Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction - Sean Teuton 2018
To write in English
“Come over and help us!” the Indian pleads. The 1628 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company depicts this Indian with a speech bubble, an allusion to Acts 16:9, in which Paul dreams that heathens invite his Gospel into their lands. The English colonies answered this apocryphal invitation with what they called civilization, including literacy and Christianity for indigenous people. Because missionaries sought to bring their Bible to Native Americans, the first publications in North America relied on the literary translations of Native people. Indeed missionary John Eliot never could have produced his “Indian library,” the first major North American publishing house, without the help of translators such as Montaukett Cockenoe-de-Long Island, Job Nesuton, who was Massachusett, and Nipmuck James Printer.
Missionaries soon taught their “Praying Indians” to write in their Algonquian languages to distribute the Gospel, but by the middle seventeenth century literate Native Americans began to write for their own communities as well. Cockenoe-de-Long Island drafted deeds for Massachusetts land settlements, and James Printer served as King Philip’s official scribe and probably recorded the release of white captive Mary Rowlandson in 1676. By the 1660s Native people attended Harvard, and by the American Revolution hundreds of Native American students had attended the College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College, and what became Princeton University.
In the wake of the religious revival known as the Great Awakening in the 1740s leaders such as John Sargeant Sr. and Eleazar Wheelock intensified Eliot’s earlier plan for the Praying Indian villages, where Native children remained with their families to worship and learn. These religious leaders discovered that Native American students learned better when far from the influence of their families. They thus designed the first manual labor Indian residential and boarding schools. The schools, such as Moor’s Indian Charity School, started by Wheelock, sought to expunge indigenous culture through religious conversion, hard work, and literacy in English. This model of Native American education remained into the twentieth century.
Such schools produced the first Native American writers and the first advocates for Native rights. Mohegans Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, who studied at Moor’s, and Mahican Hendrick Aupaumut, who attended Sargeant’s school, became fully capable in western ways and English literacy. These Native American leaders produced some of the first autobiographies and sermons in English.
On a stormy September day in 1772 in New Haven before a crowd of Europeans, Africans, and Natives, Occom, now an ordained minister, delivered “A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian.” Occom describes what we today recognize as a plague of alcoholism among colonized peoples. “Drunkenness,” he explains, “has brought this destruction and untimely death upon him.” Alcoholism strips “us of every desirable comfort in this life; by this we are poor, miserable and wretched; by this sin we have no name of credit in the world among polite nations; for this sin we are despised in the world, and it is all right and just, for we despise ourselves more; and if we don’t regard ourselves, who will regard us?” Occom exhorts Native people to refuse the weapons of their destruction—the colonizer’s liquor—to recover their lives and revitalize their nations. His call begins a tradition of Native American intellectualism seeking to empower members of the community, where colonial resistance must begin, for “if we don’t regard ourselves, who will regard us?” Occom’s sermon became a bestseller and is thought to be the first publication in English by a Native person.
These first Native American writers retained many of their indigenous views. Occom and Johnson eventually grew disillusioned with Wheelock, and in 1774 Johnson secured New York land from the Oneidas to establish their own Praying Indian village, entirely indigenous in inhabitance and governance. In his speech to the Oneidas Johnson too invokes alcohol as an emblem of colonial trickery, and he beseeches audiences to sober up from the previous era’s trust of the English: “Whilst our forefathers were blind, ignorant, yea drowned in Spirituous Liquors; the English stript them, yea they as it were cut off their Right hands; and now we their Children [are] just …coming to our Senses, like one that has been drunk.” Johnson’s Brothertown settlement became a refuge for Oneidas during the Revolutionary War and, under the leadership of Aupaumut, other Native Americans settled nearby at Stockbridge. Around 1790 Aupaumut wrote one of the earliest Native historical pieces in which he, like Occom and Johnson, uses his literacy in English to assert the autonomous, pre-Christian civilization of his Stockbridge people.
Native American protest
During the Second Great Awakening, in the 1820s, African Americans and Native people joined with Protestant clergy to attack such social ills as drunkenness, slavery, and the Indian Removal Act, which Congress passed in 1830 to force all Native Americans west of the Mississippi. In the 1830s emerged a Native voice so perceptive and trenchant it would not be rivaled until the 1960s. Pequot minister William Apess was born in 1798 in Colrain, Massachusetts, and, after his parents separated in 1801, he was given to his grandparents. In 1802 his intoxicated grandmother beat him so badly that the town selectmen apprenticed him to a white family nearby. Apess had memories as a child of abuse and abandonment, perhaps in concert with local prejudices, that left him afraid of the mere sight of a Native person. In his autobiography A Son of the Forest (1829) he describes happening upon darkly tanned European women, whom he mistakes for Native Americans, and flees in terror. There he also tells of becoming lost in the woods, where he shrinks in fear of the imagined savage non-Christian inhabitants.
After living with several white families and repeatedly running away, Apess enlisted in the War of 1812 as a drummer boy. In 1815 he mustered out of the army and traveled through Canada, eventually making his way home to Connecticut on foot. Apess was reunited with his aunt, Sally George, who practiced both Pequot lifeways and Christianity, and he was baptized during a Methodist meeting in 1818. He started a family and became an itinerant missionary and, after his application for a preacher’s license was declined by the Methodist Episcopal Church, was ordained by the dissenting Protestant Methodist Church in 1831. When Apess visited the Mashpee community of Cape Cod, he became an ardent supporter of their “Woodland Revolt” against Massachusetts to retain their ancestral land. With his impassioned protest writing in his Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe (1835), Apess helped Mashpees become one of the few Native American groups to preserve their autonomy during the disastrous removal era.
5. A portrait of the urbane William Apess, printed as the frontispiece of his self-published A Son of the Forest (second edition, 1831). Until 1837 he spelled his name “Apes.”
In a slim book, The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833), Apess celebrates the conversion of Pequot women. This book’s appended essay, “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” fulminates against European Christian hypocrisy:
Assemble all nations together in your imagination, and then let the whites be seated among them…. Now suppose these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon it—which skin do you think would have the greatest? …I know that when I cast my eye upon that white skin, and if I saw those crimes written upon it, I should enter my protest against it immediately and cleave to that which is more honorable.
Apess directly addresses white people by name, demanding they look upon themselves to confront the Christian hypocrisy of believing in a God that favors Europeans over all others. Yet he also harnesses Christianity’s promise of human equality to “seat” whites with other peoples at a desegregated table, then images the power of writing to expose the denied crimes of colonialism and slavery that rely on the failed logic of race. Apess’s spectacle of crime-written flesh shocks readers to this day. Here the marks of savagery do not appear as indigenous tattoos or slave brands on African bodies; rather, through literacy, Apess claims Native American rights and envisions colonial crimes writ bodily as well. Nothing quite like it reappears for more than a century.
Apess wrote two other books: one, a sermon on the misguided though then-popular theory that indigenous people are descended from a lost tribe of Israel, and another on King Philip’s War. In 1675 Metacom, or King Philip, led the Wampanoag Confederacy against the Puritans. In Eulogy on King Philip (1836), Apess incorrectly imagines his descent from Metacom to remind North Americans that all are equal in the eyes of God. In his autobiography he plainly states, “the blood of a king is no better than that of the subject. We are in fact but one family; we are all the descendants of one great progenitor—Adam.” Apess lionizes Metacom, a supposed villain in the American story, to reclaim a history—and thus a humanity—for indigenous peoples thought to be caught in a savage state and without a record of their national past. So doing Apess remains the standard-bearer of protest writing that reclaims indigenous history for indigenous rights.
This genre of alternative Native American history became invaluable during the removal era, when North American proponents classified Native people as incapable of being educated. Because Native Americans did not individually own or cultivate the earth, the argument went, whites had a “preemptive right” to their lands. In 1826 the federal government supported the disputed Treaty of Buffalo Creek by which the Ogden Land Company gained huge tracts of land in central New York. Senecas and their Quaker allies protested, and the Seneca orator Red Jacket went to Washington to repudiate the fraudulent document. The Senate refused to intervene and the Ogden Land Company began selling Seneca lands to whites.
About this time Tuscarora intellectual David Cusick published his indigenous national history, Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations. Cusick displayed an unusual intellect even as a child: in 1803 a missionary describes visiting the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where the boy was cherished as a prodigy in drawing and painting. Cusick was reluctant to convey Iroquois notions of history, which were “involved with fables” that cannot be divorced from historical fact, as western readers might have demanded. He nonetheless pressed on to write the first history in English by a Native person, wherein the story of the universe includes the “holder of the heavens” and “stonish giants” who brutalize the first settlers of the Six Nations, or Iroquois homeland. Like Apess, Cusisk is aware of white perceptions about Native Americans as superstitious savages. Cusick argues the merit of Iroquois oral history on the basis that, not unlike biblical parable, it serves to build a universe, resolve peoplehood, explain relationships with land and other life forms, and establish the sovereign status of indigenous nations. With this ultimate purpose Cusick uses oral history to affirm the sacred origin of the Iroquois’s government, and thus their spiritual but especially legal rights to their homeland.
Other Iroquois intellectuals shared in the peaceful though vociferous resistance to the Buffalo Creek Treaty. Occom’s lecture tours in England generated funds for later Seneca writer Maris Bryant Pierce to attend Moor’s Indian Charity School, which later became Dartmouth College. Pierce recognized the flawed nature of arguments for Indian removal, the primary one being that Native Americans cannot be westernized. His writings reverse colonial relations to gain a moment of political leverage and moral authority. In his Address on the Present Condition and Prospects of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of North America (1838), delivered in a Baptist church in Buffalo in August 1838, Pierce asks:
Say, if some beings from fairy land, or some distant planet, should come to you in such a manner as to cause you to deem them children of greater light and superior wisdom to yourselves, and you should open to them the hospitality of your dwellings and the fruits of your labor, and they should, by dint of their superior wisdom dazzle and amaze you, so as for what to them were toys and rattles they should gain freer admission and fuller welcome, till finally they should claim the right to your possessions and of hunting you, like wild beasts, from your long and hitherto undisputed domain, how ready would you be to be taught of them.—How cordially would you open your minds to the conviction that they meant not to deceive you further and still more fatally in their proffers of pretended kindness.
Here Pierce not only invites self-reflection among North American settlers but also gives reason for the reluctance among Native Americans to assume the “manners and customs” of their conquerors. Other Seneca intellectuals argued in support of their emigration west, beyond the interference of white settlers. Nathaniel Thayer Strong was a European-educated and converted “Young Chief” like Pierce, served as the interpreter for the Buffalo Creek Treaty signing, and supported removal. In his Appeal to the Christian Community on the Condition and Prospects of the New York Indians (1841), Strong describes Native peoples as “feeble remnants of once powerful nations” who face “impending extinction.” Like other pro-removal Native Americans, Thayer views emigration as the only choice for the survival of indigenous nations.
When missionary Samuel Worcester arrived at the Brainerd Mission in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1825 to make Cherokees “English in their language, civilized in their habits, and Christian in their religion,” he was dismayed to discover that they were already literate—in their own language.
Around 1815 a middle-aged Cherokee silversmith began work on a project that soon consumed his every waking hour. Sequoyah had sat with friends who marveled that Europeans communicated without speech across distances with their “talking leaves.” Some wondered whether the Creator had given them this gift or if they themselves invented it. Sequoyah believed the latter and, picking up some charcoal and a piece of wood, began making a sign for horse. The men laughed but the conversation sparked his mind and he soon set to work. Sequoyah had an impaired leg that increasingly bound him to his cabin in Wills Valley, Alabama, where he became more dedicated to his many drawings. He had a white father whom he had never met, he spoke no English, and he could neither read nor write. Possessing no models for the understanding of writing, he nonetheless imagined a system by which a symbol could indicate a sound. Having no pen, ink, or paper, he carved marks into wood with a knife. Later he carved a pen, learned that it needed a groove to hold the ink, and concocted his own ink from Poke berries.
Though Sequoyah faced severe censure by his local community, he eventually isolated 86 sounds by characters to complete his syllabary. He tested his system with his daughter, Ahyokah, and she quickly mastered it, but when he attempted to introduce the syllabary to his countrymen, they scoffed and ridiculed him as a fool or, worse, a witch, so he devised a new plan. In 1821 he traveled to the Cherokee settlements in Arkansas, showed them his daughter’s skill, and won their approval to train some students there. In a short time Sequoyah had taught these students to write, and so convinced a local leader in Arkansas to dictate to him a letter to a close friend in the Cherokee Nation in the east.
They sealed the letter with wax and Sequoyah carried the letter with him back to Willstown in Alabama to deliver it in person, where he assembled some of the Nation’s most recognized men, broke the letter’s seal, and read the message from distant Arkansas. Sequoyah had single-handedly invented a written language, an extremely rare accomplishment anywhere in the world. For his invention he won the status of “beloved man” of the Cherokee Nation. Citizens embraced his gift and orders for pen, ink, and paper flooded the Indian agent; soon Sequoyan could be found written in charcoal on buildings, carved into trees, and used in the notes passed among Cherokee students in mission schools.
In 1828 Elias Boudinot penned the first issue of North America’s first newspaper in an indigenous language, the Cherokee Phoenix. The paper declared in English and Cherokee the vital role that American literacy will play in transforming Native people: “[We hope] for that happy period, when all the Indian tribes of America shall arise, Phoenix like, from their ashes, and when the terms, ’Indian depredation,’ ’war-whoop,’ ’scalping knife’ and the like, shall become obsolete, and forever be ’buried deep underground.’ ” Though Boudinot wished to make some symbols of supposed savagery “obsolete,” he does so by retaining other time-honored Native American symbols, such as the Cherokee’s central fire of worship, and that of international peace between “Indian tribes of America” and North Americans, the Indian hatchet “buried deep underground.”
By the early nineteenth century Enlightenment’s “civilization policy” had crumbled beneath a romantic version of nationalism and the invention of racial difference. Indians were now viewed as uneducable and doomed to extinction; their only hope, argued supporters of Indian removal, was preservation in the West beyond the reach of civilization. Indigenous nations hatched a different plan. They sought to adapt those European values that encouraged their overpowering invaders to see them as sufficiently civilized to own their ancestral lands. At the same time they attempted to convey their legal and cultural autonomy as self-governing nations. In 1824 Cherokees informed President John Quincy Adams: “The arts of civilized life have been successfully introduced among us; we consider ourselves permanently settled and no inducement can ever prompt us to abandon our habitations for a distant, wild, and strange clime.”
Though the U.S. government recognized Cherokee sovereignty, it also promised the state of Georgia that it would extinguish all Indian claims to land within Georgia’s claimed borders. On the discovery of gold around 1830, Georgians flooded into Cherokee lands, and Georgia passed laws to eclipse the Cherokee government. Cherokees could not legislate and could not testify in Georgia courts, and non-Cherokees could not reside in the Cherokee Nation. The Georgia Guard removed missionaries “chained with horses’ trace-chains around their necks and fastened, one to the neck of a horse, the other to the tail of the cart.” Cherokees pleaded with the federal government to uphold their treaty promising to defend Cherokees against states’ intrusions, but Andrew Jackson replied, “You can live on your lands in Georgia if you choose, but I cannot interfere with the laws of that state to protect you.”
Cherokee leaders carried their cause to the Supreme Court. In 1831, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall determined that, because the United States had made treaties with Indian tribes, the United States had implicitly recognized the tribes’ capacity to govern, and thus their nationhood. But because Indian tribes were within the borders of the United States they were not foreign. And because the tribes had accepted the protection of the federal government, they were in a state of “pupilage” to the United States. Indian tribes were thus “domestic dependent” nations, as Marshall coined the ambiguous phrase. Other officials worked further to diminish the nation status of Indian tribes. Promoting removal, Secretary of War Lewis Cass published a report on the southeastern Indians insisting that “government is unknown among them…. They are in a state of nature, as much so as it is possible for any people to be.”
Aware of the threats underlying such fictions, Native American intellectuals became good negotiators of complex ideas regarding representation, nation, race, and culture. One strategy was to seek education from western institutions to be recognized as rational agents with a government and a nation. By the late 1820s, almost all Cherokees could write in Sequoyan and, with the eventual success of missionary schools, many could speak, read, and write English. Citizens such as Elias Boudinot departed for Cornwall Mission School in Connecticut and returned to establish the national newspaper. His cousin John Ridge also left for Cornwall and came back a lawyer. Others, such as David Brown, returned from Andover in Maine to lead the Moral and Literary Society of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation appointed such intellectuals as delegates to Washington, where they gained support from the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and William Wirt. These and other Cherokee diplomats operated comfortably within their own and foreign cultures, and, in fact, they consciously reshaped their national identity precisely through such interaction. Such Cherokee cosmopolitans viewed their adaptation of European ways as fundamental to their ever-changing nationhood, not as their corruption by civilization, and through their increasingly international literatures they protected that nationhood.
In an 1828 lecture at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia Boudinot declares the distinct ancestral place of the Cherokee Nation, on the one hand, and, with its sublime vistas, its ability to nurture their “Americanness,” on the other. Employing what one scholar calls the Cherokee “discourse of rural virtue,” Boudinot rapturously exhorts: “Those lofty and barren mountains give to us that free air and pure water which distinguish our country.” And later: “The government, though defective in many respects, is well suited to the condition of the inhabitants. As they rise in information and refinement, changes in it must follow, until they arrive at that state of advancement, when I trust they will be admitted into all the privileges of the American family.”Boudinot asks not for U.S. citizenship but for international exchange. In Jacksonian America the ambiguity between the national and the foreign was only exacerbated by Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, which classified Indians as neither foreign nationals nor U.S. citizens. Cherokee writers thus used their originary view of kinship and their new status as “domestic” nations to open up and enter that American family. Swiftly employing this rhetoric in address and journalism, they humanized Cherokee communities as similar to U.S. society and, because they were similar, worthy of sympathy and protection.
Cherokee writers were encouraged by their government not only to represent the cultural, religious, and industrial so-called improvements in the Cherokee Nation, but also to educate the North American public about tribal customs. While some leaders, such as Principal Chief John Ross, wished openly to preserve Cherokee national lifeways, Cherokee citizens felt pressure from their mission-funding sources to portray indigenous habits as retrograde and dwindling, even if such practices were alive and well. For this reason the writings of missionaries and students often conflict. In 1828 a Cherokee mission student named Sally Reece writes to a benefactor in Boston:
First I will tell you about the Cherokees. I think they improve. They have a printing press, and print a paper which is called the Cherokee Phoenix. They come to meeting on Sabbath days. They wear clothes which they made themselves. Some though rude, have shoes and stockings. They keep horses, cows, sheep, and swine. Some have oxen. They cultivate fields. They have yet a great many bad customs but I hope all these will soon be done away.
Reece already understands exactly how to negotiate colonial relations. She begins by acknowledging the progress narrative of the civilization program, then affirms the literacy of the nation, leaving those unaware of the Cherokee language to assume they are learning English. She speaks as though actions or dress alone, especially where they concern church attendance and shoes, determine progress. These, along with husbandry and cultivated fields of not corn but wheat, ensure that the Indians are coming to resemble an American family, Reece seems to promise.
Meanwhile, the missionaries grew restless. In their private writings they complain about Cherokees walking in single file, men leading the women, they said, in case of attack. Missionaries censored their own portrayals of ceremonial dances that “depend mostly upon a variety of obscene gestures and movements which will not bear description.” By 1835 only about 10 percent of Cherokees belonged to a church; all others worshipped traditionally. So Cherokees like Elias Boudinot practiced a kind of double consciousness. They characterize their extant tribalism carefully to reduce its threat to Christian society, ensuring its similarity to North American culture and its certain demise: “Most of our readers probably know what is meant by Indian clans. It is no more than a division of an Indian tribe into large families. But it was the mutual law of clans as connected with murder, which rendered this custom savage and barbarous. We speak of what it was once, not as it is now, for the Cherokee abolished it,” as it read in the Cherokee Phoenix. They did, at least on paper, in 1810.
Cherokee writers naturalized Cherokee cultural tradition even as they showcased Cherokee evolution. Like Lewis Cass, who insisted that Indians’ “habits were stationary and unbending; never changing with the changing circumstances,” many North Americans understood Native people to be outside of time. They were representations of the past in the present. In popular views, Native Americans would inevitably “melt away” before the tide of America’s progress, a civilization evolving in time. To overturn this misperception, as well as to advance their nationhood, Cherokees worked to place their people in time, consciously modifying their world and their lives, as did the North Americans.
Boudinot began his public lecture thus: “Some there are, who at the bare sight of an Indian, would throw back their imaginations to ancient times, to the ravages of savage warfare. What is an Indian? Is he not formed of the same materials with yourself? For ’of one blood God created all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.’ Though it be true that he is ignorant, that he is a heathen, that he is a savage; yet he is no more than all others have been under similar circumstances. Eighteen centuries ago what were the inhabitants of Great Britain? I now stand before you to assist in raising my native country to an equal standing with other nations of the earth.” Here meeting the myth of racial difference head on, Boudinot acknowledges the power of blood to define race and preclude the rights of citizenship, and even dares to mix this blood through an audacious appropriation of the Christian Bible. The lecturer next shrinks the distance of Native Americans as well as whites from their “ancient” savage behavior, in a way that might even acknowledge the noble and primitive roots of Europeans. Finally, in asserting a common Christian humanity, Boudinot claims a shared, “equal” future to situate the indigenous nation on a coeval timeline. Anticipating new theories of human evolution such as those of Lewis Henry Morgan, ethnologist and author of Ancient Society (1877), Boudinot reminds listeners to keep faith in the inexorable advancement of savage people through barbarism and into civilization.
Other Cherokee writers, such as John Ridge, were less ingratiating in their requests for funding to support the advancement of Cherokees into western culture. In 1822 he delivered an address to the Circular Church in Charleston. Like Boudinot, Ridge organized his address to affirm the desire and success of the civilizing mission. But he veers from his cousin when he challenges the “civilized man” for his primitivism: “It is said by some that there is more real enjoyment predominant in the savage than in the civilized man. But I question who would renounce the privileges of polished society for a wild abode in the wilderness. Will anyone believe that an Indian who walks solitary in the mountains, exposed to cold and hunger, or to the attacks of wild beasts, actually possesses undisturbed contentment superior to a learned gentleman who has every possible comfort at home?”Though Cherokee writers at times draw on a romantic idealism that invites readers to sympathize with their cause, at other times authors are better served to reject such idealism, here in the image of the Noble Savage. Ridge angrily refuses the misguided sentiment that values Natural Man as uncorrupted, and that conveniently supports removal to save this Noble Savage by preserving his purity in the west. In reimagining man in the wilderness he exposes the hypocrisy of primitivism. Ridge trades the Noble Savage for modern comforts and refinement. No apologies.
But by far the Cherokees’ most effective medium for their international project was the Cherokee Phoenix. Each issue placed lasting traditions and changing industry and politics in columns next to North American and world events both in Cherokee and in English for an international readership. With the help of Worcester, Boudinot printed official legislation passed by the Cherokee National Council, notices of weddings, school examinations, meetings of temperance societies, and Christian scripture and hymns to advertise the accomplishments of his people. The Cherokee Phoenix invited the syndication of news, poetry, and official statements from the United States and abroad. On its pages readers found the words of North American leaders from Jackson and Webster to John Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett together with the writings of Washington Irving, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Black Hawk, Red Jacket, and Peter Jones. Here is a statement from the Hartford Times concerning the imprisonment of William Apess:
The Rev. Mr. Apess, the missionary among the Mashpee Indians, in Massachusetts, has been sentenced to thirty days imprisonment, and ordered to recognize with one surety to keep the peace, for his attempting to establish the Independence of the poor Indians. It is probable that the missionaries to the Cherokees will get up a great excitement against this tyrannical and oppressive act of the government of Massachusetts. They at least ought to do this to be consistent.
In entering this global print culture an international readership discovers the cause of the Mashpee, and North Americans throughout the eastern continent are called to respond. Though serving the Native national cause, nineteenth-century Native American writers gained legitimacy and opposed removal by promoting the humanity they shared with members of other indigenous and settler nations.