Academic journal article MELUS

William Apess's Manhood and Native Resistance in Jacksonian America

Academic journal article MELUS

William Apess's Manhood and Native Resistance in Jacksonian America

Article excerpt

"I thought it was a very pretty notion to be a man .... "

--William Apess, A Son of the Forest (14)

In his "Masculinity and Self-Performance in the Life of Black Hawk," Timothy Sweet notes that critics such as Paula Gunn Allen have studied the ways in which Native women's roles were altered by European and Euro-American contact, but as he sensibly points out, "if [Native] femininity was altered, so was masculinity" (476). From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, southern New England tribal cultures were radically altered, which meant the transformation of the traditional roles of Native men and women as they coped with the enormous pressures imposed upon their cultures. Since Barry O'Connell's important recovery and publication of William Apess's writings, a wealth of articles have critiqued Apess, but none has yet significantly addressed the ways in which Apess constructs his masculinity. I argue that Apess's writings manifest in part his struggle to come to terms with his gender role as a male Native as he responded to the oppressive Anglo society of the Jacksonian era, and in particular to how that society feminized Native peoples in order to rationalize their subjugation. Both rejecting and appropriating Anglo versions of manhood, ultimately Apess appropriates a definition of manhood in the vein of "true" classical republican tradition in order to challenge Anglo power and claim a space for himself and Natives in the Jacksonian era.

One might presume that a sensible site through which to gain a critical understanding of Apess's construction of his manhood would be Pequot culture itself. But understanding that culture and its values, particularly in regard to gender, is an onerous task since Pequot culture was continually assaulted and transformed by genocidal practices on the part of colonists over the course of two hundred years between colonial contact and when Apess was writing. (1) It is an understatement to claim that the cultural implications of genocide on traditional Pequot gender norms would have been enormously debilitating. Moreover, tracing these norms in the historical record is problematic, for while it is possible to historically reconstruct traditional Pequot sex roles, it is difficult to reconstruct Pequot gender roles. Indeed, the category of "gender" is itself problematic, given that it may very well have had no parallel in pre-contact or early post-contact Pequot or Algonquian cultures.

Even if we assume, despite its theoretical pitfalls, that the Pequots did "gender" sex roles, the values pre-contact Pequots attached to "male" and "female" are difficult to reconstruct given that genocide was committed against the Pequot peoples and that critics can only see pre-contact Pequots from a Western critical paradigm nearly four hundred years after the fact. (2) Moreover, although colonial writers wrote about Native gender roles, any information that can be gleaned about Pequot or Algonquian gender relations from these writers is mediated through the distorted lens of Euro-American culture. (3) While it is possible to imagine that rituals of manhood, particularly that of becoming a hunter and warrior--rituals hundreds if not thousands of years old--quite literally ceased to exist or faded against the overwhelming weight of European and Euro-American domination, we cannot know with certainty what those rituals meant. We cannot simply assume, for instance, that Pequot warriors imagined themselves as "virile" or that they automatically prized "courage" as a "manly" trait. Or, the simple fact that most Pequot sachems were male does not necessarily mean that males played the only leadership roles in Pequot society or that the Pequots in any sense reflected "patriarchal" values like Anglo society. In fact, Algonquian tribes of the early colonial period attest to the role of women as formal leaders or sachems in their respective cultures. (4)

Given the historical legacy of colonialism and the absence of sources that might offer even a nineteenth-century cultural context for reconstructing traditional Pequot gender roles, any claim that Apess articulates uniquely traditional Pequot gender values at any point in his narrative is suspect, particularly because he does not openly identify Pequot gender norms. …

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