Finding a Place for David Cusick in Native American Literary History

Article excerpt

Though David Cusick was one of the first Iroquois to record the oral literature of his nation in the alphabetic writing of Western civilization, contemporary Iroquois do not necessarily receive his work with praise. For instance, Seneca-Wyandot scholar Barbara A. Mann points out that Cusick inserted missionary interpretations of Iroquois creation stories into the text of his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations ("Lynx" 427). Yet in a climate where Native American issues continue to receive scant attention, despite their fundamental importance to our understanding of the development of United States cultures, Cusick's work deserves critical investigation. It also deserves consideration as a component of our pedagogy, both as an example of how Iroquois writers attempted to combat a false savagism and as an example of the fissures of subjectivity that US foreign policy and missionary activity created within Iroquois nations. It is because Cusick does not necessarily represent the quintessential Tuscarora that we should study him. Too often, we expect to view entire nations of Native Americans through their most prominent writers. Cusick's ambiguous and perhaps liminal status within his nation, his difference from his peers and from contemporary Iroquois, challenges our expectations of homogeneity and unity in Native America.

In writing Sketches, David Cusick denied the. validity of both the extinction paradigm of post-Removal era savagism (1) and the Hobson's choice of civilization-or-extinction that a slightly earlier version of savagism proffered Indian nations and individuals. As Roy Harvey Pearce established in 1953, savagism was the dominant discourse around Native Americans in Amer-European communities: imagining them as living in a state of savagery below "true" civilization and proposing that they must either be civilized or vanish if they would not or could not be. (2) However, while Cusick rejects savagism, he evades others' placement of himself and of the Iroquois into a uniform, composite version of Native American consciousness, particularly as it related to ideas of animal-human convergence. His translation (3) of Tuscarora traditions either suppresses those elements of Iroquois thought that would remove boundaries between the Iroquois and the nonhuman, or non-Iroquois, or it exposes to us dimensions of Iroquois thought that challenge concepts of Iroquois intellectual discourse that have largely been constructed by non-Iroquois anthropologists. His writing demonstrates the social, political, and intellectual inviability of composite constructions of Native American consciousness--for any purposes, even anti-savagist--and the vulnerability of the assumption that all Native Americans emphasize the kinship of human and animal. By situating Cusick's text historically, we can understand how his utterance challenges our frequent reliance on the culture-concept in filtering Native Americans' literary representations. By beginning to situate the anthropological record through which the culture-concept is derived, we both undermine the uses of non-Native scholarship (even responsible tribally specific scholarship) to homogenize tribal subjects and we build toward new understandings of intra- and intertribal dialogues in histories prior to contact and their continuation and adaptation through histories since contact.

Considered in its national context and for its foreign status in the United States, his publication tells a story of the heterogeneity of Native American thought, both by asserting an Iroquois identity rather than Indianness and by staking a particular position within contemporaneous Iroquois discourse. Cusick narrated the traditional versions of Iroquois origins and history as a linguistic universe that created an enclosed protective space around the Iroquois subject. I treat his piece as literature from a foreign nation; it is a nation distressed, experiencing the collapse of its boundaries and the consolidation of its people with the other member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. …


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