William and Mary Quarterly

July 2001

Book Review:

Writing Indians, A Mission to the Cherokees

Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America.
Hilary E. Wyss. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. pp. xvi, 207. $29.95.)

The Brainerd Journal: A Mission to the Cherokees, I8I7-I823.
Edited and introduced by Joyce B. Phillips and Paul Gary Phillips. Foreword by Philip H. Viles, Jr. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. pp. xx, 584. $65.)


While an earlier generation of scholars sought to describe Indians as essentially “oral” and therefore fundamentally in opposition to alphabetic literacy, a new batch of scholars, most of them Latin Americanists, has been seeking to redefine the relationships between native peoples, reading, and writing as longstanding and productive. Among this new generation is Hilary E. Wyss, assistant professor of English at Auburn University, who in her carefully researched and sensitively written first book, Writing Indians, declares emphatically that it is time to acknowledge the “extensive” tradition of native “Christian writing” that she dates back “at least to [John] Eliot’s first converts” (p. 155) in the middle of the seventeenth century. Wyss sets aside Renaissance literary historian Stephen Greenblatt’s caveat in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, 1991) that all documents Euro-Americans produced to describe colonial encounters are fatally contaminated and therefore incapable of communicating anything reliable about native history. Instead, she decides to rely warily on the technique of “reading through” Euro-American documents to recover and interpret Indian voices and experiences. Joyce B. Phillips and Paul Gary Phillips add energy to this impulse with their richly annotated typescript of the journals Congregationalist missionaries at Brainerd, Tennessee, sent to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) concerning their attempts to school Cherokee students between 1817 and 1823. Writing Indians is a work of critical analysis in which Wyss examines a variety of written documents for evidence to support a thesis; the Brainerd Journal provides precisely the kind of evidence scholars in Wyss’s camp use to show Indians attaining the literacy skills they needed to describe and resist colonialism. Together the two books signal an exciting trend in the history of literacy in North America.

Wyss does not claim that her evidence, which she lays out in five chapters about King Philip’s War, the Christian Indian community on Martha’s Vineyard, the mission at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the mission at Brotherton, New Jersey, and the writings of William Apess, respectively, sheds light on any kind of universal, traditional, “’authentic Native voice’ speaking to us from the past” (p. 3). Using a concept Mary Louise Pratt advances in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York, 1992), Wyss thinks deeply about “autoethnography” (p. 4), which she explains as the process by which native peoples appropriate the terms and communicative modes of their conquerors. Literate Christian natives did not translate pristine, pre-contact experience into English, she explains; instead, they described their own thoughts, which were authentic to the complicated conditions and times in which they lived. Wyss complains that scholars have spent their energies longing for an “authentic Indian voice” that is “out there somewhere.” When they have not found this voice, they have concluded that the voices inscribed in Christian Indian writings are evidence only of degradation, decline, and “loss of traditional values” (pp. 4, 9). Whys acknowledges that Barry O’Connell, in On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apress, a Pequot (Amherst, 1992), demonstrates the kind of autoethnographic consciousness scholars need to adopt. However, she argues, too many scholars have been content to let Apess stand as a first, ignoring evidence of the many other Indians who came to Christianity and literacy through their contact with Protestant missionaries.

Wyss is at her best when she is presenting what she has gleaned from her careful readings, which made me at times eager for more of these interesting readings and somewhat impatient with the historical background material she uses to set scenes. A well-trained historicist, Wyss includes a wealth of information about the communities that spawned these Writing Indians. Undergraduates and those unfamiliar with these stories will find histories of Stockbridge and Brotherton, for instance, or the Wampanoags on Martha’s Vineyard fascinating. In a brief book of 167 pages of text, such detail takes up space that I periodically wished were given over to more of Wyss’s own creative work with the words Christian Indians themselves wrote, as well as the letters, journal entries, recorded religious confessions, missionary tracts, captivity narratives, conversion narratives, and published histories that missionaries wrote. Wyss shortchanges her readers in chapter two, for example, by not dwelling fully enough on the formal aspects of Experience Mayhew’s 1727 publication, Indian Converts. Although she does a fine job explaining how Mayhew recorded Wampanoag words and how these words may reveal interesting intersections between native and Christian worldviews, she never adequately gives a sense of these works’ shape and structure. Perhaps this struggle to balance historical information and literary analysis is a tension scholars in this growing field of Indian literacy will have to work through more carefully in forthcoming publications.

My criticism is not meant to detract from the exceptional book Wyss has written. Her careful readings enable her to examine the authentic voices and experiences of “Native Americans who [were] participating in a newly developing culture which threaten[ed] to exclude them entirely if they [did] not accept its terms” (p. 10). Deftly analyzing language, position, perspective, and power, Wyss skillfully takes apart John Eliot’s translations of Algonquian confessions published for the New England Company. Though Eliot mediated these accounts, they nevertheless act as murky windows into the mindset of Indians simultaneously moving back and forth between cultures and creating new cultures of their own. Through Wyss’s close reading, we learn of individuals such as Waban, Robin Speene, Anthony, Ponampam, and Nishohkou, who express both shame and longing for their sinful, precontact lives. In one of my favorite bits in Writing Indians, Wyss studies ransom notes that pro- and anti-English Indians exchanged at the conclusion of King Philip’s War to secure captive Mary Rowlandson’s liberty. Wyss pays attention to language and method here, showing that Indian correspondents struggled not just over the terms of Rowlandson’s release but also over the way pen, ink, and paper would be used to bring about Rowlandson’s freedom. Wyss’s work in chapter three on John Sergeant’s account of Mahican acceptance of Christianity at Stockbridge comes to life when she introduces readers to Umpachenee, a leader of Housatunnuk Indians. Wyss scrutinizes Sergeant’s overwhelming preoccupation with Umpachenee to make sense of Indian drinking. Perhaps Umpachenee himself did not write his own story, but Sergeant’s words about him leave a clear record of one native Christian’s approach to conversion and community.

Wyss is clear in her thinking about the consequences of literacy: “there can be no universal consequence of literacy; instead, each situation will produce its own set of practices and characteristics, all of which are contingent on the larger social system in place” (p. 6). She is less up-front about what she considers the consequences of Christianity. The native communities she describes came to literacy through contact with missionaries preaching and teaching the gospel. Instead of ending her book with a re-reading of the works of William Apess and his radical exhortations on race and class, I wish she had spent more time thinking more globally about the interesting intersection of literacy, Christianity, and forms of resistance. It is, of course, nuttily counterfactual to wonder what similar proselytizing might have looked like with Muslim missionaries, but I wonder, all the same. The Brainerd Journal does not directly answer such a question, but it offers a variety of insights into the ways Indians went about receiving and demanding Christianity and literacy. Reading the Journal, we learn how missionaries went about translating sermons and lessons, the process by which Cherokee parents left children in missionary care, how many students attended· the Brainerd school, how education actually worked, what students did vocationally, how long students stayed, what books they used, and even the level of proficiency at reading and writing they reached. These insights have long been available through microfilm copies of ABCFM papers held at Harvard’s Houghton Library, but with the publication of this printed edition, scholars interested in Indian uses of Christian religion and education will have easy access to a treasure trove of information. As always, one is not sure what to make of such information, knowing that, like the Jesuit Relations, the annual reports Jesuits in Canada sent home to France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The Brainerd Journal, with great bias, shows Indians behaving in Christian settings to the missionaries’ good effect. As editors, the Phillipses do not help clarify these biases when in their introduction to the volume they succumb to the kind of romantic language that obscures missionaries’ complicated role in these Christian communities. “The Brainerd Journal presents the missionaries in action,” they write. “While other white men had entered the Cherokee Nation in search of personal gain through trading or land speculation, these missionaries from the American Board sought neither profit nor land, but rather sought the treasure of the soul. In short, they bent their backs to cultivate the mind as well as the soil” (p. 1).

Meanwhile, The Brainerd Journal itself offers some corrective vision. Missionaries reported numerous instances of Cherokee parents pleading to leave their children at Brainerd to learn to read and write; they also described the many points at which parents claimed children before missionaries deemed them ready to leave and when parents arrived at Brainerd to take unhappy children home. In such instances, missionaries wrote with sufficient candor to give readers a sense of Indians’ own perceptions and motivations. Wanting to believe that their Cherokee congregants were fully aware of and receptive to sermons and teachings offered them, missionaries nevertheless acknowledged the gap between hope and reality. “After public service a Cherokee man & his wife readily accepted an invitation to tarry with us all night,” the missionaries reported to their New England superiors on February 1, 1818. “Speaking to them by an interpreter we learnt that they had understood nothing of the preaching, & did not know the meaning of anything they had seen” (p. 46). Far from concluding that Indian students and converts grasped nothing, readers will infer from Writing Indians and The Brainerd Journal that Indians understood and responded in a multiplicity of ways. Scholars need to accept with Hilary Wyss the messiness of these understandings and work to create a new history of these rich and troubling encounters.