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  • The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Seances, 1848–1890 by Kathryn Troy
The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Seances, 1848–1890. By Kathryn Troy. State University of New York Press, 2017. 232 pages. $85.00 cloth; $21.95 paper; ebook available.

Kathryn Troy's Specter of the Indian is a significant contribution to scholarship on what is now known as Modern American Spiritualism. An abundance of primary source material indicates that Native American "spirit controls" were prevalent at nineteenth-century seances, yet only Troy has researched these phenomena in depth. Troy frames the alleged mediumistic channeling of Native American spirits during the late nineteenth-century seance as being a strategy not only to bring attention to Native American populations under attack, but also to "uncover concerns about Indian affairs as a driving social force of Spiritualism" (xxiii). Hence, Troy expresses her scholarly intention to "determine where and how Spiritualists and their changing ideas of race and gender fit into the broader push for policy reform present in late-nineteenth-century society" (xxiii). In realizing this intention, Troy is able to extend a series of conversations begun by other scholars (for [End Page 157] example, Robert Cox and Ann Braude) by addressing various civil rights discourses embedded within the Spiritualist movement and considering how such discourses may have helped to transform fin de siècle attitudes towards race, class, and gender.

In the first chapter, Troy deftly situates the occurrences of Native American "specters" (also known as "spirit controls") within the political gestalt of the time, describing key events within Native American history, such as Euro-American colonization of the West, Grant's Peace Policy, and the Dawes Allotment Act. In this manner, Troy illuminates resonances between the frequency in documentation of so-called "Indian manifestations" at seances and "significant changes in Indian policy" (13). Troy argues that by 1890, once the "legal status of Indians was established as federal policy" there was a widespread (although incorrect) assumption that the lot of Native Americans had improved, which resulted in a decline in "Indian Manifestations" (14).

Chapter 2 uses the alleged appearances of Sauk Chief Black Hawk as a:

case study … to begin analysis of several aspects of nineteenth-century seances. … This includes issues of racial recognition and categorization through sound, touch, and sight, the importance of celebrity and popular imagery to spirit authentication and the physical mechanics of the seance (21).

Black Hawk's spirit allegedly came through the medium Jennie Lord. Troy explains that a white female medium manifesting a colonial "other" was a fairly typical phenomenon at the time. The figure of Black Hawk was especially appealing to white audiences who saw him as being quintessentially "Indian"—a reflection of their own somewhat prurient fascination with a "vanishing" aboriginal culture. Readily identifiable and unafraid to criticize government policies, the spirit of Black Hawk was an exemplary civil rights activist from whom white audiences could take inspiration. This fetishization of the deceased Native American subject extended to the similarly iconic figure of the "Indian Maiden." As such, Troy dedicates the fourth chapter of her text to sentimental representations of Native American women who were typically depicted as being charmingly innocent and naive. In this chapter, Troy traces ways in which nineteenth-century rhetorics of "True Womanhood" were projected onto these women: rhetorics that inevitably suggest that the "Indian Maiden" should be respected not because of her humanity, but because of her purity, humility, and her potential for Christian piety.

In "Race and Reform Among Spiritualists," the final chapter of her book, Troy demonstrates that key members of the Spiritualist movement, long known to support abolition and women's rights, were also [End Page 158] highly critical of the government's treatment of Native Americans and the mainstream press' tendency to ignore or downplay even well-documented abuse. Unfortunately, however, the solution to racial injustice presented by white allies was to force Native Americans to assimilate and to eradicate exterior markers of their "Indian-ness." As twenty-first century readers we are aware of the cruelty of stripping people of their cultural identity, but apparently this did not occur to many Spiritualists who counted themselves among those campaigning for Native American rights. Troy explores primary sources explaining and elaborating upon this paradox, and highlights some of the more tragic ironies that arose as a result of the ostensible white championing of Native causes.

In The Specter of the Indian, Troy examines "race, gender … civilization and the development of an American national character. This book explores the spectral appearances of Indians in late nineteenth-century American seances in relation to those national debates" (xi). Troy delivers excellently on this promise, contributing much to foundational scholarship on Modern American Spiritualism. All the same, I do believe that Troy might have benefitted from referencing Marlene Tromp's Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (SUNY, 2006), and Russ Castronovo's Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Duke, 2001). In Altered States, Tromp discusses the alleged full-form materializations of colonial subjects in her work on Victorian Spiritualism; and Castronovo's Necro Citizenship offers a unique perspective on the nineteenth-century fetishization of the deceased subaltern subject. Overall, however, the Specter of the Indian offers a valuable demonstration of how "white guilt" manifested in the cultural imaginary of the time and reveals how the "specter" of the Native American was used as a political tool.

Elizabeth Schleber Lowry
Arizona State University

Additional Information

ISSN
1541-8480
Print ISSN
1092-6690
Pages
157-159
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-02
Open Access
No
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