The American Cultures Workshop unites scholars of disparate disciplinary and methodological backgrounds from across the Asia/Pacific region who share a common research focus on the United States. This workshop featured guest speaker Dr Claudia Haake, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology and History, Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University. Dr Haake presented an article entitled “Authorship and Writing Practices in Native American Letters to the Government in the Age of Removal”.
This article focuses on the authorship of the letters by the Cherokees and Senecas to the federal government and investigates the varying writing practices and the way they sometimes changed over time. The idea of progress towards civilization dominated the majority letters, whether written in support of or in opposition to removal. The tribal opposition to removal argued that they would only be able to continue their progress towards civilization if they remained where they were, while tribal advocates of removal in contrast referred to it as the only way to continue their advance. In order to make their case, the Cherokee and Seneca authors of letters to the federal government provided evidence from areas commonly associated with civilization, such as education or agriculture.
However, in spite of the dominance of this discourse, many letters nonetheless deviated from a strict focus on civilization and also included other, more customary elements. For instance, among the Senecas letters at times took up some of the tasks formerly performed by wampum, strings or belts woven of shell beads, including retelling of the histories of interactions with whites. Some Cherokee letters similarly show subtle signs of older traditions still continuing such as that of the diplomatic principle of ‘good talks’. And even though this may well have made them appear uncivilized and even savage, in a few letters even their authors sought to explain to their correspondents their emotional attachment to their lands. Most frequently this was done through references to ancestral graves but also by invoking the birth places of children or by citing the Great Spirit. Such allusions posed the danger of being seen by their white audience as evidence for continued savagery on the part of the letter writers as Christianity was by many considered to be a vital component of what passed for civilization. Nonetheless, Native American letter writers for a number of reasons mostly connected to authorship and writing practices included these elements in their letters to the federal government.