The University of Iowa

Attending to the written record of Native peoples

March 7th, 2013

Commentary by Phillip Round for The Iowa City Press-Citizen

Phillip Round

Phillip Round

In October 1833, a book purporting to be the autobiography of the famous Sauk and Fox leader, Black Hawk, appeared in Cincinnati.

In the 1830s, Euro-Americans were clamoring for “Indian stories,” and this volume of recollections by the principal warrior in what became known as the Black Hawk War — whose final battle was pitched on the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois — was an instant sensation.

Although some contemporary reviewers dismissed the book as the fabrication of Antoine Le Claire, the biracial (French-Canadian/Potawatomi) founder of Davenport, others continued to believe in its authenticity, their views bolstered by the undeniable fact that in the 1830s there were many books written and published by Native Americans — books recounting Native writers’ objections to the Jackson administration’s policy of removal, the erosion of their treaty rights, or often simply their life stories.

Some of these works, like the “Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk,” were dictated to bilingual translators who used simple syllabic alphabets to represent the sounds of Native languages on the page. Others, such as the Pequot activist and writer William Apess’ autobiography, “A Son of the Forest” (1928) were written in English and copyrighted by its Native author.

It was in this period that the Cherokee Nation purchased a printing press and began publishing its national newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix in both English and the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah a decade before.

By the end of the 19th century, Lakota elders Nicholas Black Elk and George Sword, Nez Perce educator James Ruebens, and Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca were writing books, letters and speeches in Roman alphabet versions of their Native languages as well as in English. In the 1880s, members of the Meskwaki Nation developed a system of writing through which they preserved thousands of pages of traditional stories. In the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections department, there are hymnals written by Protestant missionaries in a syllabic version of the Ioway language.

These stories of the centrality of books and writing for the cultural revival and political resistance of North America’s Native peoples are mirrored in indigenous communities across the globe. In the Andean highlands of Peru, villagers adopted specialized forms of alphabetic writing to keep their community’s historical and ceremonial records alive.

Among the Asante people of Ghana, writing often takes the form of material objects whose symbology tells the story of their culture and traditions. In the deep time of human written expression, such practices have their roots in the technological advancements of paper making in Islamic communities, innovations in the production of portable and durable pens and inks in X, and the earliest “literary” uses of these technologies among the ancient prophets of the Middle East, India and China.

As Iowa City continues to celebrate its UNESCO designation as a “City of Literature,” it seems fitting that we turn our attention to the written literatures of the Native people of this place and to the important place books and writing occupy in the development of human civilization.

These fascinating subjects are the topic of Friday night’s WorldCanvass program at the University of Iowa. Join us at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of Old Capitol Museum.

The event is free and open to the public.

Phillip Round is a professor of English at the University of Iowa and the author of “Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880.”