Early Native Writers on the Web

I’ve been absent from this blog for a couple of months, because I have been absorbed in a new class on early Native American writers.   My students and I are reading much of this work online where we can find it, because one goal of the class is to start assembling a digital archive of regional Native writing.  There is nothing quite as fun, or as humbling, as sitting around a computer lab with 30 incredibly smart 20-year-olds as they hunt through and evaluate this material, so I thought I’d start sharing some of it here.

A lot of digital literature projects have tended to adhere fairly closely to the canonizing practices of print books and anthologies.  In other words, it seems, the first authors to get archived in cyberspace are usually those already considered “major,” like Walt Whitman, William Blake, William Shakespeare, and so on.  So it’s no real surprise that THE two most studied and taught early Native authors are also the most accessible online:

Samson Occom (Mohegan; 1723, 1792)

Dartmouth College has begun digitizing some of the documents in their extensive collections of Occom papers, with a focus on Eleazar Wheelock and his other students.  This is unfortunately not the most user-friendly interface: the documents are scanned in jpeg format only, not transcribed or text-encoded, so they’re not particularly searchable (nor, in some cases, very readable).

A more readable, more fully contextualized approach is given on the University of Maryland’s Early Americas Digital Archive, where Heather Bouwman and her students at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis have transcribed and edited just two of Occom’s sermons.  If you really want full access to Occom’s writing, with ample footnotes and explanatory contexts, it seems you still have to go to print: The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan, edited by Joanna Brooks, is still indispensable.

William Apess (Pequot; 1798-1839)

Apess’s writing is much more widely available online, and in a variety of formats, too.  His published works all show up in the Internet Archive’s Open Library, a wonderful project that offers several different editions, and makes the text available in a wide variety of formats (pdf, plain text, etc; you can even export to your Kindle).  My students were enamored of the ability to read the book online, where the site has a high-quality replication of the original and lets you actually “feel” like you’re turning the pages.  They also liked that you can search for a term in the book (e.g., “savage” or “Christian”) and get a “timeline” of the word’s occurrence at the bottom of the screen.  Additionally, the Open Library also has some very good index functions: you can, for instance, click on “Mashpee Indians” and see links not only to other books on the subject, but also a timeline showing the publishing history on that topic (at least within Open Library selections), which can be very illuminating.

A favorite Apess text for digitizing, it appears, is his Eulogy on King Philip, and you can get some decent historical contexts for it from sites like the Voices of Democracy Project.

In my next post I’ll discuss some of the less-known texts and authors my students are looking at in cyberspace; but I’m also very interested to hear from readers: what Native literature have you found online?  what are your favorite formats?  what would be on your wish list for an online archive of Native writing from New England?

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Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel

The Mohegan Medicine Woman writes speculative fiction.  How cool is that?

Although still quite young, and incredibly busy with other work, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel has published several books, some of them out of print and hard to get (sound familiar?): a short tribal history, The Lasting of the Mohegans (1995); a history of her family of Mohegan women leaders, Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon (2000); and, with Joseph Bruchac, a children’s book, Makiawisug: The Gift of the Little People (1997). 

More recently, Zobel has been working quite seriously on fiction (she already has a Master’s degree in History but has also undertaken an MFA in creative writing).  Two novels feel like they should be part of a trilogy: the futuristic Oracles (2004) and the Victorian Gothic Fire Hollow (2010).  Both are set among the fictional Yantuck tribe, whose land, people and traditions look quite a bit like the Mohegans’; both follow young medicine people in training; and both read like environmental histories/omens.

In Oracles, the last casino has gone down in flames (literally and figuratively).  With deforestation nearly complete, some of the elders are left stewarding the small stand of surviving trees, and worrying that their medicine plants have become less abundant and effective. Meanwhile, busloads of children and New Agers trek up Yantuck Mountain to try to see or take what they can from traditional ecological knowledge and spirituality.

As though adding GIS layers into a map of Native space, Zobel visits the Yantucks in an earlier period in Fire Hollow.   Young Wolf Weekum is sent to school with a mysterious schoolmaster; I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but will say that Zobel plays with a local legend of one Jeremiah Shumway, who was murdered and fed to local hogs.  Both books show Native people (especially Native medicine women) keeping their traditions alive while keeping up with cultural changes, and both are really witty and imaginative.  There are a few good Native writers starting to work with speculative fiction (especially Daniel Heath Justice, who’s Cherokee), but I don’t know of any novels quite like Oracles or Fire Hollow.

If you’re motivated to read either one of these books, please join our reading group on Goodreads.com.   I hear Zobel is working on a young adult novel now; I also hear she is going to be reading from her work, along with several other interesting local writers like Larry Crow Mann and Joan Tavares Avant, at the New England American Studies Association conference on November 4 in Plimoth.

Welcome

Welcome to my “Indigenous New England Literature” blog.  Following Native American writers from this region has become something of an obsession for me, ever since the late 1990s, when I started teaching Native American literature at universities in Maine and New Hampshire.  I wanted to include local writers in my courses, but I ran into some obstacles (and some outright lies).  I’ll be discussing some of these in this blog, but mainly I’ll be writing short reviews of terrific writing that I think more people ought to be reading.

One outright lie is that Indians “vanished” from New England centuries ago, and/or that the Native people who live here today are somehow “assimilated” or “not really very Indian.”  These ideas are ridiculous, but they unfortunately carry great weight in New England—in local monuments to chiefs who plunged to their deaths from mountaintops, in mainstream press coverage of casinos, and in local lore.  If you want a detailed, eminently readable account of how your town local histories helped create these myths, look no further than Jean O’Brien’s book, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. O’Brien is a first-rate historian, and in these dusty old books she has found “a New England thickly populated by ‘last’ Indians throughout the nineteenth century, and occasionally into the twentieth.”

New England is indeed thickly populated by Native Americans, none of whom can be said to be the “last of their tribe.”   And a lot of them are writing, and writing really good work—interesting work, challenging work, beautiful work.   But sadly, much of this writing is either invisible or hard to get.  Prolific and powerful writers like Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan) get relatively little marketing or critical attention.  Talented award-winners like Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki) see their books go out of print almost as soon as they get published.  And still others have trouble getting publishers’ attention in the first place.

On this blog I’ll be sharing some of my favorite writers and letting you know how to find them and their work.  Where possible I hope to interview some of them, so they can tell you first-hand about their experiences with the publishing industry, and their hopes for the future.  And I always welcome feedback from readers. . .and especially from writers.