Academic journal article Early American Literature

Mississippian Contexts for Early American Studies

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Mississippian Contexts for Early American Studies

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay argues that recognizing the continued importance of Mississippian societies to Native American peoples in the colonial period offers a more accurate portrait of encounter and exchange than previous interpretive models that overemphasize and misuse the "middle ground" concept put forward by Richard White in the 1980s. By ridding the Mississippian past of its outdated categorization as "prehistory," early American studies may engage in an interdisciplinary, media-based, and intersubjective methodology that will aid in reimagining the traditions of Indigenous peoples in the Americas as a set of ongoing procedures for reconstructing their everchanging identities as nations within a nation by persistently reassembling the storied practices that have served their communities since long before the first Europeans reached their shores.

KEYWORDS: Mississippian societies, early American studies, Native American oral traditions, methodology


At some point in the twelfth century, an Indigenous metalsmith in present-day Illinois crafted a copper repousse representation of Red Horn, a major culture hero among the Mississippian peoples (AD 800-1600) and, later, the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) of Wisconsin (fig. 1). It is a delicately tooled object, reflecting the painstaking art of repousse elaborated at its highest level. In repousse, the artisan must work with negative space, hammering a thin copper sheet over wood or stone carved so that the image appears in bas-relief. Not only does this method achieve aesthetically pleasing detail, but most importantly, it reliably transmits iconographically legible information. That is, every element of the design expresses a specific aspect of the hero's identity that has been recounted in oral traditions stretching from ad 1100 to the twentieth century. The figure's bilobed headdress and mace, his raptorlike nose, and the heart-shaped apron at his waist are all consistent with his identification in the archaeological and textual record as "Red Horn." (1)

Red Horn is just one among many names given to a mythic figure whose iconography appears on material objects across the Mississippian world--from the Ohio River Valley; south to Etowah, in present-day Georgia; and west to Cahokia along the Mississippi River and Spiro, in what is now Oklahoma. Several features of the copper plate refer to specific events in the oral traditions of the southern Siouan societies in North America (Kansa, Omaha, Osage, Ponca, and Quapaw) as well as to those of the Ho-Chunk. The lobes on his mace and headdress, for example, may allude to Red Horn's name as a youth--"he-who-gets-hit-with-deer-lungs"--the hemispheres on each represent the stylized lungs of a deer. (2) As he grows older and experiences more wartime victories, he becomes known as "he-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings." Thus his ear spools dangle abstract representations of skulls, while in his left hand he holds a severed head.

Some eight hundred years later, in present-day Nebraska, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation retold the story of Red Horn, this time in the pages of a dime store notepad. His name was Sam Blowsnake, and he wrote his story in the Great Lakes Syllabary at the request of the ethnographer Paul Radin. Radin had sought out Blowsnake's Nebraska Ho-Chunk community because of their reputation for being "fairly conservative" (Crashing Thunder xxi). He was preoccupied with "discovering what the real Indian is like" (xx). The Blowsnake family proved especially interesting in this regard. Two of the young men "were men quite well known in the tribe ... [and] had lived the most exciting of lives." Soon Sam, the younger of the two, captured Radin's imagination. "[H]aving heard vaguely of the adventures and tribulations of [Sam],... which seemed to bear all the earmarks of a true rake's progress," Radin decided that getting Sam to tell his own story would "thr[o]w more light on the real Indian than any of the more elaborate things I had collected in the usual external fashion which is the pride of scientific procedure among ethnologists" (xxii). …

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