Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians

Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians

Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians

Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians

Synopsis

In the mid-1840s, Warner McCary, an ex-slave from Mississippi, claimed a new identity for himself, traveling around the nation as Choctaw performer "Okah Tubbee." He soon married Lucy Stanton, a divorced white Mormon woman from New York, who likewise claimed to be an Indian and used the name "Laah Ceil." Together, they embarked on an astounding, sometimes scandalous journey across the United States and Canada, performing as American Indians for sectarian worshippers, theater audiences, and patent medicine seekers. Along the way, they used widespread notions of "Indianness" to disguise their backgrounds, justify their marriage, and make a living. In doing so, they reflected and shaped popular ideas about what it meant to be an American Indian in the mid-nineteenth century.Weaving together histories of slavery, Mormonism, popular culture, and American medicine, Angela Pulley Hudson offers a fascinating tale of ingenuity, imposture, and identity. While illuminating the complex relationship between race, religion, and gender in nineteenth-century North America, Hudson reveals how the idea of the "Indian" influenced many of the era's social movements. Through the remarkable lives of Tubbee and Ceil, Hudson uncovers both the complex and fluid nature of antebellum identities and the place of "Indianness" at the very heart of American culture.

Excerpt

There is nothing so certain to succeed
as imposture, if boldly managed.

—Buffalo Courier, 1851

In 1852, when Sarah Marlett pressed charges in Toronto against her Indian husband for bigamy, the news became a tabloid sensation, reaching across the Canadian border to Buffalo and Brooklyn, throughout the Great Lakes region, and as far away as Kentucky. Marlett was a white woman from New York, and she had met her ill-fated beau on a canal boat. After a speedy courtship, they were married next to the roaring cataract of Niagara Falls. But Marlett soon learned that her new husband, known to audiences across the region as the virtuosic Choctaw flutist Okah Tubbee, already had an Indian wife and family.

Even more shocking, however, was the discovery that Marlett’s “tawny lover” might be an impostor. Papers began to spread the news that the popular performer was actually a “negro barber” who had managed to “humbug” his way across the United States, performing his Indian show for unsuspecting audiences from Missouri to New Hampshire. Like other penny-press celebrities whose salacious stories kept antebellum newspaper readers titillated and horrified, the tale of Okah Tubbee’s charade made great copy. Sarah Marlett was depicted as a romantic fool, while Tubbee’s Indian wife, Laah Ceil, was regarded as a poor, deluded “squaw.”

The truth of it all was far more complicated.

As dramatic as it seemed at the time, the scandalous Marlett affair was just another brief episode in the life of a fascinating antebellum couple known by over a dozen aliases. Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil came from widely divergent backgrounds, but both before and during their marriage they shared a particular history of performing as Indians in a variety of contexts: from Mormon meeting houses to packed concert halls, temperance rallies to doctors’ offices. Their story ranges across the nineteenth century from the deep South through the Great Lakes region, to the . . .

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