Penn Library

CULTURAL READINGS: Colonization & Print in the Americas


Introduction to "Words and Deeds: Natives, Europeans, and Writing in Eastern North America, 1500-1850"

An exhibition at The Rosenbach Museum & Library, November 25, 1997 - March 8, 1998

Karim M. Tiro, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania

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Note: Links in this essay refer to related pages in the exhibition.

"When [the Indians] talke amongst themselves of the English ships, and great buildings,
of the plowing of their Fields, and especially of Bookes and Letters, they will end thus:
Manittowock They are Gods: Cummanitoo, you are a God, &c."
-- Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (1643)

"Being all Stripped as Naked as We were Born, and endeavoring to hide our Nakedness,
these Cannaballs took [our] Books, and tearing out the Leaves would give each of us
a Leaf to cover us; which We took from them: at which time they would deride and smite us;
and instantly another of them would snatch away what the other gave us, smiting and deriding us withal.
-- Jonathan Dickinson, God's Protecting Providence, Man's Surest Help and Defence (1699)

These conflicting, problematic descriptions of early Native encounters with the written word encourage us to reflect on the role of literacy in the colonization of North America. For Indians and whites alike, literacy appears to have been an early marker of cultural difference. Although Roger Williams was a sympathetic observer of Indian ways, his passage indicates above all the contribution that literacy made to Europeans' feelings of cultural superiority. It is unlikely that the Indians Williams met mistook the English for gods; rather, they acknowledged that the "Bookes and Letters" themselves manifested an abundance of manitou, the spiritual power that suffuses things in varying degrees. The Indians were impressed by books as works of fine craftsmanship, and by the ability of the leaves to 'speak'. However, Native recognition of manitou was not necessarily a mark of approbation, because manitou was ambivalent power. It could be creative, but it could be destructive as well. Their assessment proved to be close to the mark.

Books played a different role in Jonathan Dickinson's narrative of his band of shipwrecked Englishmen and women and their slaves in Florida. Drawing upon already well-established conventions in writing about Indians, Dickinson described his captors as "vehemently foaming at the Mouth, like wild Boars"-a description that certainly prevents us from accepting his account at face value. If at all accurate, however, Dickinson recorded a less reverential attitude toward the book and its users on the part of the Natives. Through observation of Spanish missionaries on the Florida coast, these Indians were probably familiar with the book's symbolic and practical significance to Europeans.

Europeans made extensive use of the pen and the press in promoting their colonial enterprises. The literature of colonization accordingly spanned many genres. Narratives of exploration were crucial to arousing European interest in America in the first place, and images of Indians as 'savages' in need of 'civilizing' lent legitimacy to their imperial projects. Emigration tracts recruited thousands from western and central Europe to settle the so-called 'Virgin Land'. Missionary Bibles, catechisms, and hymnals were weapons in Europeans' assaults on indigenous cultural beliefs. Captivity tales such as Dickinson's propagated representations of Indians that justified-or, more accurately, demanded-European aggression. And there is perhaps no more enduring symbol of Native American dispossession than the Indian treaty. The sheer number of texts produced is evidence of whites' contemporary concern over their relations with Indians. At the same time, there can be little doubt that those texts reflected the prejudices, fantasies, beliefs, and anxieties of the Europeans who successfully established themselves on Indian land.

There was no single Native response to the technology of writing. Some Natives actively sought literacy. The ability to read and write did not mark their assimilation into Euro-American society or compromise their identities as Indians. On the contrary, many Indians who took up writing used it as a resource for cultural revitalization, resistance, and self-representation. Some Indians undertook to develop writing systems for their own languages or to document oral traditions. Others-from a Cherokee reformer in Georgia to a Pequot preacher in New England-took up the pen to defend Native rights to land and self-determination before Euro-American audiences. In so doing, these Natives forced the dominant culture to acknowledge indigenous perspectives marginalized by mythic narratives of 'manifest destiny' or 'vanishing Indians', narratives that continue to exert influence today.

Many Natives self-consciously disdained the written word in favor of their oral traditions. Indians placed great value upon live testimony and personal experience. To them, written texts hopelessly lacked the vital power of the spoken word. For example, while the Seneca chief Red Jacket acknowledged the need for a cadre of literate Indians to guard against fraudulent treaties, he deemed writing a culturally inappropriate medium for Indian expression. He chided whites for trying to remake Indians in their own image and mocked what appeared to him to be a central component of Euro-Americans' sense of superiority. "You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit," he said. "If there is but one religion; why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the book?"

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