Nineteenth-Century Native American Autobiography Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

William Apes (or Apess)

A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest (autobiography) 1829

Hendrick Aupaumut

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

Black Elk Speaks (autobiography) 1932

Black Hawk

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

George Copway

The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway [also published as Recollections of a Forest Life] (autobiography) 1847

Charles A. Eastman

Indian Boyhood (autobiography) 1902

From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian (autobiography) 1916

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins

Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (autobiography) 1883

Peter Jacobs

Journal of the Reverend Peter Jacobs (autobiography) 1857

Peter Jones

The Life and Journals of Kah-ke-we-quo-na-by (autobiography) 1860

Maungwudaus [George Henry]

An Account of the Chippewa Indians, Who Have Been Traveling Among the Whites (autobiography) 1848

Simon Pokagon

O-Gi-Maw-Kwe-Mit-I-Gwa-Ki: Queen of the Woods (autobiography) 1899

Two Leggings

**Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (autobiography) 1967

*Chainbreaker was told to Benjamin Williams sometime between 1833 and 1843.

**Two Leggings was composed from 1919-23.


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 pictographically (i.e., in tipi decorations or other types of drawing), but never in alphabetic writing. When, after considerable contact with the Euramerican invader-settlers, some Native people did attempt to offer extensive life histories, these made their way into writing in two distinct but related forms. One of these I refer to as "autobiographies by Indians," and the other as "Indian autobiographies."

Autobiographies by Indians are individually composed texts, and, like western autobiographies, they are indeed written by those whose lives they chronicle. For the Native American to become author of such a text requires that he—and later also she—must have become "educated" and "civilized" and, in the vast majority of cases, also Christianized. Indian autobiographies, as I have detailed the matter elsewhere, are not actually self-written, but are, rather, texts marked by the principle of original, bicultural composite composition. That is to say, these texts are the end-products of a rather complex process involving a three-part collaboration between a white editor-amanuensis who edits, polishes, revises, or otherwise fixes the "form" of the text in writing, a Native "subject" whose orally presented life story serves as the "content" of the autobiographical narrative, and, in almost all cases, a mixedblood interpreter/translator whose exact contribution to the autobiographical project remains one of the least understood aspects of Indian autobiography. Historically, Indian autobiographies have been produced under the sign of history and (social) science, while, with certain exceptions, autobiographies by Indians have been produced under the sign of religion, nonscientific cultural commentary, and art.

Both Indian autobiographies and autobiographies by Indians may be seen as the textual equivalent of the "frontier," as the discursive ground on which two extremely different cultures met and interacted. In this regard, Native American autobiography may usefully be studied for what it tells us about Native culture, Euramerican culture, the view each had of the other, and the shifting relations, i.e., the discursive/textual relations but also material relations of power, between them. In the multicultural age we all inhabit, self-lifewriting by Indians—Native American autobiography—is important not only for its intrinsic interest, but also because it can provide a different, alternate, or, indeed, radically other perspective on the meaning of the terms ("self-life-writing") one cannot help but use in referring to it.

For example, Native American conceptions of the self tend toward integrative rather than oppositional relations with others. Whereas the modern West has tended to define personal identity as involving the successful mediation of an opposition between the individual and society, Native Americans have instead tended to define themselves as persons by successfully integrating themselves into the relevant social groupings—kin, clan, band, etc.—of their respective societies. On the Plains, to be sure, glory and honor were intensely sought by male warriors who wanted, individually, to be "great men," but even on the Plains, any personal greatness was important primarily for the good of "the people." These conceptions of the self may be viewed as "synecdochic," i.e., based on part-to-whole relations, rather than "metonymic," i.e., as in the part-to-part relations that most frequently dominate Euramerican autobiography.

In the same way that Native American autobiography can put the western concept of the self in perspective by making us see that what we have taken as only natural is, instead, a matter of cultural convention, so, too, can it offer a critical perspective on the western conception of the importance of writing. This is a subject that has occupied the attention of a great many theorists of late, perhaps because we are currently in a stage of transition to what Walter Ong has called a "secondary orality," a condition in which print media and writing certainly exist but do not occupy the social-functional position they held before the computer revolution.

Let me turn here to a brief historical sketch of Native American autobiography.

The earliest Native American autobiography I know is an autobiography by an Indian, by the Reverend Samson Occom, a Mohegan, who produced a short narrative of his life in 1768. In 1791, Hendrik Aupaumut, referred to as a "Mahican," included a good deal of what might be taken as autobiographical material in his Journal of a Mission to the Western Tribes of Indians. Neither of these texts was published in its author's lifetime, Occom's reposing for many years in the Dartmouth College Library before finally appearing in 1982, Aupaumut's seeing print—somewhat obscurely—in 1827. This latter date is perhaps not strictly an accident, for it was in the second quarter of the nineteenth century that American interest in the first-person life history (only recently, in 1808, named autobiography by the British poet Robert Southey) began to grow. Just two years after Aupaumut's work, the Reverend William Apess, a Pequot and a Methodist minister, published the first extended autobiography by an Indian to attract a relatively wide readership. Apess's A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess a Native of the Forest, Written by Himself appeared in 1829, and went through several editions in its author's lifetime. It is the christianized Indian's relation to Euramerican religion that thematically dominates the early period of autobiographies by Indians.

Only a few years after Apess's autobiography was published, there appeared in the West (Cincinnati) the first of those compositely produced texts I call Indian autobiographies. This was the Life of Ma-Ka-tai-sheme-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, the autobiography not of a Christian Indian but, rather, of a resisting Indian who came to public attention as a result of his military opposition to the encroachment of whites onto Indian lands. After being defeated in the Black Hawk War of 1832, the last Indian war to be fought (for the most part) east of the Mississippi, Black Hawk endured imprisonment and a public tour of the East before being allowed to return home. Once back on his ancestral lands on the Rock River in Illinois, he narrated the story of his life. Black Hawk was a traditionally-raised Sac and Fox person who did not speak English and did not write any language—nor is it clear, in the distinction proposed by Watson and Watson-Franke, whether his autobiography was "elicited or prompted by another person" or whether it was, instead, "self-initiated."1 Indeed, this distinction itself, while logically tenable, is empirically almost impossible to apply. Black Hawk's editor, the young journalist J.B. Patterson, claimed that Black Hawk himself initiated the autobiographical project, but we also know that Black Hawk was much solicited by various Euramericans for the story of his life, and he may have been urged in this direction by Native people, too. In any case, even if the Native subject of an Indian autobiography was pressed to the task by a journalist, historian, or anthropologist, we now understand that only those Native persons who found such a task consistent with their own needs and desires eventually complied. This would be the case as well for autobiographies by Indians, for even these ostensibly "self-initiated" texts were not "initiated" in a vacuum, but in a cultural and historical context which "prompted" some Indians who could write about themselves to do so while others simply did not.

Although I believe that we can rarely know with any assurance the full motivation behind a given Indian autobiography, we can in many cases know something about what may be called its mode of production. Here, again, Black Hawk's autobiography is exemplary, for the text is one that comes into being through the collaborative labor of Black Hawk, who is its subject and the person to whom the "I" of the text refers; of Antoine LeClair, a mixedblood person who served as official government interpreter to the Sac and Fox Indians, and who transcribed and translated the old war chief's words into written English; and of J. B. Patterson, who ultimately "edits"—inscribes and fixes in writing—the text we read as "Black Hawk's autobiography." What kind of transcription LeClair must have made, in that age before the tape recorder, we do not know, nor do we know what kind of English LeClair would have written by way of translation, inasmuch as no notes or transcripts seem to have survived.

It is reasonable to imagine, however, that LeClair presented Patterson with a text in what has since been called "Red English," the English that Native people with little or no formal schooling speak and sometimes write. In the absence of a text from LeClair, it may be useful to cite an autobiographical text roughly contemporary with his—one which, like Black Hawk's story, is more a military memoir (in this case, of the American Revolution and the War of 1812) than a personal narrative. I quote here a brief passage from the autobiography of Chainbreaker, also known to the whites as Governor Blacksnake. Somewhere between the years 1833 and 1843, when he was ninety or a hundred years old, Chainbreaker told his story to Benjamin Williams, who was nearly fifty years his junior and, like Chainbreaker, a Seneca. Williams' manuscript was not taken up by an editor until very recently (1989), when Thomas Abler prepared it for print. Abler's editing, however, is very different from that of J. B. Patterson, in that he has not transformed Williams' text into standard English,...

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Problems Of Authorship

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...

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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...

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Political Issues

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....

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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...

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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....

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 703 words.)