Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature

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Copyright Kim Smith

I am currently teaching a 200-level topics course entitled “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” The class starts with excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted and ends Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this class, we take our definition of “protest literature” from John Stauffer’s foreword to American Protest Literature: Protest literature “critiques some aspect of society, but also suggests, either implicitly or explicitly, a solution to society’s ills” (xii). In class discussion and assignments, students analyze how protest literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “functions as a catalyst, guide, or mirror of social change” (xii). My syllabus includes literature of the American Revolution, the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as well as working class and American Indian literature from the antebellum era.

In the unit on “American Indian Rights,” the class considers the role of transcribed oral texts in the protest literature tradition of the United States. One of my favorite texts to teach in this unit is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.” Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a Seneca prophet whose teachings were passed down and later recorded by Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker in the early twentieth century. An excerpt of “How America Was Discovered” is found in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and can be incorporated into survey courses on early American and nineteenth-century American literature. I’ve also taught it in a topics course on “American Origin Stories.” The narrative is about one-page long and re-tells the well-known Columbus story from a Native perspective. Because it is short and seems to tell a familiar story, it is very accessible to students. However, the reading is incredibly rich and needs to be taught in the context of Handsome Lake’s revivalist religious movement.

Handsome Lake: Background and Context

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Some instructors may be hesitant to teach “How America Was Discovered” if they are not specialists in American Indian literature—which I am not. Indeed, teaching the cultural and tribal context of the literature is vital, as Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac reminds: “When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix” (39-40). I always have students read scholar Andrew O. Wiget’s introduction to Handsome Lake in the Health Anthology, and in class lecture, I provide additional information on Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion inspired by his visions and prophecies. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the course, I also have students read chapters from Bruchac’s Our Stories Remember to provide my students with a context for reading and approaching Native literature.

Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a leader in the League of Iroquois, a confederation of several tribes located in what is now upstate and central New York. After the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations as retribution for siding with the British. Removal from their homeland, disease, war, and  encroaching settlement by white colonists resulted in loss of cultural cohesion and autonomy. Due to so much change and loss in such a short period of time, some Iroquois turned to the alcohol introduced by whites, further eroding the traditional way of life.

Handsome Lake also succumbed to alcohol and illness, but had a powerful religious vision in 1799. Three messengers of the Creator—possibly representing three Quaker missionaries who were admired by the Iroquois—appeared to him in Iroquoian dress. From this vision, Handsome Lake developed the “Gaii’wiyo,” or the “Good Word” which centered on two teachings: Cede no more land to the whites and revitalize the old traditions. If not, destruction would soon follow. These visions were called the Code of Handsome Lake and developed into the Longhouse Religion, a combination of Quaker teachings and Iroquoian traditions. “How America Was Discovered” is just one prophecy from this code, published in 1923 in Parker’s Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. As Wiget explains in his introduction in the Heath Anthology, the narrative exposes the “Columbian consequences” of European exploration and colonization of the Americas.

“How America Was Discovered”: Summary and Analysis

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The story opens with a “great queen” who “had among her servants a young minister.” Students can always ascertain that the “great queen” refers to Isabella of Spain, yet as the narrative progresses, students find that the young minister is not Columbus. He does not enter the story until almost the end, thereby downplaying the centrality of Columbus to the European “discovery” of America. This counters the traditional American discovery story that most of my students learned in elementary school, of Columbus heroically “sailing the ocean blue” with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

The queen asks the young minister, to “dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest” where he finds a “wonderful book,” a reference to the Bible. Like Columbus himself, the importance of the Bible is also diminished in the discovery of America, discarded and apparently forgotten by even the Queen and her ministers. In this “wonderful book,” the young minister reads that it was the “white man” who “killed the son of the creator,” a direct reference to Christ. The Seneca probably would have known the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from their contact with Quaker missionaries. Nonetheless, in Handsome Lake’s version of the crucifixion, it is emphasized that white men kill Christ. The implied question remains: If the whites killed Jesus, then why should Indians be implicated in and beholden to the story of sin and repentance told through Jesus’s crucifixion?

The young minister reads that Jesus didn’t return “after three days and again after forty,” and that his followers despaired.  Instead of having faith, the young minister “was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived” and asks for advice from the “chief ministers.” They counsel him to “seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now.”

In his quest to find the Lord, the young minister eventually come to a gold palace with a “handsome man” who tells of “a great county of which you have never heard.” It is “across the ocean” and the young minister will receive fame and wealth if he will bring five things to the “honest and single-minded” people there: cards, money, the fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In other teachings, Handsome Lake warns against alcohol and gambling. The handsome man in this story hopes that the fiddle will speak to the base and lower natures of the innocent people across the ocean. Students may not understand that “blood corruption” is a reference to sexually transmitted disease, which could affect fertility and reproduction. Indeed, the handsome man explains that the blood corruption will “eat their strength and rot their bones,” a possible reference to the degenerative nature of syphilis.

Although the young minister is promised “wealth,” “position,” and “power” if he introduces these corrupting influences to the virtuous people, he is worried and begins to “wonder if he had seen the Lord.” But when the young minister warns Columbus to not seek this land, Columbus still decides to “fi[t] out some boats and sai[l] out into the ocean.” Although the other ministers have seen through the “handsome man’s guise,” Columbus does not. In Handsome Lake’s account of how America was discovered, Columbus is not a hero but rather a misguided, foolish young man who does not listen to those with more wisdom and experience. It turns out that “that land was America.” Soon, more ships with white men flood the new land, bringing “cards, money, fiddles, whiskey, and blood corruption.”

The handsome man who told the young minister about the innocent people of America was the devil, and “when afterward he saw what his words had done he said he had made a great mistake.” In short, the discovery of Americas by Europeans was not part of God’s providential design, but rather the work of devil. And even the devil regrets the evil that he caused by convincing the Europeans to go to the Americas.

With this narrative, Handsome Lake offers a “re-evaluation of Christian elements” and a “negative evaluation of the motive and influence of Europeans,” thereby exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Columbus story, one of the organizing myths of the United States.

Legacy and Present Day Connections

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Photo by Indian Country Today Media Network

Although Handsome Lake’s prophecies were never realized in his own time, they were an inspiration for other Native revitalization movements such as the Sun Dance of the Great Basin later in the nineteenth century.  Handsome Lake’s Longhouse Religion is still practiced today.

I try as much as I possibly can to responsibly teach what Bruchac calls the “cultural matrix” of tribal specificity, although I know I sometimes fall short due to my own lack of knowledge and cultural blind spots. I am always learning and trying to do better. However, I think that it is important for my non-Native students in rural north Texas to learn about Native resistance and protest as an on-going historical process, not a short-lived moment in the past or an isolated present day phenomena.

In the protest literature class, my students link Handsome Lake’s narrative to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, particularly Handsome Lake’s insistence that his people cede no more land to whites and the Dakota people’s protest of the environmental degradation that would be caused to their homelands as a result of the pipeline. In fact, some students note that in terms of pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation and the greed at the heart of America’s origins, Handsome Lake’s protest is needed now more than ever.

Questions for class discussion and assignments:

  1. What is the significance of downplaying the role of Columbus in “How America Was Discovered”?
  2. How does altering the American origin story help Handsome Lake achieve his religious and political purposes?
  3. What makes Handsome Lake’s story a form of “protest literature”?
  4. How can this narrative sharpen our thinking about present day protest movements and protest literature?

 

 

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Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

This fall, I’m teaching an upper-level literature course on nineteenth century American women writers. It’s a big class, full of mostly English and Gender Studies majors and minors. This is the second time I’ve taught this course, but the first time I’ve included Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.

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(Note: in the 19th century, the Ojibwe people were variously known as Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe is the name that is most in use now. Schoolcraft used the name “Ojibwe” to describe herself, so, following scholar Robert Dale Parker, that’s the word I’ll use too.)

Born in 1802, Schoolcraft (whose Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay, or “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky”) was one of a large métis (French for “mixed”) population in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, located on the border of the Michigan Territory and Canada. The daughter of an Irish immigrant and an Ojibwe mother; a bilingual speaker and poet; the métis wife of a white man, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first U.S. Indian Agent in the Michigan territory; highly educated and among Sault Ste. Marie’s social elite; possessing both Romantic and Ojibwe sensibilities; married to another literary writer but not publishing in her lifetime; writing within the poetic conventions of her time—Schoolcraft is a complex figure, and because of this I thought she’d be a great writer to begin the course. I wanted to get students thinking immediately about nineteenth century women as not easily categorized, to get them used to holding contradictions and complexities in their minds without trying to oversimplify these women’s lives or their art.

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Robert Dale Parker’s excellent scholarly edition of Schoolcraft will give you everything you need to get going with this poet: a thorough and engaging introduction to her life and work; all of her known poems and prose; and extremely helpful notes on each poem that detail, as best as can be known, when it was written, in whose handwriting (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s or Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s) it was found, whether it is a translation, and if so, if it was translated by Jane or by Henry. Often, it’s not clear who wrote or translated what (something Parker does not gloss over but lets be, in all of its complexity).

I asked students to read all of the poems from the Parker edition for the next class period (but to focus on a handful of poems I wanted to make sure to cover in class discussion). Each day, I asked students to reread all the poems while focusing particularly on the poems we’d be discussing in class.

A three-day Schoolcraft plan

I had three days for Schoolcraft, though I wanted more. (Our terms are ten weeks long at my school, so pretty much every writer gets about three days, unless they’ve written an exceptionally long novel—looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe.) I tried some different strategies each day to shake things up—and also, since it was the start of the term, so students could quickly get used to the kinds of things I like to do in my courses. This term, I’m ditching the short weekly papers I usually assign in favor of daily informal writing: one or two paragraphs due each class (done mostly outside of class, but sometimes in class) which I am hoping are low-stakes enough to encourage students to play around more, make more of a mess, and take more risks with their ideas. In addition to daily writing, we are using a variety of multimedia, looking at other 19th c. texts and visual materials to provide context, and diving into literary criticism.

Day 1: The Way In

Writing focus: Personal response

Thematic focus: Nature

Poems discussed: “To the Pine,” “To the Miscodeed,” “On the Doric Rock, Lake Superior,” “Pensive Hours”

It makes sense to me to do a more personal writing assignment on the first day of a new writer, particularly with nineteenth century poetry, which may at first feel old-fashioned and off-putting to even the perkiest English major. I think it’s good to encourage students that any way into the poems they can find is a good way in, and that they don’t need to be intimidated by this poetry.

On the first day of class (the syllabus-introductions day), toward the end, I put the names of four Schoolcraft poems—none of which the students had read yet—on the board and asked students to choose one. Then I asked them a few simple questions, which I adapted from an exercise by Lynn Hammond that I first found in the always useful Engaging Ideas, by John Bean:

  • Why did you choose this title over the other ones?
  • What in this title would draw you into the poem—would make you want to read it? (Or conversely, is there anything in this title that causes resistance or makes you not want to read this poem?)
  • Based on the title of the poem, what do you expect this poem to be about?

From here, I told students to keep what they had written and, for next time, to write about whether their expectations were met once they actually read the poem in question.

I learned that for many students, familiar nature imagery (pine trees) was the draw, although a few brave students made their choice based on their lack of familiarity with title words (like the miscodeed flower, also called “spring beauty”). Other students chose a poem set on Lake Superior because we are in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula isn’t that far away from us. Many students were surprised at what “miscodeed” was (they guessed all kinds of things). Others were comforted by the simple fact that Schoolcraft felt such a connection to pine trees (as one student said, “I have a thing for pine trees”).

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This first day on Schoolcraft, we talked about her as a Romantic poet and a nature poet, as well as how her métis identity and geographical region may have influenced her writing. I supplemented this lecture with lots of visuals: pictures of the miscodeed flower, 19th century maps of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and photos of Lake Superior so students could get a visual sense of Schoolcraft’s relation to place.

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Day 2: Form, Genre, Contexts

Writing focus: Annotation

Thematic focus: Motherhood

Formal focus: Elegy, child elegy

Poems discussed: “Elegy: On the death of my Son William Henry, at St. Mary’s,” “Sonnet,” “To my ever beloved and lamented son William Henry,” “Sweet Willy”

Our second day on Schoolcraft, we discussed her wrenching child elegies, written after the death of her oldest child, William Henry, from croup at the age of two. I wanted students to really dig into the poems’ formal qualities, so the informal writing assignment due in advance of this class was an annotation. Since Megan Ciesla has recently discussed annotation in detail on this site, I won’t say much more about this except try it—it’s old school, and that’s part of the fun for students. I, too, asked students to do the annotation by hand (either in their books or on a photocopy of a page if they don’t want to write in the book) and then take a photo and upload it. I printed them all out (speaking of old school) and then graded them by hand (my usual practice). There’s something really interesting in seeing where students will go when they’re not typing and not thinking “Essay! Must write essay!” I found that most of them uncovered much, much more about the poems’ formal qualities than they might have mentioned if I had had them write a few paragraphs of analysis instead. There was no opportunity for summary, so they had to jump right in and analyze.

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To give students context during class, I put up slides of other poets’ poems from the period: Lydia Sigourney’s “To a Dying Infant,” which allowed us to talk more about the child elegy genre of the period; and Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” a poem that directly influenced the form of Schoolcraft’s poem “To my ever beloved and lamented Son William Henry.” Because students had thought so much about the craft of the poems in their annotations, they were better able to make connections between stylistic commonalities: similar imagery in Sigourney and Schoolcraft, for example, or similar use of refrains and questions in Taylor and Schoolcraft.

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Courtesy of Florida State University’s Special Collections and Archives blog

Day 3: Criticism, revision, and translation

Writing focus: Taking a position

Thematic focus: Identity, authenticity, ownership

Poems discussed: “Invocation,” “The Contrast,” “Song of the Okogis, or Frogs in Spring,” “On leaving my children John and Jane at School”

Like Corinna Cook, I also assign critical works in class, and I also have students in charge of leading class discussion on those critical works. In the past, these sessions have really fallen flat, but I was trusting to the power of daily informal writing to help us along this time around. Because the discussion-leading group would be outlining the larger points of the article with us, I decided to focus the informal writing assignment a bit more tightly. For this class, I asked students to choose one small point from the article they read (Bethany Schneider’s “Not for Citation: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Synchronic Strategies”) and to make one of these argumentative moves with it: to say “No,” to say “Yes,” or to say “Maybe, but” (which I am again stealing from Bean! Y’all see what I was rereading this summer). Students then had to write 1-2 paragraphs explaining their response.

This article proved extremely difficult for students (it’s quite dense and complex), but that didn’t prove a deterrent to class discussion. I was surprised and thrilled that our class discussion on this article lasted nearly the whole class long (I had only budgeted for half the class, but students had so much to say that we just went with it). This is a big change from how these article discussions have gone in the past, and I attribute this directly to the targeted informal writing I had students do. They had taken a position on the article and they were ready to share those positions!

Much of Schneider’s article asks readers to consider the interplay between Schoolcraft’s poetry and the writing of others, whether that be husband’s translations of her poems, her own allusions to Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, or her response to the language of letters she received from acquaintances. So the poems selected for this class were in multiple versions: multiple English versions all written by Schoolcraft; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe and translated into English; poems Schoolcraft wrote in Ojibwe that were translated by others. It’s not always clear, as Parker makes evident in his wonderful notes and introduction, when an English translation is Jane’s and when it is Henry’s. Our discussion, then, revolved around what we perceive as “authentic,” which typically also involved questions of identity (i.e. how do we “read” Schoolcraft as a person, and how does this affect the way we read her poems? how do we read a Schoolcraft poem if we’re not totally sure she wrote or translated it?).

We spent a long time on the poem “On leaving my children John and Jane at School,” discussing (as Schneider also does) the differences between the three versions that are provided in Parker’s edition of Schoolcraft: Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe version, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s “free” English translation, or a contemporary translation by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich. This is a perfect poem to talk about translation and authenticity. How does seeing these three versions on the page next to one another force us to compare versions and ultimately color our readings of all three versions? Do we believe that the literal version by modern scholars is the one Schoolcraft herself would have made had she chosen to translate this poem into English? Would Schoolcraft’s version have looked more like Henry’s, strictly rhymed and metered and adhering to the conventions of early 19th century poetry—since this is how she writes all of the rest of her English language poetry? Or is there something important (we thought that there was) about the fact that Schoolcraft never translated this particular poem into English?

To end our session on Schoolcraft, I played a recording of Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet and scholar who is the founder of ojibwe.net (an Anishinaabe language site with recordings of Anishinaabe songs and poems—an amazing resource), singing the Ojibwe version of “On leaving my children John and Jane at School.” Although no one in the class speaks Anishinaabe, we agreed that we were all moved by the beauty of the song. I liked ending the section on Schoolcraft in this way, with an acknowledgment that with any writer we read this term, there will be things we can’t access and can’t understand—but that makes these writers from another time more interesting, not less.