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Origins of Native Americans

Origins of Native Americans

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Published by Chad Whitehead
Article about the origins of Native Americans.
Article about the origins of Native Americans.

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Published by: Chad Whitehead on Mar 19, 2013
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06/21/2013

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The question which has puzzled,and still puzzles”
How American Indian Authors Challenged Dominant Discourseabout Native American Origins in the Nineteenth Century 
meghan c. l. howey
It is however, still a matter, of doubt and perplexity; it is a book sealedto the eyes of man, for the time has not yet come when the Great Rulerof all things, in His wisdom, shall make answer through his inscrutableways to the question which has puzzled, and still puzzles the minds of the learned civilized world. How came America to be first inhabited by man?
William W. Warren,
History of the Ojibway People
This quote from William Whipple Warren invites us into the topic of thisessay: the ways American Indian authors, particularly three contempo-rary Anishinaabeg writers, engaged with the question of Native Ameri-can origins during the racially polarized project of “imagining” the na-tion of the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Answeringthe question of origins was central to continued colonization in NorthAmerica; quite simply, Native people had to be explained to be super-seded (
WIN 
,
5
). Since first contact, European Americans have presentedmyriad answers to the question, How came America to be first inhabitedby humans? With the rising importance of print capitalism in postrevo-lutionary America, explanations of Native origins became widely dis-seminated and consumed by the public and politicians alike. The acces-sibility of these theories directly influenced nineteenth-century popularsentiments about American Indians and colonial policies regarding theirfuture. This was most notable with regard to removal policies, whichwere aimed at accomplishing one of the essential components of the co-lonial project of the United States, the territorial dispossession of Indian
 
436
american indian quarterly/fall 2010/vol. 34, no. 4
lands.
1
This process was vital to the colonial project, and it stood in stark opposition to the fact that it was on the well-being of indigenous landsthat the very survival of indigenous peoples depended.
2
Having answersto the question of Native origins that challenged the magnitude, dura-tion, and even the very legitimacy of Native Americans’ presence andtenure in America offered powerful colonial tools for furthering triballand dispossession.In this essay I argue that American Indian authors had a keen un-derstanding of the political and racial implications the varied answersEuropean Americans were offering about their origins held for theircommunities. By tackling dominant origin theories, they interruptedthe white-supremacist discourse surrounding the topic. Their answerswere crafted delicately so as to be salient to their predominantly whiteaudiences and yet also actively promote indigenous sovereignty, a sov-ereignty inherent in peoplehood.
3
This peoplehood was “inseparably linked to sacred traditions, traditional homelands, and a shared history as indigenous people.”
4
With the ongoing colonial project of the UnitedStates attempting to strip indigenous groups of key aspects of their peo-plehood, including language, sacred history, religion, and land, through“the means of territorial dispossession, assimilation, religious conver-sion, or outright extermination,” we can understand their answers,which sought to protect this peoplehood, as bold acts of resistance.
5
My primary focus is on three Anishinaabeg writers: Kahkewaquon-aby (Peter Jones), Kahgegagahbowh (George Copway), and WilliamWhipple Warren, who were, for the most part, writing contemporane-ously (between the mid-
1830
s and
1850
s) and who were each embroiledin fights against colonial land grabs and removal policies focused ontheir communities in Canada and the United States during this pe-riod.
6
These three multifaceted individuals, with their own unique lifehistories, were bound by ongoing problems of misrepresentation andoppression in their communities and their willingness to represent An-ishinaabeg history and knowledge to white audiences (
WIN 
,
163
). Eachtracked contemporary debate and discourse on Native American ori-gins in North America. In their written works they constructed and dis-seminated answers to these dilemmas that actively attended to the chal-lenges of ongoing colonization in their specific communities as well asenvisioned a wider Native American sovereignty. Before detailing thehistorical context of origin questions in the nineteenth century, I draw 
 
Howey: “The question which has puzzled”
437
brief attention to the tantalizing hints offered to us in the opening quotefrom Warren about how these Anishinaabeg authors creatively engagedwith discourse on the question of Native origins.Warren says the origin question has puzzled and still puzzles the“learned civilized world,” referring to his predominantly white audienceand, of interest, excluding the subject of his work, the Ojibway, frombeing “puzzled” by this question. Indeed, Warren writes that the way American Indians populated “this important section of the earth” (i.e.,America) has remained for thousands of years unknown to people of the “Old World,” informing us that the question of where the Ameri-can Indian came from “puzzles” European Americans but
not 
the Ojib-way (
HOP 
,
54
). He says that, as for the Ojibway, he can give no moreappropriate information on their belief of their “own first existence”than to provide a definition of the name they have given to their race—An-ish-in-aub-ag (
HOP 
,
56
). Warren defines them as “SpontaneousPeople” (
HOP 
,
56
), indeed, a bold statement, as one of the most highly respected European American scholarly authorities on American Indi-ans of the era, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, had defined them as “CommonPeople.” With this statement Warren makes it clear that the Ojibway have a very specific understanding of their origin. They are spontaneouspeople, spontaneous meaning indigenous, natural, that is, a people al-ways in America, and thus there is no puzzle to them about their origin.
7
 Warren proceeds to go to great lengths to offer his personal explanationof Ojibway origins, which deals specifically with one of the dominanttheories of origins in European American contexts (the “lost tribes of Israel” theory).Warren both engages dominant discourse on origin theories as wellas provides this deeply indigenous view of “their own first existence,”as a people always on their land. Together, this allows him to radically undermine the very logic of removal, colonial policy aimed at dispos-sessing his community from their land, which, if successful, would tearat the survival of his community. Asserting this sense of always presentallows Warren to demonstrate that his community has an abiding peo-plehood that includes their homelands. This in turn endows them withan inherent sovereignty that demands respect and protection. I arguethat these three scholars shared this awareness of the devastating impacta loss of independent homelands would have on Anishinaabeg people-hood and that they each engaged with origin questions to try to orient

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