American protest literature-native American injustices


Protest literature refers to a form of literary work that has been written to create some awareness or initiate an awakening within a society or community that is being subjected to some form of injustice. Protest literature highlights the struggle of such communities to overcome various atrocities and abuses directed towards them by other societies by describing how the members of those particular societies overcame the adversities. Native American protest literature was mostly characterised by non-fictional stories written in the form of autobiographies, short stories and novels that were authored in response to the American society’s infringement of the Native American people’s rights where they tried to remove the Indians from their traditional homelands (Porter and Roemer 21).

According to Newman et al (1), Native American literature became a prominent part of American public life as well as the protest culture of Native Americans during the period of 1790 and 1860. Despite being denied a platform to air their grievances, native Indian writers produced a wide range of literature that would be used to relay their views, opinions and beliefs in the society that existed during that time. Native American literature written during the 19th century was mostly characterised as literature that was in transition since it provided a bridge between oral traditions and the emergence of contemporary fictional literature during the 1960s which brought about the Native American Renaissance (Wiget 141).

Native American literature was characterised to be text-based and mostly written in the English language which was mainly attributed to the many missionary schools that had been set up to teach native American Indians the English language so that they could easily adapt to the European and American society which was in existence during that time. As a result of this, most of their literary works were infused with Euro-American genres of writing especially in autobiographical works, short stories, novels and narratives. Because of the heavy influence from the Euro-American literary genre, most of the Native American writers struggled to express their views properly within the context of American culture. Their writings clearly demonstrated a struggle when it came to depicting the type of stereotypical environment that existed in the American culture directed towards the native Indian Americans. However, the 19th century writers were aware of how much power they had when it came to changing the political environment that existed during that period of time (Wiget 141).

Protest Literature Writers

Many of the Native American protest literature writers focused their literary work on challenging the political climate that existed in the 1830s which mostly sought to isolate and remove the Indians from their ancestral land. One of the first major writers of protest literature was Elias Boudinot who was a Cherokee born in 1804. He gained his literary prowess after he was taken to a mission school which taught him on white societal values, religion, communication and general cultural values practised by the American society. Boudinot excelled in the missionary school and after his education he returned as a spokesperson for the Cherokees making various speeches on their behalf such as the famous “An Address to the Whites” which was basically an attempt to fundraise for a Cherokee newspaper and school (Gray 155).

Boudinot’s speech highlighted the fact that the Cherokee Nation had the capacity and willingness to be civilized without the white society imposing their cultural beliefs and values on them. He however noted that the improvements taking place in the Cherokee Nation were only possible as a result of American assistance. Boudinot in his literary work basically asserted that the conjectures and speculations that existed in the American society on how practical it was to civilise the Native Americans were meant to be stopped as they were seen as major infringements of their human rights. Boudinot further argued that the Native Indians were capable of adapting to American culture if only they were provided with the chance to improve their way of live (Wiget 141). Boudinot was eventually successful in raising money for a printing press which they used to produce the first edition of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper that was produced on a weekly basis.

The newspaper marked the peak of Boudinot’s career which however came to an abrupt end with the controversial enactment of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Boudinot advocated that the Cherokee Nation should voluntarily relocate to the Indian Territory based in the west which was basically considered to be outside the United States border. The Native Indians saw Boudinot as a traitor for advocating for their relocation from their ancestral land and he was later assassinated by rival Indian factions during the forceful eviction of Indian natives in Georgia which resulted in 4,000 deaths (Gray 156). Another Native American protest writer was William Apes who was described by many literary writers to be the most prolific and effective protest writer of the 1830s (Wiget 141).

Apes authored “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” where he depicted the prejudices that the Indians were subjected to by the American society during the 19th century. Apes talked about the forceful attacks that were committed against the Indians under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and how they were subjected to inhuman living conditions all in the name of removing them from their ancestral land. He mostly concentrated on the negative side of the white society where most of his writings focused on resisting the imposition of American culture and beliefs on the Native Indian Americans. Apes authored essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” written in 1833 challenged white supremacy laws by arguing that the American and European society were darker than the Natives because of their sins. Apes rejected the notion that the Native Indians were inferior to the white society because of their colour, religious values and cultural beliefs (Peyer 75).

The protest writer also authored a speech known as the “Eulogy on King Philip” which mostly celebrated the life of the 17th century leader and his fight against the New England colonialists who had been known to mistreat the Puritans in England (Peyer 75). Apes held the Euro-Americans and the general white society responsible for the atrocities, abuses and destruction that had been directed towards the Native American society. He explosively castigated their use of weaponry such as guns on innocent civilians so as to gain their ancestral land (Peyer 76). Apes also authored other protest writings in 1835 such as the “Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts and “Relative to the Marshpee Tribe” where the latter protest literature focused on the famous Indian Native American Marshpee’s struggle to successfully recover their ancestral land from the Euro-Americans. Marshpee’s struggle for the self-determination of the Native Indian Americans proved to be the only victory for the Indians during the volatile political climate of the 1830s. Apes most effective and prolific protest literary work was his “Eulogy on King Philip” which he wrote in 1836 where he sought to contrast the Puritans inhumane treatment of the people from New England with how the American society was treating the Native American’s by basically abusing their hospitality (Wiget 142).

Conditions for the Disenfranchisement of the Native Americans

The political environment that existed during the 19th century was mostly volatile because of the way Americans and Europeans imposed their culture on the Indian natives. Their literature was therefore dominated by literary responses that were directed towards Euro-American writers who condoned and supported the deaths of the native Indians. The Indian writers utilised their literary prowess from acquired text-based writing skills to author their versions of literature that would challenge the existing stereotypical beliefs in the 19th century American society where they demanded for equality in both the political and social community. The native writers basically made use of protest literature to inform the rest of the societies in 19th century America that they were not going to be silent to the various atrocities that were being committed against their people (Wiget 141).

Before the beginning of the Civil War, the native Indian Americans faced the major threat of being forcefully removed from their ancestral land with the implementation of the Indian Removal Act which was drawn up in 1830. The act stipulated that any Native American tribes that inhabited the eastern parts of the Mississippi River would be removed and taken to parts of America that were identified as Indian territory such as Oklahoma. Many of the natives who protested this move faced death according to the act, a stipulation that was seen by many to be an infringement of basic human rights. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 as well as the volatile political climate of the 19th century brought about many Native American writers who authored several literary works that contained protest literature (Wiget 141).

Government Polices that allowed Indian American Abuses

During the second half of the 19th century, the Native American community faced a new threat apart from the growing settlement of Americans and Europeans which came in the form of gold discovery in California during 1849. The discovery of gold deposits saw an increase in the number of immigrants from European countries as well as England who encroached on Native American land so that they could be able to capitalise on the gold discovery. The migration to the western territories continued to increase even during the end of the Civil War which brought with it additional problems such as the increased demand for land. This forced the US government to forcefully move the last of the Native American tribes to the reservations by employing atrocious techniques such as destroying their food and water supplies thereby forcing them to move. This was seen by the government as part of an assimilation strategy that was meant to ensure the natives adopted the American culture and way of life (Wiget 141).

The government in 1887 enacted the General Allotment Act to respond to the increasing land demands brought about by the Civil War and the gold discoveries in California. The act which was also named as the Dawes act after its enforcer, Henry L. Dawes provided provisions that allowed land grabbers, Americans, foreign immigrants and Indian Americans who had assimilated to the American authority the power to allocate themselves land that originally belonged to the Native American communities. This allocation according to the Dawes Act was done in an inhumane way where any Native American found to be occupying the land under question was forcefully removed or beaten to death. The aftermath of the act saw the Native American Indians loosing 60 percent of their land rendering them homeless in the ancestral land (Wiget 142).

Sarah Winnemucca’s protest literary writing “Life among the Piutes” which was written in 1883 chronicled the impact of the westward migration on the tribal life of the Native Americans during the volatile political climate of the 1880s. Winnemucca was the only Native American Indian woman writer during the 19th century who was able to clearly portray the political injustices that were being committed against her people. Winnemucca mostly focused on the plight of women after the Dawes Act was enacted by recounting her own personal experiences of running away from the white man during the Bannock War of 1876. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was another common law developed by the US government to forcefully remove the Native Americans from their ancestral land (Wiget 141).

The act was met with a lot of resistance from the Native Americans and especially from the Cherokee tribe who lived in the state of Georgia. The Cherokees had successfully assimilated to the Euro-American cultural belief systems where they even created a constitution that was similar to that of the American Constitution and they also developed a bilingual newspaper that was relayed news in both the English and Native Indian language. However, all this changed once gold was discovered on their land leading to the enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by the US government which wanted to remove from their land. The Cherokees fought back against the inhuman expulsion from their land in the form a lawsuit filed in the US Supreme Court in 1831 against the United States government (Konkle 42).

The initial decision of the Supreme Court with regards to the filed law suit was that the Cherokee Nation was a dependent domestic nation that existed outside the US federal law. They therefore did not have the power to contest the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which meant that they faced eviction from their ancestral land of Georgia. The Cherokees however contested the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1832 where the court ruled that they reserved the right to retain their ancestral land but this court ruling was however ignored by the federal government for the state of Georgia who enlisted the services of federal troops to forcefully evict the Cherokees from their land (Konkle 42). A total of 4,000 Native Indians died as a result of the forceful eviction in what has now come to be known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees were forced to relocate to the reservation where they felt the impact of the new reservation policies which were created to isolate them from the rest of the American society so as to support the expansion of their society (Konkle 43)

Political Structures that Allowed for Indian Abuse

President Andrew Jackson who was the seventh President of the United States put into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that was meant to remove all Native Americans from their ancestral land. The law enabled immigrants and other foreigners to obtain the Indians ancestral land through fraud, bribery and intimidation. Such actions were largely supported by the political structure that was in place and also the political climate which was against the Native Americans. President Jackson was both a politician and an army general who fought against the British and the Creek Indians in the years 1814 and 1815 respectively. His tough demeanour and aggressiveness saw him dominating the Second Party System which was in existence during the 1820s and 1830s and he also spearheaded the campaign to remove all native Indian tribes to the western parts of America. In what came to be known as the Jacksonian democracy, President Jackson supported a limited federal government that would allow the president more powers thereby strengthening his authority in the whole of America (Wilentz 160).

Before his election into office, President Jackson negotiated for many years with the Indian tribal leaders with regards to their moving to the Western parts of the country which most accepted by relocating to the Arkansas and Mississippi Territories. Despite participating in negotiation and treaty agreements, President Jackson is up to now remembered as the President who advocated for the total extermination of the native Indian Americans. His support of the Indian Removal Act was mostly demonstrated during his presidential campaigns where he advocated for removal policies that would see the natives being evicted from their ancestral land. The Indian Removal Act gave authority to President Jackson to negotiate treaties and agreements that would see the white society from the east buying tribal lands from the natives in exchange for land that was in the western parts of the US (Wilentz 160).

Societal and Religious Forces that Allowed the Abuse

Many of the American Indian writers of the 19th century wrote to their readers about Native American culture and the history of the Indians before the Americans and Europeans decided to settle in America. These stories were usually told in the form of powerful commentaries which relayed what the Americans and Europeans had done to the Native Indian people. Ape authored “A Son of the Forest” in 1829 to depict the abuses that the Native American’s were going through in the hands of the American government. The protest writing used in depicting the struggles the Native Americans went through mostly incorporated literary traditions that focused on the spiritual confessions of European settlers based on their mistreatment of the Indians. Apes’ writing was published during the time the Indian Removal Act was being hotly debated in the US government in 1829 (Peyer 75).

Copway’s protest literature “The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh” which was written in 1842 incorporated the religious traditions and beliefs of the Western European culture of confessing for their sins. Copway focused on the missionary reminiscence of the various atrocities committed against the Native Americans such as hangings and brutal beatings and how these affected the spiritual cognisance of the Indian Americans. Copway sought to combine the Western European traditional beliefs with those of the Indian Americans which mostly concentrated on Ojibwa myths, tribal ethno histories and personal experiences (Branch 353).

The autobiography generally provided the real life experience of Copway when he was growing up in Upper Canada which is now known as Ontario by focusing on how he converted to Christianity as well as his involvement with the Methodist missionary society. Copway offered a spiritual narrative of how his conversion was a transition from his Native Indian American roots to his Christian roots. Copway basically believed that for the Native Indians to survive in the white society, they had to convert to Christianity and accept to be educated by the Methodist missionary society. Because of this view, Copway found himself exiled from the Native Indian community as well as the American society which at one point had lauded his literary writings (Branch 353).


Works Cited

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Gray, Richard J. A history of American literature. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing

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Konkle, Maureen. Writing Indian nations: intellectuals and the politics of historiography,

1827-1863. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print

Newman, Richard, Patrick Rael and Phillip Lapsansky. Pamphlets of protest. New York,

Routledge, 2001. Print

Peyer, Bernd. American Indian nonfiction: an anthology of writings, 1760s to 1930s.

Oklahoma, US: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Print

Porter, Joy and Roemer, Kenneth. The Cambridge companion to Native American

literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print

Wiget, Andrew. Dictionary of native American literature. Oxford, UK: Taylor and Francis,

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Wilentz, Sean. Andrew Jackson. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 2005. Print

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