Native American Written Language
Native American Written Language
Early Writers. The first Indian author to publish in English was Samson Occom, a Methodist missionary and author of Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772). In 1829 William Apess, a Pequot, published his autobiography, A Son of the Forest. He later published a brief autobiography in his Experience of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833). Both autobiographies, similar to many spiritual confessions of the period, follow Apess’s life history from a period of ignorance to Christian redemption. Apess, who became ordained as a Methodist, also became one of the most influential native protest writers in the nineteenth century. He saw alcohol abuse as one of the “fatal and exterminating diseases” introduced to the Indians by white civilization. In his Eulogy on King Philip (1836), a sermon preached in Boston, he criticized the Pilgrims for their hostile and duplicitous treatment of the Indians, even as they “came to these Indians for support” and received many “acts of kindness” from them.
Copway. George Copway, an Ojibwa who converted to Methodism in 1827, was also a popular Indian lecturer and writer. In 1847 he published his autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh. Like Apess’s autobiography, Copway’s work is a tale of Christian salvation, but it also critiques American attitudes toward Indians. His warm portrayals of Ojibwa domestic life counteract stereotypes of Indians as “savage” or “primitive.” He also questioned the value of the federal government’s payments for Indian land: “I would now ask, what are millions of money without education?” In itself, Copway believed, money would be of little value to
Indians. He also published the first full-length travel book by an Indian, Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland (1851), and briefly published a newspaper, Copway’s American Indian in the summer and fall of 1851.
Tribal Histories. As the federal government continued to pressure Indians to leave their lands, tribal histories reminded white audiences of the human costs of such policies. Many Indian authors of the period wrote histories of their tribes based on oral traditions. David Cusick, a Tuscarora, published his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations in 1827. Copway published his Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation in 1850, describing Ojibwa culture, their migrations and hostilities with the Iroquois, Huron, and Sioux. Peter Jones also wrote a history of the Ojibwa, published posthumously in 1861 as History of the Ojibway Indians. The most accomplished account of the Ojibwa is William Wipple Warren’s History of the Ojibway, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Statements, which he completed in 1852 but was not published until 1885.
John Rollin Ridge. John Rollin Ridge, the son of a Cherokee father and white mother, published poetry, journalism, and fiction under the name of “Yellow Bird,” a translation of his Cherokee name. Ridge was the first Native American to publish a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854). As a child in Georgia, Ridge witnessed the assassination of his grandfather, the respected Cherokee chief Major Ridge, and his father, John, for their role in the sale of tribal lands. Ridge eventually fled to gold rush California, where he contributed to the San Francisco journals the Golden Era, Hesperian, and the Pioneer. Most of Ridge’s poems (written mainly before he was twenty and published posthumously as Poems in 1868) reflect the popular sentimentality of the period, but some also suggested an enduring sense of isolation and exile.
The Legend of Murieta. Ridge’s novel was based on the legend of Joaquin Murieta, known to some as a ruthless Mexican bandit and to others as a romantic Robin Hood-type figure. Ridge’s Life presents Murieta as a wronged man, a gallant gentleman-bandit who seeks justice after a band of Anglo-Saxons rape his wife and hang his half brother. It is this “wanton cruelty and the tyranny of prejudice” that force Murieta to become an outlaw. He vows “that he [will] live henceforth for revenge and that his path [will] be marked with blood.” As he coolly avenges his wife and half brother, Murietta also makes plans to lead the Mexican people in an uprising against the Anglo invaders of California. Ridge’s novel is remarkable not only because it vividly portrays anti-Mexican prejudice among the Anglos but also because it suggests, by analogy, the injustice with which the Cherokees were displaced from their own land. While Ridge’s novel was not immediately successful, the legendary Murieta began to appear in the works of other writers. Murieta was the subject of a number of novels, plays, “biographies,” and eventually a film. Some contemporary historians, such as Hubert Howe Bancroft, were so swayed by Ridge’s novel that they accepted it as factual, thus perpetuating the legend even further.
The Cherokee people have, more than any other Indians perhaps, engaged the attention of the citizens and government of the United States. So many associations have existed between the whites and them; so many noble and thrilling incidents have filled up their history; so many tragical events have occurred amongst them, and finally, their doom, for the last twelve or thirteen years, has been so unfortunately dark, that philanthropists and statesmen could not but look upon them with the intensest interest. To behold a branch of the aborigines of this continent, quietly seated in their acknowledged territory; having abandoned their savage customs and habits for the condition of civilized life; creating for themselves a simple but a wise form of government, and gathering around them all those circumstances which were favorable to their advancement in human knowledge and human happiness, was indeed a lovely and beautiful vision. But, to see them, while thus prosperous and happy, rudely thrown, by the iron arm of cold State policy, from the proud elevation which they had attained by the work of long and painful years; to see the fire-brands of discord and contention hurled in their midst, to blast and wither their energies, and almost effectually to cancel all the good which they had wrought themselves, was truly a painful contrast, and a heart-rending sight. [Ah, well may the intelligent Cherokee weep over the fallen condition of his tribe, and curse, deeply, and bitterly curse, the hand which placed it there.]
Source: John Rollin Ridge, “The Cherokees: Their History—Present Condition and Future Prospects (1849),” in A Trumpet of Our Own: Yellow Bird’s Essays on the North American Indian, edited by David Farmer and Rennard Strickland (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1981), p, 49.
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990);
Andrew Wiget, Native American Literatures (Boston: Twayne, 1985).