Posts Tagged ‘William Apess’

Paper Topic: Exploring the Ecological Indian trope in James Seaver’s A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison and William Apess’s A Son of the Forest

For my final paper, I am interested in exploring the trope of the Ecological Indian because I found it one of the more captivating topics we discussed in class. More specifically I want to look at how damaging this trope is to those who do not fit into its strict guidelines. This is seen in the narratives of William Apess (a Native American struggling to fit into white society) and Mary Jemison (a white woman who adopts the Seneca ways after being held captive by them). I think the stereotyping of races is something we will always run into and it is interesting to read the nineteenth century perspective and problems encountered. For those who don’t perfectly fit the mold of either white colonist or Native American, this trope seemed to cause some valid personal identity questioning. This is a significant topic to explore because this is a problem still seen today as Americans become more integrated and culturally diverse- people are left to wonder what constitutes their racial identity and what heritage and culture to cling to.

I first read Mary Jemison’s story my freshman year and I hope that by revisiting it three years later, I will be able to pick up on different aspects of her story and focus more on the Ecological Indian trope. I feel very familiar with the trope because of our class discussion and Garrards analysis of it. In both of my chosen narratives, I see the problems with the Ecological Indian stereotype because neither main figure (Mary Jemison or William Apess) fits into it in an ideal way (which is the inherent problem with the trope even with full Native Americans!). They both give examples of other Native Americans that seem to fit the noble or savage description but because they are both a mix of what is seen as white and Native American- they are left with little identity!

Questions I hope to Answer:

  1. How is the Ecological Indian trope portrayed in these texts? How is it proved wrong, right, and conflicting?
  2. What are the implications of showing some Native Americans that actually do seem to fit the Ecological Indian bill as brutes or Noble Savages.
  3. What kind of impact did this stereotype have on Native Americans and mixed races during the nineteenth century? What does it still mean today?
  4. What means more: your blood connection or a race or you cultural connection to a race?


Depiction of Native Americans in A Son of the Forest


In his autobiographical text, A Son of the Forest, William Apess demonstrates that all of the poor characteristics that are attributed to Native American’s can actually be attributed to the white settlers who manipulated them. He seems to argue that the Native Americans are even superior to these white settlers in some aspects. This point of view and the opinions Apess expresses are starkly different from the other Euro-American writers we have seen who often describe Native Americans as, at best, beautiful savages who are altogether completely different from Euro-Americans and not understood. Perhaps this lack of understanding stems from the fact that many Euro-Americans at the time saw these seemingly unconquered lands as “[their] native lands” and failed to consider how their actions impacted anyone or anything around them (Irving 8). Apess counters this notion, stating “the natives… are the only people under heaven who have a just title [to call themselves natives]” (Apess 10). The inability of the white settlers to recognize Native Americans as true natives and respect them as such plays out negatively for the Native Americans in A Son of the Forest.

This negative impact is particularly seen in the Native American’s relationship with alcohol. As Apess describes the “introduction of this ‘cursed stuff’ into [his own Native American family]” we see the deterioration of both his relationship with his grandparents and their marriage (Apess 5). When first reading over the horrendous treatment he received from his Native American family, it seems that Apess has strong negative feelings about his brethren compared to his white relations who “lived  and died happy in the love of God” (Apess 6). However, upon further reading it is realized that he actually blames white settlers for the Native American’s faults with alcohol as they “seduced them into a love of it” and then manipulated them out of their land (Apess 7).  Apess further critiques the white settlers when later in the autobiography his companions try to convince him to steal but, without surprise, it was “not [his] brethren but [the] whites” trying to corrupt him into doing evil (Apess 35).

It was interesting to read into this perspective because Apess often had conflicting feelings about his lineage but on the whole he seemed to have a positive view of Native Americans that differed vastly from most of the texts we have studied.


Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 3-9, 30-34, 39-46, 50-54, 171-179. pub. University of Oklahoma Press 1956

Depictions of Native Americans by Apess and Catlin

After reading William Apess’ A Son of the Forest and George Catlin’s Letter’s and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians I found the perception of Native American Indians from the viewpoint of a Native American and white settler to be similar.

Apess conveyed the viewpoint of a Native American living among white settlers.  When discussing white settlers Apess used ‘whites’ to refer to them which gave a negative connotation.  However, when Apess would discuss fellow Native Americans he would use terms like ‘brethren of the forest’ or ‘natives’ all of which had a positive connotation of respect.  Unlike these favorable terms Apess describes the negative use of the term ‘Indian’:

I thought it disgraceful to be called an Indian; it was considered as a slur upon an oppressed and scattered nation, and I   have often been led to inquire where the whites received this word, which they so often threw as an opprobrious epithet at the sons of the forest” (Apess, 10).

This is significant because it demonstrates the racist attitudes of the white settlers towards the Native Americans.  Catlin, a white settler, would often refer to Native Americans as ‘Indians’ without any negative connotation whereas he would mock the white settlers by calling them ‘civilized men.’  The negative connotation attached to Catlin’s use of ‘civilized men’ critiques the white settler’s exploitation of Native Americans and buffalo herds.

Another interesting similarity found involves the subject of alcohol consumption by Native Americans.  Apess describes how his grandparents, fellow Native Americans and he became alcoholics:

This cruel and unnatural conduct was the effect of some cause.  I attribute it in a great measure to the whites, inasmuch as they introduced among my countrymen that bane of comfort and happiness, ardent spirits—seduced them into a love of it (Apess, 7).

The very common practice of taking advantage of trading between Native Americans and white settlers is produced in Apess’ account and Catlin’s passage.  Both express the unfortunate circumstances of alcoholism that plagued the Native Americans as described by Catlin, “the skins were dragged, and dressed for white man’s luxury! where they were all sold for whiskey, and the poor Indians laid drunk, and were crying” (Catlin, 39).  Both Apess and Catlin depict the relationship between Native Americans and alcohol as the white settlers taking advantage of them.

Although at different extremes both Apess and Catlin demonstrate the separation felt and acted upon by both the Native Americans and white settlers.  Apess and Catlin relate the Native Americans as having a close relationship with nature, “the Indian and the buffalo­—joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man” (Catlin, 40).  This explains that the Native Americans and buffalo, nature, are being pursued to be conquered by the white settlers.

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings.Amherst:University ofMassachusetts Press, 1997. Print.

Caitlin, George. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ch./Art: Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians.New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

1. Native Americans in A Son of the Forest

Native Americans in A Son of the Forest are depicted in an unusual manner. The text itself is the autobiography of a Native American, but he was taken in by white settlers at an early age to be a slave. The white settlers made William fear his brethren by telling him biased stories about the ongoing conflicts between the settlers and the Native Americans. The picture William paints of his life experiences is that of a Native American that has lost touch with his culture and becomes acculturated to a society that looks down upon his people, enslaves them, and beats them. William even goes so far in his life as to completely disregard his tribe’s beliefs and feels that they should convert to Christianity because he believed that Jesus was the savior of all people and that Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israel. The problem of alcoholism in Native American communities is portrayed by his grandparents who are violent alcoholics. The way William represents himself and his people is in a greater light than that of how Europeans depict his people since he still heavily blames the white settlers for the problems within Native American communities. Even though he blames the white settlers for what has happened to his people, he still considers Christianity to be, in a sense, the true religion. William seems very lost in a world he loathes, but yet still finds small slivers of comfort in. He portrays his people as if they are human beings instead of savages, but his writing also depicts how the arrival of the white settlers has slowly eroded the identity of William and his people. Native Americans are portrayed as a people who are slowly dying from within.

The ecological Indian stereotype is “the Indian in nature who understands the systemic consequences of his actions, feels deep sympathy with all living things, and takes steps to conserve so that earth’s harmonies are never imbalanced and resources never in doubt” (Garrard, 121). William doesn’t seem too concerned with his people’s traditional way of life, nor does he really fit into the stereotype of an ecological Indian. He is more concerned with being forgiven for his sinful ways and seems to constantly be in emotional and mental suffering for whatever sins he thinks he has committed. He doesn’t seem to know how to survive very long in the wilderness as evidenced by his reaction to becoming entangled in branches and trapped in a mire, “I raised my heart in humble prayer and supplication to the father of mercies, and behold he stretched forth his hand and delivered me from this place of danger” (Apess, 42). He fears the wilderness more than he finds it his home, so I doubt he holds many of the stereotypical Indian beliefs at his heart. His relationship to nature has been severed, though he sometimes goes home to see family, he never goes into detail about his time there which leads me to believe that he is completely disconnected from his people. His tribe’s relation to nature seems to still be strong from what I can tell from the text, but William himself is the poster child for the beginning of the destruction of an entire people’s way of life.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004. 121. Print.

Apes, William. “Ch. 8.” A Son of the Forest. New York: University of Massachusetts, 1831. 42. Print.

Instructions for Group 2’s Second Blog Post

Osage warrior painted by George Catlin

Osage Warrior painted by George Catlin; Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 2 only!

  1. Discuss the depiction of Native Americans in this week’s readings. If you choose this option, you can focus on either:
    • Apess’ autobiography A Son of the Forest 
    • George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians and his famous paintings of Native Americans (see Catlin on the resources page for a link to his artwork).
    • A comparison of Native American depictions in both texts
    • A comparison of Apess or Catlin to one of our previous readings

Some questions to consider include: How are Native Americans depicted in this text? To what extent does the writer promote/resist the ecological Indian stereotype (as discussed by Gerrard) and for what purpose? To what extent does Native American self-representation differ from EuroAmerican descriptions of Native Americans? How are Native Americans valued, especially compared to white Americans? What are Native Americans’ relations to nature in this text?

2. Write a rhetorical analysis of either William Apess’ autobiography or George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. What is the author’s purpose in writing this text? What are his main arguments? What strategies does he use to appeal to the reader? How does the author use the rhetorical triangle (logos, pathos, and/or ethos) to convince the reader of his position? How/where does the author anticipate and rebut counter-arguments? Do you believe these writing strategies are successful? Why or why not?

3. Write an ecocritical analysis of Apess’ or Catlin’s text. As you know, there are many directions you can take with this, but here are some questions you may want to consider: How does the text conceptualize nature? What are the characters’/authors’ relationships to nature? How (or, to what extent) do characters’/authors’ experiences with nature differ, and in what ways are they similar? In what ways do gender, class, and/or racial difference influence the way characters/authors’ experience and/or conceptualize nature in the text?

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about more than one text, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.

Group 2, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, September 27.

Group 1, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, September 29.