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Reviewed by:
  • Our Life among the Iroquois Indians
  • Laurence M. Hauptman
Harriet S. Clark Caswell. Our Life among the Iroquois Indians. 1892. Reprinted with a new introduction by Joy Bilharz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 358 pp. Paper, $24.95.

Harriet S. Clark Caswell's classic is about the life and labors of Asher and Laura Wright, two extraordinary missionaries among the Seneca and Cayuga Indians. This new edition contains a foreword by archivist Jack Ericson and a first-rate introduction by Joy Bilharz, professor of anthropology at SUNY Fredonia. Harriet "Hattie" S. Clark was the daughter of a wealthy Boston family associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. She joined the Wrights as a missionary at the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in 1853 and stayed there proselytizing until 1870, when she returned to Boston to marry Lemuel Caswell, a businessman. While at Cattaraugus, she worked closely with the Wrights. Hattie served primarily in a religious capacity, while Laura Wright [End Page 401] devoted her time to self-help projects, especially encouraging cottage industries and trade skills among the Indian women.

Drawing from Laura Wright's correspondence, much of which is no longer extant, Caswell explains the goals and work of the Wright mission, recounts Iroquoian traditions told to her, and describes Seneca ceremonies witnessed, although not in a totally objective way. Despite her ethnocentric missionary bias and use of words viewed objectionable today (e.g., "pagan"), Caswell's work provides valuable information about Seneca and Cayuga life in the post–Handsome Lake era of the nineteenth century. She clearly shows that the Wrights had real concerns for the Indians and that they were with them at major times of travail. The Senecas and the Cayugas were faced with deadly epidemics, poverty and starvation, and the rapacious activities of sharks such as the Ogden Land Company, which was intent on dispossessing the Indians. Caswell is especially effective in describing Iroquois women—matrilineage, land rights, style of dancing in the longhouse, storytelling, and so on.

Equally valuable are Caswell's descriptions of nineteenth-century Iroquoian beliefs, both Christian and those of the longhouse. She draws on the expertise of Seneca traditionalists such as Silverheels, who instructs her about six Iroquoian festivals, which she then describes. She analyzes how ceremonial objects such as turtle rattles are made and used. In a fascinating passage Caswell describes a theological debate between Laura Wright and a Seneca traditionalist over which version of Creation—Genesis or Sky Woman (Iroquoian)—was the True Belief! She clearly shows the tensions that existed between Christian missionary efforts and Iroquoian longhouse traditions.

Although this new edition is most welcomed by this reviewer, the book would have been even more valuable if it had been annotated with biographical notes about the specific Seneca and Cayuga Indians mentioned and added background material to explain what was being described in the text about Iroquoian ceremonies. Moreover, the book's map of the contemporary Iroquois in New York fails to include three Mohawk territories that continue to exist today.

Laurence M. Hauptman
SUNY New Paltz


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pp. 401-402
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