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  • Mourning, Melancholia, and Rhetorical Sovereignty in William Apess's Eulogy on King Philip
  • Eric A. Wolfe (bio)

William Apess, the Pequot activist and writer, first delivered his Eulogy on King Philip at the Odeon in Boston on January 8, 1836.1 In this lecture Apess took the life of King Philip—the name the Puritans gave the Wampanoag leader Metacomet—as an occasion for a critical rewriting of the history of Indian and Euroamerican relations.2 Though Apess had, by this time, already produced an impressive body of writing and had successfully assisted the Mashpee Indians in their efforts to secure self-governance and to protect their lands against Euroamerican encroachments, it is the Eulogy, in the words of Robert Allen Warrior, that stands as "the pinnacle of Apess's intellectual career" ("Eulogy" 1). Apess's Eulogy critiques the standard retellings of U.S. history; he reconstructs this past from a Native perspective, working from within and behind the pages of Euroamerican-authored texts. The Eulogy is remarkable for its rhetorical power, but it is also remarkable that his lecture was performed at all. As Warrior notes, Apess's work was "essentially self-published without the benefits of institutional or programmatic support on the margins of the Native world" (People 46).3 Apess, it appears, was responsible not only for his text but also for the staging of his own performance: presumably renting the Odeon Theater, placing advertisements in the newspapers, and arranging for local ticket sales.4

In emphasizing the singularity of Apess's achievements as a writer and lecturer, I do not mean to place him in a tradition of individual talent. Rather, it is clear that throughout the Eulogy [End Page 1] Apess is writing as an Indian intellectual. He is writing, that is, from the perspective of a community that was defined in 1836—and, for many, has continued to define itself—as politically separate from the United States.5 The Eulogy thus stands as a notable early example of the effort to secure what Scott Lyons has called "rhetorical sovereignty," which "requires above all the presence of an Indian voice, speaking or writing in an ongoing context of colonization and setting at least some of the terms of debate" (462).6 Rhetorical sovereignty cannot, of course, be disassociated from political sovereignty, and it has been the struggle to achieve political sovereignty that has been the goal of so much Native writing and speaking; to emphasize rhetorical sovereignty, as Lyons does, is to recognize that much of the battle for Indian sovereignty has "taken place at what we might call the colonized scene of writing: a site of contact-zone rhetoric in its fullest sense" (453). Lyons goes on to argue that "One way of approaching this site is to find in American legal, political, and cultural discourses recurrent, yet ambivalent, assaults on Native sovereignty answered by recurrent, yet subordinate, defenses and redefinitions of the same by Indians" (453).

One such American cultural discourse, which performed perhaps the most sustained and effective assault on Native sovereignty in Apess's time, was the myth of Indians as the "Vanishing American." This cultural discourse posits Indians, in Brian W. Dippie's succinct summary, as "a vanishing race; they have been wasting away since the day the white man arrived, diminishing in vitality and numbers until, in some not too distant future, no red men will be left on the face of the earth" (xi). Since this narrative predicts the inevitable disappearance of Indian peoples, questions regarding Native sovereignty become, at best, irrelevant. And since this narrative figures the causality of that disappearance as residing in the forces of history, in the somewhat mysterious—yet undeniable—manifestation of Indians' underlying racial identity, it also distanced the Euroamerican producers of "legal, political, and cultural discourses" from any responsibility for the dwindling Indian populations.7 More specifically, it allowed Euroamerican writers, politicians, and policymakers to take the seemingly sympathetic [End Page 2] stance of mourning the tragedy of this purportedly inevitable Indian "vanishing." The Euroamerican culture, in turn, valorized and idealized the figure of the mourning Indian lamenting the passing of his or her own people. To recognize this context is...


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