A true Mohegan

Daily Reading for July 14 • Samson Occum, Witness to the Faith in New England, 1792

From 1765 to 1768, Occom traveled to England as a fundraiser for Moor’s Indian Charity School, an educational experiment designed by the Yale-educated New Light minister Eleazar Wheelock to train Native missionaries. Throughout his tour, Occom was ogled, scrutinized, mocked, misrepresented, interrogated, and exoticized. Wheelock’s American rivals accused Occom of imposture, declaring it impossible that in one generation a traditional Mohegan could become an ordained minister. Occom wrote to Wheelock in 1765, “They further affirm, I was bro’t up Regularly and a Christian all my Days, Some Say, I cant Talk Indian, others Say I Cant read.” Despite these indignities, Occom managed to raise thirteen thousand pounds. “I was quite Willing to become a Gazing Stock, Yea Even a Laughing Stock, in Strange Countries to Promote your Cause,” he remembered bitterly in a letter to Wheelock. Wheelock soon phased out admissions of Native American students and moved Moor’s Indian Charity School to Hanover, New Hampshire. It became Dartmouth College.

In 1768, Occom composed a short autobiographical narrative, in the hopes that he could once and for all establish his identity on his own terms. “Having Seen and heard Several Representations, in England and Scotland, made by Some gentlemen in America, Concerning me, and finding many gross Mistakes in their Account,—I thought it my Duty to give a Short Plain and Honest Account of myself, that those who may hereafter see it, may know the Truth Concerning me.” Occom affirmed that he had been brought up a “Heathen,” in “Heathenism,” choosing words that squared with his white audiences’ vocabularies and expectations. He included ethnographic details that also satisfied his readers’ notions of the cultural distinctions that supposedly separated American Indians from Europeans: “Neither did we Cultivate our Land, nor kept any Sort of Creatures except Dogs, Which We Used in Hunting; and Dwelt in Wigwams, These are a Sort of Tents, Coverd with Matts, made of Flags.” A few paragraphs later, Occom repeated this autoethnographic detail, describing his home at Montauk, Long Island, in the 1760s: “I Dwelt in a Wigwam, a Small Hutt fraimed with Small Poles and Coverd with Matts made of Flags.” The repetition is revealing. When he wrote this narrative in 1768, Occom was living in a wood-frame house in Uncasville. But he knew that the English colonial imagination coded wigwams, not frame houses, as Indian, and proving his identity and defending his integrity meant satisfying to some extent the English colonial imagination of Indianness.

Just as Samson Occom had to prove he was really “Indian” in terms familiar and comfortable to his English and Anglo-American audiences, American Indians today are often called upon to answer non-Indian expectations about how “real” Indians should look and act.

From “Samson Occom at the Mohegan Sun” by Joanna Brooks, in Common-place 4:4 (July 2004); found at http://www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-04/brooks/4.shtml

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