I am freshly returned to the Archives after a wonderful trip to Austin, TX to attend the annual conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). The conference was a fantastic gathering of people from all walks of life and I heard many inspiring presentations and talked excitedly about the research opportunities supported by the new collections at Amherst College.
Upon my return to the library this morning, I was greeted with two boxes full of books for our Native American collections donated by Peter Webb, Class of 1974. Before I get to some of the items Peter donated, I want to mention another gift from Bob Giddings, Class of 1965.
When Bob Giddings read the article about the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg collction in the Amherst Magazine, he thought this book might be a nice addition. While this item is not written by a Native author, it helps to fill out the historical context for early Native writing. One detail of this book that strikes me right away is that there was sufficient interest and demand to call for at least six editions by 1747. Samson Occom began his studies at Wheelock’s school in 1743, which makes this item especially relevant to our holdings.
Peter Webb’s interest in Native American literature grew out of coursework with Amherst Professor Barry O’Connell in the early 1970s. I have only had a quick look at the two boxes of books Peter dropped off, but these three caught my eye:
The more I work with these materials, the more I see the importance of anthologies in the field of Native American literature. This volume was published in 1974, and the introduction clearly states “This volume is intended as a first step toward establishing a body of standard works, a canon, of native American literature.” It is also noteworthy that the four texts range from the Iroquois in the Northeast, to the Southwestern Navajo, to the Aztecs and Mayans of Central and South America.
By this point, I know a book with a cover like this one — the phrase “We Indians” over a German author’s name — suggests something is up. The title page clarified the situation somewhat, though it raised several more questions and sent me searching for secondary literature about this title.
It turns out that “Big Chief White Horse Eagle” was an Osage who made some remarkable claims about himself, among them that he was 107 years old. This work is mentioned by Laura Browder in her book Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. She writes:
“By the turn of the century, Native American autobiography held a special place in a culture that was concerned both with mourning a people who could never return and with using Indian narratives to maintain racial theories of the time. Indeed, We Indians: The Passing of a Great Race (1931), the prominent autobiography of White Horse Eagle, an Osage, was elicited by Edgar von Schmidt-Pauli, a German academic whose chief scholarly interest lay in demonstrating the inevitability of the rise of the German race in general and of Adolf Hitler in particular.” (123-124)
The third item that caught my eye is this collection of writings and photographs of one of the more famous Native impostors of the twentieth century: Grey Owl.
Grey Owl is a complicated figure — he was born in England in 1888 and given the name Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. After emigrating to Canada in 1906 he began working as a fur trapper, which is where he became deeply interested in the language and ways of the Ojibwe. To make a long and fascinating story short, he eventually became a popular lecturer who spoke passionately about nature conservation and Native rights and claimed to be of Apache descent. Although he was exposed as a fraud after his death in 1938, the editor of this volume (published that same year) does not mention Grey Owl’s true origin in his Introduction.
In spite of Grey Owl’s true biography, this volume is a fascinating example of both fraudulent claims to Native identity and the early twentieth-century conservation movement. The book is illustrated with dozens of photographs that show Grey Owl with his beloved beaver companions and the larger animals he sought to protect in the wilderness of Canada.
For those not yet aware of the Moose for Mascot Movement, I selected this image of “the most noble beast that treads the Northern forests” by way of introduction.