|Chief Black Hawk was a warrior and leader of the Sauk Tribe but he was not actually a “chief,” but he held a high status among his
people due to the successful war parties he lead as a young man.
Before Black Hawk had gained fame within the dominant society, he had been a strong opponent of a treaty signed in 1804 by Indiana
governor William Henry Harrison and chiefs of the Sauk and Fox nations.
Black Hawk maintained that the treaty was unlawful because the full councils of the nations had not been consulted and, later, that
those who had signed did not have the authority to cede the land of the Saukenuk (in modern-day Illinois). This probably was one of
the reasons he decided to fight the Americans on the side of the British during the War of 1812.
At the end of the war in 1815 the Sauk and Fox nations signed a peace treaty in which the cession of land in 1804 was reaffirmed.
Black Hawk nevertheless disputed the lawfulness of those actions.
Black Hawk and his "British Band" of about five hundred warriors and a thousand women, children, and old men attempted to move
back to their original land from where they had been resettled west of the Mississippi River in 1828. Nonetheless, he was frustrated in
his efforts and Americans began settling upon the lands of his Sauk people in Illinois.
Black Hawk attempted again to return to Illinois with promises of alliances but this did not materialize, so Black Hawk left Illinois. As he
traveled toward the Mississippi River he and his band of people were attacked by the Illinois militia. This precipitated the Black Hawk
War of 1832, which is where Black Hawk got his name.
After the fighting was over, Black Hawk and the remnants of his band were captured and held outside of St. Louis in Jefferson Barracks.
His capture provided a political opportunity for Andrew Jackson's government, and so Black Hawk and the remnants of his band were
put to use in the East as examples of defeated Indians.
Black Hawk, along with a few other Native Americans, were put on display for easterners to gawk at. Ironically, the fame he achieved
from this provided him a voice, allowing his stories and eponyms to live on in history. Black Hawk and his band served a purpose as
captive celebrities, but the expansion of their fame could not be completely contained or manipulated by Jackson’s political machine.
Black Hawk and his companions became celebrities who rivaled President Jackson's own political tour of the East.
Yet Black Hawk's celebrity was highly malleable, often used to further editors' own political or social viewpoints. For example, on July 30,
1833, after the end of Black Hawk's "tour," the Commonwealth, a Frankfort, Kentucky, newspaper, reported that during one of his many
interactions with society, Black Hawk had responded to the intense interest of Washington, DC, "ladies" with a cutting remark,
"Debilinchibison Jekorre Manitou," which was translated as "What in the devil's name do these squaws want of me!"
Orlando Brown, the editor of this newspaper, further circulated the "Blackhawkiana" and excerpted the already extant information from
the New York Courier and Enquirer that had been reported in the New-York Mirror on July 13, 1833, along with a retrospective
biographical sketch and a woodcut print.
We could speculate that female fans of Black Hawk wanted a brush with the exotic, a hint of miscegenation, and a bit of the
transgressive--an imagined sexual and political freedom wrought from the bodies of Black Hawk and his fellow Sauk Indians. However,
we have no direct evidence of exactly how particular fans responded to Black Hawk and his good-looking son. Nevertheless, Black
Hawk's and his female fans' identities were created through sexualized rhetoric circulated in the newspapers. This rhetoric and its (re)
constitutive effects upon Indian and female identities diminished for some Americans the potential danger of a disruptive force on the
western borders; supposedly, it further "defeated" the "defeated Sauk and Fox Indians" and, by extension, all western tribes.
Black Hawk As Captive Celebrity
In the early nineteenth century rhetorical strategies used to indicate that a person was a celebrity included direct references to his or
her popularity as well as circulation rhetorically through media and cultural outlets. Besides being reported upon in newspapers or
magazines, the celebrity might become the butt of jokes; have his or her likeness parodied in the theater, at a party, or in a magazine;
be linked to circus acts, freak shows, and parades; or have a ship or a racehorse named after her or him.
Each and all of these occurred in conjunction with Black Hawk's "tour" of the East Coast in the spring and summer of 1833--and a bit
beyond his journey. Eastern newspapers were well aware of his celebrity. The New York Courier, as reported in the Georgia Telegraph,
even affixed some numbers:
"Whereever [sic] they go, great numbers are sure to follow them,
wherever they stop, hundreds and sometimes thousands, besiege them.
If they had been kept as a "show," (which of course would have been
a shameful degradation,) we verily believe that $100,000 might have
been collected, in the course of a few days for the privilege of
Interestingly, the payment would be a "degradation," but the parading of the Indians was not. If these strategies seem similar to those of
the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is because they are. Celebrity is not a modern phenomenon.
Black Hawk's story was published in 1833 as Life ofBlack Hawk or Ma-ka-tai-me-she- kia-kiak. After returning from the East, Black Hawk
tells his story to a translator, Antoine LeClair, and that story is further edited by John B. Patterson.
LeClair reports that Black Hawk went to the Rock Island Indian Agency and asked him to help him publish his life story for a white
audience. Because of the mediation of these two men, the Life of Black Hawk has never been definitively argued as "authentic."
A number of critics have attempted to recover his authentic "voice" or viewpoint within the text, specifying rhetorical strategies that
seem at odds with editorial interventions, particularly how Black Hawk defers interpretation of his tribe's cultural practices or how he
outlines American trickery or how he asserts and resists assimilationist arguments that newspapers had attributed to him during his
travels in the East. Most recent scholarship maintains some consensus regarding Black Hawk's autobiography: the narrative of the text
engages Jacksonian Indian policies and their legal and moral bases.
If we adopt the point of view that the textual Black Hawk is self-consciously constructed, we might more fruitfully discuss the text as a
response to Black Hawk's captive celebrity. In "The Fan and (Auto)Biography: Writing the Self in the Stars" Timothy Dugdale argues
that, at least in modern celebrity cultures and contexts, (auto)biographies reduce "social distance" between fans and celebrities
symbolically and experientially. Black Hawk's (auto)biography may have had the similar effect of rendering his identity and his body
textually in his "own" words.
Thus, Black Hawk becomes a "social text" as a response to and interaction with newspaper renderings of him. We discover through the
book that Black Hawk wanted to set the record straight about a few media misconceptions. He was specifically concerned about his
reputation as an honorable warrior, his status as a hero, which seems consistent with Black Hawk's reported demeanor and actions
during the war and his identity as a warrior. He directly addresses in his autobiography the newspapers:
"Village criers, who (I have been told,) accuse me of "having
murdered women and children among the whites!" This assertion is
false! I never did, nor have I any knowledge that any of my nation
ever killed a white woman or child. I make this statement of truth,
to satisfy the white people among whom I have been traveling, (and
by whom I have been treated with great kindness,) that, when they
shook me by the hand so cordially they did not shake the hand that
had ever been raised against any but warriors."
Of course, Black Hawk merely asserts this. Yet the text stands as a testament apparently contrary to the various reports of his eastern
speeches, confirming his status as a defeated Indian who is "forever done with spears." As a textual representation of both man and
character, the autobiography does important cultural work within a young nation struggling morally with the "Indian problem."
Black Hawk's focus upon his right to fight this war as well as his honor as a warrior serves to reinvigorate a status that had been
exoticized, diminutized, and feminized in eastern and western newspapers. The New-London Gazette provides evidence of Black Hawk's
apparent capitulation to the might of the United States and the acceptance of removal and of assimilationist arguments. In June the
newspaper reports that after meeting Andrew Jackson and listening to his speech admonishing Black Hawk's group and threatening
them with powerful vengeance if they again take up arms,
The Prophet and the other answered: "My Father--My ears are open to
your words. I am glad to go back to my people. I want to see my
family. I did not behave well last summer. I ought not to have
taken up the tomahawk. But my people have suffered a great deal.
When I get back, I will remember your words. I won't go to war
again. I will live in peace. I shall hold you by the hand."
A July article reports Black Hawk's interactions with the chief of the Seneca, who "counseled their brothers to return home with a
peaceful mind, to cultivate their lands and no more to fight against so powerful a people as the whites." According to the article, Black
Hawk responds that the whites "are very rich and very strong.--It is a folly for us to fight with them.... For myself, I shall advise my
people to be quiet and live like good men."
These statements are consistent with what most critics find is a formulaic, hollow argument at the end of BlackHawk's Life that "the
tomahawk is buried forever! We will forget what has passed--and may the watchword between the Americans and the Sacs and Foxes,
These statements attributed to Black Hawk seem to be at great odds with his self-reported strength of will to fight and maintain cultural
autonomy. In his autobiography he resists white cultural dominance and works particularly hard to reverse an image of him as the
infantilized Indian Jackson wanted to parade. He very quickly runs through the sites of his "tour;' slowing occasionally to offer
backhanded compliments. In New York, for example, he watches the fireworks, calling them "gratifying" yet "less magnificent than the
sight of one of our large prairies would be when on fire".
When he discusses the friendliness of his fans, he says that the white "squaws presented to us many handsome little presents, that are
said to be valuable. They were very kind, very good, and very pretty--for pale-faces!". The entertainment is "gratifying" but inferior, and
the women are kind, good, and pretty but comparatively inferior to Sauk women.
One of the ways in which he engages verbally with such definitions of himself as a dishonorable (and feminized) warrior is to draw
distinctions between the courage of his warriors and that of the soldiers against whom they battled. Black Hawk seems consistently
surprised that the Americans at various times retreat rather than fight. The Battle of Stillman's Run is a case in point.
When a scout reports that an army of several hundred white men are approaching, Black Hawk sends three men to meet them and ask
for a meeting. They hoist a white flag. Black Hawk sends five more men to spy and report about the initial interaction between the army
and the three-man party. The three are captured. The five are then fired upon, two killed. With his forty men Black Hawk determines to
avenge their deaths, despite the gross mismatch in numbers: "I gave another yell, and ordered my brave warriors to charge upon
them--expecting that we would all be killed! They did charge! Every man rushed and fired, and the enemy retreated! in the utmost
confusion and consternation, before my little but brave band of warriors!". Black Hawk seems flabbergasted at this turn of events, as he
does at other times when the Americans flee despite their greater numbers.
However, courage is not the most important marker of masculinity for Black Hawk. Honor is more important to him and is the indicator of
his status as a strong warrior and man. Sweet reminds us that "Black Hawk's sense of social position is heavily invested in his self-
representation as a Sauk who makes no gestures towards assimilation" and that Black Hawk's status as warrior actualizes as he self-
performs that identity. Thus, "the warrior is necessarily an autobiographer."
Black Hawk's narrative, while remaining a response to celebrity after his "tour" is also a self-affirming enterprise of his masculinity and
his identity as an honorable warrior.
After another battle at Dixon's Ferry, Black Hawk discovers an enemy encampment about half a day's ride from Dixon's Ferry. He
attacks the much more numerous force. He says that he expects that his "whole party would be killed! I never was so much surprised, in
all the fighting I have seen--knowing, too, that the Americans, generally, shoot well--as I was to see this army of several hundreds,
retreating! WITHOUT SHOWING FIGHT!!".
In case his readers think that the Americans were simply not as skilled as Black Hawk's warriors, he provides the backhanded
compliment. In contrast, Black Hawk and his band show much greater courage, according to Black Hawk: "An army of three or four
hundred ... come[s] forward, with a full determination to demolish the few braves I had with me, to retreat, when they had ten to one,
was unaccountable to me.
It proved a different spirit from any I had ever before seen among the pale faces! I expected to see them fight as the American did with
the British during the last war!--but they had no such braves among them". Black Hawk invokes and provokes the patriotism in his
nineteenth-century audience to align himself with the more honorable, more courageous American patriots. As Scheckel has pointed
out, he becomes a figure who symbolizes an idealized American past. Even so, his self-fashioning implicates the contemporary culture
as impure, a lesser nation than when originally conceived.
Black Hawk maintains that he was "forced" into the war by the dishonorable actions of the United States. He writes that he did not want
to go to war but that he was never allowed to air his grievances with the "Great Father" of the United States and that his people were
not given the opportunity to gather provisions in order to feed themselves. As a result of his flag of peace being dishonored and his
warriors being murdered when on a peace mission, he argues that his attacks and the ensuing war were justified.
Although these are the proximal reasons that Black Hawk provides in the narrative, the subtext underlying the motives for the war are
much broader. Scheckel argues that the context of the Indian Removal Act and the judicial decisions regarding the Cherokee's
arguments against removal are relevant to Black Hawk's text. Eric Anderson argues that Black Hawk's narrative is an example of
"strategic" and "even pointed" countercolonial writing that moves from oral to print text:
"Far from buttressing the colonial American narrative of vanishing
Indians ... writers ... such as Black Hawk ... speak powerfully
and paradoxically to these radical colonial whitewashings of Native
cultures while at the same time constructing a Native-centered and
multidimensional anti-extinction discourse that operates as a form
of indigenous resistance and provocation."
While Life of Black Hawk may seem solely a personal response to his celebrity and to Indian policy as it affected the Sauks, while it may
provide a space for performing "countercolonial provocations," the nineteenth-century audience's consumption of the Black Hawk
portrayed in the book reveals its cultural importance to the construction of the nation. Thus, while his autobiography appears in some
respects to be revolutionary and progressive, Scheckel notes:
"The Indian is granted subject status only as he becomes subject to
white representation.... "The Indian" as represented by whites, was
essential to nineteenth-century efforts to construct national
identity not only because he provided the national history
Americans desperately wanted but because the process of
representation offered Americans the chance to purge that history
of its moral taint by enacting textual (or artistic) justice."
Thus, as a physical product of Black Hawk's celebrity, the text is consumable and says as much about its fans as it does about its
Arguing about the text's authenticity, then, is less relevant than discussing the effect of Black Hawk as a celebrity and the text as an
outgrowth of that fame. His fame may have been his own, but it was also culturally co-opted. The book remains a final response to
Black Hawk's brief time of celebrity, and it attempts to respond to and reconstruct an identity that had been developed through "village
criers" In doing so, it also participates in the circulation of Black Hawk's textual body for rhetorical and cultural purposes.
Americans in the East were great fans of Black Hawk, whose popularity on tour overtook that of Andrew Jackson's parallel tour of the
Northeast. The Emancipator on June 15,1833, reports briefly, significantly identifying Black Hawk as "the celebrated Indian chief" and
indicating that "he will be 'the lion' of the day, and the President, of course, must 'stand back a little.' But the 'monarch multitude' will
have their way."
Undoubtedly, then, Black Hawk was a celebrity. He remained popular even in 1837, when he attended Catlin's gallery opening in New
York, which included his 1832 painting of Black Hawk. Black Hawk may also have been a conduit through which white women could
imagine escape from the confining and "polite" parlors of eastern cities that Black Hawk toured.
To these female fans Black Hawk may not have been just Jackson's official symbol to show that savagery could no longer threaten the
civilization of America and its right to internally colonize the North American continent. But no matter how his female fans actually felt,
their identities were used to further a political, nationalist agenda that actively denied miscegenation as a method for becoming a
unified American culture.
As part of that agenda, Black Hawk's identity was also constructed, commodified, circulated, and consumed through the culture via
newspaper editors and his own autobiographical response. The relationship between celebrity and fans is, at least in Black Hawk's
case, culturally important as a public manifestation circulated through the media.
Nichols, R. L. Black Hawk: And the Warrior's Path. 1992
Trask, K. A. Black Hawk : the battle for the heart of America. 2006.
Black Hawks Writings
Hawk, Black. Life of MA-KA-TAI-ME-SHE-KIA-KIAK or Black Hawk Dictated By Himself. 1834.
|Black Hawk 1767-1838
Life of Black Hawk