June 3, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Post-colonial Perspectives in “Indian Camp”: Some Notes

Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” a story from his collection In Our Time, is a poignant narrative that presents the coming-of-age experience of a young boy named Nick Adams. While seemingly a simple tale of a medical emergency, post-colonial criticism provides a lens through which one can discern the narrative’s subtle yet significant power dynamics. Hemingway’s story, when viewed from this perspective, unfolds as an examination of colonial dominance, “otherness,” and cultural insensitivity.

“Indian Camp” chronicles the journey of Nick, his father (Dr. Adams), and his Uncle George to a native camp to assist a woman in labor. Immediately, Hemingway establishes a hierarchical dynamic that echoes colonial structures of power. Dr. Adams assumes a position of authority, wielding his medical expertise to impose control over the situation. His intervention mirrors the colonial notion of the “white savior,” which positions the colonizer as the benevolent rescuer of the helpless “Other.”

The American Indians in the narrative are reduced to passive subjects. Hemingway describes them as silent, complacent figures huddled in a shanty, objectified through the impersonal gaze of the outsiders. When Dr. Adams declares, “her screams are not impor­tant,” when referring to the woman in labor, he dehumanizes them, reducing their identities to their ethnicity, a typical tactic of colonial discourse. The interaction between Dr. Adams and the suffering woman is representative of the colonial intrusion. His lack of concern for her pain, proceeding with the surgery without anesthesia, is emblematic of the insensitivity often demonstrated by colonizers towards the colonized. The woman's screams, muffled by multiple people holding her down, symbolize the subaltern's silenced voice in the face of oppressive colonial control.

Hemingway’s story also portrays the theme of “Otherness” vividly. The American Indian camp is described as a separate, alien place. The narrative underscores the distinction between the world of Nick and his father, associated with progress and civilization, and the American Indian world, construed as primitive and backward.

The tragic end of the story, where the American Indian husband is found dead by suicide, further complicates the power dynamics. The man’s suicide could be interpreted as the ultimate act of resistance against the intrusion and control imposed by Dr. Adams, an act that disrupts the narrative of colonial dominance. However, this outcome is likely the result of a more personal consequence of George’s likely affair with the native woman.

Yet, Hemingway’s narrative does not provide any direct critique of these dynamics. The story ends with Nick and his father rowing away from the camp, leaving behind the tragedy they inadvertently caused. This could be viewed as a critique of the colonial pattern of causing disruption and then withdrawing, leaving the colonized to bear the consequences.

Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” while a seemingly simple narrative of a boy’s initiation into the world of suffering and death, is teeming with subtle post-colonial undercurrents. The power dynamics, “Otherness,” and cultural insensitivity characteristic of colonial discourse are starkly displayed, challenging readers to interrogate the implications of such colonial encounters.

A post-colonial interpretation of “Indian Camp” illuminates the complex power relations and cultural interactions that are central to the narrative. It invites a critical reading of the text that unveils its commentary on the consequences of colonial intrusion and dominance, offering a richer, more nuanced understanding of Hemingway’s short story.