Sometimes the literature of a marginalized people shows up in the actual margins. Lists, recipes, compilations, and “commonplace” books — a type of journal that functioned like a 19th-century Pinterest board — are examples of “unlikely texts” that Kelly Wisecup, English, has found to be rich repositories of early American cultural transmission, particularly among North America’s indigenous populations.
These forms of communication, though abundant, can be so inconspicuous that they are virtually invisible, even to the eyes of a literary expert.
“This is an overlooked body of texts because scholars have assumed them to be nonliterary, unimaginative, and utilitarian,” says Wisecup, at work on her second book, Assembled Relations: Compilation, Collection, and Native American Writing. The project accelerated during her recent tenure as an Andrew W. Mellon/Lloyd Lewis Fellow at Chicago’s Newberry Library but was also informed by research in smaller tribal archives and discussions with contemporary tribal historians. “Lists are not sentences; they don’t have plots.” But she finds that lists do make meaning: by putting elements into proximity to one another, they engender a conversation within the same material space, whether on a page or in a museum.
These inventories can offer insights about how 18th- and 19th-century indigenous peoples engaged with — and resisted — US colonial forces. Colonialism exerted itself in many ways, including missionary schools, where native children were trained to embrace social conventions. Through quiet brutality, children were forced to stop speaking their own language and even to feel ashamed of their affection for absent parents. “This was a way of trying to break the family and cultural bonds,” says Wisecup. Students were instructed to master such literary forms as the sermon and autobiography. Wisecup has shown how native authors “transformed the conventions from inside so that their texts do very different things than intended by the original form.”
John Ridge, a Cherokee writer of the early 19th century, exemplified this dynamic tension. Educated at a missionary school in Connecticut, Ridge was a lawyer for the Cherokee nation during a time when the federal government was displacing native peoples through mechanisms such as the 1830 Indian Removal Act. By the end of the decade, some 4,000 Cherokees would die along the “Trail of Tears,” a forced march into lands west of the Mississippi. Wisecup found fascinating material in the written exchanges between Ridge and US statesman Albert Gallatin.
Gallatin’s government service included ethnographic work, such as an 1825 survey of the Cherokee. This fact-finding effort was partly scientific but also politically motivated, to gather intelligence and help the government understand “to whom debatable country belongs.” By collecting materials — tools, skulls, baskets, poetry — and arranging them into archives, Gallatin and others believed they would discover innate differences that might justify putting certain groups into different cultural categories and thus onto different land areas.
Gallatin sent Ridge a list of standardized questions about the Cherokee — are they Christian? Do they eat inside the house? “Gallatin wants to know how ‘savage’ they are,” says Wisecup. Ridge, though, takes up that list and critiques it from within, “rewriting it and choosing what information about the Cherokee he will put into his answer.” He reveals the Cherokee as a people with their own longstanding government, society, and ways of maintaining cultural memory — as subjects engaged in scientific pursuits, rather than objects of such inquiries.
“In taking up these forms,” says Wisecup, “they put them in communication with preexisting indigenous forms of communication, ways of knowledge, of telling stories.”
“This is Indian country, isn’t it?”
Wisecup’s academic interests have their origins in her own history. She grew up in Kansas, where her family had a framed copy of the 1862 Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres to any white settler willing to move west and farm the land for at least five years — something Wisecup’s ancestors did. She grew up reading Little House on the Prairie, a book where native people are mostly a shadowy presence. Wisecup identified with the uncomfortable questions raised by the book’s protagonist. One example stands out: Laura asks her mother, “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma? … This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
Wisecup is attuned to how her personal history influences how she enters scholarly conversations about native literature: “I am someone who was raised as a settler, a nonnative person in the US who grew up on Kansa and Osage lands, as an uninvited visitor on these lands.”
Such reflection extends from individuals to institutions — including academic ones — that are taking stock of their pasts. Inspired by student activists, Northwestern convened a task force in 2013 to examine the role of University founder John Evans in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The resulting report made recommendations on Native American diversity and inclusion, catalyzing the 2017 launch of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research as well as new faculty hires.
“Northwestern has moved astonishingly fast on this initiative,” says Wisecup, adding that the research center will generate important academic collaborations and help spark greater regional engagement with Native nations and organizations. She believes that academic institutions are experiencing a conciliatory moment.
“The key thing is not to think that reconciliation can lead to a kind of conclusion,” says Wisecup. “Rather, this is an ongoing process in which nonnative settlers — like myself — live with and acknowledge the effects of colonialism and acknowledge that native peoples have been living with them for hundreds of years.”