Monday, March 12, 2012

Samson Occom (Mohegan)

Thinking about that Arizona curriculum law (see Jan. 27 post), I wonder if I would have been able to teach the works of Samson Occom, a Mohegan American Indian (not Mohican or Mahican), in Arizona public school American literature classes.  Occom’s “A Short Narrative of My Life” might be construed as promoting “resentment” toward both white people and native people, while his sermon at the execution of Moses Paul most certainly can be read as reinforcing the inferiority of his own ethnic group.  “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to” control!

Just as Shakespeare’s The Tempest is full of political ambiguity (see previous posts), so also may be the works of history’s victims.  So-called “oppression” studies may be more complicated than simple-minded legislators think.

The personal narrative convention was well-established in 1768, when Occom wrote his.  The spiritual autobiography, or conversion narrative, was a staple of the New England Puritans, and the captivity narrative became a popular form during the Indian Wars of the 17th century (see Feb. 12, 2010, post).

Given the familiarity of the captivity narrative, in which Indians were represented as savages, the penning of a personal narrative by a native person could be viewed as an inherent rebuttal of the “barbaric” Indian stereotype, especially since it begins as a spiritual autobiography, recounting his upbringing as a “heathen,” his conversion to Christianity, and his licensing as a missionary to his own people.  As Occom relates his advancement as a teacher and preacher to native folk, his narrative begins to anticipate the success story, made famous by Benjamin Franklin (see Mar. 12, 2010, post).  However, Occom turns the conventionally affirmative personal narrative into a form of protest literature, noting how much less he is paid compared to his white counterparts.

“So I am ready to Say, they have used me thus, because I Can’t Influence the Indians so well as other missionaries; but I can assure them I have endeavored to teach them as well as I know how;--but I must Say, ‘I believe it is because I am a poor Indian.” I Can’t help that God has made me So; I did not make my self so.__” (original caps & spelling)

Note how his indictment of his white employers is accompanied by an apology for his ethnicity.  Thus, while his narrative might be construed as promoting “resentment” against white people and as a refutation of the “savage” image of Indians, its apologetic tone could be read as reinforcement of native peoples’ inferiority and of white supremacy.  Does the ambiguity make it acceptable to teach under Arizona law or does it expose the inadequacy and ignorance of that law?

 Occom’s execution sermon was so well received by his white audience that he was urged to publish it, which he did in 1772.  Both whites and native people flocked to hear a famous Indian preacher deliver the sermon at the hanging of his fellow tribesman Moses Paul on Sept. 2, 1771.  Angry at being thrown out of a tavern for drunkenness, Paul had laid in wait and murdered the next person to leave, who turned out to be a prominent white citizen.

Occom’s sermon conforms to the standard pattern of text-propositions-application.  What is unusual is that when he gets to the application, he speaks separately to his different audiences—to “My poor unhappy Brother Moses”; to his white superiors, “reverend gentlemen and fathers of Israel”; and to his native listeners, “My poor Kindred.”  His sermon thus becomes a rhetorical case study as he adjusts his message and his style to each audience, acting as a minister to Moses, calling on him to repent and save his soul; as humble servant to the white clergy, calling on them to bring the full force of their authority and power to fight sin and evil; and as temperance reformer to his native “brethren,” calling on them to give up the sin of drunkenness that they may be saved. 

His deference to his white superiors is noticeable in comparison to his authoritative tone toward native people.  He thereby reinforces white supremacy, and, no doubt, by perpetuating the stereotype of the “drunken Indian,” promotes “resentment” toward that race.

One of the effects of oppression is the internalization of inferiority on the part of the oppressed.  Thus their writings may reinforce their own oppression, even sometimes in the same text in which they protest it.

Arizona’s short-sighted curriculum law does not even begin to appreciate the complexities and ambiguities of what they seek to prohibit.