- Scholars and Sovereignty:Rethinking Native Studies for a New Decade
The 2008 "Prophetstown Revisited" conference, held to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's intertribal base camp, sought to bridge the gap between non-Native scholars and the Native peoples they study. Representatives of Native Nations mingled with scholars in the fields of history and literature; traditional panels shared space with workshops addressing issues including the use of oral sources, the relevance of Native understandings of history, and the need for collaboration among scholars and Native peoples. In my view, this worthy experiment was not wholly successful: while significant exchange did occur, a degree of self-segregation also manifested itself; scholars gravitated toward the panels and Native persons avoided them. I left the conference struck both by the willingness of some scholars to rethink their relationship to past and present Native peoples and by the distance the field still needs to travel to overcome traditional suspicions and partitions.
The three books reviewed here testify to the progress scholars in the field of Native Studies have made, but they also demonstrate the challenges that still [End Page 458] confront the field. On the one hand, rejecting the past tendency to marginalize Indian peoples, each book emphasizes the central role Indians played through the eighteenth century. On the other, if all three innovate in matter, only one innovates in manner: only one internalizes the arguments of scholars, such as Robert Allen Warrior (Osage), Craig Womack (Creek), and Eva Marie Garroutte (Cherokee), that Native Studies must be informed by the distinctive philosophies, historical and literary traditions, and present-day political realities of Native peoples. In this sense, though each book commemorates Native peoples of the past, only one, Dowd's War under Heaven, suggests a way of making itself fully accountable to Native peoples of the present.
Stevens's book explores the rhetoric by which British mission literature, from the mid-seventeenth-century "Eliot Tracts" to the mid-eighteenth-century biographies of David Brainerd and John Sergeant, cultivated sympathy for the Indians' supposed spiritual suffering. Stevens shows that this affective positioning possessed powerful political implications: whatever its success in saving Indian souls, the literature helped create a transatlantic colonial subjecthood united through ostensible concern for America's natives. Thus, "rather than asking what missionary writings tell us about Indians and their responses to a colonial presence" (4), Stevens's book asks how the British emotional response to Indian missionizing "made colonialism imaginatively possible" (36).
The structure of Stevens's book perfectly answers this question. She begins by exploring how the Columbian trope of Indians naively trading gold for baubles was inverted by mission writings to provide "a rhetorical justification for colonialism" (43): Indians "lose wealth they hardly knew existed, and in return they receive the invaluable word of God" (55). She concludes by identifying the influence of mission literature on the cult of the vanishing Indian: "Counterintuitive though this idea may seem, the Europeans most concerned with saving Indians—or at least their souls—taught us to feel pleasing melancholy at the sight of Indian death" (164). Between these chapters tracking the unfolding of mission literature's "benevolent imperialist rhetoric" (33), Stevens takes up subjects that examine the ways in which missionary letters "enhanced the sympathetic ties between England's residents and colonists" (73), the role of mission literature in fostering an "eighteenth-century ideal of gentlemanly masculinity marked through civility and Christian faith" (85), and the tendency of missionary hagiography to move "from a focus on saving distant heathens to a preoccupation with the heroic expenditure of British Christians—from other to self" (143). Through these topics, The Poor Indians ultimately demonstrates the trajectory by which mission literature came...