- Old Stories, New Networks
In a book about his 1829 mission to negotiate a treaty for the land of the Winnebago people, Caleb Atwater paused to describe the oratory of Chief Hoowaneka (Little Elk), a leader of the Winnebago delegation and one of Atwater’s main opponents in the negotiations. “His gestures were very graceful,” Atwater wrote, “but, in those parts of his speech, where he felt deeply, what he said, his gesticulation was violent, and his whole soul appeared to be agitated in the highest degree” (qtd. in Gunn 74). Details about the gestures and facial expressions of famous leaders were common in political memoirs of Atwater’s era. Just a few years earlier, Thomas Jefferson had described Andrew Jackson in similar terms, saying Jackson “could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings” and would “choke with rage” when he took the floor of the Senate (Webster 1: 371). But Atwater saw more in Hoowaneka’s outbursts than a dramatic detail for his narrative. The violent gesticulations and full-body agitation held a deeper significance, revealing something crucial about Indians as a race of people, and even about their ultimate fate in world history. An Indian who carries on like Hoowaneka “will rise no higher than he now is,” Atwater thought. “[H]is speeches will be vehement, his gesticulation violent, and repetitions, and darkness and obscurity, mixed with some beautiful allusions to nature, and vague traditions, handed down, from ages gone by, will be found in [End Page 177] all his harangues” (qtd. in Gunn 74). Seeing racial destiny in Hoowaneka’s every word, Atwater arrives at a circular conclusion: the Indians are destined to lose their land because they get angry when someone is trying to take it.
Atwater’s book, entitled Remarks Made on a Tour to Prairie du Chien; Thence to Washington City, in 1829 (1831), quickly became a staple of scholarship on western history. His leading role in the negotiations, his eye for detail, and his sense of the importance of the occasion made it a constantly referenced source, especially for scholars working in the field of “Indian bibliography” (as it was called in the nineteenth century). Today Atwater, like many other western officials of the time, is cited by literary scholars, anthropologists, and linguists for the insight he provides into Great Lakes history. But Atwater also poses a dilemma for scholars of our era, most of whom do not share his faith in the inevitability of Hoowaneka’s disappearance. Despite the richness of his text, to the smallest detail his book foretells the disappearance of the people he tries to describe. Is it possible to use a source like Atwater’s Remarks to tell a new story about early America, with a different ending than the one inscribed on his every page? For starters, we might note that there were many tribes present during the negotiations for Winnebago land, and Hoowaneka hardly spoke for the tribe as a group. American newspapers and later American historians often personified tribes by identifying them with one great male leader, such as Sitting Bull or Tecumseh, but in reality even those native leaders authorized to speak at treaty negotiations did not have the same executive power as presidents or other Western leaders. We might also note that there was probably something more than “darkness and obscurity” in Hoowaneka’s words and gestures, however he might have appeared to Atwater. Sign language was central to Indian politics, especially in intertribal relations, and the other Indians present might have understood Hoowaneka’s movements as an intertribal communication that Atwater himself could not comprehend. When we step back and place Atwater’s book in the context of intertribal political and communication networks, another set of possible meanings emerges, and with them, new ways of telling the story of the 1829 treaty negotiations.
Two new books, from different disciplinary...