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  • The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Séances, 1848–1890 by Kathryn Troy
  • Amy Gore (bio)
The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Séances, 1848–1890 by Kathryn Troy State University of New York Press, 2017

AMID THE PLETHORA OF SCHOLARSHIP on Indian ghosts, Kathryn Troy contributes a new approach that looks specifically at the appearances of Indian specters within the Spiritualist movement during the second half of the nineteenth century. Because Spiritualists rebelled against authoritarian structures and lacked organization, they remain difficult to define, as Troy and other scholars note, yet participants in the movement commonly believed that the "spirits of the dead could communicate with the living," most often through séances and mediums (1). While most scholarship on the Spiritualist movement in America ties it politically to the promotion of women's rights and abolition, Troy instead cites the movement as inextricably tied to federal Indian policy and claims that it asserted the continuing presence of ghostly Indians to challenge the prevailing rhetoric of the vanishing Indian. Through extensive research in primary documents, including the foremost Spiritualist journal, the Banner of Light, Troy examines the function of the Indian specter within a religious organization that included an estimated millions of members and enhances the psychological complexity of the Indian ghost in American society outside of literature.

Troy avoids a repetition of the nearly exhausted topic of Indian ghosts in American literature, as well as the historical significance of the Indian image made in many other works of scholarship, including Phil Deloria's Playing Indian (1998). Rather, she examines what she calls the literal haunting rather than the literary haunting of Americans and unexpectedly builds upon Deloria's work when she calls for a greater attention to the particularities of Indian images and hauntings according to gender and to individual Indian "celebrities" such as Black Hawk (xvii, xix). In addition, rather than comment on the authenticity of Indian ghosts and their messages, Troy more productively matches the supernatural manifestations to unfolding federal Indian policy and the complexities of public opinion. Her introduction contains a clear delineation of her project, and her first chapter provides a helpful overview of the Spiritualist movement through the lens of their Indian politics. Troy returns to the political platform of the Spiritualists in her equally strong fifth chapter, "Race and Reform Among Spiritualists," [End Page 210] in which she details and problematizes their push for "an absence of racial difference" and quickly points out the "catastrophic consequences of such policies for Indian peoples" despite the best of intentions (145).

Troy's best contribution comes from an examination of specific Indian images in regard to individuals and gender. For example, Troy's second chapter looks exclusively at the frequent appearances of Black Hawk during Spiritualist séances, arguing that his celebrity status speaks to the ways in which Spiritualists "sought to define ideal manhood and womanhood" (22). Her third chapter focuses on the political function of the Indian chief apparition, which she argues stood for "a specific model of manhood to be admired and mimicked by their white male spectators" and ultimately encouraged the spiritual progress of forgiveness and political advocacy (55). As yet another angle, the fourth chapter specifically examines the apparitions of "Indian maidens" in Spiritualist séances and scrutinizes the gender differences that they reinforced (91). Each chapter draws forth the insights to be gained by a greater attention to such particularities, and though the arguments in these middle chapters do not resound with the clarity of her beginning and ending chapters, Troy's strongest chapters would serve as beneficial readings in courses on the popular appropriations and the cultural impact of the Indian image, on the Indigenous or American Gothic, or on race and religion.

As painful as the racialized images and cultural appropriations are, the world of the Spiritualist movement marks a fascinating and understudied moment in American history and demonstrates the persistence and mutability of Indian images across all aspects of American history. Her book successfully balances the delicate walk between racial stereotypes and religious beliefs, and Troy maintains an admirable professionalism when describing Spiritualist beliefs...


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pp. 210-211
Launched on MUSE
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