Professor Cheryl Walker

    Professor Cheryl Walker
    Native American Literature
    November 9, 2000

    How did Native Americans view the United States in the 19th century? Professor Cheryl Walker of Scripps College is an expert on the writings of 19th century Native Americans.

    Cheryl Walker, author of Indian Nation: Native American Literature and 19th century Nationalisms will be chatting with students online about the writings of figures such as William Apess, Black Hawk, George Copway, John Rollin Ridge, and Sarah Winnemucca and more. In addition to her expertise in these areas, Professor Walker wrote The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture Before 1900 and will be available to discuss the role of women in the 19th century and their writings as well.

    Professor Walker is the Richard Armour Professor of Modern Languages and former Director of the Humanities Institute and the English Department at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Her interests in this project were sparked while teaching courses about American identity and its many variations. Presently, Professor Walker teaches a course on Race and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature for undergraduates, but her audience is much wider than that. She has lectured on Native American issues and other topics to community groups, postdoctoral seminars, American Literature Association members and American Studies scholars.

    Professor Walker wants people to realize that Indians ARE Americans and that the whole notion of American identity is to some extent founded on a conception of the Indian native. According to Walker, we tend to think of minorities as "outside the circle" or opposed to the American culture, but she would like us to think of Native Americans as "the outsider inside," as people who have been forcibly alienated from America's European roots and yet have been and still are deeply involved in the very fabric of American life.

    Professor Walker is interested in emergent literatures composed by people who have been traditionally excluded from the canon and welcomes questions in all areas of her research and writing. Cheryl Walker makes it her job to help Americans hear the voice of Native Americans and women especially. She feels their voices have an urgency and, "at their best, a power that comes from having something really important to say; something which is simultaneously personal, political, and literary."


    BB: Okay it's Thursday, November 9, 2000. We're here for another guest expert session. We're fortunate enough to have Professor Cheryl Walker, author of Indian Nation. She is the Richard Armour Professor of Modern Languages and Director of the Humanity Institute of Scripps College. Cheryl, welcome.
    Walker: Thank you. Good to be here.
    BB: We appreciate your time. We've had information posted on our web site about this interview and it's generated a lot of interest. One question that several people asked was, "Is it derogatory to use the word "Indian" today?"
    Walker: It's one of those misnomers that has been taken up by the group today. So obviously when Columbus came looking for India, and ended up in the West Indies and calls the people "Indian," this was a complete misnomer. But over time, Americans have adopted the term "Indian." Always with a certain degree of irony, but they themselves write about Indians and have used the names themselves.
    BB: Right, right. We had a couple of different teachers write in and ask us. Would you kind of make clear the distinctions with oral literature and written literature and how that applies to Native Americans?
    CW: Most of Native American culture, for many centuries, revolved around the presentations of stories, poetry, and songs, and that is still the case in many tribal communities. The glue that held the culture together was the performance of mass ritual story in a communal, and that was what we might call their literature. It was not written down. However, starting in the 19th century, some interesting things happened. The Indians themselves created a way of using, the alphabet that we use. We call this syllabary. So they can put English language into written form and they produced a newspaper and Indians read this newspaper. That was one thing that happened. Then a number of Native Americans learned English and were able to communicate, and write in English. So in the 19th century, we have the start of what we think of American native literature, that being a branch of American literature.
    BB: We have a follow-up question from Ruth. She says, "How did traditional stories come to be written down then?"
    Walker: Traditional stories were first written down mostly by anthropologists that came by; explorers like Louis and Clark, for instance, who visited tribal communities, and who sent back some of these things in the form of government, or in letters; published them in newspapers. But there was a lot of contention over the issue of these stories migrating from tribal communities to a European American population.
    BB: Right. We've got a question from a teacher named Roberta in Florida. She says, "Why is a lot of the earliest literature autobiographical, and how can we be sure what the author really intended?"
    Walker: It's a very good question. And there is an expert on Native American literature named Arnold Krupat at Sarah Lawrence, and he's developed this notion of bi- cultural presentation of Native American writings; where some of them were translated like Black Hawk's autobiography being dictated to a translator, and then written down and edited by a third person. So you can see right away, I talk about that as a writing team that there were at least 3 major people involved in that presentation. But there were other Native Americans who actually learned English, like George Copway, Sarah Winnemucca and they wrote directly in English. Now should we say that those writings represented a literal or non problematic representation of their views? Probably not. All these cross cultural, intercultural connections end up fraught with complexity. So in every case we have to reflect on how was the work composed, what forces were in it, and who was involved, and for what reason.
    BB: Was Sequoyah the first to write in the language?
    Walker: He was the first one translating the sounds of Native American language into Euro-American script. So he was the first one to make that transformation, but way back in the 17th century — Roger Williams.
    BB: Uh-huh.
    CW: He was very sympathetic to Native American ideas. And he wrote himself in the sound of Native American's words. He wrote those words out for English settlers so they can see them on the page and know in their phonetics what they sounded like.
    BB: Right. Who were some of the earlier Americans who were sympathetic to the Native Americans?
    Walker: Well John Eliot was interested in converting Native Americans. And he spent his entire life really living with Native American tribes trying to translate the Bible into Native American language. He was sympathetic in the sense that he valued these people and their ideas. But of course, he was a missionary; so his intent was to bring the gospel to the Indians. And that was a kind of different, I think, form of interest in Native Americans than somebody like Roger Williams.

    In the 18th century we have both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who admired certain things about Native Americans. They also were interested in enfolding Native Americans in the sort of American imperial project. So from some points of view, their interest was not the healthiest way of moving forward in the inter cultural encounter. But there are so many complexities in terms of Native Americans, going all the way back, that it seems that it is not the best way to approaching it. So just simplifying it in terms of, well these people were being pushed around, victimized and mistreated. There was always a deeper thing going on there.

    BB: We have a follow-up question from Lisa in Pittsburgh. She asked, "Did any Native Americans write for a Native American audience?"
    Walker: Oh yes. There were newspapers that were published by Native Americans in the 19th century that had Native American authors contribute to them, and the readership. The Cherokee had such a journal, and there were things going on in the Iroquois community that were directed to a Native American audience. So, yes there were.
    BB: I have a question — actually several teachers have asked this: What native American history would you like to see in schools and why? It's...
    Walker: It's a very interesting question. In anthologies. There are a lot of short and interesting pieces that I would recommend for a high school anthology. William Apess, who was a Pequot, has very interesting writing he wrote in English. He wrote a piece called "Looking Glass for the White Man" where he mirrors an American point of view with a Euro-American point of view. That's another piece appropriate to high school students. At the end of my book, I found this wonderful speech that was recorded on birch called the "Red Man's Rebuke" about 18 pages long. It's a passionate, very angry piece, but I think its interesting to put back to back with for instance, his much more assimilationist as opposed to much more accommodationist piece with "Red Man." Wherein, the latter, he says, "We have to assimilate," and where in the other one he's talking about the cost of assimilation. I think Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins works, any chapter that you want to take from her book Life Among the Piutes. It's passionate writing from a woman writer. She's very funny. I think that would be very interesting for high school students. These are, of course, all 19th century pieces. If you go into the 20th century, certainly the short stories in Louise Erdrich's books, I think, are wonderful for students. I'm thinking about "The Red Convertible," which is about 2 brothers, one of whom goes to Vietnam, then comes back shell shocked. That's a very moving story to high school students.

    Are you also familiar with "Pow Wow High School?"(WHAT IS THIS?)

    BB: I was fortunate enough to meet author.
    Walker: There is a lot of very interesting Native American literature so there is a lot to choose from.
    BB: Well, I think you'll be pleased to know that several schools are reading Sarah Winnemucca and we had questions. One is from Tom down in Washington D.C., and he asked, "How did Sarah manage to find an audience?"
    Walker: Well, it happened this way. She started out being involved in some performance pieces in San Francisco. She was a talented performer and spoke 5 languages — 3 different Indian languages, Spanish, and English. She learned of the Piutes being victimized. She was interviewed by reporters. She involved a certain audience in the west coast and was able to collect some funds to make trips back to the east coast where she gave performances that were attended by many, many, many, people. Hundreds in fact, if you add them altogether, even thousands of people in the Washington Baltimore, and Boston area and because of that she came to the attention of the progressive liberal-minded performers like Mary Mann, the wife of Horace Mann. And she actually created the possibility for her of writing Life Among the Piutes and distributed it. Then her views came to an even wider audience.
    BB: In your book, you write that Sarah forged a bond with white feminists of her era, what areas of common interest did each find?
    Walker: Well, Sarah was quite a strong woman in her own right. Always was, of course she has a status ... had a status among the Piute as what's described today as a vidoge(Sp.?) a two-sided person that she would also portray a sort of male.--she further created possibility to save some of her people who had been taken prisoner as a tribe, and her father said, "She should be the chief because she's the strongest person in our tribe." She therefore came from a cultural background that did not have the same sorts of attitudes toward women as, let's say, the way of true womanhood of your American and middle and upper-class whites. However, she was also made vulnerable when white people, especially the sort of frontier man came to Nevada. Her and her sister were threatened by this. In fact, her sister was raped several times. So she felt that in this cultural situation women needed protection against male violence.

    So she gave a talk — I think it was a sexy talk for the time — called "For women only," which drew a huge crowd. This was like going to the circus and having these-

    BB: Sure.
    Walker: -kind of tantalizing shows, and she gave many talks where she talked directly to women about so-called "women problems," and these were things that white women and Native American women were both interested in.
    BB: Right. I've read excerpts from Life Among the Piutes and I've found it quite beautiful really. What I'm wondering is — I'm trying to put myself in the place of a 19th century white American. I would not find it quite so moving. What did the whites make of native writing?
    Walker: Well, you know, there was a tremendous interest in Native American oral stories and use of metaphor in the 19th century. All the reviews carried stories or written versions of Native American speeches, and these issues were discussed — sort of like how feminism became an issue that was picked up in all the various media venues. So we can simplify what readers were thinking about on these matters. Some were quite hard nosed and imperialistic and they had to move from sea to shiny sea. But there were lots of other people who didn't feel that way. Melville didn't feel that way. And a writer wrote hobanuc (sp?) in a way to draw attention to the problem. Later in the century, you have something like the author of Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson, whose work was popular and brought a lot of sympathy to the problems.
    BB: When you say Helen Hunt's work was popular, how was it popular?
    Walker: If you've read Ramona, it was very romanticized and it's been attacked from native Indians, and non-Native Americans. It was less flowery and less hardnosed of the violation of treaties and mistreatment of Indians, that was not so widely read. But these were published by publishers in the Midwest and had a lot of readers in the West as well.
    BB: A wonderful question came in. Is there any relationship between Native American literature and the mythology of -
    Walker: That's a very interesting question. I'm not that knowledgeable about the mythology of Europeans, but there have been people that have attempted to prove that. There are a lot of cross cultural similarities in terms of mythology. This is not something I've done research on, but I do not have too much on that.
    BB: Another question that I can't resist asking comes from Barney in Pennsylvania — our neighborhood here — writing, "Is there any good Native American literature that deals with vision quests?"
    Walker: Yes, yes there is. I'm thinking that the best place to look for that though, would be in 20th century literature. Black Elk Speaks is a wonderful novel, not exactly a novel. I mean, it's as told to, and we know that Neihardt changed aspects of it, and it's been kind of revised by members of Black Elk's family. But that's all about the vision quests. Ceremony is a novel that also deals with vision quests. There is material about the vision quests in-
    BB: What about Frank Waters' works?
    Walker: Oh yes, uh-huh. Definitely. So yes you can definitely find it. I think more in 20th century literature than in the 1900s.
    BB: I have a question that just came in from Tashan in Michigan. She wants to know about if we know about African traits...
    Walker: Good question, but a complicated one. And looking at that question, it helps us keep in mind that there are huge differences among tribes in terms of what we would see now as important issues. When Sarah Winnemucca writes about black people in Life Among the Piutes she points out her grandfather's attitude toward whites. The pain that he felt, he personally felt, when he saw blacks slaves being mistreated, and he felt that this was wrong. The Cherokee on the East Coast, actually owned black slaves. The more affluent Cherokee who lived in Georgia like the Ridge family. They, themselves, had plantations, they owned slaves. They participated to a certain extent in anti-bellum culture as southerners, you might say. But an important point to keep in mind, is that broadly speaking, Native Americans did not envision the kind of attitudes towards people of color that are characteristic of slave owners in the 19th century. They didn't think of people being placed in a particular category because of skin color or being born into slavery.
    BB: Right.
    Walker: The slave status was something you were familiar with because when you fought with a tribal side, and you lost people were taken as slaves. That doesn't mean that generation after generation their families would be enslaved. And sometimes these people were adopted. So slavery for many Native Americans was a different thing than it was for Euro-Americans in the 19th century.
    BB: We have a follow-up question. It's from Alberto in Miami, a sophomore. He asks, "Authors like Sarah Winnemucca, who were they reading in English?"
    Walker: That's an excellent question, and we don't really know the answer to that. In fact, I sort of ponder that issue in my chapter on Sarah Winnemucca because there are some interesting echoes in her book of something like Uncle Tom's Cabin where the character of Topsee (sp?) is sort of like Sarah's character Oitus (sp?) a kind of rascal who the main character feels sympathetic to. But did Sarah read Uncle Tom's Cabin? Did she read Frederick Douglass? One guess is that she did. There is also the editing of Life Among the Piutes, if they were involved in editing. They knew Uncle Tom's Cabin. They also knew Frederick's work. We just don't know. It's a matter of guesswork.
    BB: It seems like we have a lot of history-oriented people taking part today. One [question] that we've got several variations on is this one: Where did the idea come from that all Native Americans were all savages and bloodthirsty?
    Walker: The word "savage," it goes back to the French word sauvage, and that means "wild." The savage child would be a white child raised by wolves for instance. Overtime, the word "savage" in English began to acquire association with the bloodthirsty, the savage. But that could also mean somebody who was not civilized. The figure that was in a primitive state who was not Europeanized, that was not civilized according to the European notion. But from the early times of travel and travel reports about the "new world," the area that we now call the United States, you have two versions of the Native American appearing. In one, the people are represented as very docile very beautiful, self-sufficient, kindly. Not at all "savage." And those reports were often generated by people who had lived for a time with the native population and been treated very well by them and felt kindly disposed to them. The more political side of that, which came about with colonialism and with imperialism rendered Native Americans in a different light obviously for the purpose of explaining why it must be justified to take their land and to even massacre them.
    BB: Yes. Alberto has asked us the next question. He asks, "The native authors that you refer to in your books, these are his words, are pretty obscure, given that the students that have a limited amount of school ... what... what kind of canon is there for teaching this? Does it have teaching merit, and all the permutations of this question.
    Walker: Yes, and that is one of the most hotly debated questions these days in the academic world. I think that we should definitely keep in mind the fact that the challenges to the canon have resulted in an enormous widening in our sense of what literature is and what it has been. And it has had extremely positive consequences because now we include a lot of things that were overlooked in the past. It is true that some of the authors that used to be considered absolutely vital to any student's comprehension of American literature — people like Byron, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf are perhaps less read today than some of these minority writers or women writers. But it's important to keep in mind that the canon in American literature, has never been fixed. It has always been in transition. Always there have been writers who were fading out, who were going overtime, and new writers coming in. I think the best answer to how the canon is changing is to look at anthologies, and look at many of them. Because the Norton Anthology of American Literature has included a lot of minorities and women. If you look at Norton or some of the other anthologies, they are more interested in preserving many of the writers of the past with a little infusion of new writers who are more recently rediscovered. But one of the things that's exciting about teaching American literature today, is that there is so much more to think about than there used to be. And people can pick and choose.
    BB: Cheryl, I don't know if you caught this in your [New York] Times book review, at the end there was a very passionate plea to teach Longfellow, can you speak to that?
    Walker: Yes. I do have a friend who teaches in Indiana who has been teaching "Hiawatha" and it has convinced me that this is a text that needs to be reread. What's interesting about "Hiawatha" in terms of Native American responses, is that in the '70s many of us thought that, well, Hiawatha" is kind of this false representation by Euro-American writers. And this is a time, of course when Cooper and Longfellow were under challenge because they didn't speak for Native Americans. What's interesting is that a lot of Native Americans read it and quoted it as the gospel truth about Indians. So it's an interesting debate and I think there is justification for rethinking a lot of these writers like Longfellow in light of a more complicated notion of what was going on in the 20th century.
    BB: We've been having a lively dialogue; I don't know if you can see it. But there is a great interest in Christianity and Native Americans. Several other questions that have come in from people like Clay, Chelsea and Barney. "How greatly did Christianity affect them?" "Were there any movements that did not involve Christianizing them?" So I don't know where you want to start.
    Walker: Three questions. Okay. Okay. First question: Were there attempt to support native communities that did not involved christianizing them? Yes there were. They were not as strongly backed financially as the missionary movement. It was really from the missionary moment that a lot of the money for helping Native Americans came. But there were individuals and even groups that were founded with the sense that it was not really their souls that needed to be saved but their bodies. And of course there was the education movement (that like) such as the Carlisle School that was founded with what they felt was a very high minded notion of bringing NativeAmericans into the world of American culture, but which had devastating effects in other ways in terms of denying the validity of native dress, religious and culture. So yes there were some movements that were not connected with Christianity, that was the strongest movement. Remind me again the second and third question.
    BB: Let's see. Well, Clay wanted to know were there any movements that did not involve christianizing them.
    Walker: Yes. There were some movements that dealt with poverty and a need to find respectable living conditions for natives that were not connected with Christianity.
    BB: Right. Stevie from New Jersey has a follow-up question from "Hiawatha." He writes, "How much did they know from one other?"
    Walker: That is a great question. One of the reasons why a work like "Hiawatha" was understood to be literal was that Cherokee did not know a whole lot about the Northwest. So they were reading some of this literature themselves to get information about fellow natives and had no independent knowledge about what was going on in different communities. So, the Plains Indians, of course, were deeply different in culture from the Southwest tribes, like the Pueblo, and there was a kind of notion of Pan-Indianism, that all Native Americans were in a certain sense connected. But part of that was actually the result of colonization and imperialism because before that there are different tribes, and that's humanity. You know, there is our group and other groups. This pan-Indianism came as a reaction to the mistreatment of natives by Europeans.
    BB: We have a film fan in the audience, a student from Philadelphia. "Would the screen play to the movie Smoke Signal be a-"
    Walker: I have not seen the play. I'm not going to be a judge of that.
    BB: We also have another student ask, "What about Carlos Castaneda? Would he be considered Native American literature?
    Walker: Well Carlos Castaneda was not a Native American, and I love his work, but it reflects some of the values as a representative in Native American literature. He wrote these words that are generally considered to be a novel, not really an ethnography. He created this man Don Juan, who was supposedly Indian and inducted Carlos into the tribal secrets and mythology. But I doubt whether Native Americans would consider this Native American literature. It's more like the notion called white shamanism, of people who are not natives who want to take on the trappings of Native American culture.
    BB: Cat, a student from Maryland, has a follow-up. "Was there more Native American literature in the 18th and 19th century than now, and is the Internet kind of a new way for promoting Native American literature?
    Walker: Okay. Was there more in the 18th and 19th century? Let's take the 18th century first. There was virtually no Native American literature per se in the 18th century. Though Logan's speech, a speech made by a very bitter native about the disposition of him and the mistreatment of his family. It became a set piece for school children in the 18th century to memorize and recite. So there was a recognition of American oratory. In the 19th century you actually have published books so there is more there. But the 20th century is sort of an explosion of Native American literatures. Stories by men and women and screenplays and everything you can imagine. And the last question, is the Internet a resource? Yes and you can explore it; there is a lot of Native American writers that you can enjoy.
    BB: I have a great question from Rebecca in Troy, New York. How did the Native Americans compare to the American settlers at that time?
    Walker: That's a good question, let me do this, on one side this on the other side that. On the one side, the most well-known side, Native Americans did not understand the nation in the same way as Euro-Americans did. As a sort of fixed land mass with a certain numerically measurable population with a fixed governmental structure. It was a much looser notion of nation. And I think William(DANA: Is this the name?), though he's not a Native American gives a beautiful accounting of this in his work "Prairie Deep Map" (Can't find) where he presents the nation as a myth but not fixed in the political way that we think about it in European ways. On the other side, things were not quite as different as other, as was some times thought previously. There is a lot of evidence that in certain locations Native Americans were very precise about the boundaries of their land and what they could do with the land; whether they can sell it, or use it in particular ways. There was a sense in certain Native American tribes of "us versus them." To the extent that Black Hawk in a quite surprising moment vows that he's going to wipe out the northern Cherokee who have killed his father and he wants to wipe them out to the last man. In other words he has a genocidal fantasy there about eliminating this other nation, which is kind of surprising to many of us. But, though the nation was understood differently, I think, in tribal communities than it was in European communities, there was certainly a notion about leadership that there were people who had the right to speak for the tribe. And should be listened to.
    BB: I'm glad you mentioned Black Hawk, who was a member of the Sauk tribe. A couple of questions came in earlier. First off, do you think that sports teams should adopt Native American names?
    Walker: You know, I actually don't. I think that at this point we need to get beyond that. There is a lot of — there is a lot of interest in this issue here in California over the Aztecs, you know, should this sports team be allowed to use the Aztecs mascot. And people feel strongly that this is not actually a commentary on Native Americans any more than to use a rabbit or a certain kind of female character as a commentary on this group. But things are so charged, and there is such a history, and Native Americans feel strongly about the misuse of their names, and of their bodies. And I think that we need to get beyond that and choose new mascot and new names for teams.
    BB: Black Hawk is a complex and fascinating figure. His book was edited later. Can you tell us about Black Hawk's autobiography?
    Walker: I think it's much different than what you said in the sense that the interpreter was the one who was a mixed blood.
    BB: Okay.
    Walker: And the editor, J. B. Patterson, was not Native American at all, so he came in at the end of the line. There is a lot of controversy over what is Black Hawk's autobiography. Is it really what Black Hawk intended or what he said? Some scholars are claiming that it's obvious that these words do not reflect Black Hawk's real views, and others arguing that they do. I take a kind of middle-of-the-road position; that the text may have been altered to some degree. But I have tried to argue that the figure of Black Hawk, the heart of the man, and his tremendous commitment to fair mindedness to weighing the claims of one side and of the other, is consistent through that book and suggest to me something more authentic and something more than a book that was altered by an author. The commitment of weighing evidence is different from any other American text that I know from the 19th century and that suggests something through the spirit of Black Hawk is coming through there.
    BB: A friend from Pittsburgh has written in some interesting questions. She wants to know, "Was there any Native American comedy, plays, and dramas, and a follow up if you have time — What Native American writings are considered to be classic must-have native works?"
    Walker: Two different questions. There is a wonderful book by Kenneth Lincoln called Indian Humor and that is a great resource if you're interested in comedy. Indians are, were, have been, very funny. And they have a wonderful sense of irony; in fact I would say the comic is from an indigenous culture. So yes, there is a lot of comedy and Lincoln would be a good place to start to look for it. What is the classic text from a Native American view? Lincoln again, who is a Native American himself, wrote what is now a scholarly classic called Native American Renaissance which is about Native American literature. And in the 19th century, I think, we look at things like Black Hawk and now Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, and Charles Eastman's work. In the early 19th century her tales had been published. So these are the forerunners of the contemporary literature. And now classics, I would use the word with some degree of humor, new classics are being created all the time.
One textbookUp to $300
US textbooks, annually$10 billion

If you like our content, please share it on social media!

Facebook reddit

Meet the Historians

These renowned historians and experts chatted with students online. Read the transcripts.

Carol Berkin
Colonial Women
Ira Berlin
Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
James Loewen
Debunking History
Jon Nese
The weather
Robert Regan
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Remini
The Jacksonian Era
Brooks Simpson
U.S. Grant and Reconstruction
David Traxel
Errol Uys
Riding the Rails
Cheryl Walker
Native American Lit
Mike Wilson
Jack London
Gordon Wood
American Revolution