Native Americans Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Native Americans

Recovering 17th-century Indigenous lives and voices

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?

woman with long dark hair wearing a red collarless shirt while smiling
Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens

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.

woman with long blonde hair wearing glasses and a green top
Kristina Bross

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.

woman with long brown hair wearing glasses and a blue top
Marie Balsley Taylor

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.

title page of 1653 edition of Tears of Repentance
Eliot, John. Tears of Repentance. London, 1653. Call number: *KC 1653 (Eliot). Rare Book Collection. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

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.

title page of 1671 edition of Indian Dialogues
Eliot, John. Indian Dialogues. Cambridge, 1671. Call number: *KD 1671 (Eliot). Rare Book Collection. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

“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.

partial image of a Wampanoag dwelling made of bark and tree limbs
A bark-covered Wampanoag nush wetu or house with three fire pits. Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums.

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.


Choctaw treasures: From New France to Old France

Indigenous tribes across North America are increasingly invested in discovering the whereabouts of ancestral artifacts – sacred and everyday – that European explorers and colonizers took, sometimes by force, and deposited in collections back home across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they locate such objects, including human remains, many tribes are asking for them to be repatriated, while others want to study these various elements of their cultural patrimony as a way of re-engaging with and reviving past practices.

Woman with long dark hair wearing a black blazer and smiling
Cady Shaw (BA ’99), director of curation at the Choctaw Cultural Center

In 2016, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) reached out to representatives of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, France, to discuss items in their extensive global-cultures collection that might be Choctaw in origin. Those discussions led to Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma representatives examining virtually some of the Choctaw items in the Parisian collection and using them as the basis for creating replicas for display at the soon-to-open Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, Oklahoma.

TU communications alumna Cady Shaw (BA ’99) is both a member of the Choctaw Nation and the director of curation for the Choctaw Cultural Center. Drawing on her long professional history of Indigenous cultural interpretation, programming and museum administration, Shaw oversees the center’s collections, archives and exhibits, including collaborations with external organizations. “Working to tell the Choctaw Story and preserve it is an incredible honor,” Shaw remarked. “I’m very much looking forward to the Choctaw Cultural Center opening to the public this summer and being able to see visitors experience this special place we’ve built.”

Princely curiosity, Choctaw patrimony

One of Shaw’s current projects involves liaising with her counterparts at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac who received a grant to support further research on the Choctaw items in their collection as well to mount an exhibition and programming that includes them. It is planned that the exhibition – “The Curiosity of a Prince” – will open to the public at the Municipal Library of Versailles once COVID-19 has abated.

woman wearing a black mask and blue gloves while handling a small metal pot
Cady Shaw handles an iron cooking pot brought to Indian Territory by Choctaw citizens during the removal from their homelands in the Southeastern United States. (Photo by Chris Jennings – Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

The prince in question is Charles-Philippe, Count of Artois, the younger brother of King Louis XVI. Beginning in 1785, he began assembling a “cabinet of curiosities” filled with natural and human-made objects from around the world. These included items from various corners of France’s global colonial empire, which, until 1803, included the vast territory known as Louisiana, part of the ancestral home of many Choctaw people. In an essay published to coincide with the French exhibition, which Shaw helped to coauthor, it is observed that “acquiring knowledge about Indigenous communities was integral to European empire-making and Choctaws were no exception. . . . Across the globe, European empires collected items and featured them in curiosity cabinets and later in museums and universities.”

Some of the notable Choctaw items held by the Municipal Library of Versailles and set to appear in the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac exhibition are moccasins made out of bear paws and deer hide; a headdress made of bison and deer hide, birch bark, metal, wood, deer hair and raven, jay and turkey feathers; and a complete gar fish that was preserved and fashioned into a quiver to hold blowgun darts.

“While staff at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac are creating the exhibition,” Shaw noted, “the Choctaw Cultural Center was able to help curate the exhibit featuring  the Choctaw objects.”

“The education I received at TU has been invaluable throughout my career. From the PR classes in communications to the western history classes, each helped inform where I am today.

“I was deeply influenced by Professor James Ronda of the Department of History and Professor John Coward of the Department of Communications. Their passion for Native American history and representation always stuck with me, and their instruction ignited the passion in me to change course in my career and pursue work in history and museums.

“I still talk to Professor Coward today. In fact, he recently sent me a picture of one of my essays he had kept. It’s rare that a professor can still inspire you 20-plus years later and, in my experience, TU has many such professors.” – Cady Shaw (BA ’99)

a poster written in French saying Curiosité d'un Prince and depicting a Choctaw Indian headdress
Marketing poster for “La Curiosité d’un Prince,” a collaborative exhibition between the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, OK, the Musee du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Municipal Library of Versailles. Note: Due to COVID-19, the date of the exhibition has changed from what is shown on this original design.

What this means in practice is that Shaw has participated in virtual meetings dating back to 2019 regarding the exhibition and has given input on its content and design aspects, including which items to showcase and images to use. She has also written an online essay, which will appear soon on the French museum’s website, about the Choctaw Cultural Center and how this exchange of information has led to items being recreated for display in that space.

Indeed, the Versailles exhibition’s marketing poster features a feathered headdress that is believed to be Choctaw in origin from the 1700s. This headdress was used by modern Choctaw artisans to recreate a similar piece that will be on display in the Choctaw Cultural Center.

“We would like to express our gratitude to the whole team at the Choctaw Cultural Center for their investment, ideas, creativity and the will to share with us their knowledge and feelings regarding the objects and their history,” said Paz Núñez-Regueiro, the head curator of the Americas at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. “We feel very privileged to be conducting this project with the Choctaw Nation.”

Ancestral traditions and national sovereignty

Beyond historical interest, the Choctaw Nation is invested in reconnecting with Choctaw items residing outside the community in order, Shaw noted, “to reclaim and revitalize our ancestral knowledge and traditions.” According to Shaw, “Being able to reconnect with those items has allowed Choctaw makers and artists to recreate cultural practices that hadn’t been seen or created by Choctaws in hundreds of years. It helps our tribe fill in cultural information that empowers us to tell a more complete story of who our ancestors were.” A prime example of this is the headdress mentioned earlier, which served as the model for a recreated piece made for a Lifecast figure to wear at the Choctaw Cultural Center.

Choctaw headdress made of feathers, leather and other items
Feather headdress created by Choctaw artist Les Williston in 2019 for display at the Choctaw Cultural Center. It is made of leather, red fox, bear and bison hides, along with the assorted eagle, hawk and buzzard feathers. Williston’s design was heavily influenced by and based on an original headdress dating from the 1700s held in the collections of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.

When Choctaw people today learn about their ancestors’ techniques and, thereby, contribute to the revitalization of the tribe’s traditional arts, this “enriches our culture and our knowledge of our ancestors,” Shaw remarked. “It is important for us to make those connections to Choctaw cultural knowledge and production techniques from the past and preserve them for the future.”

Alongside this issue of cultural patrimony, there is also a political dimension to the work Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center are carrying out. This involves her people’s sovereignty and the concept of geopolitical relationships. In this regard, Shaw underscored, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a sovereign nation, meaning the Choctaws have the power to govern themselves. “As is our inherent right,” she continued, “we have had a nation-to-nation relationship with France for over 250 years and it is revitalized today by this partnership with the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. This exchange of knowledge and partnership is helping strengthen those relationships and elevating our partnership.”

From Durant to Paris and back

Looking to the future, Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center hope, once it is safe, to be able to travel to France to visit the exhibition and take part in the adjacent cultural programming. Back home in Oklahoma, they also foresee at some point being able to bring the Choctaw part of the exhibition to Durant so that members of the tribe and others can enjoy and learn from these remarkable material witnesses of Choctaw life centuries ago.

Are you fascinated by the idea of researching and curating the objects and histories of cultures near and far? If so, you’ll want to learn more about TU’s interdisciplinary master’s program in museum science and management.