Western stories were easily one of the biggest selling genres during the twenties and thirties so it is no surprise that Edgar Rice Burroughs would take a crack at it so today we will look at his novel The War Chief.
Today’s readers having been exposed to many deconstructed views of the Old West where such films as Dances With Wolves depict the Native Americans in a more accurate and nuanced portrayal rather than the murderous savages they were often depicted as in dime store novels and the movies during Hollywood’s golden years but in 1927 when Burroughs wrote The War Chief he was way ahead of the curve giving a very detailed and honest look at the how the White Man and the Indian really were during that turbulent time period. This shouldn’t be too surprising to fans of Burroughs as his 1926 novel The Girl from Hollywood tackled some pretty tough topics of the time and deromanticised Hollywood as well as the West.
The story of The War Chief centers around the Apache Indian named Shoz-Dijiji or the Black Bear who was the adopted son of Geronimo the War Chief of all the Apaches. The book begins with the murder of a pioneer family but whose baby is spared because not only does he not cry when one of the Indians holds him up by a leg he also looks very much like an Indian babe, this being because his mother’s grandfather was a full blooded Cherokee Indian, and so Geronimo orders the babe spared and adopts him and raises him as one of his own.
Shoz-Dijiji is raised to hate the white man not knowing that he in fact is white and when the villainous Apache chief Juh calls Shoz-Dijiji a white man this eventually leads to Juh’s death as there is no greater insult in Shoz-Dijiji’s eyes. Burroughs spends a good amount of time showing how the Apaches live and play, what their religious beliefs are and how badly they have been treated by the invading white man, but the most interesting thing about The War Chief and its sequel Apache Devil is that Burroughs paints both the Indians and the whites with many shades of grey. There are good Indians as well as bad ones just as there are good and bad people among the whites, but Burroughs also doesn’t sugar coat the amount of raiding and murdering of innocent whites whose only crime was to be living on or passing through land that once belong to the Apache. Now make no mistake Burroughs completely understood their hatred and resentment of the white man who murdered their kind like animals, stole their land, broke treaties so often as to be beyond embarrassing and the book as whole mostly sides with the Indians which certainly makes this book stand out among its contemporaries.
Now I do have some criticism of this book, as much as I enjoyed it, this book could have worked just as well if Shoz-Dijiji was not white but rather a full blooded Apache for when his character is shown refusing to kill women and torture captives, unlike all the others in his tribe, we are left thinking this is not because of how he was raised but because white man’s blood flows in his veins. Burroughs tries to dance around this by giving all kinds of reasons for Shoz-Dijiji’s anti murder and torture stance but it basically comes down to Burroughs not wanting a hero who would do those kind of things and being we know the hero is different by blood we can’t help but draw the conclusion that he is good because he is white. If Shoz-Dijiji had been written as a full blooded Apache then these character traits would just have been things that set him apart from his friends and family and not something from his genes. So whatever Burroughs intent was it does come off as a tad racist which is unfortunate as the book is by far very pro Native American in most respects.
Side Note: This book may be pro Native American but it is definitely not pro Mexican. The Apaches have been at war with the people of Mexico way before white man came to America so Burroughs takes this fact and has most of the raiding and killing being done against Mexicans as this surely makes it easier for your average American reader to side with Shoz-Dijiji when he isn’t spending most the book brutally murdering white people. We do hear of Shoz-Dijiji raiding white owned ranches and the like but these are in passing and not dwelt on. The Return of the Mucker contains many more examples of Burroughs dislike and stereotypical views of the Mexican people that show that a great author can have certain blind spots.
The book deals heavily with the Apaches being screwed over and being treated poorly resulting in them going on the “War Trail” on multiple occasions with Shoz-Dijiji becoming a greater and craftier fighter because of it but there is one chink in his armor and that is love. Growing up he fell in love with a strong and beautiful Indian maiden but when the sneaky and jealous chief Juh tells her that Shoz-Dijiji is dead and takes her away with him this results in her death due to a cavalry attack while she was with Juh’s tribe and then later Juh’s death when Shoz-Dijiji catches up with him and murders the hell out of him. She of course wasn’t the novels true love interest she was just the place holder until Shoz-Dijiji met up with Wichita Billings a white daughter of a local rancher who Shoz-Dijiji saves from a nasty frontier villain aptly named Cheetim who runs an Indian trading posts as well as a brothel where he plans on placing Wichita. Though Wichita finds herself greatly attracted to Shoz-Dijiji she spurns his love because she is a white woman and he an Indian. The book ends with racism conquering love which isn’t something I expected from a Burroughs adventure but I’m pretty sure love will prevail in the sequel.
The War Chief is a flawed but excellent book as the author avoids ennobling one race while vilifying another to give us a fascinating look at America’s greatest culture clash but hampered by the trope of “hero white man is better at being a native than the natives are.”
The War Chief
Book Rank - 7.5/10
Burroughs tackles the difficult topic of racial hatred between early American settlers and the Native Americans whose land they stole. On the whole Burroughs stays fairly well and balanced with only the heroes being an Indian who is actually white was I think a bit of a misstep, but overall a fun and informative read.