Cooper Indians

… Cooper’s Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them. ~ Mark Twain


In his delightful essay “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper,” Mark Twain defines Cooper Indians, which I’ll do in a moment, but first, let’s watch Cooper Indians at work in the Real World [SPOILER ALERT, if you have not read the essay, either read it now, else stop reading this UNTIL you have read that, because I wouldn’t want to spoil the delight of your first reading of this, most hilarious, indispensable essay]:

From Bachmann, a persuasive case for why many Republicans don’t fear a shutdown Byron York / Washington Examiner

Why have House Republicans pursued their effort to defund, and now to delay, Obamacare so relentlessly, even though they have almost zero chance of success in the face of a rapidly-approaching deadline for shutting down the government?

Well, if anyone understands politics and long-term strategic thinking, it’s Michelle Bachmann, (R, Toontown), who is not only NOT under the burden of seeking re-election, but is a candidate for years of free federal housing, medical care and supervision.

THAT is nearly a Cooper Indian.


Mark Twain

Now, let me explain what a Cooper Indian actually is, per Mr. Twain:

[James Fenimore] Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians.

He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage.

They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour.[…]

indian snowshoe dance

The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat.

Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by?

No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians.

There was seldom a sane one among them.

old Mark Twain

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under.

Now, then, what did the six Indians do?

It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did.

Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped.

And missed the boat!

That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow.

It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house.

Cooper was no architect.

indiansThere still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it.

Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern.

Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian.

In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious.

The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer…

‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’

That, in short, is a Cooper Indian. I have seen many since, most notably on the intertubes, where you will see this (I have seen it several times, including today)


Someone posts an old Facebook or Internet hoax. They don’t bother checking Snopes, or googling it, but, instead think it’s funny or important and post it to all their friends.

Someone else (ofttimes MORE than one) will post that it’s a hoax, and even, sometimes, go ahead and post the LINK to said hoax.

Following readers will go ahead and do said stunt ANYWAY, as though no one had raised a red flag about it being a hoax.


The FIRST poster (the Chief Cooper Indian) will never bother checking back, just as they never checked in the first place. This is the indian who jumps onto the houseboat and knocks himself senseless.

The following posters are the Cooper Indians, jumping, falling in the water and repeating, further and further astern.


Cooper Indian cogitating

Michelle Bachmann and the Republican House are Cooper Indians who, having seen Newton of Gingrinch stealing Christmas and losing two straight elections and his job, beginning with an equally idiotic government shutdown neither related it to the current sequester (angering grannies virally across the land) nor the putative shutdown.

bachmann tp rebuttal

It is as though, having watched a losing round of Russian Roulette, they have said to themselves, “Oh, that’s EASY to win. Here, let me show you.”

The trigger cocks with an audible


targeting pistols

as our Cooper Indians prepare to jump …




Mr. Williams has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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