Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Happy Hunting Ground"

In the landscape of words and phrases that are somehow associated with American Indians is "Happy Hunting Ground."

I spent a half hour or so, just now, trying to figure out where/when it entered common usage. So far, all I find suggests it dates back to the early 1800s, and that it is a paradise or heaven for American Indians....

Personally, I intensely dislike the phrase. Ann Rinaldi used it in at least one of her books, and I just ran across it in Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, first published in 1941. On page 59, Lenski writes:
After a time their grief subsided and they rejoiced to remember that their brother had gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds above the sky.
I'll spend more time digging on that phrase... Who said it first? Was it an American Indian? What tribe? Why? Skeptic that I am, I'll bet it was a non-Native person... A writer perhaps, or maybe a hobbyist! The hobbyists were (and are) pretty prolific at coming up with "Indian lore."

Update at 8:40 PM: Amazon has a nifty option, that allows you to search the text of a book. On a hunch, I searched James Fenimore Cooper's books and found he used "Happy Hunting Ground" in Pioneers, on page 760. That book came out in 1823. (Last of the Mohicans came out in 1826.) Any librarians reading the blog? If you can find an earlier reference, that'd be terrific!


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I had a gut feeling the Lenski book was romanticizing. Will look forward to more of your comments on it with great interest.

Anonymous said...

Weird, I've never heard this used with people. It was where my dad always told me that dogs went, a cosmology which sort of makes sense and has the advantage of being, um, not glaringly offensive.

Ulao said...

I woke up this morning thinking of that expression and had an interesting insight. The Ohio valley, largely depopulated by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, was known as kantuckee and was used by various Native American peoples as a hunting ground. The Iroquois nominally held it but because it was so large could not police it. The etymology of Kentucky is disputed but two origins seem most common. Iroquoian: Place of meadows. Wyandot: Land where we will live tomorrow. Let us assume the latter. Did these people literally mean this is the place where I will go the very next day or did they mean this is a place I will go some day, perhaps when I die? As to Happy Hunting Ground this too relates to the place I will go when I die. Kentucky is often even today referred to as a happy hunting ground. Is there some connection here?

Sam Jonson said...

In its earliest uses, the phrase seems to have also meant something like a cornucopia, a hunting ground with plenty of game, as shown here in a non-Amerindian-related usage. So that's another thing to mention on your "Problematic Phrases" page, Debbie.