April 08, 2009

Native Reading

Hillary Wyss makes a simple point in her article in Commonplace. She argues that there is a vibrant and neglected culture of reading within Native American communities during the colonial era- especially the years just before the American War of Independence. Her article is frustrating: not because the topic is uninteresting but because she says so little apart from affirming that Native American texts took various forms- from the criminal confession and letter to the fabulous library and pamphlet. There are two things I think though that we can gather even from such a short article which indicate interesting perspectives on early American history.

The first is the way that Indians learnt to read. Wyss gives us two particular roads into reading for a Native American. The first is through a school like that where Samson Occom (a Native American scholar and minister pictured abovfe) was educated set up by the ministry. In the world of Welfare States, we often forget that many of the tasks that now we devolve upon the welfare state were performed in earlier societies by the Church. Whether we like it or not, it remains true that most people's first encounter with Christian culture in the eighteenth or even nineteenth century was through the medium of scripture- this applies just as much in Europe as overseas. The Jesuits in the Catholic church and various Protestants were great educators: they saw education as a means of creating a redeemed person who might at the second coming rise to meet his creator. A biproduct of that process of redemption was education in reading: especially in the Protestant confessions, Christianity as a textual religion like Islam and Judaism demands a certain engagement with texts. Consequently many non-European languages of illiterate peoples were first written down by Europeans attempting to translate the Bible into them, and many of those people were educated in church schools.

Secondly there is the effect of globalisation. Many Native Americans learnt to read by becoming indentured servants for Englishmen who taught them how to read. The English interest in this was far from altruistic- it promoted profit- nor was it universal but Wyass finds that it was there. Its importance is that of course this technology did not remain controlled either by the missionary or by the employer- but became changed in the hands of those who were educated into something new and strange. Writing becomes one of the key means of exchange- whereby the colonised absorb what they desire and reject what they find objectionable in the coloniser's culture. An optimistic view would suggest that the coloniser too was influenced eventually by this cultural exchange- however one need not accept the latter to accept the former. Thinking about colonisation thus from Wyass's work we get three particular perspectives- the first is technological- the English brought writing to the Americas- the second is religious- they taught people writing to convert them and the third is economic, writing here becoming the engine of profit for English merchants and plantation owners.

This matters because it indicates how cultures in a colonising environment merge and change- they are broken down by commercial opportunity and religious imperative. Lastly of course, it is important to note that whatever the purposes that the technology was granted, those purposes were distorted or even destroyed within the minds of the recipients. Granting people a technological gift does not mean they will use it as you choose- Native Americans used writing to connect families and friends, exchange news and absorp views.