Relatively recent scholarly and political developments in the United States and many other parts of the world have produced widespread interest in the history and words of Indigenous peoples and the history of settler colonialism. Here in Oklahoma, for instance, people from all walks of life and government are dealing with the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s affirmation of Muscogee national sovereignty in the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision. In addition, what meanings – political, cultural – attach to the marking in late November 2022 of the four hundredth anniversary of the first Thanksgiving?
Turning back the hands of time nearly four centuries, the part of the U.S. now known as New England constituted one of the first areas of sustained and intense contact between colonists and Indigenous peoples. For the past several years, Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens and two colleagues – Kristina Bross at Purdue University and Marie Balsley Taylor at the University of North Alabama – have been engaged in research that combines literary, anthropological and historical analysis focused on understanding that era and its cross-cultural encounters.
At the center of their work is an eclectic group of writings published in England between 1643 and 1671. These tracts were written by Puritan ministers who were preaching to and endeavoring to convert Wampanoag, Nipmuck and other Algonquian communities. The goal of the publications was to raise funds and good will back in England for the missionaries’ work.
In 2022, Stevens, Bross and Taylor will publish a scholarly edition of two of these tracts with Broadview Press. In addition to the annotated seventeenth-century texts, the volume will possess an extensive introduction, including discussions of the Native peoples of New England, and 18 appendices, such as information about Indigenous peoples’ kinship networks and excerpts from other contemporary writings having to do with exploration, conquest and missionizing by the Dutch, French and Spanish.
According to Stevens, the project’s goal is “to provide a carefully annotated resource for scholars, incorporating the latest research in colonial history and Indigenous studies.” The team is also seeking to open new doors for students in literature, history and other disciplines to appreciate the complexities of colonial encounters through a highly readable edition.
Windows onto the past
The first tract Stevens and her co-editors are including is called Tears of Repentance. Published in 1653 and written by the ministers John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew Jr., this widely read document features the “confessions” of 14 Native men seeking approval from the white ministry to found their own church. According to Stevens, Bross and Taylor, the Native men’s speeches respond in “creative and conflicted ways” to the pressures that English settler colonialism was exerting on their resources, kinship structures, moral codes, spiritual outlooks and emotions.
The second publication included in their anthology is from 1671. Authored solely by Eliot, it is entitled Indian Dialogues. Within the tract’s pages are three dialogues between Indigenous people who have accepted Christianity and others who have not.
With Tears of Repentance, Stevens explains, “we encounter some of the earliest and most extensive recordings of seventeenth-century Indigenous voices.” Despite the authors’ colonizing aims, careful reading, she argues, provides “unique insight” into Indigenous cultural and religious practices. Indian Dialogues, meanwhile, is clearly a “fictional account” that deploys more forthrightly elements of plot, character and narration.
By publishing these tracts alongside each other, Stevens and her co-editors hope readers will be able more clearly to see the structural and formal differences between historical accounts and historical fiction. This is one of the topics – addressed through attention to literary production, form and audience — the editors discuss at length in their introduction. “It’s important to stress that this project stands at the nexus of research and teaching,” Stevens noted.
Ancient voices, desires and disruptions
For Stevens and her colleagues, one of the most exciting elements of their project has been tuning in, as it were, to the voices of Indigenous people that have been silenced by victorious settler colonialism.
“Many scholars, including me, have mined Eliot’s and other related tracts in the so-called Indian Library for information about the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies, in addition to shedding some light on their relations with the Native communities they sought to subjugate and convert,” Bross commented. “In a sense, this project is a response to the limitations of my earlier scholarship, an expansion of my vision made possible by collaborations with Marie and Laura, among others. Building on such previous work, our focus is on how, within these tracts, one can see and hear New England’s Indigenous peoples themselves.”
Accomplishing this goal requires extensive knowledge of the Indigenous cultures the English encountered and an awareness of the prejudices that shaped the missionaries’ writing. “Both parties brought desires and fears to their interactions with each other,” noted Stevens. “We believe that these publications offered unparalleled access to discerning those long-ago states of mind and being.”
Stevens and her co-investigators emphasize that the process of ascertaining those Indigenous perspectives must be approached with care, keeping in mind that the tracts speeches were translated from Wampanoag into English, were transcribed by English ministers and were printed by English people for an English audience. “We are especially attentive to moments in the speeches that disrupt what we know a Puritan English audience would have wanted to see and hear,” said Taylor. One example of this is a speaker named Monequassun, who talks about what a hard time he had cutting his hair and then describes himself “grieving” for his hair after he cut it. Explained Stevens, “this kind of departure from the usual language of Puritan conversion offers an important clue for us to explore as we try to understand and represent Monequassun’s values and world view.”
Laura Stevens is a past president of the Society of Early Americanists and a specialist on English colonial encounters and writings about the First Peoples of the eastern seaboard. In addition, she is the principal investigator on a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge project aimed at discovering the names and identities of the young women who attended TU’s precursor institution, the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls.
It is also crucial to realize where and how English desires shaped these texts and their representations of Native peoples, Bross noted. “There is, for example, a notorious moment in the third of the Indian Dialogues, when two Massachusett converts talk with ‘Philip Keitasscot,’ a figure clearly modeled on the historical figure Metacom, or King Philip, whom Eliot was hoping to convert to Puritan Christianity along with an acceptance of English hegemony in the region.” Four years later, however, Philip led a Native insurrection in King Philip’s War, the most deadly war per capita in the history of the U.S.
“So, here we have a dramatic example of English desires leading to a dramatic misrepresentation of Native perspectives,” Stevens cautioned. “That kind of error – an error of colonizing fantasy, really – needs to be marked as such for our readers.”
Reading for Indigenous perspectives
To read for Indigenous perspectives requires the realization that Puritan missionaries were not just asking Wampanoag, Nipmuck and other Native peoples to alter their religious beliefs and rituals. “They demanded a thorough transformation of the self, community and culture, with new clothing, new hairstyles, new family structures and new gender roles,” Taylor explained.
By way of illustration, the editors point to the episode in which Monesquassun was told to cut his hair. On the surface a simple act, this Indigenous leader was actually being told to understand his masculinity and his identity in an entirely new way. And, as Stevens and her colleagues point out, accompanying these cultural demands of course were other pressures – and devastating effects — on Native land and resources.
“What we are seeing in the Wampanoag confessions, therefore, is not just a process of choosing one belief system over another,” Stevens emphasized. “We are watching people struggle with incredibly hard decisions about how they should move forward with their lives in a setting of incredible turbulence and loss.”
Next steps: Consulting with Native Americans today
While their quest to find Indigenous perspectives from the 17th century is driven by literary, cultural and historical scholarship, a further major component for Stevens, Taylor and Bross is consultation with relevant Native communities today.
“This project is moving slowly,” Stevens noted, “because we want to make sure it proceeds with the input and approval of Indigenous linguists, historical preservation officers and other knowledge keepers.” In addition, the team’s research will require extensive conversations and site visits, the kind of work that the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily made impossible.
To these ends, Stevens and her colleagues are beginning the process of reaching out to Native communities and planning a highly anticipated visit to southern New England. The purpose of this travel is to confer with representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe as well as visit their museum and other key experts and sites.
Archival research and discovery are mainstays of literary and cultural studies. If you are fascinated by past lives, communities and writings, graduate studies in TU’s vibrant, welcoming Department of English and Creative Writing could be an ideal choice for you.