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  • Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical Anthology
  • Frances L. Taylor
Kristina Bross and Hilary E. Wyss, eds. Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical Anthology. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. 276 pp. Paper, $29.95.

The first peoples of North America have always possessed rich and diverse cultural traditions and highly adaptive strategies of survival, which included, for some, the conversion to European religious systems and methods of literary production. This anthology addresses the issues of American Indian conversions to Christianity within the colonial era and their adaptation to a written literacy as taught in the Indian mission schools. It will appeal to a wide audience, including those interested in Native American studies, anthropology, religious studies, American colonial history, and the study of complex iconography. [End Page 115]

The traditional study of materials relating to American Indians of the early colonial period has tended to exclude or devalue works by American Indians who produced documents and texts in the language and literacy advocated and imposed by the colonizers. Materials that did not conform to a limited preconceived concept of what constituted or should constitute American Indian literacy were pushed to the side. Fortunately, this limiting perspective is changing.

Over the past decade innovative new scholarship has opened the doors to investigation into the ways in which American Indian writers, especially those of the colonial period, adapted to a changing world and created dynamic new and unique American Indian identities through their conversion to Christianity and use of English literacy. Traditional Western assumptions of the superiority of alphabetic literacy are also undergoing a challenge, with a growing body of research looking at nonalphabetic, "complex iconography" as a valid mode of communication and literacy. Although there continues to be an ongoing debate over what constitutes writing, a growing number of experts and researchers are promoting the incorporation of nonalphabetic communicative production, such as items of material culture, signature art, and even body art, into literary studies.

This anthology investigates materials produced by Christianized American Indians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This body of work has traditionally suffered from a lack of interest by researchers, which often led to inadequate and disorganized storage procedures. This has resulted in the loss and disintegration of a majority of the available texts and fragile materials. Those materials that remain are often fragmented, piecemeal, poorly documented as to origin, and difficult to coordinate into a concise, comprehensive analysis. Organizing editors Bross and Wyss have overcome this by focusing on a limited geographic, linguistic, and temporal framework. Also, to provide the greatest sense of production possibilities, they chose a wide range of "literacies" for analysis. Not only are the traditional alphabetic mediums of letters, journals, last wills and testaments, confessions, execution sermons, and petitions to the British Crown examined but also the narrative that is embedded in a signature mark and the story held within the construction and decoration of a traditional Mohegan basket.

Taken together, these texts illustrate the development of various creative and nuanced social negotiations across the cultural terrain that runs between pre-contact and postcolonization identities and narratives. To complete this task they have brought together some of the most knowledgeable researchers and authors in the field of early American Indian literatures and cultures to present and analyze previously overlooked texts and communicative materials.

The anthology is divided into five "New England" Indian communities of production (Mohegan, Narragansett, Natick, Pequot, and Wampanoag), with [End Page 116] a sixth chapter looking at intertribal communications. Primary texts presented predominately come from a time period between the late seventeenth century through the eighteenth century. Each chapter presents examples of the literary practice of a particular nation and its overall relationship to those groups around it. As any study of a historical text requires some knowledge of the social environment within which it was created, each primary text is preceded by a headnote consisting of a brief description of means of production or other relevant historic background. Each primary text is presented in a lightly edited form, when necessary, and is followed by a concise analysis using the most recent developments and trends in American Indian literary...


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