There is reason in an Indian, though nature has made him with a red skin! . . . I am no scholar, and I care not who knows it; but judging from what I have seen, at deer chases and squirrel hunts, of the sparks below, I should think a rifle in the hands of their grandfathers was not so dangerous as a hickory bow and a good flint-head might be, if drawn with Indian judgment, and sent by an Indian eye.
Hawkeye makes this pronouncement on Indians in Chapter III in response to Chingachgook’s proposal of racial equality. Hawkeye’s words typify the novel’s ambivalence about race. On the one hand, Hawkeye expresses surprise that Chingachgook can “reason,” having equated “red skin” with the absence of intelligence. Hawkeye’s insinuation is that Indians are inferior to whites. Yet, on the other hand, a different interpretation of these exact words could suggest that Hawkeye opposes racism. Hawkeye could mean he does not understand why most whites think Indians lack reason simply because their skin is not white.
Hawkeye then praises in exaggerated fashion the fierceness of the Indian’s handmade weapons compared to the power of the white man’s rifle. While he expresses his amazement at the Indians’ prowess, his praise could be interpreted as condescending. After all, Hawkeye’s praise of the Indians includes a suggestion that Indians cannot operate rifles. Perhaps Hawkeye approves of the Indians’ skill with their quaint toys but operates on the assumption that the whites’ rifles are far superior if wielded by knowledgeable white men. Like the novel, Hawkeye expresses tolerance and racism simultaneously.