Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms

Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms

by Cheryl Walker

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Indian Nation documents the contributions of Native Americans to the notion of American nationhood and to concepts of American identity at a crucial, defining time in U.S. history. Departing from previous scholarship, Cheryl Walker turns the "usual" questions on their heads, asking not how whites experienced indigenous peoples, but how Native Americans envisioned the United States as a nation. This project unfolds a narrative of participatory resistance in which Indians themselves sought to transform the discourse of nationhood.
Walker examines the rhetoric and writings of nineteenth-century Native Americans, including William Apess, Black Hawk, George Copway, John Rollin Ridge, and Sarah Winnemucca. Demonstrating with unique detail how these authors worked to transform venerable myths and icons of American identity, Indian Nation chronicles Native American participation in the forming of an American nationalism in both published texts and speeches that were delivered throughout the United States. Pottawattomie Chief Simon Pokagon’s "The Red Man’s Rebuke," an important document of Indian oratory, is published here in its entirety for the first time since 1893.
By looking at this writing through the lens of the best theoretical work on nationality, postcoloniality, and the subaltern, Walker creates a new and encompassing picture of the relationship between Native Americans and whites. She shows that, contrary to previous studies, America in the nineteenth century was intercultural in significant ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397007
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/30/1997
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Cheryl Walker is Richard Armour Professor of Modern Languages and Director of the Humanities Institute at Scripps College. She is the author of The Nightingale’s Burden: Women Poets and American Culture Before 1900.

Read an Excerpt

Indian Nation

Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms

By Cheryl Walker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9700-7


The Subject of America

The Outsider Inside

American character is a particularly vexed subject, vexed because, on the one hand, we no longer wish to define Americans in terms of certain character traits, modes of behavior, physical types, and yet, on the other, we have never lost the desire to puzzle over the implications of ideas of the nation for a certain conception of the human being understood to represent those ideas. Whether or not we think of ourselves as "typical Americans"—and most of us don't—many of us have had the experience of being so labeled when we travel abroad, causing us to ponder our own understandings of what America is and how we are affected by it. Black Americans find that in Africa they are often considered more "American" than "African American." The children of immigrants, or even those who have themselves emigrated from other parts of the world, discover that they cannot easily shrug off the buffalo robe of "Americanization" when they visit friends and relations from their past. One never feels quite so American as when one is not in the United States. But what does it mean to be an American subject, the representative of certain conceptions about the nation? What aspects of one's identity and one's politics are not simply personal but national? At home we are all exiles. Abroad we seem, strangely, to be heard speaking only of "home."

Even those for whom life in America has been far from ideal, those subjected to a process of identity deformation that is connected in no small way to a conception of the nation as composed of insiders and outsiders, even these have had to think about their relation to national ideology and American subjectivity. The African American playwright Anna Deavere Smith writes: "It seems to me that American character lives in the gaps between us and to the degree to which we are willing to move between those gaps. It lives in our struggle to be together in our differences, even the non-negotiable ones" (8).

Thus, the subject of America must be seen as without a fixed content; rather than being representable as a particular set of characteristics, it becomes a conversation, perhaps, or a set of stories. Similarly, one might say, as Liah Greenfeld does, that "American nationalism was [and essentially is] idealistic nationalism" (449); therefore "nationhood" emerges and reemerges not as a historical entity or an accepted sequence of events but as a counterweight to history, a projection into the future always waiting to be realized. When the subject of America is raised abroad, it is often accompanied by head shakings of one sort or another as the gap is measured between American ideals of justice and equality and American practices seen as unjust and undemocratic. But these friends abroad misconceive the effect of these challenges. Rather than undermining the force of nationalist rhetoric, such grumbling is in fact a principal aspect of the discourse on American character, a familiar feature of what America is and has always been.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of those who, even in the nineteenth century, both idealized America and took her to task for a certain wayward individualism. Personifying America in the figure of the adulteress Hester Prynne, who wears the red A (perhaps identifying her territory), he admired its independent spirit but wondered about its memory and its capacity for moral commitment. In "The Custom House" essay that precedes the main text of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne also reflected on the double nature of America in his reading of the American eagle.

With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and sooner or later,—oftener soon than late,—is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rangling wound from her barbed arrows. (23–24)

America is seen here as both the truculent federal eagle (the state), apt to scratch her offspring, and as "the inoffensive community" (the people) deeply connected to Hawthorne's sense of himself. So "America" is power and privilege, the misuse of these through arrogance or selfish inattention, and, as a third component, the silent majority who struggle on despite a less than nurturing environment. In The Anatomy of National Fantasy, Lauren Berlant argues that Hawthorne constructs America as "a domestic, and yet a strange and foreign place" (3), a space where the experience of "home" and "exile" inevitably meet.

Hawthorne found it odd that such an inhospitable creature as the federal eagle should attract so many new nestlings wishing to shelter themselves under its wing, but the same is true today. What's more, many writers from oppressed minorities in America have responded to America's hostility or exclusionist practices not by an attack on nationalist rhetoric but by asserting their right to be Americans and their fitness for contributing to the National Symbolic. "I, too, sing America," wrote Langston Hughes, and the commitment reflected in these words has been echoed by Latins, Asians, Eastern Europeans, and many other groups and individuals seeking a home within a nation of immigrants. Alienation often engenders disaffection, but it has also produced attempts to seize the terms of the dominant discourse and redeploy them. Poor, Jewish, and homosexual in a country known for its wealth, its WASPs, and its celebration of the nuclear family, Allen Ginsberg wrote into his 1956 poem on his wildly eccentric experience ofNational identity a wonderful conclusion: "It occurs to me I am America," he said, and ended, "America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" ("America," 34).

I offer these thoughts by way of introducing what will strike some as a peculiar project: a book about conceptions of America and American nationalism in nineteenth-century Native American writing. The general assumption in the critical literature has been that Native Americans were the victims of nationalist discourse pure and simple, that they resisted attempts to impose an idea of nation that derived from European models on their native and essentially tribal structures of governance and knowledge, because such ideas obviously threatened many aspects of their cultures. But the truth is more complicated than this view allows for, because by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, there were several understandings of nation in play among both Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Let me suggest some of them here, though in subsequent chapters I will try to deepen and complicate these preliminary notions.

In his discussion of the evolution of the words "nation," "national," and "nationalism," Raymond Williams clarifies the sense in which Western understandings of nation developed from the seventeenth century onward, during the precise period when Native Americans and Europeans were coming into conflict over this issue in the "New World." There was from [the seventeenth century] a use of the nation to mean the whole people of a country, often in contrast, as still in political argument, with some group within it. The adjective national, which is clearly political, is more recent and still alternates with the older subject. Nationality, which had been used in a broad sense from IC17, acquired its modern political sense in IC18 and eC19.

Nationalist appeared in eC18 and nationalism in eC19. Each became common from mC19. The persistent overlap between racial grouping and political formation has been important, since claims to be a nation, and to have national rights, often envisaged the formation of a nation in the political sense, even against the will of an existing political nation which included and claimed the loyalty of this grouping. It could be and is still often said, by opponents of nationalism, that the basis of the group's claim is racial. (178—79) Though developed in a European context, much of this is useful for our purposes as well. By the nineteenth century, American rhetoric conceived of the nation as both a political entity, with geographical dimensions and laws, and a people, whose "deep, horizontal comradeship" had to be identified and argued, even racially codified. However, there was great disagreement over who was qualified to be an "American" and what the nature of "America" really was.

Native Americans had not traditionally understood nations as the West came to define them. Nor did race play much of a role in their thinking. In Indian oral traditions the nation originally meant simply the people and the environment they inhabited, an environment without legislated boundaries. William Least Heat Moon tells a story about the Native American sense of "nation" in PrairyErth (a deep map):

The white man asked, Where is your nation? The red man said, My nation is the grass and roots and the four-leggeds and the six-leggeds and the belly wrigglers and swimmers and the winds and all things that grow and don't grow. The white man asked, How big is it? The other said, My nation is where I am and my people where they are and the grandfathers and their grandfathers and all the grandmothers and all the stories told, and it is all the songs, and it is our dancing. The white man asked, But how many people are there? The red man said, That I do not know. (16)

Though strikingly different, such a conception of nation shares some components with Euro-American ideas. Land, traditions, people, stories—these are also part of the national lexicon of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Francis Parkman, and James Fenimore Cooper, white men whose writings served to define the nation for later generations of Americans. But Indians thought of the nation as constituted "in the early days," an era lost in the mists of time. Furthermore, the relations among the various components of the nation were sacred, not political in a European sense. Each component—land, traditions, people, stories—was connected in a deep and mysterious way to the others.

Vine Deloria Jr. and Clifford Lytle describe the difference between Euro-American and Indian ideas of nation this way:

Because the tribes understood their place in the universe as one given specifically to them, they had no need to evolve special political institutions to shape and order their society. A council at which everyone could speak, a council to remind the people of their sacred obligations to the cosmos and to themselves, was sufficient for most purposes.... Indians had a good idea of nationhood, but they had no knowledge of the other attributes of political existence that other people saw as important. Most of all, Indians had no awareness of the complexity that plagued the lives of other peoples, in particular the Europeans. (9) Using these representations of Native American ideas about "nation," we might conclude that there was no real convergence between Euro-American and Native American understandings. According to Benedict Anderson, this "good idea of nationhood" (to which Deloria and Lytle refer) is actually prenational, reflecting a worldview more akin to the unself-consciously coherent sacralized communities that preceded modern political arrangements. It is precisely the fact that such communities "rooted human lives firmly in the very nature of things, giving certain meaning to the everyday fatalities of existence (above all death, loss, and servitude), and offering, in various ways, redemption from them" (Imagined Communities, 36) that for Anderson disqualifies them from modern nationhood. Nations, he argues, come into being when the West is desacralized due to the spread of capitalism and print culture, the multiple interrelations between writing, printing, and reading that are enmeshed in the market economy. The nation, then, operates in part as recompense for the loss of the religious certainties that allowed for integration between the self and the cosmos.

If Native Americans had been allowed to continue in their tribes as they had for centuries, it would indeed make little sense to introduce Indian conceptions of nationalism into a discussion of European ones. However, from the seventeenth century onward, traditional ideas had been modified by contact of varying sorts with white people. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Indian-white relations were well advanced in most parts of the country east of the Mississippi. Furthermore, during the century the United States vastly expanded its empire so that by 1900 all indigenous peoples had been touched by American nationalism, mostly in negative ways.

The responses of Native Americans to white encroachment were varied. Some like the Pueblos first sought accommodation. Others resisted and went to war. The Cherokees were unusual in the degree to which they adopted aspects of white culture into their own national identity. But eventually all were forced to come to terms with the non-native conception of nation represented by America itself. Thus, the nineteenth century was a defining time for both Native Americans and their white counterparts. During this time Americans were actively engaged in the process of constructing a sense of "nationness" through iconography, art, writing, rituals, speeches, institutions, and laws.

What has not been adequately recognized before is that Native Americans also participated in this cultural process, sometimes in order to distinguish themselves from the invaders but sometimes in the interests of revising notions of America to include the tribes themselves. Thus, America in the nineteenth-century was intercultural in significant ways. In this kind of context, as Timothy Reiss puts it, "Cultural categories mingle and float. 'Borders' are more than just porous. Cultures are mutually defining. The fault of European cultures was to believe that they are not" (651).

The mistake that Reiss refers to here may be seen not only in the nineteenth-century essentialism that demonized Native Americans as savages but also in more recent assumptions that Indians took no part in the discussions of national identity. Let me offer three recent examples of the persistence of the idea that Native Americans contributed little or nothing to the development of an American national discourse. In Larzer Ziff's Writing in the New Nation: Prose, Print, and Politics in the Early United States (1991)—and let me say here that I have great respect for Ziff as a cultural historian—he articulates the view that print culture in the United States inevitably transformed the experience of immanence in Nature, admired by so many American writers, into fodder for an imperial cultural project destructive of, inter alia, Native Americans. In the chapter entitled "Captive Language," he traces the transformation of Lewis and Clark's journals into Nicholas Biddle's History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814). Though Lewis and Clark, like Timothy Dwight and Thomas Jefferson in Ziff's earlier examples, were sympathetic to the Indians and admired many features of their culture, literary conventions and print culture itself, according to Ziff, sealed the fate of Native Americans.

The process of literary annihilation would be checked only when Indian writers began representing their own culture. As whites had utilized sign language to commence their dialogue with Indians, so Indians, finally, would come to utilize the conventions of written English to restore dialogue to what for a century after Biddle's History, had been in reality a monologue with the Indian's voice supplied by the ventriloquizing culture of the white, (emphasis added, 173)

In truth, Native Americans began to express their views at least as early as the 1830s in texts published in English, some of which went into several editions. (Whether these texts were simply examples of another kind of ventriloquism is a question we must consider in some detail.) Furthermore, their speeches, delivered in many cities throughout the United States, were attended by large crowds and were subsequently both printed and reviewed in newspapers and journals, as examples of Indian oratory. Yet Ziff seems to believe that Indians were effectively silenced until the twentieth century.

Similarly, in Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance (1994), Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa)—the champion of postmodern mixed-blood narrators of Indian culture and identity—repeats Ziff's argument, though he takes notice (as Ziff does not) of William Apess's early example of Indian autobiography, in which Apess reflects at various points upon the nations. For Vizenor the production of literature outside the tribal context is inevitably a desecration because such "simulations" (Vizenor's word) present an absence, an absence partly accessed only by what Vizenor calls "trickster hermeneutics." "The stories that are heard [in tribal ceremonies] are the coherent memories of natural reason; the stories that are read are silent landscapes" (96), thus in need of hermeneutic voices.

Against the destructive simulations of nationalist dominance, which he names "manifest manners," postindian warriors create "a counter word culture" (20). "The postindian warriors bear their own simulations and revisions to contend with manifest manners, the 'authentic' summaries of ethnology, and the curse of racialism and modernism in the ruins of representation. The wild incursions of the warriors of survivance undermine the simulations of the unreal in the literature of dominance" (12).


Excerpted from Indian Nation by Cheryl Walker. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface and Acknowledgments Chapter 1. The Subject of America: The Outsider Inside Chapter 2. Writing Indians Chapter 3. The Irony and Mimicry of William Apess Chapter 4. Black Hawk and the Moral Force of Transposition Chapter 5. The Terms of George Copway's Surrender Chapter 6. John Rollin Ridge and the Law Chapter 7. Sarah Winnemucca's Mediations: Gender, Race, and Nation Chapter 8. Personifying America: Apess's "Eulogy on King Philip" Chapter 9. Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms Appendix: "The Red Man's Rebuke" Notes Works Cited Index

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