Early Native American Writers


Others of your accursed race have, in years past, poisoned our peaceful shores. They have taught me what you are . . . I am king in my own land, and will never become the vassal of a mortal like myself. Vile and pusillanimous is he who submits to the yoke of another when he may be free.

The above is an excerpt from an acidic reply in 1549 by Acuera, chief of the Timucua nation in Florida, to Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. It is the first in a collection of speeches in Great Speeches by Native Americans, edited by Bob Blaisdell.

The treatment of Native Americans by white Europeans doesn’t get any better, as we all know, but I have to admit that I was unaware of the great wealth of literature by Native Americans until recently when a woman I tutor brought the book to a lesson. I knew of the misery Europeans brought to the native peoples here and of the destruction wrought upon the land, but I was touched by the passion, anger, and grief in these eloquent speeches and, later, in books written by Native Americans.

William ApessIn a lengthy speech given to Boston audiences in 1839, William Apess, a Pequot Indian, author, and ordained Methodist minister, recounts the history of the Pilgrims and the 17th-century Wampanoag chief King Philip. Metacom, who was called King Philip by the English, sought to live in harmony with the colonists, but the Puritans were taking more and more land and forcing the people to convert to Christianity or die. The chief struck back in what was known as King Philip’s War. After several years of fighting, the English persevered. Metacom was killed and his wife and son sold into slavery.

“How inhuman it was in those wretches,” Apess says, “to come to a country where nature shone in beauty, spreading her wings over the vast continent, sheltering beneath her shades those natural sons of an Almighty Being, that shone in grandeur and luster like stars of the first magnitude in the heavenly world; whose virtues far surpassed their more enlightened foes, not withstanding their pretended zeal for religion and virtue.”

In Apess’ autobiography, A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, published in 1829, he describes his escape from an abusive childhood by being converted to Christianity. He rejects the stereotyping of Indians by documenting his own accomplishments related to the activities that white society values, and he advocated a balance between accepting Christianity and retaining pride in one’s Indian identity.

Black Hawk  by George Catlin

Black Hawk by George Catlin

Understandably, the early Native American writers worked within a political environment hostile to their success. Native peoples were continuously being forced from their lands to inhospitable territories (i.e. the Cherokees, Paiutes, Ponca, Nez Perce, Sioux, and on and on), and they were denigrated by whites. Still, some succeeded, including Black Hawk, a war leader of the Sauk tribe but also a celebrity, especially after the Black Hawk War of 1832 in which he was defeated.  Telling his story to a translator, Black Hawk says in his 1832 autobiography, the first by a Native American, “I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites when I saw their fine houses, rich harvests, and every thing desirable around them; and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people has never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our graveyards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.”

The early 1800s also saw the publication of the first Native American newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix, edited by Elias Boudinot, spokesman for the Cherokee nation, who believed that acculturation was the way for his people to survive. Started in 1828, it was published in Cherokee syllabary and English. Boudinot was proven wrong when the U.S. Government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcing Native American nations from the Southeastern U.S. The newspaper was discontinued in 1834 but was revived in the 20th century.

Sarah Winnemucca

Sarah Winnemucca

Native American women succeeded in publishing in the late 1800s. S. Alice Callahan, a Creek, wrote the first novel written by a Native American woman. Her book, Wynema: A Child of the Forest, published in 1891, tells the story of a young white teacher who becomes friends with a Native American girl named Wynema through cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding. In 1883 Sarah Winnemucca published Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, both a memoir and a history of her people. Her book and some 300 lectures she delivered in 1883 throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in 1883 helped raise awareness of the injustices and sufferings inflicted on Native Americans.

Charles Eastman, a Santee Dakota, was the first author to address American history from a Native American point of view. A physician who cared for Indians after the massacre at Wounded Knee, he is actually portrayed in the 2007 HBO film based on Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Eastman’s books, including Deep Woods to Civilization and The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American (1916), talk about his own past and Native American culture and history.

Another important early writer is John Joseph Mathews, who wrote about the Osage people. Mathews, who died in 1979, is best known for Sundown, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man who feels estranged from tribal life after returning from college and military service. Published in 1934, it is set during the oil boom that took place on Osage land during the early 20th century. This was his only novel, but Mathews published several other books, including Talking to the Moon (1945). It’s a narrative of 10 years he spent in the “blackjacks” of his homeland, observing nature and reflecting on the influence of the environment on Osage culture.

Shortly after the publication of Mathews’ books, a Native American Renaissance emerged in the late 1960s, notably N. Scott Momadays Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn.

I will discuss modern Native American writers, beginning with Momaday, in my next blog.

Have you read any early Native American literature?



3 thoughts on “Early Native American Writers

  1. I recently read Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, the biography of Edward Curtis, the great early 20th C. photographer who made it his life’s goal to photograph and document each of North America’s Indian tribes. Over the course of 30 years, he published 20 volumes.of The North American Indian. His biography illustrates not only Curtis’ obsession but also the breadth and variety of indigenous people whose unique way of life has been affected by white greed for land, wrong-headed government policies, and, often, prejudiced Christian missionaries.

    And this is a familiar story, but your post provides their voice, their response, so that we see them as more than silent victims.

    • Thanks for your comments, Chris. I just hope that more people become aware of what you have so well said above. By the way, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is next on my list of books to read.

  2. I’ve not read any first-hand accounts, though you’ve inspired me to seek them out. The closest I’ve come, was reading (via audio) Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse as we traveled across South Dakota last summer. The pages, or should I say, voices echoed across the miles, bringing the sights alive. It’s a desolate landscape, sere and lifeless, yet the voices of the native people — read by native people — were spell binding.
    The book recounts the story of Leonard Peltier and our country’s war on the American Indian Movement. By the time we reached Mount Rushmore, I could view the monument, while beautiful and moving, with another pair of eyes — the Indians who saw shining white faces despoiling their sacred mountain. It made the Crazy Horse Memorial work in progress all that more meaningful.

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