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  • Sovereign Selves: American Indian Autobiography and the Law
  • Laura L. Mielke (bio)
David J. Carlson . Sovereign Selves: American Indian Autobiography and the Law. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006. 217 pp. ISBN 0-252-07266-9, $30.

As Hilary E. Wyss and Maureen Konkle have noted, the attempt to measure the supposed "authenticity" of early American Indian writing stems from the dodgy judgment that, prior to the twentieth century, any literate Indian was already so embedded in the educational and religious institutions of colonialism that his or her Native identity was compromised. In Sovereign Selves, David J. Carlson likewise dismisses the critical concept of authenticity as a vestige of colonial rhetoric, and forwards a sophisticated reading of how US law provided basic templates or models for American Indian selfhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the Introduction and Chapter One of Sovereign Selves, Carlson defines autobiography as a record of how the individual constitutes the self within a specific cultural context. He revises Mary Louise Pratt's concept of the "contact zone," arguing that the process of identity formation within colonialism should not be interpreted geographically but discursively. The most important context for nineteenth-century American Indian identity formation was what Carlson names "Indian law," or the US statutes, treaties, and court decisions that shaped the institutions and practices structuring American Indian daily life. Three assertions emerge from Chapter One's thorough and accessible survey of Indian law: 1) that the discourse of religious conversion was an essential part of Indian law through the early twentieth century; 2) that in the early national period, US policy of territorial acquisition and benevolent paternalism arose from the Lockean concept that the "uncivilized" must evolve before being granted the rights of citizens; and 3) that treaties, which are often held up as signs of American Indian sovereignty, were the US's primary means of sowing liberal individualism among Indians.

Carlson rounds out the first third of the book with a chapter on Seneca politics and life writing, from the Treaty of Fort Stanwick (1784) through the late nineteenth century. Through analyses of a speech by Cornplanter and autobiographical works by Maris B. Pierce, Nathaniel T. Strong, and Ely S. Parker, Carlson traces how the Seneca came to accept the ideal of liberal individualism embedded in the treaty, defining citizenship through private property. In particular, his reading of Parker's autobiography demonstrates that the Seneca narrative of development in this period was marked by cultural negation and "self-negation." This compact account of the emergence of Seneca literature prepares the reader for the remainder of the book, which Carlson divides between the autobiographical works of William Apess (Pequot, 1798–1839) and Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux, 1858–1939), who recorded their experiences as American Indians in the ages of removal and allotment respectively. [End Page 740]

The two chapters on Apess not only treat the evolution of his autobiographical narrative, but also situate his writings alongside other early American Indian texts by Samson Occom, Peter Jones, Peter Jacobs, and George Copway. In Carlson's reading, Apess's acceptance of white paternalism in "The Experience of the Missionary" (1833), and his use of legalistic language in his one published sermon, "The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ" (1831), signal a self-negation akin to Parker's. The Indian conversion narrative, he concludes, records a willful loss of Native identity. (Carlson does not, however, examine the conversion narratives of four Pequot women included alongside "Experience" in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, nor the concluding essay, "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," which demands civil rights for all in part through the argument that Jesus Christ and his apostles were also people of color.) Carlson argues that in A Son of the Forest (1829, 1831), the book-length autobiography Apess appears to have written next but published first, the Pequot autobiographer takes up legal language, creating a kind of "treaty" that declares his allegiance to the republican model of liberal individualism. By Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee [sic] Tribe (1835), Apess has come to embrace "Indian liberalism," a "sovereign...


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