Nineteenth-Century Native American Autobiography
Nineteenth-Century Native American Autobiography
Native American autobiographies of the nineteenth century have a peculiar difficulty: both the authenticity of Native American authorship and the applicability of the term "autobiography" are questioned by scholars. Situated during the transition from oral to written literature, most of these works were edited and/or translated by members of white society, and therefore are commonly identified as "collaborative" projects. The earliest narratives were written by Native Americans converted to Christianity, and simultaneously romanticized "primitive" existence and vilified so-called "heathen" beliefs. Throughout the nineteenth century—particularly with the rise of forced assimilation, the establishment of reservations, and the end of military resistance—narratives become increasingly secular and concerned with the political situation of Native Americans. In addition, toward the turn of the century, in response to a growing concern over the fading of traditional culture, ethnographic studies focused upon representative lives, whereas earlier interest had centered on such figures as ministers, warriors, and leaders.
Although some autobiographies reflect conciliatory responses to the dominance of Western culture and some are profoundly informed by sentimentality and the stereotype of the "noble savage," others, such as Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins's Life Among the Paiutes (1883), question the social and cultural disruption of the nineteenth century. Native American authors were acculturated to Western society to varying degrees and represent, in Arnold Krupat's words, a textual "frontier" by which traditional modes of self-expression, such as the pictographs of the Plains Indians (as Hertha Wong argues), were gradually displaced by the specifically Euro-American genre of autobiography. Accordingly, some autobiographies, including Simon Pokagon's Life of O-Gi-Maw-Kwe-Mit-I-Gwa-Ki: Queen of the Woods (1899), incorporate mythical elements with more realistic experiences. Recent scholars contend, citing such elements, that these autobiographies are not merely "transparent," but rather reflect a selfconsciously literary style. The popular interest in these narratives increased toward the end of the nineteenth century, despite mixed critical reviews. More recent scholars have studied the conception of the "self expressed in these works, as well as how the autobiographies reflect the series of political, cultural, and literary transitions that occurred as contact between the Native American and Euro-American cultures continued to increase.
William Apes (or Apess)
A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest (autobiography) 1829
A Narrative of an Embassy to the Western Indians, from the Original Manuscript of Hendrick Aupaumut, with Prefatory Remarks by Dr. B. H. Coates (autobiography) 1827
Black Elk Speaks (autobiography) 1932
Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk (autobiography) 1833
Andrew J. Blackbird
Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (memoirs) 1887
Sam Blowsnake [Big Winnebago and Crashing Thunder] The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (autobiography) 1920
Crashing Thunder (autobiography) 1926
Chainbreaker [Governor Blacksnake]
*Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake (autobiography) 1989
The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway [also...
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Arnold Krupat (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: An introduction to Native American Autobiography, edited by Arnold Krupat, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994, pp. 3-17.
[In the following excerpt from his introduction to his anthology, Krupat reviews the historical trends and the major issues involved in Native American autobiography.]
The genre of writing referred to in the West as autobiography had no close parallel in the traditional cultures of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, misnamed "Indians." Like people the world over, the tribes recorded various kinds of personal experience, but the western notion of representing the whole of any one person's life—from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and old age—was, in the most literal way, foreign to the cultures of the present-day United States. The high regard in which the modern West holds egocentric, autonomous individualism—the "auto" part of "autobiography"—found almost no parallel whatever in the communally oriented cultures of Native America.
Just as the "auto" part of "autobiography" was alien to Native understanding, so, too, was the "graph" part, for alphabetic writing was not present among the cultures of Native America. Tribal people were oral people who represented personal experience performatively and dramatically to an audience. Personal exploits might be presented...
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Donald Jackson (essay date 1955)
SOURCE: An introduction to Black Hawk, edited by Donald Jackson, University of Illinois Press, 1964, pp. 1-40.
[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1955, Jackson examines the complex issue of the authenticity of Black Hawk's memoirs.]
Since the first appearance of the autobiography [Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk] in 1833, its accuracy, authenticity, and style have been both praised and damned. The fault that critics find with it is usually expressed in one or more of these comments: Black Hawk didn't dictate it; the facts are garbled; no Indian would talk that way; no Indian would ever think of dictating his life story; LeClaire, the interpreter, was an unreliable halfbreed.
The conflicting judgments can be shown best by quotation. The North American Review, January, 1835, ran a review of the book which contained this passage on pp. 69-70:
It is almost the only one we have ever read, in which we feel perfect confidence, that the author sincerely believes that every thing he has set down is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That it is the bona fide work of Black Hawk, we have the respectable testimony of Antoine Le Clair, the government interpreter for the Sacs and Foxes, and what (as we have not the honor of being...
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The Evolution Of Native American Autobiography
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Three Nineteeth-Century American Indian Autobiographers," in Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, pp. 251-69.
[In the essay that follows, Ruoff contends that Native American autobiographies became more intensely focused on Native American-white political relations, and more self-reflectively literary, over the course of the nineteenth century.]
Since the early nineteenth century, American Indians have written personal narratives and autobiographies more consistently than any other form of prose.1 The structure of these personal narratives reflects a diverse range of influences, from Western European forms of spiritual autobiography and slave narratives to the oral traditions of Native America. The full-length confessions or autobiographies of Western European literature are not part of Indian oral tradition. As Barre Toelken points out, in many tribes "one is not to speak of himself in any full way until after he has become someone—such as having had many children or an illustrious life."2 Nevertheless, as H. David Brumble III makes clear in American Indian Autobiography, there were at least six forms of American Indian preliterate autobiographical narratives: coup tales, which described feats...
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Bernd C. Peyer
SOURCE: "Autobiographical Works by Native Americans," in Ameriksastudien/American Studies (Amst), J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung Stuttgart, Vol. 26, No. 3/4, 1981, pp. 386-402.
[In the excerpt that follows, Peyer provides a historical account of Native American autobiography, with primary consideration of its political implications.]
To the white man many things done by the Indian are inexplicable, though he continues to write much of the visible and exterior life with explanations that are more often than not erroneous. The inner life of the Indian is, of course, a closed book to the white man.
Luther Standing Bear1
The autobiography has long been a popular source of inside information for those interested in cultures other than their own. In the case of Native American cultures, the term has been used predominantly for those accounts recorded and written down by an intermediary, an editor, and, to a lesser extent, those works published in a cooperative effort between the editor and the subject, with the former doing the actual writing. That is to say, the bulk of the material known and categorized as Native American autobiography is made up of works either "edited by" or "as told to" non-Native Americans. Certainly this is due in part to historical circumstances, as there...
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Gender And Autobiography
Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Ethnographic Perspective: Early Recorders," in American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 27-46.
[In the following essay, Bataille and Sands discuss the movement toward the ethnographic study of Native American life, which included a new focus on the female experience.]
To fail to understand another person's life story is, in general, to reject one's own humanity. Whether recorded in the extremity of personal or cultural annihilation, or in the midst of joy and productivity, the anthropological life history offers a positive moral opportunity to pass on stories that might otherwise never be told. For those who are bearers of a tradition, the opportunity to tell their story can be a gift; reassurance that they are indeed still alive, that their voices will be heard, and that their cultures can survive. It is a gift of equal importance for those generations to come who will take up that tradition and shape it to their own needs as the future unfolds.
L. L. Langness and Gelya Frank, Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography
In Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography, L. L. Langness and Gelya Frank discuss the life-history method in anthropology that emerged...
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Autobiographical Works During The Turn Of The Century
H. David Brumble III (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Albert Hensley's Two Autobiographies," in American Quarterly, Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 37, No. 5, Winter, 1985, pp. 702-18.
[In the essay that follows, Brumble disputes the common conception of Native American autobiographies as "transparent" rather than consciously literary, and claims that works such as those by Albert Hensley, a, member of the Winnebago tribe, reflect a deliberate narrative coherence.]
Peyote, The Divine Cactus, The Vision Sender, Came to the Wisconsin Winnebago in the last decade of the nineteenth century, years that were especially difficult for that Indian tribe. Most Americans were still convinced that America was the great melting pot, and so believed as well that it was the manifest duty of Indians to melt as soon as possible. The official expression of this sentiment was the Dawes Act of 1887, which aimed to break up the tribes and tribal predilections by dividing up the reservations into individual allotments for individual Indians. Like the Indians of many other tribes, the Winnebagos were divided in their response to these pressures to abandon the old ways, to melt—to become "civilized." Some remained adamant in their belief that their Winnebago traditions ought to be maintained, that their children ought still to be initiated into the old ceremonies, and that they ought still to fast for...
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Brumble, H. David III. An Annotated Bibliography of American Indian and Eskimo Autobiographies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981, 177 p.
This often-cited reference provides a listing of more than five hundred Native American autobiographies, dating from the eighteenth century to the present.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990, 200 p.
An extensive bibliographical listing of Native American literature, including autobiography.
Brimlow, George F. "The Life of Sarah Winnemucca: The Formative Years." Oregon Historical Quarterly 53, No. 2 (June 1952): 103-34.
Provides a detailed account of the cultural origins and early life of Sarah Winnemucca, whose later lectures and autobiography were popularly and politically influential.
Fowler, Catherine S. "Sarah Winnemucca." In American Indian Intellectuals, edited by Margot Liberty, pp. 33-42. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1978.
Offers a brief biography of Sarah Winnemucca and argues that her controversial...
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