Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932

Medicine Bundle: Indian Sacred Performance and American Literature, 1824-1932

by Joshua David Bellin

From the 1820s to the 1930s, Christian missionaries and federal agents launched a continent-wide assault against Indian sacred dance, song, ceremony, and healing ritual in an attempt to transform Indian peoples into American citizens. In spite of this century-long religious persecution, Native peoples continued to perform their sacred traditions and resist the

…  See more details below


From the 1820s to the 1930s, Christian missionaries and federal agents launched a continent-wide assault against Indian sacred dance, song, ceremony, and healing ritual in an attempt to transform Indian peoples into American citizens. In spite of this century-long religious persecution, Native peoples continued to perform their sacred traditions and resist the foreign religions imposed on them, as well as to develop new practices that partook of both. At the same time, some whites began to explore Indian performance with interest, and even to promote Indian sacred traditions as a source of power for their own society. The varieties of Indian performance played a formative role in American culture and identity during a critical phase in the nation's development.

In Medicine Bundle, Joshua David Bellin examines the complex issues surrounding Indian sacred performance in its manifold and intimate relationships with texts and images by both Indians and whites. From the paintings of George Catlin, the traveling showman who exploited Indian ceremonies for the entertainment of white audiences, to the autobiography of Black Elk, the Lakota holy man whose long life included stints as a dancer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a supplicant in the Ghost Dance movement, and a catechist in the Catholic Church, Bellin reframes American literature, culture, and identity as products of encounter with diverse performance traditions. Like the traditional medicine bundle of sacred objects bound together for ritual purposes, Indian performance and the performance of Indianness by whites and Indians alike are joined in a powerful intercultural knot.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excellent book about the way in which performance constitutes (rather than merely reflects) cultural differences between and among Native American and Anglo-American peoples."—Joseph Roach, Yale University

"Bellin's important book challenges readers to rethink questions of colonization and acculturation. . . . Highly recommended. "—Choice

Product Details

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


"Cultures are most fully expressed in and made conscious of themselves in their ritual and theatrical performances."—Victor Turner, By Means of Performance (1990)

Some years ago, at the opening of the Pittsburgh American Indian Center, I met a man named Edward Hale, a Mandan/Hidatsa medicine man and promoter of Indian causes. Both aspects of Hale's dual role were on display at the inaugural ceremony. Called on not only to provide the mostly Anglo audience with a living example of Indian people's resurgence but to supervise and interpret the enactment of Native dances, songs, and rituals, Hale, dressed in what I took to be a traditional costume of feathers and fringed leather, beating a drum and chanting in a soft voice that seemed too small even for the tiny Quaker meeting-house in which the event took place, was at once the arbiter of Native mysteries and the vendor of a mystery as strong and strange as the medicine bundle he bore: the mystery of his people's presence and persistence. I acknowledge now that I too was beguiled by the promise of Hale's performance, that I was taken by the preposterous thought that I, at that time a graduate student in English beginning to study Native American sacred traditions in antebellum literature, could make contact with that yet more distant mystery by fitting a lone hour's encounter with a lone contemporary healer into a hectic research and writing schedule. I imagined that I might talk with Hale at length—again, I meant an hour—about his practice, his people, his powers. I imagined that his medicine, ensconced within the pages of my dissertation, might live on through me.

As it turned out, my hopes were vain. Hale was distracted, the center of attention, rushing here and there, wearily answering questions and permitting his possessions and person to be admired and handled. Compounding this problem, he seemed, in the few moments I was able to capture his notice, to be convinced that I was looking to participate in one of his ceremonies, which I was not. "I'll set you up," he said—meaning, I suppose, that he would arrange for me to undergo a procedure similar to that of the older woman who, after submitting to a few passes from his healing crystal, pronounced herself cured, though of what I don't know. Hale could not seem to grasp that my interests were academic rather than therapeutic. He had come to heal, to break down barriers between peoples through the immediate or symbolic application of his medicine, while I—though I imagined my purpose to be somewhat the same—had chosen as my medium the pursuit of a doctorate in a secular, materialist, demystifying field, and neither of us was prepared or able to appreciate the other's vocation. I left the meeting-house both discouraged and a bit annoyed. I imagine, as I recall myself dogging Hale, introducing the same tired questions time and again, that he must have felt pretty much the same.

Though I did not get from Hale what I was—absurdly—seeking at the time, I have come to believe that my encounter with him was immensely productive for, as well as emblematic of, the project I begin with this reminiscence: the project of studying Indian sacred performance in its manifold, conflictual, intimate relationships with American literature and culture. What was being enacted in the Quaker meeting-house, I now believe, was an encounter between Native Americans and Euro-Americans that has pervaded American culture and shaped American literature throughout our mutual history, an encounter with two complementary, inseparable acts. On the one hand, it is an encounter involving Euro-American misapprehension of, fascination with, and dispossession of Native American sacred performance: ceremony, healing ritual, dance, song. On the other, it is an encounter embracing Native American repossession of, and revitalization through, the very acts by which whites have sought their dispossession: acts including, most notably, the public performance of Indianness in scenes engineered and attended by whites. In this twinned performance space, neither Native Americans nor Euro-Americans can escape the other's presence. Thus, though Hale may have seemed the only one on stage that day, we were all engaged in the performance, and not merely as spectators: not only did we in the audience crave a taste of Hale's medicine, but the very context of his performance, the setting for the drama, was tuned to our desires. Conversely, though Hale may have seemed the only one who was not playing a role, the only one who was artlessly expressing Indian medicine rather than calculatingly peddling or consuming it, the fact that our presence, our expectations, had brought him there necessitated his adopting a persona that met us (at least) halfway. In this regard, the performance space we created was an intercultural one, a space in which Indian and white traditions of sacred and secular performance circulated, collided, confounded, and compounded one another. This encounter of Indian and non-Indian traditions of performance, I will argue, played a central role in producing American identities, American culture, and American literature during the period of my study-as, indeed, it does to this day.

In the following pages, I will trace the forms, sources, and uses of Indian performance in American literature and culture from 1824, the publication date of Cherokee convert Catharine Brown's jointly authored Memoir, through the period of Indian Removal and the late-century era of the Wild West show, and then into the opening decades of the twentieth century, my terminal date correlating to the publication of John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks in 1932. In this project, I urge the reader to think of Indian performance as a complex, contested arena encompassing various interlocking acts and actors. On the one hand, Indian performance cannot be thought of without regard to the sacred performances enacted by Indian peoples, both before and during the era of intercultural contact: performances including ceremony, dance, song, visionary experience, and shamanistic ritual. The importance of such performances to Indian communities can scarcely be overstated. Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) captures their significance as sources of spiritual as well as cultural power, as sites of tradition and innovation, and as markers of Indian identity: "At base the ceremonials restore the psychic unity of the people, reaffirm the terms of their existence in the universe, and validate their sense of reality, order, and propriety. The most central of these perform this function at levels that are far more intense than others, and these great ceremonies, more than any single phenomenon, distinguish one tribe from another." But during the contact period, such sacred performances were met by another form of Indian performance, one that was itself deeply significant in shaping the terms of encounter. This was the performance of Indianness, by both Indians and whites: acts of Indian portrayal, invention, and identity-formation including conversion narratives, stage plays, bicultural autobiographies, traveling medicine carnivals, and Wild West shows. Generally speaking, I will refer to the varieties of Indian sacred performance as Indian medicine, a phrase reflecting widespread usage among Indian peoples: "medicine" (or its Native-language equivalents) refers not only to healing remedies but to sacred power or mystery, as well as to the invocation or performance thereof, by individuals ("medicine men") as well as by communities. Extending this usage, I will refer to Euro-American systems and practices of power or mystery—including Euro-American acquisition of Indian medicine—as white medicine. In bringing together two forms of Indian performance that have been studied at length but in relative isolation-the former principally by anthropologists and ethnohistorians, the latter principally by historians and literary critics—I will illustrate that sacred performance by Indians and the performance of Indianness, by Indians and whites alike, have coexisted throughout American history, contending with each other, fighting and folding into each other, disrupting and determining each other. These processes of interaction and cocreation I will name the medicine bundle, a phrase I adapt from its autochthonous sense—sacred objects bound together for ritual or ceremonial purposes—to designate the complex, conflictual, cross-cultural acts that lie at the heart of American life and literature.

My decision to focus this exploration of Indian and white medicine on the period from 1824 to 1932 reflects my belief that it was during this roughly one hundred year span that the convergence of certain developments in American history, culture, and literature fundamentally transformed the practice and representation of Indian performance in all its forms. To begin with, it was during the nineteenth century that initiatives to undermine Indian sacred performance were formalized, legalized, and nationalized. Beginning in the colonial era, Europeans had attacked Indian shamanism and ceremonialism; recognizing, in Francis Jennings's words, that the Indian powwow or medicine man was "one of the strongest unifying factors in any Indian community," this religious figure "became the object of the most intense hatred of Europeans striving to weaken and dominate his tribe." Thus in the 1648 list of "conclusions and orders" that puritan missionary John Eliot imposed on his Indian converts, the following rule appears second from the top: "there shall be no more Pawwowing amongst the Indians. And if any shall hereafter Pawwow [Pawwows are Witches or Sorcerers that cure by help of the devill.], both he that shall Powwow, & he that shall procure him to Powwow, shall pay 20 s. apeece." Yet as Ronald Niezen writes, it was not until the nineteenth century that "campaigns against native spiritual practices," including shamanistic healing and ceremonial performance, "developed not only from evangelical ambitions but also from, and at the same time as, territorial and ideological ambitions of the state." Such state-sponsored campaigns took a variety of forms: federal support of missionary programs that sought to squelch Native belief and ritual, the development of boarding schools (particularly off-reservation) in which young Indians were taught to relinquish and revile traditional spiritual practices, the removal and debarring of Indian peoples from sacred sites, and the funding of an anthropological profession that deprived Indian peoples of sacred materials in the name of science and progress. In 1824, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun established the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose first Commissioner, Thomas L. McKenney, was charged with "the administration of the fund for the civilization of the Indians"; the code word "civilization," while embracing a variety of Euro-American ideals, was grounded in the conviction that Christianity must supplant the Indians' heathen beliefs and customs. The following year, in his address on Indian affairs, President James Monroe broached the subject of Indian Removal, suggesting that it might be the only means to "teach [the Indians] by regular instruction the arts of civilized life and make them a civilized people." In so doing, Monroe laid the groundwork for a federal assault not only on Indian lands and lives but on the sacred traditions that Euro-Americans deemed irreconcilable with their own or the Indians' civilization.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the oppressive apparatus of Indian civilization had become entrenched on a continent-wide basis. In 1869, as a central component of President Ulysses S. Grant's Peace Policy, Christian missionaries were licensed to set up missions throughout the reservation system; these missionaries, as Lee Irwin writes, "specifically targeted Native religions as the bane of all civilized Christian ideology. . . . Indian ceremonies were banned, religious practices disrupted, and sacred objects destroyed or confiscated." Additional support for this campaign came in 1883, when Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller established Courts of Indian Offenses to eliminate the "savage rites and heathenish customs" of the Indians, including "the old heathenish dances, such as the sun-dance, scalp-dance, &c. These dances, or feasts, as they are sometimes called, ought, in my judgment, to be discontinued, and if the Indians now supported by the Government are not willing to discontinue them, the agents should be instructed to compel such discontinuance." Teller likewise targeted Indian medicine men, arguing that "steps should be taken to compel these imposters to abandon [their] deception and discontinue their practices." In 1892, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan clarified the rules of the Indian Courts, providing fines and prison sentences for "any Indian who shall engage in the sun dance, scalp dance, or war dance, or any other similar feast, so called," as well as for "any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who . . . shall use any arts of a conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs." A latter-day John Eliot—but this time, with the weight of the federal government and armed forces behind him—Morgan epitomized the nineteenth century's efforts to purge Indian medicine from the body of the nation.

Those efforts came to a formal close only in 1934. In that year, the Indian Reorganization Act engineered by Roosevelt's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, proclaimed an official cease-fire to the century-long, federally funded war on Indian medicine. And indeed, the cease-fire was merely official: though Collier's Circular No. 2970, "Indian Religious Freedom and Indian Culture" (1934), asserted that "no interference with Indian religious life or ceremonial expression will hereafter be tolerated," Indian religious freedom continues to be threatened even after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and its 1994 supplement, the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act. Nonetheless, the period from 1824 (the year of the publication of Brown's Memoir) to 1933 (the year after the publication of Black Elk Speaks) still stands as the time during which a combination of state-orchestrated suppression and a corresponding lack of legal recognition or redress made Indian medicine particularly vulnerable to attack. And as such, Indian sacred performance assumed a unique prominence in American print culture during this period: seen as the key to Indian character and the curse of Indian society, Indian medicine became a subject of intense scrutiny and hostility in the missionary, political, ethnographic, and imaginative literature of the time.

Yet against this background of incomprehension and recrimination, there emerged two further developments that played a decisive role in the circulation and representation of Indian medicine during this period. First, and perhaps as a necessary corollary to white actions against Indian peoples' practice of their own sacred traditions, white Americans in the first quarter of the nineteenth century began systematically to assimilate Indian medicine for their own ends: national and literary identity, personal health, and consumer spectacle. It is possible to trace such acts to an earlier time period: playing Indian, as scholars such as Philip Deloria have noted, had precursors in the Revolutionary-era theatrics of the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Saint Tammany, and the white Indians or tenant gangs of border regions undergoing the throes of transition from a freehold system to one of landed aristocracy. Indeed, tracking this tradition to its roots, one might go as far as Thomas Morton of Merry Mount, wherein European revelers and rebels "brought the Maypole to the place appointed . . . and there erected it with the help of Salvages," who joined in the dance. The adoption of Indian medicine by whites had a long, if largely unrecognized and unheralded, history.

The nineteenth-century instance is, nonetheless, unique: there is a significant distinction between the situational performance of Indian medicine of an earlier time and the volitional, material, articulable consumption of Indian medicine that predominates in the nineteenth century. During the latter period, Euro-Americans began to perceive Indian medicine, in both its narrow and extended senses, as a potential panacea for a range of individual and societal maladies, from loss of primitive vigor to lack of national identity. Hence the rise during this period of the figure whom contemporary critics term the "whiteshaman" or "plastic medicine man"; hence too the rise of various, interlinked show spaces—carnivals, museums, theaters—in which Euro-American supplicants congregated to sample the white medicine man's wares. As with the federal attacks on Indian medicine, these acts may be seen as forms of desecration or desacralization: Indian medicine, stripped from its own cultural contexts, is reproduced in secular forums orchestrated by and for the benefit of non-Indians. Yet at the same time, these processes significantly complicated the relationship that Euro-Americans bore toward Indian medicine: as a medium for the production of intercultural theater, the taking of Indian medicine by whites not only changed the meanings and uses of Indian medicine but transformed the participants who enacted, embodied, and consumed it.

This transformation was aided by an equally significant factor that affected the nature and function of Indian medicine during the period of this study: the entrance of Indian peoples into white-engineered performance spaces, and the production of written works by or about these performers. Depending on one's definition, Indians had been performing their lives, identities, and medicine for Euro-American audiences from the beginning of the contact era, the most obvious example being the translated confessions and conversion narratives that appear in the writings of missionaries such as Eliot. Yet it was during the era of Indian Removal, as Arnold Krupat writes, that "a conjunction of historicism and egocentric individualism first brought autobiography as a term and a type of writing to America," and it was during this period that autobiography became established as the most prominent literary genre of Indian self-expression. Two of the most popular Indian auto/biographies of the nineteenth century, Seneca captive Mary Jemison's Life and Cherokee convert Catharine Brown's Memoir, were published in 1824. The work that most critics consider the pinnacle of antebellum Indian autobiography, William Apess's A Son of the Forest, appeared shortly thereafter, in 1829. By the tail end of the period I consider in this study, Indian life stories had become a staple of the autobiographical genre, culminating in 1932 with the text that is, arguably, the single most widely read and influential work of American Indian literature: Black Elk Speaks. Written autobiography, then, played a central role in the construction and dissemination of the new forms of Indian performance that took hold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was not only, however, via the written word that Indian identities were being tested, contested, and forged anew during this period. At the same time, as the assault on Indian sacred performance escalated, corresponding movements arose among Indian peoples to revitalize their sacred traditions and, in so doing, to reinstate their identities as Indians. In the antebellum southeast, the Cherokees sought to contest Euro-American dominance through the development of both nationalist and nativist ideologies (as well as through the development of their own literate traditions, most prominent of which was the syllabary designed by Sequoyah); in the late-nineteenth-century northern and southern Plains, followers of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka, were dancing (as well as trading tales of the prophet via written and pictorial missives) in an effort to bring about the return of the buffalo and of their traditional way of life. The connection between these varieties of Indian performance and the autobiographies that paralleled them may not seem an obvious one, other than the fact that some of the autobiographies were written by or about participants in these acts. Yet the life-writings and the various forms of collective cultural reinvention were powerfully linked in at least two, if seemingly contradictory, ways. On the one hand, both represented attempts to reinvent sacred performance, to resacralize what had become, within the dominant culture, either a despised relic or a desired commodity. On the other, both sought to reanimate Indian medicine in large part by deploying the very language, ideologies, and performative practices—the white medicine—by which Euro-Americans had sought to dispossess Indian peoples: Christianity, nationalism, literacy and Anglo education, sentimental and racial theory, and Wild West performance all played a role in the constitution of revised and revitalized Indian identities. The interaction of Indian and white medicine in the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indians thus represents a particularly complex form of Indian performance, one that, as Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) writes, evidences "the creative ability of Indian people to gather in many forms of the sociopolitical colonizing force which beset them and to make these forms meaningful in their own terms."

To Ortiz's point, I would add one further: that it was by gathering the other's "forms" and investing them with meaning that Euro-Americans, no less than Native Americans, constituted their cultures and identities. There are, of course, substantial differences between the response of Indian peoples to a colonizing force and the response of Euro-Americans to those they colonized, and it will be one of the concerns of this book to explore those differences. At the same time, it will be one of my principal claims that there is no absolute difference between the performance of medicine by Indians and whites; that manifestations of Indian and white medicine couple and blur in the words and works of all peoples involved in the encounter. This is the concept of the medicine bundle: the bringing together of diverse medicine acts, all of which derive their form and power through contact with their others. The culture of Indian performance is a dynamic and inventive arena from which neither party, Indian or white, can emerge without sharing and shaping the other's medicine.

"There is no more an 'Ur-performance' than there is an 'Ur-text.' Only the systematic study of performances can disclose the true structure."—Dell Hymes, "Breakthrough into Performance" (1975)

To understand the culture of Indian performance in America, however, it is necessary to explore in greater depth the relationship of Indian performance to American literature. Though I will be concerned in this book with varieties of performance, I will rely heavily on textual representations of those performances: records drawn from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the one hand, and more recent reconstructions by ethnohistorians and literary critics on the other. That these textualizations of performance differ from their originals need hardly be belabored. A moment's reflection calls to mind a great range of performative features that do not translate literally—and that may not translate at all—in written sources: tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, costume, props, music and song, performers' interaction with each other and with an audience, setting, time of day—the list could be extended indefinitely. All of these factors may be embraced by the word context, a term that not only signifies the presence of such variables in a particular performance but, just as importantly, emphasizes that each performance is unique because no context can be perfectly reproduced. Written records, then, do not simply leave out features of the original performance; more comprehensively, they leave out the emergent, non-replicable nature of performance.

In the case of Indian sacred performance, moreover, the disconnect between event and account assumes a particular gravity—for what is sacred about such performances is the event. As Christopher Vecsey writes: "Indians believe through their practices, in ways that often transcend verbal formulation. Indian beliefs are performed and embodied by living communities." German traveler Johann Georg Kohl, one of the few white observers during the period of this study to mistrust written records of such embodied performances, employed a striking image to express the impossibility of conveying sacred act via verbal artifact: Indian song, ceremony, and dance, he wrote, "very frequently resemble polypi and certain molluscs, which, while floating on the sea, have splendid colours and interesting forms, but which, when seized, prove to be a lump of jelly, and dissolve in the hand." Kohl's terms are particularly apt, inasmuch as his language suggests the reckless destruction of Indian sacred performance that characterized Euro-American practices during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this respect, it could be said that literature (or, more broadly, the literate) was itself a principal means by which the dominant culture effected the desacralization of Indian medicine. Performance theorist Richard Schechner asks rhetorically but—given the history of Indian-white relations—urgently: "What happens when performances tour, playing to audiences that know nothing of the social or religious contexts of what they are experiencing?" The answer, it seems, is obvious. Indeed, one might say that any account of Indian performance written in a European language is by definition a touring performance, playing to audiences that know and care little of its unique cultural contexts, emergent characteristics, or sacred properties.

If, however, it is necessary to approach textualized performances with care, it is also possible that drawing too absolute a distinction between event and account produces a misleading, reductive portrait of Indian-white encounter. For one thing, as recent developments in performance theory have demonstrated, lived performances and written texts are not absolutely opposed in either form or function; rather, in W. B. Worthen's words, "both texts and performances are materially unstable registers of signification, producing 'meaning' intertextually in ways that deconstruct notions of intention, fidelity, authority, present meaning." Performance, according to this view, is like text inherently mediated, enmeshed within a host of social and ideological pressures (including, importantly, other performances) through which any one performance is read, by its participants no less than by its recorders. Schechner includes within this network of performances not only prior acts but acts that have not yet come into being: "it is this 'performative bundle'—where the project-to-be . . . governs what from the past is selected or invented (and projected backward into the past), . . . that is the most stable and prevalent performative circumstance. In a very real way the future—the project coming into existence through the process of rehearsal—determines the past." What such a model suggests is that it is vain to designate a performance original to which all other versions or variants—written or reenacted—are beholden (and subordinate); for what we term performance originals—as opposed to secondary, ancillary copies or even distortions—are inseparable from the very representations or reenactments to which we colloquially oppose them.

And this model holds true not merely for spontaneous but for emplotted performance, not merely for secular but for sacred performance. As Herbert Blau writes, "there is something in the very nature of performance which . . . implies no first time, no origin, but only recurrence and reproduction, whether improvised or ritualized, rehearsed or aleatoric, whether the performance is meant to give the impression of an unviolated naturalness or the dutiful and hieratic obedience to a code." Even in the case of sacred performance, which places a premium on being the original, nonreplicable act, there are no performance originals, in the sense of stable, self-contained occasions that one can extricate from the tangle of past and future reenactments, cultural contexts and references, reproductions and revisions through which all performances are contrived. Rather, even in this most specialized of cases, any one performance necessarily emerges in relation to its others; each act within the performative bundle is constituted by what it is not. And so, as Joseph Roach sums up, "the relentless search for the purity of origins is a voyage not of discovery but of erasure": erasure of the multiple, competing, compelling acts of which any performance is constituted. Roach thus envisions a "genealogy of performance"—an attempt to track the development of performative traditions—not as a quest for origin but as "an intricate unraveling of the putative seamlessness of origins. It is at once a map of diasporic diffusions in space and a speculation on the synthesis and mutation of traditions through time."

Roach's Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), from which the preceding quotations are taken, is one of a number of recent works to apply the insights of performance theory to early American texts and contexts. Other examples include Jay Fliegelman's Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (1993), David Waldstreicher's In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997), Sandra Gustafson's Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America (2000), and Susan Castillo's Colonial Encounters in New World Writing, 1500-1786: Performing America (2006). What these works have demonstrated is that the interplay among diverse performative and written traditions enacted by America's diverse peoples does indeed call into question the seamlessness of cultural origins and the demarcation between (secular) text and (sacred) act. At one level, performative traditions challenge this distinction by demonstrating the presence of multiple literacies and the emergence of oral-literate crosses among Indian peoples. As Gustafson writes in her study of the power of eloquence in colonial and Revolutionary-era texts, including those that involved the meeting of Indian and Euro-American speakers within ceremonial settings such as mission towns and treaty councils: "viewing speech and text as symbolic and performative forms of language rather than as discrete and hierarchical entities" challenges the "teleological understanding of language in which textual forms displace oral ones. . . . Recognizing the flexible boundaries and considerable overlap between oral and textual forms, as well as the persistence of oral genres, we must attend to the symbolic and performative meanings attached to speech and writing." Gustafson coins the phrase "the performance semiotic of speech and text" to capture this interbreeding of oral-performative and textual forms within American culture and literature, and she calls attention to Indian devices—such as pictographs, wampum strings, and so forth—that evidence the interaction of script-like forms and nonliterate, bodily behaviors within Indian sacred performance. Approaching the issue of performative-literate practices from another direction, Phillip Round explores the ways in which Indian authors sought "to preserve oral and pictographic traditions and extend them into the new world of U.S. print culture"; he shows that Native print culture was impacted by authors' incorporation of alternative literacies within written works. Rather than viewing the act as primary and the text as ancillary, then, such studies call attention to the interplay and interpenetration of text and act in the emergence of Native American culture, identity, and literature.

At the same time, and of particular importance to this study, it was not only among Indian peoples that the text bore the mark of sacred, oral-performative practice. Rather, the impact of Indian sacred performance is evident throughout the texts of encounter, the majority of which, of course, were authored by Euro-Americans. Gustafson phrases the performative-literate juncture this way: in situations of cultural contact, "oral encounters" become "a residue that the colonial Imaginary produces but cannot fully assimilate." The conflictual, productive exchange between text and act, that is, generates an intercultural performative bundle, what I am calling the medicine bundle: a literate-performative network within which all elements are shaped by their others, becoming what they are through their encounter with what they are not. As such, rather than rejecting the texts of Indian-white encounter as a derivative or diminishment of a sacred original—or accepting these texts only as a regrettable concession to the futility of rescuing an oral-performative prototype—I will view these texts as a necessary aspect of the medicine bundle, existing in tension and relation with other aspects within the larger performative network. This does not mean, of course, that these texts are identical to the sacred performances with which they coexist; given the emergent nature of performance, they could not be so. It does mean, however, that these texts could not exist as such without the sacred performances they are unlike. In this respect, the literature of encounter is itself an emergent form, born as Indian and white medicine vie and breed, relativizing and revitalizing one another.

Indeed, in this respect, the interaction of Indian and white medicine can be seen as both medium and metaphor for the intercultural relations that bound Euro-American and Indian peoples during the period of this study (and that bind them still). The intercultural, as ethnohistorians have argued in recent decades, is rooted in specific contexts of encounter; though it has proved all too easy from a summary point of view to ignore the presence of Indian peoples in the shaping of American history and culture, in the eyes of the intercultural critic all cultural productions bear the marks of the dynamic interrelationships among peoples. As Richard White put it in his landmark The Middle Ground (1991): "The meeting of the sea and continent, like the meeting of whites and Indians, creates as well as destroys. Contact was not a battle of primal forces in which only one could survive. Something new could emerge." Indeed, as Scott Michaelsen writes in his study of the intercultural origins of anthropology, "to White's account one must add that cultural difference is a product, too, of the same encounter and that cultural difference is produced at the very same moment as the most minimal 'middle ground.' A middle ground, in fact, is culture's very condition of possibility, of visibility. Culture quite literally cannot appear until such a space is opened. And today Anglo and Amerindian identities remain wedded within a contentious shared space," such that "there are no separate, secured 'cultures' to which one might have recourse or to which one might nostalgically return." In this sense, as James Clifford concludes, "difference is an effect of inventive syncretism." This understanding of encounter as a site for cultural reinvention—or for the invention of culture as such—is inherently performative, in that it treats culture as the emergence of "something new," a set of acts made and remade within particular contexts. To view culture in this way is not to deny conflict and inequality in the transaction of Indian and white (a charge that has, in fact, been leveled against the concept of the middle ground); as Rosemarie Bank cautions, the performative paradigm, "in its insistence that from the beginning red and white cultures acted upon, influenced, and appropriated each other, erasing the possibility of a return for either race to an untouched ('originary' or 'real') condition, is perilous if it is assumed that the cultural stakes for red and white peoples in the internal imperialist scenario were the same." Rather, to view culture in this way is to recognize that the forces that mark American history and literature are the same that marked the interaction of Indian and white medicine: forces of struggle and settlement, violence and rapprochement, destruction and creation.

And it is to recognize, moreover, that these forces evolved, and survived, from earliest contact to the present. Most ethnohistorians cite the onset of the American Revolution—or, at latest, the close of the War of 1812 and the collapse of Tecumseh's intertribal confederacy—as the death knell of intercultural accommodation, exchange, and emergence. In White's words: "the final dissolution of this world came when Indians ceased to have the power to force whites onto the middle ground. Then the desire of whites to dictate the terms of accommodation could be given its head. As a consequence, the middle ground eroded. . . . Americans invented Indians and forced Indians to live with the consequences of this invention." Such a portrait of unilateral invention is based on the reasoning that "a rough balance of power, mutual need or a desire for what the other possesses, and an inability by either side to commandeer enough force to compel the other to change" are the necessary constituents of meaningful cultural interaction. To follow this reasoning would mean that my book must end here, before it begins.

Needless to say, I dispute this reasoning, which seems to me both arbitrary and unwarranted. White, for example, wraps The Middle Ground with an anecdote picturing Tecumseh's spiritual ally, the prophet Tenskwatawa, as an abject figure whom time and circumstance have passed by, a superannuated relic pathetically narrating his visions of power to ethnologist C. C. Trowbridge, who casually seized these once-sacred materials, "recorded them, filed them away, and forgot them." Yet Tenskwatawa makes a particularly poor choice for such a coda. His sacred performances persisted long after the defeat at Tippecanoe and the disbanding of Prophet's Town; in physical form as pictographs and other non-alphabetic literacies, as well as in intangible form as an ideology of Indian unity and resistance, the Shawnee prophet's medicine reappeared throughout the nineteenth century (though, to be sure, in novel configurations) among both Indian revivalists and white conspirators in Indian decline. Writing of the flourishing of a middle ground in what might seem a sheer act of imperialist nostalgia—the Revolutionary-era celebrations of the white Indians who called themselves the Sons of Saint Tammany—Roger Abrahams argues that "even in the midst of the most belligerent interactions, both sides are deeply affected by the other's presence. And once put into practice, these culturally transferred effects continue to ripple through the lives of those involved and of those who inherit the memory of these occasions," reemerging with particular force during "ritual and festival" occasions. In numerous, demonstrable ways, through acts of imitation, adoption, and adaptation, Indians and whites left what Abrahams terms "traces on the skin of the other" throughout the period of this study; indeed, they leave such traces still. As such, I reject any claim that the productive (as well as destructive) cross-fertilization of Indian and white medicine that is the legacy of all Americans had come to a close during the era of removals, reservations, Wild West shows, and state-sponsored massacres. To the contrary, by illustrating that it was during this relatively late period that Indian medicine became most fiercely debated, defended, and redefined, I will demonstrate that Indian performance in all its forms has long played a significant, indeed a definitive, role in the constitution of America.

"Oral tradition . . . becomes central to Native political analysis and the development of Native literary theory rather than fodder for backing up critics' pet theses on performance and translation, a discussion that has become largely redundant."—Craig Womack, Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (1999)

Before moving on to this demonstration, however, there are several matters of definition that need to be addressed. The phrase Indian sacred performance, it seems to me, needs to be clarified; none of its terms is without controversy. To begin with the least contentious of the three, the term performance: I must say that I am leery of current usages in which this term becomes synonymous with most if not all human activities. As Elin Diamond enumerates, "'performance' can refer to popular entertainments, speech acts, folklore, political demonstrations, conference behavior, rituals, medical and religious healing, and aspects of everyday life." It is the final item in this series that most gives me pause; though in a certain sense meeting one's neighbors or tying one's shoes may constitute a performance, I fear that so pliable a definition renders the term meaningless. For the same reason, I am resistant to using the word "performance" as a mere substitute locution for "text." Though I am engaged in studying how texts relate to the performances with which they coexist; though I view texts as constituted by and constitutive of their contexts; and though I believe that certain texts are self-consciously or distinctively performative, I worry that calling all texts performances may obfuscate the very relationships I am seeking to excavate.

Accordingly, in an attempt to limit what counts as a performance in this book, I follow the definition offered by James Peacock: "performances [are] set apart, marked by various signals as distinct from ordinary routines of living. . . . A performance is not necessarily more meaningful than other events in one's life, but it is more deliberately so; a performance is, among other things, a deliberate effort to represent, to say something about something." In practice, this means that I reserve the term "performance" for two classes of events: ritual or ceremonial experiences in which individuals break the flow of everyday life to engage in heightened forms of behavior in the presence of an audience (even an audience of one); and textual instances that exhibit comparable, heightened moments of self-presentation or self-invention for their reader(s). I am not altogether certain that I have succeeded in keeping performance within these bounds, but I hope that readers will approach the book with such restrictions in mind.

If it is difficult to define performance, it is even more difficult to fix the sacred. Indeed, applying my own definition of performance as "heightened forms of behavior," one might argue that all performances are sacred. And in fact, in the case of Indian performance, this might well be true. As Deward Walker writes, though the "division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is a distinctive trait of most religious traditions," among Indian peoples the sacred is "founded on the idea that it is an embedded attribute of all phenomena." Christopher Vecsey lists (some of) the practices that might fall under the heading of the sacred for Indian peoples: "Indian religious practices include what foods can be eaten, what names can be addressed. Since languages are usually gifts from the spiritual realm, the speaking of the native tongue can be a religious act. Hunting, farming, the gathering of herbs can all take on religious significance, as can the deference paid to an elder, the care paid in tending a fire, or the averting of one's eyes before strangers. In short, a whole way of life has religious potential." In this respect, my previous qualm about the term "performance"—my sense that to apply it to the ordinary or the everyday is to empty it of meaning—would in the Native American context be precisely wrong: in the Native American context, the ordinary or the everyday (in common if not in absolute equivalence with the extraordinary and the numinous) is the realm of meaning, the realm of sacred performance.

The broader implications of this culturally distinctive sense of the sacred should be obvious. For in the largest sense, it has been the failure of Euro-Americans to grant the universality of the sacred in Indian lives that has facilitated the outlawing of Indian sacred performances, the expulsion of Indians from sacred sites, the plundering of Indian sacred objects, and more generally the blindness to or denial of Indian sacred traditions. And in this respect, my own work can be said to be guilty of a similar failure of understanding. For with one major exception-that of the life of Catharine Brown-I do not focus on the performance of everyday life as a site for the sacred among Native American peoples; holding to the above definition of performance, I focus on performative occasions that are clearly marked as existing outside the quotidian. In part, I believed this was necessary in order to concentrate my attention on particular examples from among the countless examples I could have selected. But at the same time, my decision to highlight performative occasions that are "clearly marked" as exceptional can only mean that I have selected those occasions that were clearly marked as such not just for my sources but for me. And in this respect, in singling out only those manifestations of the sacred that struck my sources' and my own consciousness or interest, my book plainly perpetuates the history of incomprehension and misrepresentation it critiques: a history of Euro-American textual experts determining which instances of Indian sacred performance are suitable for reproduction and display and which can be ignored or left to die.

It is with this thought in mind that I turn to the final term in the triad of Indian sacred performance: the term Indian. In this case, my mere use of the term is not so much in question: I use the term, as well as others such as Native American, Native, and indigenous, simply because both Indian and Euro-American peoples did and do. What is in question, rather, is whether in this study of Indian sacred performance and American literature, there is, in the end, anything truly Indian. Native American critics such as Craig Womack (Creek), whom I cite in the above epigraph, would seem to argue that there is not; Womack would seem to suggest that in applying my and other critics' "pet theses on performance" to Indian sacred materials, I strip these materials not only of their performative qualities and their sacredness but of their Indianness.

Womack is one of many Native American critics who, beginning with the revolutionary work of Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) in the 1960s and 1970s, have called for an end to the near-monopoly over Indian materials that non-Indians have held in the public consciousness and the academic community. Insisting, in Deloria's words, that "each ethnic group must, in effect, form its own interpretation of itself," these critics have sought to apply traditionally Native epistemologies, theories, and methodologies to the study of Indian history, culture, and art. M. Annette Jaimes Guerrero (Juane o/Yaqui) describes this project as one that involves no less than "the displacement of Eurocentrism and its replacement by an indigenous worldview," the building of "an autonomous Indian tradition of scholarship and intellectualism that carries a viable conceptual alternative to Eurocentrism and its institutions." Womack, similarly, seeks to rally "radical Native viewpoints, voices of difference rather than commonality," to "disrupt the powers of the literary status quo as well as the powers of the state"; he envisions a Native literary criticism grounded in "ceremony" and "oral tradition," constitutive—sacred—elements of indigenous culture that must be liberated from secular, scholarly norms. As I understand these critics, many if not all of the theories with which I have built a case for the study of Indian sacred performance in American literature are precisely those that must be overturned: deconstruction, performance theory, and the like merely extend the reign of Eurocentrism over what is, at root, Indian sacred performance. According to this view, I have advanced little, if at all, beyond my meeting with Edward Hale many years ago: now as then, I am eager to ingratiate myself to the bearers of Indian sacred performance in order to make their medicine my own.

This strikes me as a perfectly reasonable way to view my book, and I think it behooves the reader (as it does the author) to keep such a characterization in sight as we proceed. At the same time, however, an alternative view of the book is possible, a view based on two considerations: first, that indigenous theories of Indian sacred performance are themselves interrelated with the Euro-American theories they contest; and second, that Euro-American studies such as mine are themselves interrelated with the Indian sacred performances they seek, with whatever success, to represent. Thus on the one hand, following a long history of indigenous separatism-through-interaction represented most dramatically by the prophetic tradition of Tenskwatawa, each of the Native critics I have cited seeks to recover "an autonomous Indian tradition" that "carries a viable conceptual alternative to Eurocentrism and its institutions," to achieve the "displacement of Eurocentrism and its replacement by an indigenous worldview," through selective use of the white medicine they reject. A Native critic who perceives such an interplay of indigenous and Western traditions is Greg Sarris (Pomo/Miwok), who asks: "How do scholars see beyond the norms they use to frame the experiences of others unless those norms are interrupted and exposed so that scholars are vulnerable, seeing what they think as possibly wrong, or at least limited?" Sarris's question, which presumably applies to Native and non-Native critics alike, challenges not only the strict separation of Indian and white theoretical constructs but the blanket indictment of Euro-American writers on Indian subjects. As I have discovered in writing this book, many of the authors I discuss, such as James Mooney, Jeremiah Evarts, and for that matter George Catlin and Buffalo Bill Cody, were individuals whose experiences with Native peoples deeply, if in most cases unconsciously, shaped their outlooks, their writings, and even their efforts on behalf of those whom they met. All of these writers came to Indian country certain of the inherent superiority of white over Indian medicine; but none left without Indian medicine having left its mark on their lives and works. They had become, as it were, part of the medicine bundle they had set out simply to study, to usurp, or even to destroy.

And in this respect, Sarris's question has assumed particular force for me as I have joined the long and mostly inglorious tradition of Euro-Americans writing on Indian medicine. For coming into contact with Native writers and Native performative traditions, even when those traditions were mediated by Euroauthored texts and Eurocritical theory, has interrupted my own critical norms, affecting the ways in which I have conceived not only of Indian sacred performance but of my own project. That I have been led to read the written works and public acts of Removal-era Euro-Americans through the lens of Native American sacred medicine bundles is one sign of this transformation; that I have been convinced that Eurocritical identity politics are inadequate to understanding the conversion experiences of Catharine Brown and her Cherokee peers is another; that I have been persuaded that Indian performance in late-century Wild West shows must be seen as a form of revitalization along the lines of Tenskwatawa's intertribal, nativist vision is yet another. If, then, I depart from critics such as Deloria, Guerrero, and Womack in my belief that Indian sacred performance speaks not solely in indigenous terms but in terms that are mediated, negotiated, and mutually constituted by Indians and whites, I concur with them in my attempts to understand how indigenous theories of the performative have shaped both the texts I study and the text I wrote. As an intercultural critic, I have insisted that all persons in the cultural encounter, myself included, were profoundly affected by each other's medicine. And in this respect, my book should itself be seen as another aspect of the medicine bundle, its shape determined by those other acts that it cannot pretend or hope to be.

This book consists of three chapters. The first focuses on writings by, and issues central to, Euro-Americans; the second and third focus on writings by, and issues central to, Native Americans. In each chapter, however, the necessary counterpart to, indeed the inescapable atmosphere for, the principal actors is the presence of the other. The first chapter, "George Catlin, Te-ho-pe-nee Wash-ee," situates the writings, paintings, and performances of impresario Catlin within the early nineteenth-century quest for an authentic national identity that was to be achieved through the acquisition or imitation of Indian medicine. The second chapter, "Being and Becoming 'Indian,'" considers the case of the Cherokee Nation and, in particular, Cherokee convert Catharine Brown, in light of the attempts of Removal-era Indian peoples to forge or renew a sacred identity through the agency of white medicine. The final chapter, "The Acts of the Prophets," examines the late-century participation of Indian peoples in two distinct yet interconnected spaces for Indian performative revitalization: Buffalo Bill's Wild West and the prophetic revivals that would culminate in the Plains Ghost Dance.

Read More

Meet the Author

Joshua David Bellin is a member of the faculty of La Roche College and the author of The Demon of the Continent: Indians and the Shaping of American Literature, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >