|Native American literature written in the 18th and 19th century is considered a literature of transition between the oral tradition which
flourished before Europeans arrived on the continent and the beginning of the 1960’s when the Native American Renaissance began.
Nineteenth-century literature authored by Native Americans was text-based and written in English, which resulted primarily because of
the English taught in missionary schools. Most 18th and 19th century writers used the common literary genres like autobiography and
the novel, yet combining narratives with the traditional trickster oral story or myth creating a hybrid literary form.
Early Native American writing exhibited the struggle they experienced by the authors to find their own voice within the culture of
America, but it was later in the 1960’s that their writing began to express the humiliation felt by Native American peoples over their “less
than human” treatment by the dominant society. These early writers were driven by their awareness of the power of writing as a tool in
changing attitudes, but it would be a long time before this could overcome the deep prejudices shaped during the conflicts between
Euro-Americans and Natives in the bloody Indian Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Right: "Shadow of the Owl” painted by John Guthrie.
The image of Native Americans was defined during the early 1800’s by the Indian Removal Act authorized by President Jackson which
stated that all Indians in the territory east of the Mississippi River could be removed and forced to live in the less desirable lands west of
the river. The contentious debate concerning the legality of this law solidified the negative feelings on both sides. Even the U.S.
Supreme Court sided against the Cherokee.
In the background of this fight a very negative image was formed. If the Cherokee, who was considered “civilized” and had adopted the
“white” dress and way of living, could be forced from their homes and marched hundreds of miles to “Indian Territory” (now within
Oklahoma boundaries), than the status of all Native Americans was set distinctly below everyone else. Indians were to be contained
and separated to make room for the expanding dominant society. It would take a long struggle and a large amount of native literature
before this image would change.
While the dominant society was systematically excluding Native Americans from sharing in the rights others enjoyed, many began to
view them as unique and interesting, almost as part of the American identity, as making it distinct from European traditions.
American literature of the time was very popular and mainstream American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the
Mohicans, 1826), Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Hope Leslie, 1827), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Song of Hiawatha, 1855), were
captivating American audiences across the nation. Although in many ways this literature was being accepted in part because it depicted
the Native American as a “dying breed,” sympathy was growing along with a realization that “Indians” were people too began taking
hold. The dominant society began to know them and care about their plight.
Native American Writers
The early Native writers had to work within a political environment that was hostile to their success and within a literary tradition of the
day that condoned and sentimentalized the death of Indians. Somehow they were able to engage their detractors and author their own
accounts of Native Americans which challenged the stereotypical images and showed that they would not remain silent nor were they
going to disappear.
One of the primary genres that Native Americans borrowed from the writers in the dominant society of the time was the autobiography,
which they used to address their own experiences and concerns. These autobiographies mostly involved experiences concerning their
conversion to Christianity and their education in the mission schools.
At times they adopted the voice of the "authentic" Native American who had the knowledge of the practices and traditions of the tribe,
but at the same time, they were educated and Christianized by into the mainstream society.
For instance, in A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest written in 1829, William Apess describes
his escape from an abusive childhood by being converted to Christianity. Through his involvement in the Church he was provided
access to the same freedom and position with God that white society enjoys. Yet, his ongoing experiences of discrimination within the
Church as a minister in a white world reminded him that this ideal was elusive.
In his writing, Apess rejects the stereotyping of Indians and he does this by documenting his own accomplishments related to the
activities that white society values. Ahead of his time, Apess advocated a balance between accepting Christianity and retaining pride in
ones Indian identity. After the publication of his autobiography, Apess became more militant, helping to organize the Mashpee Revolt of
1833, to help the Mashpee regain lost freedoms.
George Copway, Ojibwe wrote another important autobiography of the 19th century called The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-
gahbowh, written in 1847. Similar to Apess, the text is about Copway's childhood and his eventual conversion to Christianity.
The choice to become a Christian seems to be an easy choice for Copeway. He believed it was necessary for the Native American to
convert if he wanted to stay alive.
Of course, his autobiography was popular among the dominant society’s readers and this allowed him to begin a lecture tour
throughout the United States and Europe. And like Schoolcraft, he was thought of highly by his white contemporaries such as James
Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. However, his own people shunned him.
Black Hawk’s autobiography differs from those that emphasized Christian conversion. The Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kaik or Black
Hawk, was mediated by a French- Canadian writer Antoine Le Claire since Black Hawk was illiterate, which made some question its
Unlike Copway and Apess, Hawk did not even speak English. However, some portions of the autobiography rang true when Black Hawk
”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 grave-yards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.” The struggle Black Hawk
faced in voicing his beliefs in a society that was hostile to his very existence paved the way for future native writers.
Above: Black Hawk, author of Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kiakaik or Black Hawk, 1833.
Early Native American literature was preoccupied with trying to change the political and social status of their people. Elias Boudinot was
one the first native writers to actually voice his the concept that Indians should reject their own culture and embrace the culture of the
“civilized society.” He believed that acculturation was the only way the Cherokee could survive.
Boudinot was able to purchase a printing press and begin printing the first Native American newspaper written in the syllabary created
by the Cherokee Sequoyah.
The U.S. government’s Removal Act of 1830 required the Cherokee to be relocated to Indian (Oklahoma) Territory. Some of the
Cherokee wanted to fight removal, while others, like Boudinot championed for the Cherokee to accept relocation. This caused a violent
division within the tribe and Boudinot became a target because he was vocal about accepting relocation when writing in his newspaper.
Following the “Trail of Tears” a long, deadly march that killed over a third of the Cherokee, Boudinot was labeled a traitor, as was
Sequoyah. Rival factions killed Boudinot, while Sequoyah had his fingers cut off, but his life was spared. Historically, Cherokee jewelry
symbolically expresses the experiences from this period. Boudinot’s "Address to the Whites" promoted compliance and acculturation of
all Cherokee. Boudinot writes,
"There is, in Indian history, something very melancholy, and which seems to establish a mournful precedent for the future events
of the few sons of the forest, now scattered over this vast continent. We have seen every where the poor aborigines melt away
before the white population. I merely state the fact, without at all referring to the cause. We have seen, I say, one family after
another, one tribe after another, nation after nation, pass away; until only a few solitary creatures are left to tell the sad story of
Shall this precedent be followed? I ask you, shall red men live, or shall they be swept from the earth? With you and this public at
large, the decision chiefly rests. Must they perish? Must they all, like the unfortunate Creeks, (victims of the unchristian policy of
certain persons,) go down in sorrow to their grave?
They hang upon your mercy as to a garment. Will you push them from you, or will you save them? Let humanity answer.”
Native American Novel
John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit (1854) is considered to be the first
novel written in California, as well as the first written by an American Indian. The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta was extremely
popular and was widely pirated. Versions appeared as books, were serialized in periodicals, and were translated into foreign
languages. Adaptations appeared in verse, and at least one motion picture was based on Ridge's story. Although many versions were
produced in the nineteenth century, others have appeared more recently, including Pablo Neruda's 1967 drama Fulgor y Muerta de
Ridge, whose Cherokee name was Yellow Bird, wrote poetry which deals with nature and the poet's reaction to the natural environment.
Ridge’s experiences with nature seem transcendental, which is frequently seen in writing by early Native Americans.
Like Boudinot, Ridge argued in his journalism that giving up ones Indian culture and adapting to white man’s ways was the only path
Native Americans could take if they wanted to survive. This was a common theme among missionary educated Native American authors.
Early Native American Women Writers
While Wynema starts out as Genevieve's student, she soon becomes her friend and her sister, which the novel suggests evolves not
simply with the passing of time but rather from Genevieve's increasing understanding of and respect for Muscogee people. As
Genevieve becomes more assimilated into Muscogee life, she refers to Wynema specifically as "a friend" rather than as a pupil or
protege. Moreover, Genevieve's acceptance of Wynema and Robin's marriage and, thus, of Wynema as a sister coincides with a
profound shift in the way that Genevieve refers to the Muscogee. Whereas she once referred to them with the objectifying label of "this
people" (emphasis added), by the end of the story she tenderly deems them "my people" (emphasis added). The novel further
highlights that the Muscogee are "her people," a sign of her acculturation, when they welcome her back after her return from a trip to
her mother's home with all of the unbridled enthusiasm and "warmth" afforded to any member of the tribe, including Wynema.
When Wynema happens upon a meeting between Gerald and Geneviève not long after Geneviève begins teaching at the school,
Gerald informs Wynema, whom he has not seen for some time, that he has "been telling Mihia ["teacher" in Creek] how [all of the
students] like her". Wynema responds by declaring, "'Mihia' knows I luf her,'" while "drawing herself away from him and looking up
confidingly into her teacher's face". What is more, when Gerald points out that Geneviève is "a pale-face" and inquires about whether
she thinks that Geneviève loves her in return, Wynema confidently asserts, "Oh, yes, I know she does" as she tenderly "caress[es] her
The events that precede and follow this remarkable, romanticized scene suggest that the intimacy between the young Native American
pupil and her white Christian instructor is made possible only by cross-cultural sensitivity and understanding. More specifically,
Callahan's novel asserts that affectional bonds between women of different racial groups, especially between Anglo-American and
Native American women, are socially desirable and, significantly, hinge upon a familiarity with one another's cultural traditions and
While the text seems to propose that a strong interpersonal connection between the Native American heroine and her white teacher
depends in part upon cultural likeness, Wynema experiments with the traditional (white) teacher/(Native American) student binary
in ways that underscore how educational practices might foster familiarity and de-construct interpersonal barriers. The novel thus
characterizes cross-cultural education as instrumental in the formation and maintenance of interpersonal bonds, thereby proposing that
the sentimentalism of women's sentimental writing can effectively support rather than simply eradicate or impede cultural diversity.
The novel links cross-cultural respect and affectional experience by demonstrating that Genevieve's embrace of Wynema as a sister is
the end result of a lengthy process of development that enables her to see the Muscogee people as fellow human beings with rich
cultural traditions, rather than Christian projects.
Nonetheless, Winnemucca’s writing had an effect on many in society who had not been exposed to the mistreatment Indians were
experiencing. In her book, Winnemucca used techniques of persuasion to show the ferocity and brutality of so-called "civilized" men
and the unchristian behavior of ordained ministers, and she used a chiastic structure to organize her book which was to contrast their
rapacity with the ethical behavior of so-called savages.
The longest passages in the book concern the peacekeeping efforts of such leaders as Winnemucca's grandfather, Truckee; her
father, Old Winnemucca; her cousin, Numaga, known as Young Winnemucca; her brother, Natchez; and herself. She emphasized that
atrocities committed by the "civilized" required the most persuasive oratory from such Native American leaders to keep the Paiute
warriors from retaliating.
According to A. J. Liebling , a letter to Governor Nye of Nevada confirmed the amity of the Paiutes despite "the grossest outrages upon
them committed by villainous whites." The self-restraint of the Native Americans after their men were shot without provocation, their
wives and daughters were violated, and their lands were taken was recounted in a series of scenes.
Authorial commentary followed the narration of these events and Winnemucca would shift to second-person narrative that directly
addressed readers in order to establish intimacy, elicit empathy, and appeal for redress. This was incredibly brave narration at a time
when hostilities between Native Americans and whites in the West were still at a boiling point.
In contrast to Winnemucca, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was a Native American writer who wanted and gained the respect of other
women writers of her time. Educated and conforming, those among the dominant society thought of her as being an intelligent, skillful
writer who used humor and wit to convey her positive portrayals of Native life.
She wrote to acquaint readers with the ancient traditions and customs of her people, as well as articles on their history and legends.
Schoolcraft also wrote biographical stories, speeches and poems that were published in The Literary Voyager or Muzzeniegun.
Jaskoski, H. Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays. 1996.
Littlefield, D. F. Native American writing in the Southeast : an anthology, 1875-1935.1995.
Swann, B. On the translation of Native American literatures. 1992.
Walker, C. Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms. 1997.
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