The first Native American to write and publish book-length memoirs of his life and experiences was born in Colrain, Massachusetts, in 1798. His name was William Apess.
On October 13, Colrain is unveiling a historical marker honoring the Pequot preacher and writer outside its library.
That's where New England Public Radio's Carrie Healy met Drew Lopenzina, a literature professor at Old Dominion University who has researched the life of William Apess. Lopenzina is the author of "Through an Indian’s Looking-Glass: A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot."
Drew Lopenzina, Author/Professor: He is a preacher. He is an author, and he is an activist for Native causes. It's something that's really unheard of, for a Native person to fill these roles at this particular time. I want to remind people that this was in the age of Andrew Jackson. The Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830 with the design to just eliminate native people from the Northeast. It was a time that was very hostile to Native people, and yet William Apess is incredibly successful at this time.
Carrie Healy, NEPR: How difficult is it to really dig in to researching this man, who admittedly there isn't a whole lot written about?
The 19th century, for white historians, was to make Native people disappear. And so there are very few records about Native people. Often there's no birth certificate. So I decided the way to go at this was [to] just begin where I knew he was born, in Colrain, and start going to town clerks' offices.
Because Apess said this in one of his first writings, right?
That's right. His 1829 memoir, it's called "A Son of the Forest," and it's one of the first. He said, "I was born in Colrain, Massachusetts in 1798." I came here, and said, "Here's where we start."
Colrain was an important place for us because he came back here. His father had settled here when he started his mission here as a Methodist preacher. I started going to town clerks' records and I found records that people just didn't know existed, where Apess had left a little footprint.
From these scraps, and from his own writings, and also from newspaper stories -- [a] really unique thing about William Apess -- he advertises for his sermons when he was preaching at a particular place. People were interested in going to see the Indian preach. This was a novelty, even a spectacle. There's a trail. And it was just a matter of trying to piece that trail together.
Part of Apess's spiritual journey is very connected to his Native American roots. Part of his life is kind of the every man's life from someone who came from one place and ended up somewhere else.
I'm glad you said that. People have a hard time actually imagining that a Native person looks like William Apess. We're used to the Indian out on Route 2 here with a big headdress, and the "romantic, noble savage" sort of thing.
But Native people had been living under colonial rule for 200 years when Apess was born here. Most of them had converted to Christianity at this point. They dressed like white people. They lived in cabins.
William Apess does not look like our idea that we typically hold in our heads of a Native person. Nevertheless, he was working within this framework by becoming an ordained Methodist minister -- a station very difficult to attain. He had to go through a lot of challenges, and he had to overcome quite a bit.
He was violently attacked and at times he was beaten within an inch of his life, but he used Christianity as a lever to have a position of authority to begin looking back at the white community and saying, "You have not lived up to your promise," and held a mirror up to the white community that said, "You came to these lands and said, 'We're bringing Christianity in good faith and civilization,' and yet look at what you've done, and you call us savages." But again, that mirror, and "Look at the way you have acted," that's a big part of his message.
Now, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that there wasn't controversy in the local newspaper. You wrote a "My Turn" column in order to defend some of your research:
In my 2017 biography of William Apess, I speculate that Apess may have been born on Catamount Hill in Colrain. It is not an "assertion" ... but a clearly articulated supposition based on a good deal of collected evidence. Far from ignoring the local Colrain historian who was apparently angered by my hypothesis, I spent many hours discussing the matter with her and sounding out her objections. In the end, I presented her preferred place of birth for Apess as one of two possible conclusions we might draw.
How hard is it to present this information and not have it well received by the people where it happened?
It's expected. People are very well-meaning, but people have come of age where they've never heard history told from an Indigenous perspective. That history has been silenced, and very well-meaning people have been told history in a particular way in a particular perspective. William Apess is just an outlier to them. They don't understand this.
They don't want to acknowledge some of the dynamics that work to silence somebody like Apess. When the article that you're referring to was written saying that certain historians are coming here and trying to retell our history -- that sense of proprietorship. I'm going to call it white proprietorship of the history of Colrain. I get it, I understand why people feel that way. I think the historical rigor for this perspective that I'm promoting here- if you do this kind of native research and scholarship you're always going to head up against this. It's not everybody, but it’s there.
You have to be prepared to deal with that, and educate people, because that's what we're trying to do here. Talk to people and learn from them, but also hopefully let them try to see the world in a way that they hadn't been taught or trained to see it themselves.
How did you get to that place yourself?
It was not easy. But you know, I am a doctor of literature and visiting native communities here and elsewhere. For me, because I am a white male, it's just a lot of listening and trying to understand -- and a lot of reading. It was certainly a learning curve for me. I'm trying to set something right here that I feel has been ignored, and there's a sense of justice here that I'm invested in. Hopefully we're getting that story put as right as we can at the moment.