In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • "The question which has puzzled, and still puzzles":How American Indian Authors Challenged Dominant Discourse about Native American Origins in the Nineteenth Century
  • Meghan C. L. Howey (bio)

It is however, still a matter, of doubt and perplexity; it is a book sealed to the eyes of man, for the time has not yet come when the Great Ruler of all things, in His wisdom, shall make answer through his inscrutable ways to the question which has puzzled, and still puzzles the minds of the learned civilized world. How came America to be first inhabited by man?

William W. Warren, History of the Ojibway People

This quote from William Whipple Warren invites us into the topic of this essay: the ways American Indian authors, particularly three contemporary Anishinaabeg writers, engaged with the question of Native American origins during the racially polarized project of "imagining" the nation of the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Answering the question of origins was central to continued colonization in North America; quite simply, Native people had to be explained to be superseded (WIN, 5). Since first contact, European Americans have presented myriad answers to the question, How came America to be first inhabited by humans? With the rising importance of print capitalism in postrevolutionary America, explanations of Native origins became widely disseminated and consumed by the public and politicians alike. The accessibility of these theories directly influenced nineteenth-century popular sentiments about American Indians and colonial policies regarding their future. This was most notable with regard to removal policies, which were aimed at accomplishing one of the essential components of the colonial project of the United States, the territorial dispossession of Indian [End Page 435] lands.1 This process was vital to the colonial project, and it stood in stark opposition to the fact that it was on the well-being of indigenous lands that the very survival of indigenous peoples depended.2 Having answers to the question of Native origins that challenged the magnitude, duration, and even the very legitimacy of Native Americans' presence and tenure in America offered powerful colonial tools for furthering tribal land dispossession.

In this essay I argue that American Indian authors had a keen understanding of the political and racial implications the varied answers European Americans were offering about their origins held for their communities. By tackling dominant origin theories, they interrupted the white-supremacist discourse surrounding the topic. Their answers were crafted delicately so as to be salient to their predominantly white audiences and yet also actively promote indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty inherent in peoplehood.3 This peoplehood was "inseparably linked to sacred traditions, traditional homelands, and a shared history as indigenous people."4 With the ongoing colonial project of the United States attempting to strip indigenous groups of key aspects of their peoplehood, including language, sacred history, religion, and land, through "the means of territorial dispossession, assimilation, religious conversion, or outright extermination," we can understand their answers, which sought to protect this peoplehood, as bold acts of resistance.5

My primary focus is on three Anishinaabeg writers: Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones), Kahgegagahbowh (George Copway), and William Whipple Warren, who were, for the most part, writing contemporaneously (between the mid-1830s and 1850s) and who were each embroiled in fights against colonial land grabs and removal policies focused on their communities in Canada and the United States during this period.6 These three multifaceted individuals, with their own unique life histories, were bound by ongoing problems of misrepresentation and oppression in their communities and their willingness to represent Anishinaabeg history and knowledge to white audiences (WIN, 163). Each tracked contemporary debate and discourse on Native American origins in North America. In their written works they constructed and disseminated answers to these dilemmas that actively attended to the challenges of ongoing colonization in their specific communities as well as envisioned a wider Native American sovereignty. Before detailing the historical context of origin questions in the nineteenth century, I draw [End Page 436] brief attention to the tantalizing hints offered to us in the opening quote from Warren about how these Anishinaabeg authors creatively engaged with discourse on the question of Native origins.

Warren says the origin question has puzzled...