Red ink: Native Americans picking up the pen in the colonial period

Drew Lopenzina
Dept. of English, University of New Hampshire
July, 2006


This dissertation looks at the ways that Native Americans appropriated alphabetic literacy for their own purposes in the colonial period. Studies of Native writing tend to begin with the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom whose A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom (1772) is the first known publication by a Native author on the North American continent. This work, however, locates Occom near the end of a series of earlier Native contacts with the written word, the fragments of which are scattered throughout the archive of the colonizer. While scholars have become largely familiarized with the representational modes in American literature that force the Native figure into patterns of either assimilation or extinction, I complicate this paradigm by exploring the interventions of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Natives whose writings reflect active attempts at community building within traditional Native frameworks. I argue that once Native writings are removed from their colonized contexts and recentered in Native space, we begin to see how such notes, letters, fragments, written testimonies, and eventually, publications were composed in the service of survivance and continuance rather than as capitulations to the dominant culture. Too often the Native acquisition of literacy has been equated with being fitting into a cultural straight jacket, as though once the rhetorics of print discourse have been adopted, one can speak only through the colonizer's voice. Not until recently have some critics, articularly Native American scholars, come to question the interpretive utility of such convictions, and begun to think instead upon the contiguous line of Native tradition that runs from the era prior to colonization into the present day. I draw from the archival resources of both American and Native American Literature in an attempt to review the phenomena of colonization as a series of negotiations and survival strategies that can be more fully comprehended through a focused recognition of indigenous rhetorical and intellectual traditions. Rather than regarding the moment (or moments) of cultural contact as one in which European culture violently and tragically dismantles Native culture, I suggest how an understanding of this period must be complicated by a deeper recognition of the communitarian responses Native Americans were forging to European presence on indigenous soil.