restricted access William Apess, the "Lost Tribes," and Indigenous Survivance
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William Apess, the "Lost Tribes," and Indigenous Survivance

In January 1836 William Apess, Pequot writer, orator, public intellectual, and Methodist minister, delivered his now famous Eulogy on King Philip at the Odeon Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.1 This eulogy, which marks the end of what we know of Apess's career as an orator, offers a powerful challenge to Anglo-American accounts of colonial New England history and concludes with a broader commentary on the treatment of Native peoples from the colonial era to the present time. He relates his own personal history to the larger story of the New England tribes. "And although I can say that I have some dear, good friends among white people," states Apess, "Yet I eye them with a jealous eye, for fear they will betray me" (Eulogy 310).2 This fear stems from the fact that white Christians, suggests Apess, have continually betrayed Native peoples and looked upon them as objects of curiosity, refusing to recognize their common humanity and, in the case of Christian Indians, their shared faith. He urges white listeners to acknowledge that American Indian wants are the same as their own and argues that all should be equal before the law. Participating in the familiar genre of the jeremiad, or political sermon, Apess, like many Protestant ministers before him, drew on the authority of the Old Testament prophets (like Jeremiah himself) and exhorted white audiences to remember their position as a supposedly "chosen people" and keep the terms of their covenant with God. As the intellectual and cultural descendants of John Winthrop and Cotton Mather, Anglo-New Englanders would have been sensitive to the rhetorical tradition in which Apess was working and the spiritual authority his eulogy invokes.3

As a Methodist minister, Apess was well versed in the jeremiad tradition as it was practiced in New England, and his sermons and political [End Page 1] writings constitute what might be called American Indian jeremiads, arguments that frame American Indians as a chosen people with a covenantal relationship to the Christian God by linking them with the biblical narrative of the Israelites.4 In his 1831 sermon Increase of the Kingdom of God and a companion essay entitled The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes, both of which take up the theory that American Indians are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel, Apess argues for a shared past for Native peoples and asserts their continuing presence on the North American continent. He exhorts white audiences to acknowledge American Indians' political, cultural, and spiritual rights and suggests that respecting these rights was key to the fulfillment of the covenant in which white New Englanders imagined themselves to participate. The lost tribes theory of American Indian origins also is discussed at length in the appendix to Apess's autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829 and 1831). Taken together, Apess's references to the lost tribes function as a warning to the "great American nation" that it should indeed fear the "judgments of heaven" for the poor treatment of American Indians/Israelites (Increase 106). Blending the secular and the spiritual, he argues that the connection between Indian and Jewish peoples has profound implications for contemporary arguments about Native sovereignty and their political relationships with the United States. Apess further links the lost tribes rhetoric and Indian land claims during his efforts on behalf of the Mashpee people in their legal battles with the state of Massachusetts in 1833-34, documented in his book Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835).5

Apess's strategic reworking of the lost tribes theory constitutes an act of what Gerald Vizenor calls "survivance," a term that he describes in Fugitive Poses as "an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry" (15).6 First proposed by seventeenth-century Europeans, the lost tribes theory of American Indian origins represented American Indians as descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the original inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who apparently disappeared from the historical record after they were attacked by Assyrians as punishment for turning away from the Hebrew...