A Lodge of Their Own: Creating an Indigenous Voice During Times of Turmoil

David Martínez

When I wrote my essay on Indigenous intellectual history (“A City Upon Stolen Land: Westward Expansion, Indigenous Intellectuals, and the Origin of Resistance”) for the recent JER forum on intellectual history, my emphasis was how thinkers from Samson Occom (1772) to George Copway (1848) generated a never-before-seen genre of resistance literature. I wanted readers to see these works for how they withstood the presumption that Indigenous people were destined for either extinction or assimilation. As such, Elias Boudinot touted the achievements of Cherokee civilization, such as the Syllabary created by George Guest, more commonly called Sequoyah, and an American-style tribal government. William Apess, in turn, took the risk of indicting a white minister that Harvard College appointed to the Marshpee Indians for being guilty of fraud, complete with citing statutes and case law—which itself was a brief history of Indian law in Massachusetts going back to 1650. Boudinot, Apess, and their peers thus wrote against the grain of America’s conventional narrative of exceptionalism, in which Indians vanish before a wave of settlers bringing in “civilization.” However, whereas the JER article is about an Indigenous tradition of resistance to a federal Indian policy predicated on Indians vanishing, here, the emphasis is on what made these writers Indigenous, despite having to write in the colonizer’s language for a predominantly colonial audience.

Occom sitting, facing viewer

Samson Occom by Jonathan Spilsbury, after Mason Chamberlin, 1768, mezzotint on paper, from the National Portrait Gallery, which explicitly released this digital image under the CC0 license (Wikimedia Commons).

When Occom preached before Moses Paul’s 1772 execution, he announced to his audience at New Haven, “I shall address myself to the Indians, my brethren and kindred according to the flesh.”[i]  Fifty-four years later, when Boudinot appealed to his Presbyterian audience in Philadelphia, he stated emphatically, “You here behold an Indian, my kindred are Indians, and my fathers sleeping in the wilderness grave—they too were Indians.”[ii] Then, when John Ross sought in 1829 to calm the minds of his fellow Cherokees as President Jackson advocated for their removal, he called them “Friends” and admonished them with “if you all unite together and be of one mind there is no danger of our rights being taken away from us.”[iii] Two years later, when Cherokee Nation failed in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia at getting an injunction against the State of Georgia for passing laws that were hostile toward Cherokee sovereignty, Ross proclaimed, “Our cause will ultimately triumph. It is the cause of humanity and justice.”[iv] In 1835, as the Cherokees debated fiercely whether or not to sign the Treaty of New Echota, William Apess spoke passionately on behalf of the Marshpee of Cape Cod, who were enduring the indignity of having their property seized by a nefarious preacher. In his conclusion, Apess recounted the antagonism he experienced for taking up the Marshpee cause: “I have been assailed by the vilest calumnies; represented as an exciter of sedition, a hypocrite, and a gambler.” But as Apess explains, he willingly defended Indian rights because the Marshpee were “under my spiritual charge and of my own.”[v] Finally, when Copway appealed to the consciences of South Carolina lawmakers, imploring them to support his plan for a northern Indian territory, which could serve as a safe haven from westward expansion, he evoked what may be described as a prayer for America:

In all my journeys on the shores of Lake Superior, while I endeavored to hold up the Cross before my brethren, I have watched the movements of Providence, step by step, and if I can but be a connecting link between the United States and my race, I shall then be happy.[vi]

Despite the above examples, one may nonetheless see persons struggling to assimilate into the American political discourse, in which nation building atop ancestral Indigenous lands is not only the objective of American settlement but also its destiny. Moreover, one may even develop an ungenerous opinion about the quality and sophistication of the writers. Repeatedly, even when talking about other tribes, such as Copway, the discourse seems provincial, not to mention ethnocentric. Boudinot, Ross, Apess, and Copway do not seem to be aware of the world beyond their own experience. One may also feel puzzled by the lack of reference to oral tradition and ceremony. After all, is not the spiritual what is supposed to distinguish Indigenous people? Anyone writing and teaching about Indigenous intellectual history knows these issues are commonplace.

half-length portrait, standing, facing left, holding book, wearing feather headdress.

George Copway. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

Upon closer examination, these discourses on Indian–white relations are an Indigenous defense of sacred land. Occom, while he did not directly appeal to the sanctity of Mohegan land, nonetheless affirmed that Indians possess souls worth saving. Indeed, “and when you come to die, your souls will be received into heaven, there to be with the Lord Jesus in eternal happiness.”[vii] Boudinot underscored that the Cherokee were fighting to remain on treaty land: “The Cherokee nation lies within the chartered limits of the states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Its extent [is] defined by treaties.”[viii] Ross corroborated this claim when he stated “The Treatys entered into between us and the General Govt are very strong and will protect us in our right of soil.”[ix] Apess knew exactly where he was when he reproached Harvard College for sending the Marshpee a minister who was neither conscientious about his spiritual mission nor respectful of Marshpee possessions: “Let us have our Meeting-house and our land, and we will be content to worship God without the help of the white man.”[x] Lastly, Copway expressed the tragic loss of land that tribes suffered under colonization when he waxed poetic about how things were “356 years ago,” when “The Indian . . . roamed over the country unmolested. It was a vast world of grandeur. The Indian was as free as the air he breathed.”[xi]

In the end, the innovations that are highlighted in this all-too-brief essay were developed during a time, more than a century ago, when there were few Indigenous scholars, and long before colleges established American Indian studies. Nevertheless, the thinkers honored here exhibited the skills and knowledge they needed to assert themselves as equals to anyone in any of the colonial institutions they spoke back to, be it a New England city, a Presbyterian church, a presidential administration, an elite college, or a state legislature. Indeed, Occom, Boudinot, Ross, Apess, and Copway did what none of the learned men of America could do—speak as an Indian.


Endnotes

[i] Samson Occom, “A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian (1772),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez (Ithaca, NY, 2011), 37.

[ii] Elias Boudinot, “An Address to the Whites (1826),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez, 41.

[iii] John Ross, “To the Cherokee People (1829),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez , 50.

[iv] John Ross, “To the Cherokees, Friends & Fellow Citizens (1831),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez , 53.

[v] Williams Apess, “An Inquiry into the Education and Religious Instruction of the Marshpee Indians (1835),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez, 78.

[vi] George Copway, “Address Before Both Houses of the Legislature of South Carolina (1848),” The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972, ed. David Martínez , 84.

[vii] Occom, “A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian (1772),” 39.

[viii] Boudinot, “An Address to the Whites (1826),” 43.

[ix] Ross, “To the Cherokee People (1829),” 50.

[x] Apess, “An Inquiry into the Education and Religious Instruction of the Marshpee Indians (1835),” 61.

[xi] Copway, “Address Before Both Houses of the Legislature of South Carolina (1848),” 79.

23 January 2024

About the Author

David Martínez is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community and a full professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, where he enjoys a joint appointment with the School of Transborder Studies. He is the author of My Heart Is Bound Up with Them: How Carlos Montezuma Became the Voice of a Generation (Tucson, AZ, 2023).

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