- Letter from Barnstable Jail:William Apess and the “Memorial of the Mashpee Indians”
from mid-september to mid-october of 1833 the Pequot activist, writer, and Methodist minister William Apess served out a jail sentence of thirty days, having been found guilty of “inciting a riot” as a result of his attempts to advocate for the rights of the Mashpee Wampanoag at Mashpee on Cape Cod. Apess used his time in prison, among other things, to draft a detailed petition he would later submit to be read in the Boston Legislature. The petition, known as the “Memorial of the Marshpee Indians,” was immediately circulated throughout the “plantation,” where, in keeping with traditional processes, it was read to the assembled tribe, discussed, and amended where necessary, until a consensus was reached as to its overall language. The “Memorial” was signed or approved by well over half the residents of Mashpee and laid out the case for the Mashpee complaint, enumerating the unjust and opportunistic means by which the tribe had been oppressed over roughly a century of colonial oversight.1 As Apess observed, “There is not one enlightened and respectable Indian upon the plantation, that wants overseers or the present minister (Phineas Fish). We say that all our rulers … were placed here amongst us without our consent.” He additionally reprimands the august rulers of the state of Massachusetts that, “while ye are filled with the fat of our father’s land and enjoy your liberties without molestation will not this Honorable Body be as benevolent to us, poor Marshpee Indians, who are sighing and weeping under bondage, as ye are to the poor Cherokees?” The “Memorial” concluded with a general cry for release from bondage, exclaiming, “Oh, White man! white man! the blood of our fathers, spilt in the Revolutionary War, cries from the ground of our native soil, to break the chains of oppression, and let our children go free.”2
Apess’s Mashpee “Memorial,” although first published in The Liberator in 1834, has not, to my knowledge, been reprinted anywhere since. And yet it is a seminal contribution to Native American literature, written, as Apess would later attest to the Barton Commission in charge of investigating the affairs at Mashpee (and as recorded in the stenographer’s clipped transcription), “as voice of people.”3 Although Indigenous prison protest literature as [End Page 105] a genre can be said to already have had a complex history in the colonies up to this point, including documents produced by the eighteenth-century Pequot bond servant Katherine Garrett, the Mohegan/Wampanoag Moses Paul, and arguably even the Sauk leader Black Hawk, Apess’s petition stands as a centerpiece in the textualized struggle for Indigenous rights emerging from the heart of colonial containment. It highlights the manner in which Apess pioneered effective strategies of civil disobedience, including what I refer to hear as “negative work,” marshaling the press, public opinion, religious sentiment, and nonviolent resistance to advocate for Native sovereignty in the first half of the nineteenth century, and thereby preparing the way for future movements for people of color in the United States.
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The term “negative work” is lifted from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who, in his Archeology of Knowledge, employed this interesting phrase to elaborate on the rhetorical reconfiguration of the genealogical pathways of knowledge he deemed essential to exposing entrenched operations of power.4 The accrued knowledge of the Western world, in Foucault’s estimation, was founded not in incontrovertible fact nudging its way forward from the milky origins of time, so much as an agreed-on series of inscribed traditions that were largely determined and canonized by dominant forces in the present moment. Foucault seems to imply that to contest these constructed formations of historical tradition required the exertion of an opposite, or negative, force, one equal to the task of tracing the nearly imperceptible flow of power even from within its coercive containments.
The relatively few published works of late eighteenth and early...