Native American Literature

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Nineteenth-century Native American literature is a literature of transition, the bridge between an oral tradition that flourished for centuries before the arrival of Europeans and the emergence of contemporary fiction in the 1960s, known as the Native American Renaissance. Unlike the preceding oral tradition, nineteenth-century Native American literature was increasingly text-based and composed in English, the result of missionary schools that taught Indians the skills believed necessary to assimilate into white society. Nineteenth-century Native American authors employed Euro-American literary genres like autobiography and the novel, often combining them with traditional narratives like the trickster tale or creation myth to create hybrid forms. Although the early texts exhibit the struggle of Indian authors to find a voice within American culture, they foreshadow elements of later Native American literature such as the refutation of stereotypical depictions of Indians all too common in American literature. Like their successors, nineteenth-century Indian authors were aware of the power of literature as a tool in changing the political and social status of their people.

The nineteenth century was a disruptive political era for Native Americans, defined by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. A federal law authorized by President Andrew Jackson, the Removal Act ruled that Indians living east of the Mississippi River could be displaced to land west of the river. A contentious debate about the limits of federal and state jurisdiction over Indian tribal lands and peoples, coupled with a cultural belief in the essential incompatibility of Indian and white societies, led to a movement to relocate Indians to territory less populated by and less desirable to white Americans. The Removal Act was met with resistance by many tribes, most significantly by the Cherokee who inhabited Georgia. The Cherokee Nation had adapted to white society more successfully than other tribes, including creating its own written alphabet or syllabary, adopting a constitution similar to the U.S. Constitution, and establishing a bilingual newspaper. But gold was discovered on Cherokee land, precipitating their expulsion. The Cherokee fought back in a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1831 and again in 1832. The Court's initial decision declared the tribe a "domestic dependent nation," outside federal law and thus outside federal protection. The second decision was more favorable to the Cherokee but was ignored by both the federal government and the state of Georgia. Instead, in 1838 the Cherokee were forced by federal troops to depart on foot for the Indian Territory to the west; an estimated four thousand Indians died on what is now known as the Trail of Tears. All Native Americans felt the impact of the new reservation policies, which sought to isolate and contain Indians to make room for an expanding American nation.

At the same time that Native Americans were being excluded from the nation, white Americans began to look to them as the source of a unique national identity and literature, distinct from European traditions. Literature from the period depicting Indian characters was incredibly popular, and many works are still celebrated as classics, including James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855), to name only a few. These texts employ the trope of the "disappearing Indian," which represents the deaths of Indians as natural, similar to the changing of the seasons or the setting of the sun, rather than the result of political exclusion or social discrimination. Thus the disappearance of Indians from the American social landscape was not only depicted within this body of writing but also implicitly approved of.

Early Native American authors wrote within a hostile political climate and in response to a dominant literary tradition that sentimentalized and condoned the death of Indians. But they found the means to engage with their detractors by authoring their own accounts of Indians that challenged stereotypical beliefs, demanded equal political rights, and proved that Indians were neither disappearing nor silent.


Autobiography was one of the primary genres that Native American authors borrowed from the Euro-American literary tradition and adapted to address their own concerns and experiences. Most nineteenth-century Native American autobiographies derive from a Christian practice of "testifying" to one's conversion and reflect the fact that the authors were educated in mission schools. Indian autobiographies exhibit the authors' awareness of themselves as speaking not simply as individuals but as representatives for their tribes and even for their race. The "double consciousness" (to borrow the term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903) these authors experience is evident in their negotiation of insider and outsider status. Sometimes they adopt the voice of an "authentic" Indian with a complete knowledge of tribal traditions and practices. But just as often they position themselves outside of Indian culture or belief systems, as members of a Christian, educated, and white society. The complex tensions that result from this bifurcated view give rise to some of the most interesting and important moments in the texts.

The first full-length Native American autobiography was written by William Apess (Pequot, 1798–1839), A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, a Native of the Forest (1829). In this text Apess depicts his escape from a dark and abusive childhood through conversion to Christianity and particularly his involvement with the Methodist Church. For Apess, Christianity provides access to a democratic ideal: "I felt convinced that Christ died for all mankind—that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference" (p. 19). But his experience as a minister continually reminds him that this ideal is not realized, as he suffers discrimination even within his own church. Apess refutes stereotypical ideas about Indians by documenting his achievements at practices valued within white society (including reading, writing, and preaching), but he does not simply endorse assimilation. Instead, Apess seeks a delicate balance between embracing Christianity and maintaining pride in his Indian identity: "Having been excluded from the pales of the church . . . [I] soon returned to my first love. I went then to my native tribe" (p. 46). Apess's career as a public speaker and author was increasingly political after the publication of his autobiography, culminating in his involvement in the Mashpee Revolt in 1833 and—as evident in his protest literature discussed below—his stance on Indian-white relations grew to be militant and revolutionary.

Another important autobiography of the time was written by George Copway (Ojibwe, 1818–1869). Titled The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gahbowh (1847), it recounts Copway's life from childhood in Upper Canada (now Ontario) through his conversion to Christianity and involvement with a Methodist missionary society in the United States. His autobiography recounts these events within the framework of a spiritual narrative in which conversion marks the transition between his traditional, Indian identity and his new, Christian one. He romanticizes both his past and present selves: "I loved the woods, and the chase. I had the nature for it, and gloried in nothing else. The mind for letters was in me, but was asleep, till the dawn of Christianity arose, and awoke the slumbers of the soul into energy and action" (p. 69). But for Copway, the choice between them was clear; he viewed the assimilation to white society through Christianity and education as necessary for Indian survival. Copway's autobiography was a huge success, and he embarked upon a lecture tour that took him throughout the United States and Europe. He was lauded by American luminaries like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. But despite his continued literary career (he authored four more books, issued two revised and expanded editions of his Life, and started a short-lived newspaper called Copway's American Indian), Copway found himself exiled from his own people and white society, a product of both but welcomed by neither.

The autobiography of Black Hawk (Sauk, c.1767–1838) differs in significant ways from the Christian Indian model. Published in 1833 as Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kaik or Black Hawk, the authenticity of the narrative is often questioned. Unlike Apess and Copway, Hawk was illiterate and did not speak English. His narrative was mediated by Antoine Le Claire, a French-Canadian Potawatami who acted as Black Hawk's translator, and John B. Patterson, who edited the text. The extent to which Le Claire and Patterson shaped and perhaps composed the text has caused many to doubt its legitimacy as a Native American autobiography. The literary critic Arnold Krupat describes the autobiography an "original bicultural composite composition" (p. 30), combining Black Hawk's own voice with those of his translator and editor. The composite nature of the text is evident in discrepancies within the narrative; while Black Hawk resisted white domination throughout his life, particularly in the 1832 struggle known as the Black Hawk War, certain portions of his autobiography express gratitude and friendship toward whites. Still other portions preserve Black Hawk's anger, as when he declares:

I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites, when I saw their fine houses, rich harvests, and every thing desirable around them; and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people has never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi. (P. 79)

The value of Black Hawk's autobiography lies in these inconsistencies, which demonstrate the struggle Indian authors faced in gaining a voice within the conventions of American literature.


Understandably much early Native American literature was occupied with challenging the political status of Indian people. One of the first authors to engage in protest literature was Elias Boudinot (Cherokee, c. 1804–1839). Boudinot was born Gallegina (or Buck) Watie but changed his name to honor the president of the American Bible Society. While name change was common within Cherokee culture, Boudinot's choice reflects his allegiance to both Christianity and white society. At the age of six, Boudinot was sent to a mission school where he was encouraged to leave behind his culture's "savage" traditions in favor of white "civilized" practices. Boudinot was a prize pupil and subsequently returned to his people as a missionary to share this knowledge. Boudinot became a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, delivering a speech titled "An Address to the Whites" throughout the United States in 1826 in an attempt to raise money for a Cherokee newspaper and school. In the speech Boudinot demonstrates the capacity of the Cherokee people to be "civilized" by lauding them for their achievements and implicitly distancing them from other Native American tribes. He appeals to his audience by claiming that these improvements are only possible with white assistance: "I ask you, shall red men live, or shall they be swept from the earth? With you and this public at large, the decision chiefly rests" (p. 79). Boudinot's efforts were successful in raising money to purchase a printing press, and he became the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, a biweekly, bilingual newspaper. But the controversy sparked by the Removal Act of 1830 ended Boudinot's career, when he joined a minority group that advocated that the Cherokee voluntarily relocate to the Indian Territory. For this reason Boudinot was considered a traitor, and after the Trail of Tears, he was assassinated by members of a rival faction. His "Address to the Whites" advocates acculturation and compliance as key for the survival of the Cherokee, but his life story draws attention to the limitations of this viewpoint.


In Elias Boudinot's speech "Address to the Whites" (1826), he describes the accomplishments of the Cherokee people, proudly boasting of their civil society and religious devotion. He concludes the speech, however, by acknowledging that the survival of the Cherokee rests little with that people and instead is determined by white America. The Cherokee are threatened with the fate suffered by many other Native American tribes: extinction. But Boudinot pleads with his white audience, if the U.S. nation were to intervene on behalf of the Cherokee, his people could rise from the grave like a phoenix from the flame.

There is, in Indian history, something very melancholy, and which seems to establish a mournful precedent for the future events of the few sons of the forest, now scattered over this vast continent. We have seen every where the poor aborigines melt away before the white population. I merely state the fact, without at all referring to the cause. We have seen, I say, one family after another, one tribe after another, nation after nation, pass away; until only a few solitary creatures are left to tell the sad story of extinction.

Shall this precedent be followed? I ask you, shall red men live, or shall they be swept from the earth? With you and this public at large, the decision chiefly rests. Must they perish? Must they all, like the unfortunate Creeks, (victims of the unchristian policy of certain persons,) go down in sorrow to their grave?

They hang upon your mercy as to a garment. Will you push them from you, or will you save them? Let humanity answer.

Boudinot, Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot, p. 79.

The Pequot autobiographical writer William Apess also engaged in protest literature, but unlike Boudinot, Apess's writing is characterized by an angry resistance to white society. In an essay titled "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man" (1833), Apess makes a fiery challenge to the ideology of white supremacy by arguing that whites are "blacker" than any other race in terms of their sins: "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?" (p. 157). By inverting Euro-American assumptions associated with skin color, Apess rejects the inferiority of indigenous people and casts aspersions upon whites for centuries of discrimination and violence. In a speech titled "Eulogy on King Philip" (1836), Apess celebrates the life of King Philip, the seventeenth-century leader of a war against the New England colonists. Apess suggests that Philip was a superior military and political leader than either Alexander the Great or George Washington. Moreover Apess holds Euro-Americans responsible for the widespread destruction of Indian society: "But let us again review their weapons to civilize the nations of this soil. What were they? Rum and powder and ball, together with all the diseases, such as the smallpox and every other disease imaginable" (p. 286). Apess's explosive political rhetoric proves the image of the silent, "disappearing Indian" that dominated American literature to be false.


The first Native American novel was written by John Rollin Ridge, or Yellow Bird (Cherokee, 1827–1867). The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, published in 1854, recounts the story of a notorious Mexican bandit in California. Murieta was a folk hero whose story was popularized through oral legends and Mexican corridos (narrative folk songs) as well as in dime novels like Ridge's. Ridge was descended from a prominent Cherokee family; his father and grandfather both advocated the removal of the Cherokee to the Indian Territory and were assassinated shortly thereafter (along with Elias Boudinot, who was a cousin). Ridge subsequently grew up and was educated in white society. Ridge traveled to California during the early years of the gold rush, fleeing a murder charge after he killed a man he believed to have participated in his father's murder. Ridge began a career in journalism in San Francisco, and it was there he learned the legend of Joaquín Murieta. In his novel Ridge transforms Murieta into a Robin Hood character, driven to be an outlaw by the egregious mistreatment he receives from whites. Ridge valorizes Murieta's actions, even when he seeks violent vengeance, perhaps expressing his own frustrated desire for revenge. Ridge concluded his novel with the lofty sentiment that "there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arise from prejudice of color or any other source" (p. 158). But in his journalism Ridge argued that giving up traditional indigenous practices and adopting white ways was the only means for the survival of Indians.


The first Native American novel written by a woman is Wynema: A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan (Muscogee [Creek], 1868–1894), which was published in 1891. But long before Callahan's Wynema, other women authors were entering the literary profession. One of the earliest is Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwe, 1800–1841). Schoolcraft was married to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a renowned ethnographer, with whom she helped publish the Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegun, a journal of poetry, essays, and history. Schoolcraft published numerous poems in this journal and earned a glowing reputation among literary critics. Schoolcraft's poems reflect her education in classical and European literature; she employs the conventional rhyme structure and meter common at the time. Certain poems, like "Lines Written under Affliction" (1827), echo the style of Felicia Hemans and Lydia Sigourney, the two most popular women poets of the century:

Ah! Who, with a sensitive mind possest,
Recalls the swift years that are gone,
Without mingled emotions—both bitter & blest,
At the good & the ill he has known.

(P. 60)

Still other poems reflect upon Schoolcraft's heritage, such as "Otagamiad" (1827), which depicts her grandfather, Waub Ojeeg, the Ojibwe chief, as a warrior whose actions are determined by reason and necessity rather than vengeance:

'Tis warlike acts that make a nation friends
'Tis warlike acts that prop a falling throne
And makes peace, glory, empire, all our own.

(P. 61)

Despite Schoolcraft's accomplishments, she never published a book of poems, a testament to the difficulties that women writers—especially Indian women—faced in achieving literary legitimacy in the nineteenth century.

See alsoCherokee Memorials; Hope Leslie;Indians; "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man"; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Leatherstocking Tales; Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta;The Song of Hiawatha;Trail of Tears


Primary Works

Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The CompleteWritings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Black Hawk. Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kaik or BlackHawk. 1833. Reprinted as Black Hawk's Autobiography, edited by Roger L. Nichols. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1999.

Boudinot, Elias. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of EliasBoudinot. Edited by Theda Perdue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Copway, George. Life, Letters, and Speeches. Edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Donald B. Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston. "Poems." In Native AmericanWomen's Writing, c. 1800–1924: An Anthology, edited by Karen L. Kilcup, pp. 57–70. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Ridge, John Rollin [Yellow Bird]. The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta. 1854. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.

Secondary Works

Jaskoski, Helen, ed. Early Native American Writing: NewCritical Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Konkle, Maureen. Writing Indian Nation: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography, 1827–1863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Krupat, Arnold. For Those Who Come After: A Study ofNative American Autobiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Maddox, Lucy. Removals: Nineteenth-Century AmericanLiterature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Peyer, Bernd C. The Tutor'd Mind: Indian Missionary-Writers in Antebellum America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures:An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Walker, Cheryl. Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wiget, Andrew, ed. The Handbook of Native American Literature. New York: Garland, 1996.

Desirée Henderson

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Native American Literature

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Native American Literature