Nineteenth-Century Native American Autobiography Overview - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4570 words.)