Navigating Two Worlds: Samson Occom and William Apess

I am always amazed at the similarities between texts in class. I pair texts together for a reason, but it is always satisfying when other similarities and points of discussion arise between paired texts. This happens all of the time, and when I taught Samson Occom (Mohegan) and William Apess (Pequod) last week, new aspects arose that strengthened reading the two authors, separated by about sixty years, together.

Specifically, what came to the forefront during my discussion of Occom and Apess was the ways that both worked to navigate a culture that expected one thing from them, and expected to see them in a specific way, and how both worked to maintain a Native American identity to preach to others in their own communities. Scholars such as Dana Nelson, Bernard Pyer, Barry O’Connell, and Maureen Konkle point these aspects out. Today, I want to focus on a couple of items from both Occom and Apess that link the two writers and also highlight the liminal spaces they ultimately occupied.

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Samson Occom

Ostensibly, Occom’s Narrative is a conversion narrative; however, he flips the script near the end of the short account of his conversion by questioning the supposed “Christian” nature of those whites who were supposed to help him. Occom begins his 1768 Autobiographical Narrative (which wasn’t published until 1982) with “I was Born a Heathen and Brought up In Heathenism till I was between 16 & 17 Years of age” (379). Here, he placates his audience by noting that he came into this world a “heathen,” thus uncivilized and in need of salvation. He follows this path throughout most of the Narrative, writing about his conversion then education.

In the last section that chronicles his leaving Eleazar Wheelock to his trip to Europe, Occom turns the beginning on its head. He does not call the whites “heathens” like David Walker does, but he paints them in a negative light, not as saviors but as conquerors who only seek to use Occom as a “token” Native American for their own gain. He writes against his treatment and pay compared with the treatment and pay of white missionaries. Concluding the Narrative, Occom writes,

So I am ready to Say, they have usd thus, because I Cant Instruct the Indians so well as other Missionaries, but I Can assure them I have endeavourd to them as well as I how-but I must Say, I believe it is because I am poor Indian. I Can’t help that God has made me So; I did not make my self So.– (385)

While the opening takes on a tone of a person needing to be saved, the conclusion fights back against those “saviors” who thought that Occom could not minister as well to Native Americans as others because of his background. This is the contentious tightrope that Occom, and Apess, had to walk. The wanted to minister to their communities after their conversions, but they both experienced push back and dismissal.

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William Apess

Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” (1833) appeared at the end of his The Experiences of Five Christian Indians pf the Pequot Tribe, which is important. Like Occom, Apess, and those he ministered to, experienced discrimination and dismissal because they were Native Americans and not white. For Apess, a good example of this can be see in Louise Park’s letter from 1832. (I am not going to talk about this here, but Maureen Konkle talks about in Writing Indian Nations if you would like to find out more.) This perception also appears in Hannah Caleb’s and Anne Wampy’s conversion experiences.

Caleb’s assertion of the ways that whites treat her mirrors, almost exactly, Occom’s final lines from his Narrative. Before her conversion, Caleb talks about the ways that thought about white “Christians.” She says,

And not only so, the poor Indians, the poor Indians, the people to whom I was wedded by the common ties of nature, were set at naught by those noble professors of grace, merely because we were Indians–and I had to bear a part with them, being of the same coin, when in fact, with the same abilities, with a white skin, I should have been looked upon with honor and respect. (145)

Caleb, like Occom, notes that she gets treated as an inferior person because she does not have white skin. If she did, she would be “looked upon with honor and respect.” This thought occurs before her conversion, but even though it appears there, it does not mean that her thoughts have changed. She realizes, even after her conversion, the discrepancies in white Christianity.

Wampy’s narrative is similar to Caleb’s, and she continually states that she did not like Christians because of their attitudes and treatment of Native Americans. However, she eventually converts, and when she does, she wishes she “could talk like white folks, me would tell everybody how I love Jesus” (152). This statement does not mean that she wants to be like the whites she describes earlier; it means that she wants to spread the gospel to others like herself. This is the struggle that Occom, Apess, Caleb, Wampy, and others encountered: How do they convert? How do they respond to white “Christians”? How do they minister to their Native American communities? They become hybrids, navigating this space.

After Wampy’s narrative, we get Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” a print sermon that calls whites to task for the way they treat Native Americans, blacks, and other groups. Apess takes what I have been discussing from Occom, Caleb, and Wampy, and converts it to a damning sermon that turns, as David Walker does, the Bible back upon the “Christians,” pointing out the absurdity of some of the things that they say. I do not have space to go into this text here, but follow the link above to read it.

In conclusion, it needs to be noted that the title page for The Experiences of Five Christian Indians pf the Pequot Tribe contains The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). With this addition, Apess forefronts that he wants to minister to people, specifically other Native Americans. I would even say that, in light of “An Indian’s Looking Glass,” that Apess uses the passage ironically by preaching to supposed “Christians” who mistreat him and others.

These thoughts are in no way comprehensive; they are very preliminary. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Apess, William. The Experience of Five Christian Indians pf the Pequot Tribe. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Ed. Barry O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. 119-161.

Occom, Samson. Autobiographical Narrative, Second Draft. America Literature. Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, and Hilary E. Wuss. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2014. 378-385..

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3 thoughts on “Navigating Two Worlds: Samson Occom and William Apess

  1. Great post! I have not yet read most of the others you mention here, but I have read some of Occom’s journals, letters and sermons. I think, even beyond pointing a Biblical mirror back at the white “Christians” to show their lack thereof, Occom sometimes went a step further and pointed out the natural “Christian” nature within the “heathen” Indians.

    In his sermon from May 13, 1787*, he discusses the story of the Good Samaritan and how although he was not a Jew he acted with love towards his neighbor. He then points out that, “This is very remarkable among the Indian Heathen in this great continent they discover this noble human self love, they are very compassionate one to another, very liberal among themselves, and also to strangers, when there is scarsity of Food amongst them, them will yet divide what little they have if there is but a mouth full a piece, and when any of kills any creature, they will equally divide it amongst them all and when they have plenty especially in what they got in hunting and fishing, and when anyone is destitude of a blanket, he that has two, will freely give him one, and they are very kind to one another in sickness, and they weep with them that weep This I take to be a human love or being neighbourly, according to our Text.”

    Not only did he see that many whites were Christian in name only, he saw that ironically, it was the “Heathen savage” that acted the most Christian..

    *From the Joanna Brooks book, The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I totally concur. Apess writes in the same manner. He also writes about his Aunt Sally George who lead worship services in the forest. Now that I think about it, this maneuver relates to what you are pointing to in regards to Apess, that the “heathen savage” acted the most Christian.

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  2. Pingback: Robert Hayden’s “A Letter From Phillis Wheatley, London 1773” | Interminable Rambling

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