Nineteenth-Century Native American Autobiography Introduction - Essay


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.