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Reviewed by:
  • Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America, and: American Indian Nonfiction: An Anthology of Writings, 1760s–1930s
  • Gordon M. Sayre (bio)
Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America Edited by Joanna Brooks, with a Foreword by Robert WarriorNew York: Oxford University Press, 2006445 pp.
American Indian Nonfiction: An Anthology of Writings, 1760s–1930s. Edited by Bernd C. PeyerNorman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007401 pp.

The covers of both these books feature The Reverend Samson Occom, a mezzotint copy of a portrait painted by Mason Chamberlin (1727-1787) during Occom's tour of Britain in 1765-1768. As was common in eighteenth-century portraiture, Occom is finely dressed and poses alongside emblematic objects. What appear to be arrows hang on the wall behind him, and even as his gaze is focused on the viewer, he points to a passage in an open book. Most assume it is a Bible, although a curator at Dartmouth College, which owns the portrait, told me the words are not legible. The long tabs of his neckcloth make a visual echo of the pages of the book, with shaded rectangular fields that resemble text. Occom's pose resembles the 1828 portrait of Sequoyah by Charles Bird King, in which he points at one of the 86 characters of the Cherokee syllabary he invented. To compare the two portraits is to consider the alternatives of Native Americans who embraced European textuality and those who insisted on retaining their Native language, or textualized it to better compete with colonial languages.

A viewer of the Occom or Sequoyah portrait is presented with an individual who directs our attention to a text, as if to instruct us. To contemplate such portraits is to be drawn into a loop between the authority of the text and the influence of the personage, and to wonder which is primary, or whether one is derived from the other. Sequoyah is famous not for creating discourses but rather textuality itself. His syllabary was used in the [End Page 219] Cherokee Phoenix newspaper edited by Elias Boudinot, a bilingual textualist who is among the authors included in Peyer's anthology as well as the subject of Theresa Strouth Gaul's 2005 book To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839. Occom has come to the attention of many Early Americanists because his brief autobiographical narrative was included in Peyer's earlier anthology The Elders Wrote (1982) and, along with his A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772) was selected for the Heath, the Norton, and other major anthologies of American literature. But this was the tip of an iceberg. Joanna Brooks now presents a "'big book' of Native North American writing from the colonial era" (39). With prodigious editorial work, she has transcribed and annotated more than four hundred dense pages of Occom's extant letters, journals, sermons and hymns, mostly from archives at Dartmouth College and the Connecticut Historical Society.

The portraitists of Occom and Sequoyah created loops of reference yet remained outside them. One might think of the Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan, as a textual portrait, and of American Indian Nonfiction as a series of portraits. The books create for their audiences an image or series of images of learned persons, and create relationships between the personage[s] and texts. The act of creation is one not of a painter but of an editor. Like the portraits, Brooks's editorial apparatus and, to a lesser degree, Peyer's anthology suggest relationships between textual and nontextual sources, between alphabetic and non-alphabetic literacy, and between English, the language of the dominant colonizers, and the multiple native languages of North America.

Brooks opens her introduction with an account of a "round wooden box fashioned from the bark of an elm tree and entwined with elaborately carved vines, leaves, and dotted lines [which] was catalogued among the holdings of the Peabody Essex Museum" (3). In 1995, when Mohegan tribal representatives visited the museum to "survey its holdings for possible repatriation," "tribal medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon" explained...


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