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William Appess

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William Apess

During the 19th century, the culture and population of the American Indian was in sharp decline. They still had not gained any civil rights and were being persecuted by whites who considered the American Indian as an inferior race. This was especially true in the state of Massachusetts. This state had only one remaining Indian town by 1833 compared to other states at the time that had much more than that. Massachusetts was also the only state in New England to have a law forbidding the intermarriage between whites and Indians. Although Massachusetts, along with the rest of the United States, was filled with people that exhibited great hatred toward the Native American Indian race, there were a few American Indian leaders to have come from there. One of the most influential of these leaders was William Apess. Although much of his work was largely forgotten until the 1980s, when "scholarship on nineteenth century American Literature began to devote substantial attention to the writing of ethnic minorities" (Sayre), his work is said to have influenced several abolitionists and racial justice speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau. One prominent piece of literature by Apess is An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, which concluded his book The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequo'd Tribe (1833). The techniques that Apess uses in this text helps to convey to the reader the author's points about equality between the Native Americans and the whites. He has

the reader ask his/herself several questions regarding the legitimacy of the white man's superiority over the Indians. This 'questioning' technique along with his many biblical

references, and descriptive imagery, make this piece one of the most well written and influential pieces of literature regarding civil equality of it's time and of our own.

To understand William Apess, one first must know about his background and his upbringing. Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts, January 31, 1798. This was after the American Revolution and the bloody King Philip's War, which destroyed a great portion of the Indian population in New England. Apess was actually a descendent of the Wampanoag leader King Philip, whom the war was caused by. Apess was abused as a child by his alcoholic grandparents and was eventually removed from that household to work as an indentured servant for a white family. This family sent Apess to school for six years and also taught Apess the Christian religion, which he wholeheartedly embraced. William Apess eventually ran away from this family to fight in the War of 1812. Following the war, he converted to evangelical Methodism. He soon became a Methodist preacher and eventually reached the level of Methodist minister. This explains Apess' vast knowledge of the Bible which he demonstrates in An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man.

An interesting side note in the life of William Apess is what he did for the Indian town of Mashpee, Massachusetts. Aside from being a preacher and an author fighting for Native American rights through literature, Apess also took legislative action. In 1833 the Native American author began to preach at the last remaining Indian town in

Massachusetts- Mashpee. This Indian town did not have the right of self governing and their resources were being constantly stolen by the white people of the state of

Massachusetts. While Apess was there, he composed petitions on behalf of the town "requiring that no whites cut wood or hay on Mashpee lands without the Indians' consent

for 'we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the Country" (Baym 1078). The petitions were recognized by the Massachusetts government in 1834 and the Indian town of Mashpee was granted the right of self governance.

An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man was published a year before Apess had helped the town of Mashpee win its right of self governance. It is an extremely provocative piece of literature which is supplemented by the author's writing technique. Throughout the text Apess grabs the readers' attention by barraging the audience with deep, stimulating questions regarding race. These questions give the reader/audience the feeling that they are being spoken to directly, as opposed to simply being part of a general audience. The piece begins by stating that Indians and whites are equal in abilities and will be judged by God the same way. Apess then goes on to ask the following questions: "Now I ask if degradation has not been heaped long enough upon the Indians. Is it right to hold and promote prejudices? If not, why not put them all away?" (Baym 1079) These seemingly simple questions were not as simple as they are today than they were when this piece was written. Many people during the 19th century did not think of Indian degradation, they simply took it to be the norm. These questions represent the overall theme of Apess' lament.

After Apess presents his first questions to the reader/audience, he goes on to describe the miserable conditions of the Indian reservations in vivid detail. He first describes them as "a complete place of prodigality and prostitution" (Baym 1079). Apess

goes on to depict the starving naked children, the female prostitutes, and the amount of Native Americans that are infected with alcoholism- "that burning fiery curse, that has

swept millions... into the grave with sorrow and disgrace".(Baym1080). He blames these conditions on the white overseers of Indian affairs that steal the Native Americans resources, along with the fact that these reservations are not provided with any education system. Next, the author again asks the reader/audience questions regarding the validity of the oppression of the Native American race. "I would ask if there cannot be as good feelings and principles under a red skin as there can be under a white" (Baym 1080). This question entices the reader/audience to ponder as to why they might think one race is capable of holding good principles and having high moral standards when another cannot. To punctuate his point Apess goes on to state that "If black or red skins or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God, it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal- for he has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon this earth" (Baym 1081). The use of descriptive imagery in describing the horrid conditions of the Native Americans'



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