Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Native Americans

In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, color reveals a history of violence and loss that forms a bond between white farmers and Native Americans. This theme is distilled in the first sentence of the novel, which reads, “To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth”(Grapes of Wrath 1).

“Red country” is a phrase that generalizes all of the Dust Bowl states, just as the derogatory term, Okies, generalized all migrants from the region. The phrase also draws a parallel between the migration of white farmers and the migration of Native Americans. This parallel creates a shared experience between the two races. This is exemplified in the scene in which Joad, after discovering that his family home has been abandoned, examines his family’s possessions. On a wall located in a bedroom is a “picture of an Indian girl in color, labeled Red Wing”(28). The presence of the “Indian girl” in Joad’s bulldozed home is a metaphor for the alienation both races experience after having their homelands taken away.

The colored photo and the color present in the girl’s name provide a racial lens to “red country,” which, in a racial context, can be read as Indian Country, or the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory was a staging ground for tribes prior to the Civil War in a process called allotment, a federal policy that privatized tribal lands1. The government’s intent was twofold: to dismantle the power that tribes held in the southeastern corner of the United States and to free up land to fulfill the country’s manifest destiny. This ideology motivated the U.S. to sign treaties with tribes like the Choctaw, forcing the Choctaw and many other tribes to migrate out of the southeast and undertake the perilous and often fatal journey west in what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Steinbeck purposefully alludes to the suffering of the Native Americans through the use of color to create a theme of universal suffering, linking the past and the present to showcase that the Dust Bowl was not simply a cause of suffering, but an effect of decades of injustice. Oklahoma’s earth is “scarred” and the redness of the country is like an open wound. The cause of the injury lies in the settlers’ migratory practices following the Civil War.

The Homestead Act, Kinkaid Act, and Enlarged Homestead Act brought a flood of inexperienced farmers to regions like Oklahoma, overriding any claim Native Americans had to territories that the U.S. promised them. In the 1920s, roaring capitalism drove the price of wheat up, causing farmers to plow farmland at a rate that was unsustainable. The falling prices of wheat during the Depression only increased attempts to cultivate marginal farmland. In this economic context, red signifies the passion of greed that often accompanies a capitalist economy, and the end result is a land that is bankrupt, marginalized, and furious.

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