Words Often Unheard


In August 2013, Amherst College acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American Indian authors ever assembled by a private collector. This collection, from Pablo Eisenberg, consists of about 1,500 books that include poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, and many other works. Even texts by some of the first Native American Indian writers to be published in their lifetimes, such as Samson Occom, William Apess, and Elias Boudinot, are a part of this vast collection. The Robert Frost Library seeks to show as much as possible of the history of Native American writing and philosophy in their exhibit: The Younghee Kim-Wait Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection.

To learn more about this exhibit, I interviewed Head Archivist Michael Kelly, who was part of the team who acquired the collection, and two Native American Studies professors at Amherst College, Professors Lisa Brooks and Kiara Vigil.

Stephanie Sosa (SS): What makes this collection different from other Native American Literature collections? 

Michael Kelly (MK): What sets this collection apart is its focus on published works of Native authorship. These are books written, for the most part, by Indigenous people for a public audience. Sometimes these books had small print runs, limited circulation, or were even actively suppressed, but they all represent statements by Native people for an audience. We do not hold, and are not going to attempt to acquire, personal manuscripts or other items that probably best belong in tribal collections. What we are aiming for is documentation of writing that Indigenous people wanted to circulate widely.

SS: Are all the works in English? What other languages are represented?

MK: The vast majority of the books in the collection are in English, but we do have a handful of Indigenous languages represented. These include Cherokee, Navajo, Mohawk, and Algonquian.

SS: How is the literature represented affected by being written in English instead of any Native American language?

Kiara Vigil (KV): This is a dissertation worthy question. Briefly, I think that for many of these authors they were fluent in English and they were aiming to be read by English-reading audiences, which for a vast majority is WHY their works were published in the English. So if this is the case, and I think it was for so many, then perhaps the final product was not greatly or adversely affected by being written in English. Of course there are exceptions such as Simon Pokagon’s posthumously published work “Queen of the Woods” that had been originally written in his own language, Potawatomi, and then translated. There are many Potawatomi words that remain in the printed (final) version of the text and what’s useful to us now is that this novel from 1899 has preserved some of the language that can be used today for contemporary teachers of Anishaanabeg language.

SS: What are some of your favorite works in the collection? Why?

MK: My personal research interest is the history of printing and publishing in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of my favorite items is David Cusick’s Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations. Our copy is of the second edition – printed in Lockport, NY in 1848. The first edition is even more scarce, though we hope to acquire one in the future. Cusick’s work is one of the first attempts by an Indigenous author to publish a history of his tribe. His use of the word “ancient” in the title is part of an effort to assert the longevity of the Native presence in North America. This work also features four woodcut illustrations that are fascinating in and of themselves. In addition, our copy is in excellent condition – as are most of the books in this collection. With our copy, you are holding a piece of history that looks almost exactly as it did the day it was printed.

SS: Professor Vigil, how do these recently acquired works assist your scholarship, in particular your current book manuscript Red and Write: Indian Intellectuals and the American Imagination, 1880-1930?

KV: My current book is a collective cultural biography of four turn of the 20th century public intellectuals. All of them were writers and the new collection includes books from at least three of them. And, because this book is also about networks of Native cultural production and political activism there are other materials in the new collection related to this argument in my book. Probably most importantly there are books from all time periods, including the time after which my book takes place. So I know I’ll be looking to the collection for my second book which focuses on the 1930s–1960s.

SS: Professor Brooks, you have said about this collection, “The research possibilities are endless.” How do these recently acquired works assist your scholarship? Could you give a couple examples?

Lisa Brooks (LB): My first book, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast focused on the early writings of Native people in the Northeast and on the incredible depth and breadth of writing in this region alone. It formed part of a major movement in Native literary studies toward the recovery of our vast indigenous literary traditions, to which many other scholars and authors (both Native and non-Native) have contributed. It is one thing to work in multiple libraries and archives in order to track that tradition. It is another thing entirely to see it all laid out before you in a single space.

SS: Professor Brooks, this fall, you will offer a course on Native American Literature at Amherst College. How will this collection aid the course, and how do you plan on using the works to teach the students?

LB: Students will develop interdisciplinary knowledge in history, literature, law, political science, cultural studies and digital technologies as they research Native American intellectual traditions; regional, cross-cultural and global indigenous contexts; political debates and governance; and movements toward decolonization. Readings will range from regional oral traditions and the 1772 sermon published by Mohegan author Samson Occom and to a novel published in 2014. In developing the Atlas and associated projects, students will also consider ethical questions regarding the distribution of knowledge, access to the collections, and community-based collaboration.

SS: In the exhibit, I noticed how the portrait of Black Hawk in his autobiography was changed into a more stereotypical portrait, with him wearing Native dress instead of the original Anglo-American military uniform. How much influence did non-Native American people have over the portraits of these authors? How is our concept of Native American writers affected by this influence?

KV: I think the variations between the different Black Hawk autobiographies are fascinating and I plan on using these in my “A History of the Native Book” class in the spring of 2015. I’m not sure I agree that wearing “Native dress” is more stereotypical. I would guess that the clothing changed because the political stakes for Native people changed, and the degree to which they may have needed to assert themselves as distinct in a cultural sense was necessary. In general I find the word stereotype to be problematic because it is vague and imprecise, I prefer to think: What were the social and cultural expectations for Indian people that may have informed the creation of these different authorial images? I know some were created after Black Hawk had died, which I think answers the question of who may have had influence or control over these images. In most cases, in the mid 19th century authors may not have had a lot of control over how they were portrayed. What would be interesting and helpful would be to look at who the publishers are and to see if there’s any way to research the circulation of these texts to give us a clearer sense of audience, or imagined audience, because this might also help us think about why the portraits changed so much.
SS: I noticed that there were some children’s books in the exhibit, like Echogee, the Little Blue Deer, by Acee Blue Eagle. Were these books specifically published for Native American children, or did other children have access to them?  Did they function as oral storytelling, to pass on stories and values to the next generations?

KV: There are many children’s and young adult books. Charles Eastman wrote specifically for young adults (not all but most of his books) with the intention of educating white American children, not Native children. If you think about it from a Native perspective it makes a lot of political sense to write to the youngest generations of white Americans IF you are aiming to make cultural and ultimately political changes.

SS: Waterlily is a relatively modern and fictional work that claims to describe the daily life for Native American tribes from the times when settler were arriving.  How accurate are these fictional works? What can they teach the reader about the history and values of these tribes?

KV: Well, Waterlily was printed well after it was originally written. It was actually written back in the 1930s but not published for public consumption until the 1980s. So it actually isn’t that recent although it is modern. Since it was fictional but written by Ella Deloria who studied as an anthropologist (with Franz Boas at Columbia actually) and who worked among several Native tribes from the first half of the 20th century I would think that a lot of it could be accurate, or at least accurate in capturing the sentiments of her subjects and herself in her work. I think Native literature, from all time periods, has the potential to teach all of us a great deal about the past, present, and possible futures of Native peoples in the US.

SS: What do you most want visitors to know about this collection?

MK: The Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection is just the beginning of an ongoing commitment to the field of Native and Indigenous studies. We have already acquired hundreds of additional works that fill in the gaps and extend the scope of the collection. The collection includes three separate printings of Samson Occom’s Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul from 1772, 1788, and 1805; last fall we purchased an 1827 edition of this sermon printed in Welsh. We also purchased a group of 500 books from the personal library of Joseph Bruchac, a major writer and editor of Native literature. Basically, if there is a book by a Native writer that we do not already own, we want to acquire a copy for the collection. We make no distinctions based on genre or literary quality – we want the good, the bad, and everything in between.

LB: One of the most important things that this Collection demonstrates – something that Native authors themselves have been saying for a long time – is that the writings of indigenous people in the Americas are as diverse and complex as its Native nations. The Collection demonstrates that diversity in its writers, the kinds of publications it includes, and the multiple purposes and points-of-view of its authors. The beauty of the collection is its stunning range. For me, there is such promise in being able to compare and put in conversation innumerable writers across regions, time periods, political perspectives, etc. Nearly any stereotype a person has about Native American will be busted up by the writers in this collection, including the notion that Native Americans do not or did not write…

During the summer, the Frost Library Digital Programs Department has been working on creating digital projects based on the Younghee Kim-Wait Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. One of the people working on the projects is Matthew Randolph, a current Amherst College student.

Matthew Randolph (MR): The Amherst College Library’s Digital Programs Department has already started digitizing the earliest works from the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection of Native American Literature for ACDC, or Amherst College Digital Collections (https://acdc.amherst.edu/). In addition to this digitization initiative, Digital Programs also coordinated a 2014 summer internship that granted a small group of Amherst students the opportunity to explore the possibilities of digital scholarship. These digital projects will be presented on a website, called DH* Blueprints, to serve as models for students and scholars at Amherst and beyond. On the website, you’ll also find documentation on the technical and research processes behind the digital projects. The website is intended to serve as a resource that introduces people who are unfamiliar with the digital humanities to significant debates, concepts, terms, tools, and methods in the field.
To see the digital projects featuring some pieces in the collection, as well as links to the entire catalog and some digitized works, click the following link: https://blogs.ats.amherst.edu/teachingdigitalhumanities/

1887 edition of “History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan” by Andrew J. Blackbird.

“Land of the Spotted Eagle” was written by Chief Standing Bear to describe the Lakota culture to which he belonged.

“Queen of the Woods,” by Chief Simon Pokagon, includes a brief description of the Potawatomi (or Algaic) language.

“Sketches of ancient history of the Six Nations” includes four woodcuts: a war dance, Stonish giants, and more.

“Old Indian Legends” is a semi-autobiographical work by Zitkala-Sa. A 1921 edition has her signature in it. (see AC Archives)

“Echogee: the little blue deer” tells the story of Echogee, a deer who wants to see the world, to a young audience.

“For Indians Only” by Robert Freeman is actually a joke book composed mostly by illustrations.

This edition of “Old Indian Legends” includes illustrations by Angel De Cora. This illustration depicts a sign of gratitude.

In 1926, Gertrude Bonnin, aka Zitkala-Sa, founded The National Council of American Indians. This edition has her signature.

“History and Legends of the Creek Indians of Oklahoma” contains several pieces of folklore and history of the area.

Experience of five Christian Indians of the Pequod tribe tells the story of William Apess, his wife Mary Apess, and others.

Also by William Apess, “Eulogy on King Philip” was published in 1836. The image here is “King Philip dying for his country.”

An address to the whites was actually a speech given by Elias Boudinot in Philadelphia on May 26, 1826.

Published in 1958, Paint the Wind contains many color paintings by Beatien Yazz.

Stephanie Sosa is an Editorial Assistant at The Common.

Words Often Unheard

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