Alternative Versions of the American Nation


Re-membering Identity and Negotiating Nationhood: William Apess’s Proposal for a Hybrid America

Ari Adipurwawidjana


The writings of William Apess are representative of a particular narrative strategy which early nineteenth-century Native American voices employed to negotiate their place in the formation of a new American nation. The greater bulk of early American writing could easily present the American national self in reference to either its association to or disassociation from the British crown or a particular church. It presents a person’s life as not only an individual (with particular bodily features and ailments) and a member of the local body politic (secular and religious) but also in constant reference to the developments that occurred in England just as the ideal and the peccant individual is presented as an issue of its being unified and intact (with corresponding dress and behavior), the body politic (local and trans-Atlantic) is described to be held together by  the existence of functioning civic infrastructures, public services, and social institutions. However, writers like Apess, who identify themselves as natives, were in a more difficult position. The fact that the new American nation was being built on the land over which Native Americans are in the position to claim exclusive natural rights as their homeland makes total absorption inconceivable. Nevertheless, historical experience has also shown that complete resistance has been impracticable. Taking advantage of historicist, I would like to argue that while Apess’s writings show that there are efforts to be absorbed in the dominant discourse through, for example, conversion to Christianity, acknowledgement of U.S. laws, and, most importantly, the taking on of writing in English as the medium of expression (with the rhetorical techniques conventionally employed at the time), they represent a strategy to bargain for the inclusion of Native American identity in the formation of the new (hybrid) American nation.



In an essay entitled “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” published in 1833 as the concluding piece of The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, William Apess makes the statement:

I know that many say that they are willing, perhaps the majority of the people, that we should enjoy our rights and privileges as they do. If so, I would ask why are not we protected in our persons and property throughout the Union? Is it not that there reigns in the breast of many who are leaders, a most unrighteous, unbecoming and impure black principle, and as corrupt and as unholy as it can be—while these very same unfeeling, self-esteemed characters pretend to take the skin as a pretext to keep us from our unalienable and lawful rights? I would ask you if you would like to be disenfranchised from all your rights, merely because your skin is white, and for no other crime? (156)

Here, Apess assumes that Native Americans are inherently part of the Union of states on the east coast of the North American continent although he also admits the fact that their “persons and property” are denied membership in this Union. The above statement claims that Native American exclusion of the American nation is mostly expressed in terms of physical features: “the skin as pretext to keep us from our unalienable and lawful rights.” In other words, the very reason for their omission from the American body politic is their Native American body.  The color of their skin becomes a “crime” that justifies exile from society, as if it were the mark of Cain.

Apess’s bringing forth the issue of the skin-color as a deficiency reminds us of the manner by which writers such as Samuel Sewall, Jonathan Edwards, and Mary Rowlandson emphasize physical ailments and weaknesses in the effort to underline the strength of the communal body held together by common conviction and dependence on legal documents and religious scriptures. However, Apess clearly asserts that skin-color is not an acceptable ground for alienation and dispossession.  He argues:

Did you ever hear or read of Christ teaching his disciples that they ought to despise one because his skin was different from theirs? Jesus Christ being a Jew, and those Apostles certainly were not whites—and did not he who completed the plan of salvation complete it for the whites as well for the Jews, and others? … And you know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services, but to a colored one. (158)

Thus, Apess’s appeal for inclusion is completely textual. The fact that the essay follows five Native American conversion narratives further highlights his argument that the Indian can serve as a looking glass through which the white man may identify himself. What Apess is implying here is that he is not attempting to request acceptance but rather reminding the white majority that they are historically already one people. He points out his belief that the white man’s Christian identity is due to the colored people’s inclusion of them, and therefore it is only appropriate for whites to acknowledge their common affiliation. Apess does not only use the scriptures as textual evidence but he also invokes the language of the U.S. Constitution as the basis on which the American nation is constructed, in whose body individual persons and property must be protected as their “unalienable and lawful rights,” regardless of physical appearance. Thus, although the incorporation of bodies and their material possessions into the American body politic seems to be the ends for his argument, he insists that the bodies themselves can neither characterize nor found the polity.

Indeed, even Apess’s body of work does not find complete acceptance. It is recognized and characterized in the scholarship and criticism of early nineteenth-century American literature as Native American writing. Writings by those who identify themselves as Native Americans (or as Indians as well as members of a particular indigenous nation) in fact have received acknowledgement as part of the American canon, if at all, quite late, even compared to works by African-American writers. Apess, who produced and published a considerable number of works in his lifetime, it was only in 1994 that his works were collected into one book. Despite the historical significance of his social activism and works he is excluded from such conservative anthologies of American literature as the Prentice Hall Anthology of American Literature edited by McMichael et al., which nonetheless includes the works of African-American writers such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs.

Furthermore, criticism discussing Native American writing in the context of American writing in general seems to tend to bring itself into a problematic sphere. One significant element which often surreptitiously enters into the discussion is the critic’s own cultural inclinations in viewing these texts. In her analysis of the writing of William Apess, Carolyn Haynes points out that even Arnold Krupat, a major scholar of Native American literature, is prone to take on what Gilroy calls “cultural insiderism,” founded on “an absolute sense of ethnic difference” (qtd. in Haynes 25). Such a perspective assumes that an a priori unified consciousness constitutes the subject of the text. It also supposes that identities are exclusive and essential. This issue has greater weight in discussions of Native American autobiographies, in which the voice of the text tends to be identified with the persona being presented in the text. Thus, it is understandable why Krupat needs to make the distinction between “Indian autobiographies” written by a person other than that whose life is being narrated and “autobiographies by Indians.” Krupat opines that this distinction owes itself to the tribal nature of Native American culture, because members of this culture “tended to define themselves as persons by successfully integrating themselves into the relevant social groupings—kin, clan, band, etc.—of their respective societies” (“Introduction” 4). Thus, he also says in The Voice in the Margin that this Native American cultural feature characterizes Native American autobiographies as “the textual result of specific dialogues (between persons, between cultures, between persons and cultures) which claim to represent an Indian subject who, him- or herself, is the human result of specific dialogical or socio-cultural practices” (134). Krupat’s distinction is especially significant for a discussion on Native American autobiographical texts by Apess because Apess wrote both. Thus, Krupat implies that, as a writer of an “autobiography by an Indian”, Apess “propels a tragic silencing of his Pequot ethnicity” (Haynes 26). This is as if to say that by his very act of writing his own autobiography “written by himself,” Apess relinquishes his “original” identity, and assumes a Western one, which “has tended to define personal identity as involving the successful mediation of an opposition between the individual and society” (Krupat “Introduction” 4). It also implies that when Apess writes the conversion narratives for Hannah Caleb, Sally George, and Anne Wampy (Mary Apess’s narrative, like William’s, is “written by herself”), he assumes the role of the white writer who relays the Indian’s voice. To presume that individual identities is alien to the Native American mind is as hasty as to suggest that Euro-American autobiographical texts of the time emphasize individuality, for eighteenth-century texts such as the diary of Samuel Sewall, the captivity narrative by Mary Rowlandson show that the recognition of an individual as a member of particular community is an issue of prominence.  Also a characteristic of cultural insiderism is the conclusion that the adoption of new cultural modes such as literacy and Christianity signifies departure from previously held cultural systems rather than viewing it as a development in which individuals are confronted with cultural encounters.

Such assumptions as Krupat’s are problematic at least in one aspect. At the time of the production of Apess’s texts both Native American and American national identities were in a critical historical point. While the former found the necessity to alter any pre-existing essentialist conception of their socio-cultural identity (if there were any) due to pressing social changes in their environment, the latter was only beginning to conceive of a need to establish an identifiable national identity separate from their pre-existing Eurocentric identities. Apess’s texts are situated at the very site of this critical historical moment. I believe that Apess’s writings do not show his desire to abandon or retain his Pequot identity, nor do they indicate that there is an inclination on the part of Apess to either resist or accept the dominant Euro-American discourse. What I think Apess’s works demonstrate is an attempt to negotiate the incorporation of Native American identity into that of the American nation as a work in progress. Thus, the voice that operate these texts are in fact a sujet en process in the Kristevan sense, not only as the operating consciousness that drives the texts but also in itself is a subject in process, whose formation is prospectively incomplete. In other words, Apess simultaneously adjusts how his own identity (and the identity of those he represents) and also explicitly proposes how American national identity is to be defined.

Indeed, it is apparent that for Apess identity is negotiable. On various occasions, he indicates that identities can be assumed by adoption. In his description of his paternal lineage in A Son of the Forest, he says:

From what I have already stated, it will appear [my emphasis] that my father was of mixed blood, his father being white and his mother and his mother a native or, in other words, red woman. On attaining a sufficient age to act for himself, he joined the Pequot tribe, to which he was maternally connected. He was well received, and in a short time afterward married a female tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man’s blood never flowed. (4)

By this statement Apess validates his Pequot identity. For him, this ethnic identity is unquestionable because, although his father was genetically “of mixed blood,” the mature, conscious decision to join the tribe, and addition to his marriage to a full-blooded Pequot, makes his partly white lineage a mere “appearance.” This validation by adoption is important for Apess because he seems to be quite unsure about his familial background. In his attempt to emphasize the significance of his autobiography he is careful to insert such disclaimers as “if I am not misinformed” and “the truth as I have received it” (4). However, while he seems to de-emphasize the significance of identity based on physicality, he cannot ignore the fact that his physical body is in fact a mark of identity and identification. Complexion, he observes, does serve as grounds for “a nation to hiss at you” (120). He further complains that physical appearance has become one of the causes of the difficulties in life and has hindered him from

[finding] a place good enough for me. But such is the case with depraved nature, that their judgment for fancy only sets upon the eye, skin, nose, lips, cheeks, chin, or teeth and, sometimes, the forehead and hair; without further examination, the mind is made up and the price set. (123)

Thus, he oscillates between presenting identity as a deliberately assumed condition and as a given feature. This, however, does not seem to be due to confusion or inconsistency but rather it is called for in his narrative strategy.

All his writings, without exception, whether those which take the form of religious autobiographical narratives or those which more conveys secular, political issues, include the issues of Native American rights and the appeal to view Native Americans as having equal status as important underlying themes. In this sense, even in his autobiographical works, namely A Son of the Forest and The Experiences of Five Christian Indians, he presents a voice which not only represents his own person but also the communities which he takes on himself to represent, either Pequot, Mashpee, or Native American in general, much in the same way he would seem to present himself as an ordained Methodist minister in his sermon Increase of the Kingdom of Christ.

Furthermore, Apess’s works demonstrates the problematic position of Native American identity in American nationhood. As Doolen points out, there is a strong indication that Apess is considerably influenced by his abolitionist contemporary William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison in Thoughts on African Colonization (1832) presents the African-American appeal: “we claim, this country, the place of our birth, and not Africa, as our mother country” (qtd in Doolen 161). However, while for African-Americans the colonization of Liberia was still a possibility, for, Doolen says, “even  Garrison believed it provided the safest solution to the nation’s racial crisis” (155), displacement, for Native Americans, at least as they are voiced through Apess, is not so much an option. Apess asserts that Native Americans have “inherent rights” over the land, and it is only due to the fact they have “extended the hand of friendship” to the white settlers that the latter have gained access to that land. Not only is their land appropriated but also their identity. Apess indicates that his white oppressor’s have unreasonably used the term “Indian, … as a slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation” (10). He goes on to say that he has “often been led to inquire where the whites received this word,” for he “could not find it in the Bible [his main textual source] and therefore concluded it was a word imported for the special purpose of degrading us” (10). He further insists that

the proper term which ought to be applied to our nation, to distinguish it from the rest of the human family, is that of ‘Natives”—and I humbly conceive that the natives of this country are the only people under heaven who have a just title to the name, inasmuch as we are the only people who retain the original complexion of our father Adam. (10)

Apess is proposing two independent, though related, arguments for the inclusion of Native American as equal members of the American nation. The first is the claim to biblical authority similar to that which is proposed by Olaudah Equiano when he claims that his Igbo ancestry is closely related to the biblical patriarchs. Apess in The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes claims that Native Americans are “indeed no other than the descendants of the ten lost tribes” (114). This assertion not only validates his ministerial authority but also serve as a counter-claim against white dehumanization of non-whites. By making this statement, Apess places Native Americans on the same level as Euro-Americans by claiming first-hand access to Christianity. It undercuts the assumption that Native Americans are less civilized and less human than whites which forms the main grounds for their subjugation. This issue is of particular significance in his Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835), for one of the reasons for the Mashpees’ complaint against the State of Massachusetts is that they are denied the right to choose the denomination and minister to which they receive religious service, as one of the resolutions cited in this defense is that the Mashpees “will have our own meeting house, and place in the pulpit whom we please to preach us” (177).

More importantly, for the purposes of this paper, however, Apess’s argument provides prior right of Native Americans over American land, which makes both assimilation through “passing for white” and removal from their ancestral lands inconceivable.  As Benjamin F. Hallett, “Counsel for the Marshpee Indians” in their legal suit, in his endorsement of Apess’s Indian Nullification, the Mashpee community “have a higher title to their lands than whites have, for our forefathers claimed the soil of this State [Massachusetts] by the consent of the Indians, whose title thus admitted was better than their own” (167).

Nevertheless, Apess does not promote nativist superiority over the settler population either. He “offered no prophecy of a return to pre-European days of Indian glory and religion,” for, as Nielsen argues, his belief that Native Americans “were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel,” indicates Apess’s vision of Native American membership in the existing American national self through “conversion was an important fulfillment of their biblical heritage” (406). Apess fully recognizes the sovereignty of the United States government in general as well as the State of Massachusetts in particular. He constantly refers to the U.S. Constitution seeking legal justification for equal rights of Native Americans within the confines of the United States. The so-called “revolt” of the Mashpees was in fact an act of civil disobedience in response to the State’s denial of the Mashpees’ right to representation in Legislature and therefore to their participation in deciding policies to be enforced on them.


Works Cited


Apess, William. On Our Own Grounds: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Barry O’Connell, ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Doolen, Andy. Fugitive Empire: Locating Early American Empire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Haynes, Carolyn. “‘A Mark for Them All to…Hiss at’: The Formation of Methodist and Pequot Identity in the Conversion Narrative of William Apess.” Early American Literature 31 (1996): 25-44.

Krupat, Arnold. The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

—. “Introduction.” Native American Autobiographies: An Anthology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Nielsen, Donald. “The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833.” The New England Quarterly 58 (1985) (1977): 400-420



5 thoughts on “Alternative Versions of the American Nation

  1. How much does the religious approach affect the negotiation of native american’s recognition as the part of the Union/United States?

  2. Dari Khairul Dzakirin: Does Appes use religious approach because he believes that it will be easier for him to make the union recognize native american as the part of the states since the religion that he uses (Christianity) is brought to the native american by the whites?

  3. Dari Resa Sobandi:
    Apess’ choice for not being “nativist superiority” plays an important role to show how the nation is supposed to be built and how he thinks that the issue about the hybrid nation without any physical features form their nationality. His rhetorical questions seem to be a technique applied in the sense of “not being superior” since he gives the reader a space to realize the issue only by questioning the evidences, showing again that those physical features are irrelevant to the lawful rights as if he believes that that awareness it is there but not yet being realized.

  4. Dari Muhamad Hasan:
    Hybrid culture signifies the struggle toward the end of old believed prejudice and the join into the new identity constructed and admitted as an agreement. Then it struggle for the equality and the same treatment in law. That’s which is seen from Apess’ “looking glass for the white man”. This writing shows that Apess’s struggle to integrate Native American into the U.S. is one of his struggle for omitting the physical-based prejudice.

    His use of argument of Christianity shows how the Christian at his time has a significant position in American people. Perhaps, it also has significant position in Apess’ life. Indeed, even he says that Christianity is one of signs of civilization under God. If this thesis is relevant, it can be concluded that, according to Apess, Christianity approves the reality of hybrid culture or hybrid of physical appearance.

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