Dialogue and Public Discourse in William Apess's Indian Nullification

Article excerpt

Though Pequot author William Apess has recently begun to receive heightened critical attention, critics have been slow to examine his longest work, Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or the Pretended Riot Explained (1835). As an analysis of the events of the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-34, Indian Nullification eludes easy classification, bringing together first-person narration, essays, letters, legislative petitions and transcripts, editorials, newspaper articles, and legal briefs. Called an "odd book" by Apess's most recent editor (O'Connell 165), Indian Nullification shows little reliance on the genres--autobiography and the sermon--which shaped Apess's other published works. It thus poses difficulties for critics seeking entree into this impassioned argument for peaceful and equitable coexistence between Euroamericans and Native Americans in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. (1)

The inventiveness and significance of Indian Nullification reside in the way the text itself enacts Apess's strategy for transforming political life in the United States. Just as he calls for a public sphere marked by a process of open dialogue, he allows debate to emerge within his text by placing pieces of varying viewpoints side by side. Apess includes hostile letters from opponents of Mashpee rights along with his own first-person defense of his motives. He places the legislative record of the Mashpee petition alongside legal briefs filed by the Mashpee's lawyer. He describes oral speeches by elderly Mashpee and inserts harsh, accusatory letters from the threatened white minister to the Mashpee. By placing all these materials together in one text, Apess emphasizes the existence of multiple and contradictory viewpoints. Simultaneously, he suggests that if these varied viewpoints can coexist within the pages of his book, they might also be resolved through the process of open dialogue in American society. Certainly if his book is expansive enough to bring the disagreeing parties into conversation, he implies, so should the expansive nation of the United States. His strategic use of intertextuality thus enacts the very model of toleration and open dialogue he seeks in the country's public life.

William Apess (1798-1839?), who was of Pequot, white, and possibly African-American ancestry, was separated early from his parents and raised largely by the white families whom he served as an indentured servant. During much of his childhood, Apess apparently knew little of the American Indians from whom he descended. After having received only six winters of primary school education, he served in the infantry during the War of 1812 and afterward roamed the countryside performing odd jobs and lapsing into bouts of alcoholism. First experiencing a religious conversion at the age of fourteen, Apess rediscovered Christianity around age twenty, married, and eventually became an ordained Methodist preacher in 1829. It is somewhere in the period after his military service that he appears to have reconnected with his American Indian heritage and developed his concern for those whom he called his "brethren" (O'Connell xxxv). His publications followed upon his commitment to his life as a preacher. His autobiography, A Son of the Forest, was first published in 1829 and revised in 1831. The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon and The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes (1831), The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833), and The Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man (1833) were all published before Indian Nullification. His last publication, Eulogy on King Philip, appeared in 1836.

Most critical considerations of Apess's other writings have used his racial identity as the point of access into his writing. For some critics, Apess has failed to meet a standard of authentic Indian identity. Randall Moon attributes this tendency to discount Apess and to a "political unease" because Apess "writes too much like a white person, with no trace of a Native `voice,' and too Christianized to be recognized as an `authentic' representative of Native America" (52). …