and the Indians provides in heart-wrenching detail some sense of what the original peoples experienced as a result of their impoverishment during the U.S.’s colonization of the continent. In this example in Kansas, Indian Superintendent Coffin “estimated the number of refugees at ten to sixteen thousand.” He told [Indian] Commission Dole, “They are in the most deplorable state of destitution, some of them are said to have starved and froze [sic] to death after their disastrous Battle.” Nichols notes that they “lacked provisions of all kinds, and provides a quote from a U.S. Army surgeon which described the degree of poverty and suffering experienced by Indians, in this case, in Kansas:

It is impossible for me to depict the wretchedness of their condition. Their only protection from the snow upon which they lie is prairie grass and from the wind scraps and rags stretched upon switches. Some of them had personal clothing; most had but shreds and rags which did not conceal their nakedness, and I saw seven varying in age from three to fifteen without one thread upon their bodies.

Nichols sums up by stating, “There was little food and disease took a heavy toll.” The above information brings us back to the words of Mary Shelly’s monster:

The words [of the lessons] induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were high and unsullied descent [ancestry] united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but, without either, he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of that chosen few! [emphasis added]

The above description provided by Dr. David Nichols gives us just the merest glimpse into the horrific degree of human suffering brought about by Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling and its progeny, and by U.S. federal Indian law and policy generally. Shelly’s Frankenstein asks a question which provides a frame of reference for the Johnson ruling and the domination code. It is a question that those suffering and dying in the frozen wind on the prairie in Kansas could have asked themselves: “Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?” Stand with Standing Rock! Mni Wiconi (“Water is Life”).

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from