- Wampum, Bibles, Treaties, and American LettersNative American and Anglo-American Communications in Early America
Nation-building mythologies of the United States rest on the representation of select cultural exchanges between Native American and Anglo-American communities. Popular stories about clashes and collaborations between Native American and Anglo-American settlers undergird a number of narratives that define the “birth” of the American nation, be they romanticized stories of a young Pocahontas saving John Smith, legends of the First Thanksgiving, or the appropriation of native ways by white Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional Natty Bumppo. To varying degrees, these narratives present native peoples as an obstacle to white progress and as passive in the formation of US society. While myths [End Page 771] of Pocahontas and fictional white characters who have gone native may dominate popular understandings of exchange between native and Anglo-American communities, scholars have long been challenging the tropes and stereotypes associated with such narratives to increasingly highlight the extensive contributions native peoples made to colonial society as well as their often misrepresented or even outright ignored resistance to escalating oppression from Anglo-American communities.
The rise of early Native American and indigenous studies in the academy has led to an outpouring of scholarship that seeks to understand the response of first Americans to the life-altering and frequently destructive experiences of European colonization, and native studies more generally has produced a number of theories that reflect specific epistemologies unique to native peoples both past and present.1 While the historical effects of colonization forever changed the cultures, political formations, and methods of communication used by native peoples, critical work on native communities has, in Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s coinage, sought to “decolonize” representations of Native American cultures both historically and in the present day. Whereas scholarly narratives initially placed emphasis on the decimation of tribal cultures, societies, and peoples, early American scholarship by authors such as Lisa Brooks and Daniel Richter has increasingly noted native contributions to colonial society in a turn that views Native Americans not just as victims of colonization but as a people with agency who are part of a wider network conceptualized by Jace Weaver as a “Red Atlantic.” While earlier scholars addressed the hardship of finding and presenting a more balanced view of colonial life due to the paucity of native voices in a literary canon dominated by the words of the colonizer, scholars have been broadening their definition of literature as understood in Western culture to include an array of “texts” such as wampum, totems, land, and oral traditions from which native perspectives can be gleaned.2 More capacious definitions of “texts” have led to an expanded consideration of the ways in which Native Americans and Anglo-Americans communicated, clashed, and collaborated.
Those who seek out ways to recover indigenous perspectives participate in the theory of “survivance,” a term coined by Anishinaabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor that combines “survive” with “resistance” to underscore that native peoples are still active members of present-day communities despite facing a number of historical traumas. Native American [End Page 772] literary theory has grown exponentially to account for the range of indigenous voices and time periods encompassed in Native American literature, and these theories are increasingly appropriate for scholars studying texts from both Native American and Anglo-American colonial communities. Recent works such as Billy Stratton’s study of the canonical Mary Rowlandson “Indian Captivity” narrative employ overt native studies methodologies and contemporary Native American literary theory to analyze the rhetorical formations and functions of texts that have historically maligned native peoples and silenced their voices.
The three books under review engage and expand on the idea of “survivance” by looking at the complex...