- Patterson's Life; Black Hawk's Story; Native American Elegy
About two-thirds of the way through his autobiography, Black Hawk tells of a highly charged encounter with Major General Edmund Gaines.1 Exasperated over Black Hawk's unwillingness to depart from the village he understands the Sauks to have sold, Gaines, "apparently angry, rose and said: 'Who is Black Hawk? Who is Black Hawk?'" (65).2 Black Hawk responds, "I am a Sac! My forefather was a SAC! And all the nations call me a SAC" (65). This is a classic Native American mode of self-identification, what I have elsewhere called the "synecdochic" mode, in which one's identity is foremost a matter of the larger whole or collectivity to which one belongs.3 Jace Weaver has referred to this form of identification as an "I-am-we" construction of the self (43), something very different from the modern, Western conception, with its egoistic sense of unique and bounded individuality. I argue that the story Black Hawk sought to tell in his autobiography is foremost the story of what it means to be a Sauk, i.e., a national rather than a personal story, expressing a "communitist" rather than an individualist identity (Weaver 303). This is not the story his editor sought to tell, nor is it one he likely could have imagined. Of the two stories, Black Hawk's has not yet been very well understood. Black Hawk's collective and communitist national story may also be read in relation to an unexplored body of Native American elegiac expression, a reading that may itself stand in synecdochic relation to readings possible for many other Indian autobiographies. [End Page 527]
After his military defeat in the brief Black Hawk War (1832), his imprisonment, his meeting with President Andrew Jackson, his trip through the east, and then, after yet further confinement, his return to his (displaced) people, Black Hawk worked with the government interpreter for the Sacs and Fox, Antoine LeClaire, to produce a life history edited by a young newspaper editor named John Barton Patterson, and published in Cincinnati in 1833.4 Patterson's lengthy title page to the volume, typical of its period, is set in type of different sizes.5 It first announces, in small type, that the book will "embrac[e] … the tradition of [Black Hawk's] nation," and offer a "description of [his] Rock River village," along with "the manners and customs of his people." Apart from these phrases announcing what we would call cultural material, the title page is resolutely oriented toward history. Thus Patterson states that the Life will provide an account of "Indian Wars in which [Black Hawk] has been engaged," the "cause of [his] joining the British in the late war with America, and its history," and—this in larger type—"an account of the cause and general history of the late war."
Following the title page is LeClaire's statement "certif[ying]" that the book came about because Black Hawk wished the Americans to "know the causes that had impelled him to act as he had done, and the principles by which he was governed."6 This is followed by Black Hawk's own "Dedication" of the volume to Brigadier General Henry Atkinson. In an English that does not represent Black Hawk's Sauk very closely, Black Hawk is made to say, "Sir—The changes of fortune, and vicissitudes of war, made you my conqueror."7 Black Hawk may have been conquered, but, as Patterson's own "Advertisement" (following Black Hawk's "Dedication") asserts, he is nonetheless a hero. Patterson writes, "It is presumed no apology will be required for presenting to the public, the life of a Hero who has lately taken such high rank among the distinguished individuals of America" (7; emphasis added). Patterson affirms the status of the autobiography as memoir, an account of world-historical deeds done by an eminent public person. The title page of Black Hawk's Life, in effect, promises ethnographic islands in a sea of historical discourse.
That metaphor very roughly describes US book publishing in the Jacksonian era.8 A great number of the books published...