English Letters and Indian Literacies

Focusing on boarding schools established by New England missionaries, English Letters and Indian Literacies explores the ways Native students negotiated the variety of pedagogical practices and technologies of literacy and managed those technologies for their own ends.

English Letters and Indian Literacies
Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830

Hilary E. Wyss

2012 | 264 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature / Cultural Studies / Native American Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Technologies of Literacy
Chapter 1. Narratives and Counternarratives: Producing Readerly Indians in Eighteenth-Century New England
Chapter 2. The Writerly Worlds of Joseph Johnson
Chapter 3. Brainerd's Missionary Legacy: Death and the Writing of Cherokee Salvation
Chapter 4. The Foreign Mission School and the Writerly Indian
After Words: Native Literacy and Autonomy

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Early Native American studies have blossomed in recent decades, and it has been a privilege to engage with this field at such an exciting moment. Ten or fifteen years ago extraordinary work on Native Americans in colonial New England was emerging from history and anthropology departments, including Jean O'Brien's Dispossession by Degrees (1998), Daniel Mandell's Behind the Frontier (1996), Colin Calloway's The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995), Karen Ordhal Kupperman's Indians and English (2000), Gregory Dowd's A Spirited Resistance (1992), and of course Jill Lepore's The Name of War (1998). Kevin McBride, Kathleen Bragdon, and William Simmons, all in anthropology departments, were also doing exciting work on early Native materials. However, with the exception of critical work on Native American autobiography by Arnold Krupat, David Brumble, David Murray, and Hertha Wong, work in English departments was focused almost exclusively on Native novels and poetry and translations of Native oratory, all in the context of twentieth-century literary production. As scholar Craig Womack has recently pointed out, this was a literary and cultural moment in which it seemed that nobody was interested in discussing the writing of Native Americans from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. My own book, Writing Indians (2000), was an attempt to integrate what I came to understand as a rich and extraordinarily underappreciated body of material into a cultural-studies model in which scholars in English departments all over the country turned their attention to material culture or nontraditional, extraliterary texts, using the tools and strategies of English departments—close reading, theoretical modes of analysis, and attention to linguistic and structural features of expression. My goal in Writing Indians was to maintain a sense of what I as a literary scholar and close analytic reader of texts had to offer works that had already received significant attention from history and anthropology departments but that were largely unknown in English departments.

Today the terrain of English studies has changed dramatically, and Native American texts that were once only available in archives are now widely reprinted and essential reading in American literature anthologies. Furthermore, the ever-increasing importance of the intertwined fields of composition and rhetoric has paved the way for a more nuanced examination of literacy and its practices. Deborah Brandt, Harvey Graff, and others have developed a rich theoretical background for the study of literacy and its acquisition, in both a historical and a contemporary perspective. Scott Lyons has shaped that general context in terms of Native writing experiences, coining the term rhetorical sovereignty as a way of thinking through Native self-determination—both political and cultural—and written discourse. Through the work of these scholars it has become increasingly clear that literacy is a vexed terrain in which conflicting intentions and values attach to a set of skills loaded with moral, political, and economic freight; texts that help us recover some of those conflicts have become increasingly valued as objects of study.

Meanwhile, the field of literary studies has once and for all exploded the traditional canon, engaging enthusiastically with a wide array of extraliterary texts, such as letters, diaries, and petitions, while also engaging, with ever-increasing sophistication, the words and expressions of those previously passed over, such as men and women of color and the marginally literate classes. Scholarship in the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of History of the Book reminds us that as scholars we lack a full sense of the complex rituals of power and exchange that form the base from which Native Americans participated in the colonial American world of New England, even as it uncovers the material and cultural nuances of books, readers, and literate practice more generally. Recent works by Eve Tavor Bannet, Philip Round, Matthew Brown, Matt Cohen, and others have supplemented the more general resources in colonial American book history, such as Hugh Amory and David Hall's first volume of The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, Patricia Cohen's The Story of A, and E. Jennifer Monaghan's Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, all of which situate the materiality of textual production in terms of the ideological basis of reading, writing, and culture. This engagement has taken place with a heretofore unimaginable intensity in the field of early American studies, with scholars like Joanna Brooks, Kristina Bross, Laura Stevens, Laura Murray, David Murray, Sandra Gustafson, Josh Bellin, Bernd Peyer, Gordon Sayre, and countless others in English departments across the country and even around the world taking on the work of examining the words and worlds of early Native American peoples and the missionaries who wanted to "save" them.

History and religious studies have also participated in this surge of interest in early Native studies: the work of Maureen Konkle, Rachel Wheeler, David Silverman, Amy Den Ouden, and Michael Oberg have reimagined the ways in which academics can interpret and engage with Native communities; Laurel Ulrich and her work on gender and memory has helped us to understand ongoing representations of Native cultural traditions. Such scholars speak easily and comfortably to those of us in literary fields, and we share manuscripts and conference venues with a regularity once impossible when the boundaries between fields of study were more scrupulously maintained.

By far the most significant development for the field of early Native studies has been the engagement by Native scholars like Lisa Brooks, Jace Weaver, Robert Warrior, and Daniel Heath Justice with early Native writings. Standing on the shoulders of earlier scholars and critics like Paula Gunn Allen and Vine Deloria, Jr., these contemporary Native scholars look for ways to frame a Native literary theory, and remind us all to attend to the words of Native peoples in ways that are sensitive to the notion of Native community identity. Rather than imposing a set of outside assumptions, by listening to the words and actions of members of Native communities, we can come to understand words and worlds beyond certain colonialist assumptions. Such scholars have increasingly turned to texts hitherto ignored in the field of Native studies, revealing the complexities of texts written by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers and political thinkers very much engaged in the process of understanding themselves as Native Americans, negotiating a brutalizing colonial system intent on undermining or ignoring that very identity. Scholars in Native Studies programs have argued that reframing Native textual production through the words and ideas emerging from Native communities is a powerful corrective to some of the insularity of academic departments and that understanding Native voices from the past should in no way be considered only the domain of scholars and antiquarians.

The significance of Native community is most powerfully and emphatically felt in the ways in which Native culture and identity are experienced in New England today. Tribal recognition at the federal level has exploded since the 1990s, thanks in no small part to the commitment by Native peoples to understand and interpret their own histories. Language revitalization projects like that of Jessie Little Doe Fermino among the Wampanoags and Stephanie Fielding for the Mohegans have reached back to the work of John Eliot and others, and the sometimes abstract and arcane work of scholars of colonial texts has taken on a very real and transformative component as individuals reconstruct their tribal histories and languages from (among other evidence) colonial texts. The genealogical work of Will Ottery and others has helped shape the current Brothertown community in Wisconsin, as well as communities throughout New England, as increasing numbers of individuals come to understand their relationship to their tribal heritage in vibrant new ways. As scholars and community leaders reach out to each other, we are creating and recreating a past, present, and future that are all ripe with possibilities.

My sense of this project and its value has changed significantly from the days in which my work on Writing Indians seemed a relatively abstract academic exercise. The collaborative and ongoing challenge to academics and tribal historians today is to recover a past and shape meaning from texts that are not always easily available to those who might be most interested in, and affected by, them. It is very much my hope that this current book honors that principle by both celebrating the lives and struggles of those Native peoples engaged in the schools, while acknowledging the sometimes brutal and often wrenching decisions through which individuals—Native and Anglo-American—came to terms with their place in the broader missionary culture of their own moments.