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  • Extending Root and Branch:Community Regeneration in the Petitions of Samson Occom
  • Caroline Wigginton (bio)

On March 7, 1994, the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut gained U.S. federal recognition of their tribal status after an almost twenty-year legal battle. As part of the recognition process, the Mohegan tribe needed to demonstrate continuous political influence or authority over its members.1 Until the 1700s, the Mohegan tribe was governed by a sachem who was advised by other tribal members. However, prompted by colonists' corruption of the sachemship during this period, the tribe transitioned to a less vulnerable, informal authority, one not clearly embodied by a governing group or individual. In articles and legal documents, Mohegan tribal historian Melissa Fawcett-Sayet refers to this authority as sociocultural. This authority became vested in a long lineage of tribal Medicine Women who helped the Mohegans transmit history and culture as well as govern their community.

In order to demonstrate continuous political influence or authority, the Mohegan tribe needed to prove a link between the easily substantiated sachemship and the more subtle sociocultural leadership. The Mohegan Samson Occom (1723–92) partially fulfilled this link. Occom was both a member of the outlawed Mohegan Leadership Council and a Christian missionary. He served his community and other Indian tribes politically and culturally, and therefore he embodies—for legal purposes—the transition from one leadership form to the other. As a writer of letters, hymns, prose, diaries, anthropological essays, sermons, and petitions, Occom left a large, tangible archive of his political and [End Page 24] sociocultural leadership, documents that became evidence in the legal case two hundred years later.

Today Occom is known in scholarly communities principally for a sermon published in 1772 and a more recently recovered autobiographical narrative from 1768. Though many scholars consider him to be the first Native author to publish in the English language, his petitions have remained relatively unstudied. In addition to being part of the legal presence of the 1990s, these petitions also performed political and sociocultural work on behalf of the Mohegans and other tribes in the coastal area of New York and Connecticut during the 1700s. Through these petitions, Occom expresses Native determination to survive as nations. He articulates the ways in which Indigenous nations have chosen to continue as communities under the pressure of colonialism. With these petitions, he placed his literacy at the service of his fellow Indians to regenerate community. This regeneration occurs through the process of the petitions' construction and through embodying the process after the fact, thereby healing rifts within and between communities and extending tribal networks. In the devastation of the colonial world, the petitions create an Indian world out of the past and present, a patchwork of traditions, adaptations, and simulations that becomes real during the very act of writing.

Occom's petitions include internal records that document tribal decisions and external records that communicate requests to the colonial governments. Though legal petitions are a nontraditional genre for literary studies, these petitions are more than historical or even legal documents; they are concrete moments of intellectual sovereignty. Beyond the ostensibly clear-cut requests of the documents, petitions crafted by Occom in conjunction with Native communities provide a rich site for cultural and literary analysis. Occom's knowledge of his own community, other tribes, Native traditions, Christianity, and white culture converge to create many layers of meaning. The colonial world placed strong emphasis upon the power of written language, a fact repeatedly underscored by whites' reliance upon treaties and documents to enforce encroachment and other acts of colonization. At the same [End Page 25] time, Mohegan language had ritualistic power.2 The act of speaking can make things happen.3 Since they use written language to perform decisions made by Indian communities through oral language, the petitions merge these two effects of language. By doing so, they demonstrate intellectual sovereignty, claim literacy's power as their own, and infuse Native ritual into white and Native archives. In other words, Occom's petitions are written utterances of self-determining communities and enactments of their perseverance. Significantly, these documents continue to demand and execute sovereignty because they resonate beyond their moment of creation into...


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