meghan howey on historic american indian authors and the discourse of ‘origins’


It is however, still a matter, of doubt and perplexity; it is a book sealed to the eyes of man, for the time has not yet come when the Great Ruler of all things, in His wisdom, shall make answer through his inscrutable ways to the question which has puzzled, and still puzzles the minds of the learned civilized world. How came America to be first inhabited by man?

William W. Warren, History of the Ojibway People

This quote from William Whipple Warren invites us into the topic of this essay: the ways American Indian authors, particularly three contemporary Anishinaabeg writers, engaged with the question of Native American origins during the racially polarized project of “imagining” the nation of the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Answering the question of origins was central to continued colonization in North America; quite simply, Native people had to be explained to be superseded. Since first contact, European Americans have presented myriad answers to the question, How came America to be first inhabited by humans? With the rising importance of print capitalism in postrevolutionary America, explanations of Native origins became widely disseminated and consumed by the public and politicians alike. The accessibility of these theories directly influenced nineteenth-century popular sentiments about American Indians and colonial policies regarding their future. This was most notable with regard to removal policies, which were aimed at accomplishing one of the essential components of the colonial project of the United States, the territorial dispossession of Indian lands. This process was vital to the colonial project, and it stood in stark opposition to the fact that it was on the well-being of indigenous lands that the very survival of indigenous peoples depended. Having answers to the question of Native origins that challenged the magnitude, duration, and even the very legitimacy of Native Americans’ presence and tenure in America offered powerful colonial tools for furthering tribal land dispossession.

In this essay I argue that American Indian authors had a keen understanding of the political and racial implications the varied answers European Americans were offering about their origins held for their communities. By tackling dominant origin theories, they interrupted the white-supremacist discourse surrounding the topic. Their answers were crafted delicately so as to be salient to their predominantly white audiences and yet also actively promote indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty inherent in peoplehood. This peoplehood was “inseparably linked to sacred traditions, traditional homelands, and a shared history as indigenous people.” With the ongoing colonial project of the United States attempting to strip indigenous groups of key aspects of their peoplehood, including language, sacred history, religion, and land, through “the means of territorial dispossession, assimilation, religious conversion, or outright extermination,” we can understand their answers, which sought to protect this peoplehood, as bold acts of resistance.

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