Narrating Black Hawk: Indian wars, memory, and Midwestern identity

Michael J. Sherfy
Dept. of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
July, 2005


My project discusses how individual Native Americans are constructed and re-constructed as historical subjects over time and argues also that the 'imagined Indians' who emerge from this process become readily enmeshed in notions of regional identity. Using the example of Black Hawk, a nineteenth-century Sauk leader, I illustrate how Native people are especially prone to both conscious and unconscious manipulation in historical memory---and incorporation into regional identity on terms other than their own---due to the lack of conventional and unmediated written sources presented from their own perspective. What historians are often left with is an archive of problematic sources that consists of very nearly all that is known about a Native person---even though this archive may deal with only a very small portion of that person's life. In this dissertation I analyze how this limited archive was later used to produce and re-produce narratives which cast Black Hawk in several different---and often contradictory---roles and discuss how each narrative has impacted upon others to eventually produce the 'Black Hawk' (or, more precisely, the 'Black Hawk's) that we know today. In doing so, I describe also complex role of Black Hawk and other Native people in the formation of a distinctly 'Midwestern' regional identity.