In the wilderness of upper New York, two cultures clash—white Eurocentric culture and native Indian culture. Ample evidence is given in the novel of the destruction caused to the Indians by the coming of the whites—Hawkeye himself acknowledges that this is so. The reason that Magua was driven from the Hurons, for example, was because the whites introduced the Indians to alcohol, and he fell victim to it. The savagery of the conflict between whites and Indians is apparent in numerous incidents. The two races do not understand each other’s ways, even though they make many alliances with each other according to what they believe is in their best interest.
Generally speaking, Hawkeye, Heyward, and David Gamut, each in his different way, represent the values of white civilization. Heyward represents the military ideal; David represents the sect of Protestantism known as Calvinism. Hawkeye is a more complex case because he in a sense lives in both worlds, Indian and white, and has great respect for some of the Indian ways. Although he thinks Indians other than Delawares and Mohicans are liars and “varlets,” he acknowledges the validity of their religion and respects many of their customs.
However, Hawkeye still sees a wide gulf between the ways of the “Mingo” and those of the white man. He believes that whites have a more enlightened set of values, inspired by Christianity, although he is not an especially religious man. He claims that it is because he is white that he does not kill Magua when in Chapter XXV he has the Huron chief at his mercy. He gives the same reason for not killing the Indian medicine man from whom he steals the bearskin. Revenge, Hawkeye claims, is an Indian practice. However, the reader is left in no doubt that Hawkeye has killed on numerous occasions. He says that there is no quarrel between him and the Mingoes that cannot be settled by a rifle shot.
The author’s perspective, which is heard in the voice of the narrator, is also complex. Cooper abundantly expresses the attitudes commonly held in his time toward Indians. He regularly refers to them as “savages.” Magua is depicted as cunning and crafty, and it is implied that these are common characteristics of Indians. Just as Hawkeye believes that revenge is an Indian pursuit, Cooper’s narrator comments that Magua was “goaded incessantly by those revengeful impulses that in a savage seldom slumber” (Chapter XXVII).
But in many other places, the narrator, like Hawkeye, makes favorable comments about Indian culture. He makes some effort to be objective, to see beyond his own prejudices. Much of this is in connection with the Mohicans, the “good” Indians, but he also acknowledges that even the “savages” have some qualities to be appreciated—in the way he admires the construction of the Huron village in Chapter XXI, for example.
The theme of interracial relationships between Indians and whites is an undercurrent throughout the novel. Such relationships are frowned upon and regarded as unnatural. Magua’s desire for Cora, for example, is considered by all as repugnant.
The matter is complicated by the fact that Cora herself has dark blood in her, since her mother was descended from slaves.
Although Cora vehemently rejects Magua’s approaches, the first time she sees him, her reaction is mixed. She looks at him with “pity, admiration and horror, as her dark eye followed the easy motions of the savage.” The description continues by emphasizing the darkness of Cora’s hair, and her complexion, which was “not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the color of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds” (Chapter I). The suggestion is that it is the dark blood in Cora that attracts Magua, and produces an unacknowledged response in her.
Cora appears to have a more enlightened attitude to matters of race than was common at the time. She remarks of Uncas, for example, that no one looking at him would “remember the shade of his skin” (Chapter VI). But the response of those around her is even more significant: “an embarrassed silence succeeded this remark.” It is clear that the color of a man’s skin is of great significance indeed in the eyes of everyone but Cora.
Uncas’s love for Cora falls into the same category of interracial relationships. The author avoids having to deal with the consequences of it by killing off both characters, although he permits the Delaware women to believe that Cora and Uncas are together after death. Hawkeye, not surprisingly, scoffs at this idea.
The theme of the undesirability of interracial relationships does not, however, extend to friendship between men. The friendship and loyalty between Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas forms a consistent theme throughout the novel. The touching scene at the end, in which Hawkeye reaches out to comfort Chingachgook in his bereavement, and swear his continued friendship, suggests the possibility of intercultural understanding and cooperation. The tragic irony is that Chingachgook and Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, symbolically represent the last of a dying Indian culture, including not only the Mohicans but all the Indian tribes—dispersed, divided and ultimately destroyed by the coming of the Europeans.