- Power Literacy:Nineteenth-Century American Indians and the Uses of Class, Respectability, Spiritual Authority, and Media
Philip F. Gura’s biography of William Apess (Pequot, 1798–1839) and Michael Leroy Oberg’s biography of Eleazer Williams (Mohawk, 1788–1858), placed in dialogue with one another, shed light on two prominent American Indians whose cultural and political interventions long predate the work of Native intellectual activists such as Zitkala-Ša/Gertrude Bonnin (Yankton Sioux, 1876–1938), Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux, 1858–1939), and Henry Roe Cloud (Winnebago, c. 1884–1950). These engaging and well researched biographies double as ambitious histories: they sketch the systemic contradictions and pressures that drove some eastern Indians to try to become Indian professionals who could wield weapons—writing, preaching, lecturing—on cultural, political, and institutional battlefields that required not only literacy but what might be termed power literacy. They strove to attain class position, respectability, spiritual authority, and media visibility to gain power to influence power.
There are similarities between them. Both Apess and Williams struggled with poverty, debt, little formal education, and few job options open to Indians. And both served in the War of 1812, became Protestant preachers, and were enmeshed in the politics of settler colonialism in the East at a time when the federal and state governments, businesses, and white settlers, all hungry for Indian land, connived to “remove” eastern Indians (not just the Cherokees in the South) from East to West. Despite the odds, both Apess and Williams became players on the national stage. But there were key differences in how they responded to overwhelming systemic oppression, racism, exploitation, and land theft. These differences make their comparison rich. Put crudely, Apess [End Page 270] became a writer, lecturer, activist, and organizer who fought the incursions of American capitalism’s internal imperialism—particularly the ideologies that made it sacred and legalized it; whereas Williams, whose “humbug” Oberg likens to P. T. Barnum’s (p. 193), for the most part adopted the gospel of self-interest and self-promotion and actively aided and abetted an Indian “removal” popularized as inevitable. Apess portrayed himself as having descended from “‘one of the principal chiefs of the Pequod tribe’” (p. 1) and identified with “‘his majesty, King Philip’” (Wampanoag), (p. 112), while Williams claimed two distinct lineages: one Indian and Puritan and the other, intriguingly, French. He claimed to be the Dauphin, the tortured son of France’s guillotined King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.
As Gura acknowledges, his biography is indebted to Barry O’Connell’s groundbreaking On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (1992). Gura, William S. Newman Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offers readings of Apess’ major works, including: Son of the Forest (1829, revised 1831), the first Native American autobiography, in which he records, among other things, the “physical and psychological abuses of Native Americans” (p. 45); Experiences of Five Christian Indians; or, A Looking-Glass for the White Man (1833), the first collection of Native biographies written by a Native American; Eulogy on King Philip (1836), the first radical rewriting of Indian-white history from a Native viewpoint (underscoring, for instance, the Puritan rape of captives and sale of them into slavery); and Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (1835), his account of what was popularly called the “Mashpee revolt” (p. xv), a “revolt” to which Apess contributed as writer, activist, and organizer (during this campaign, the Mashpee made him a member of the tribe but later distanced themselves from him). If Apess’ conversion to Methodism as a youth originally focused his attention on individualized salvation and uplift, his ongoing negotiations of social disenfranchisement and discrimination informed writings in which he formulated systemic critique and made the case for Natives’ collective resistance. O’Connell’s collection and Gura’s biography of...