Native Spirits, Shaker Visions: Speaking with the Dead in the Early Republic
Abstract

Abstract:

Historians have largely ignored native spirit narratives: the hundreds of pages of extant manuscript sources describing Shaker communications with (mostly fictional) deceased Indians. These sources were generated during the Era of Manifestations (1837-1840s), a period of intense spiritualistic activity among the Shakers that coincided with the Second Great Awakening. Native spirit narratives reveal complex discourses about American Indians. Even though many native spirits partook of crude stereotypes of Indian savagery and ignorance, they also offered sharp critiques of the racism exhibited by whites – Shakers included. Shaker mediums, mostly young and female, likewise used the appearance of native spirits to voice implicit critiques of patriarchal violence. The Shaker spirit narratives thus reveal how one religious society appropriated Indian images available in the Early Republic to express nuanced views about the legacy of colonialism and white male violence, via the group’s characteristic method of speaking with the dead. Because such contact with departed spirits was at the center of Shaker religious practice, and because this practice drew thousands of spectators and generated numerous published descriptions, the Shakers and their native spirits demonstrate the widespread interest in speaking with the dead that would emerge as séance spiritualism after 1848.