“Do not get tire, ye noble-hearted—only think how many poor Indians want their wounds done up daily; the Lord will reward you, and pray you stop not till this tree of distinction shall be levelled to the earth, and the mantle of prejudice torn from every American heart—then shall peace pervade the Union.”
William Apess was one of the first American Indians to gain literacy and to be published in the popular press. As such, he also became one of the first voices to cry out in the Euro-Americans’ own language against the injustice that was being perpetrated against American Indians by white Americans, who had begun settling the North American continent some two hundred years before Apess wrote. Even in the seventeenth century, New England Puritans had established separate settlements called “praying villages,” where American Indians would be converted to Christianity and assimilated into European culture. The essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” is, perhaps, Apess’s clearest, most succinct description of the cause of his people: relief from the prejudice and discrimination that already characterized the attitudes and behavior of Euro-Americans toward American Indians. Like many literate men of his time, Apess was a Christian minister, and many of his writings combine stories of his own conversion and his understanding of theology with a call to action against social injustice.
When William Apess was writing during the 1820s and 1830s, he was doing so at a critical point in the history of the United States. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 had given the United States control over a large mass of land that many Euro-Americans had never seen, and the American people increasingly began to expand westward. When they did so, they inevitably and repeatedly came into land occupied by American Indian peoples. In addition, with the defeat of the British in the War of 1812, American Indians had lost their most powerful ally against American encroachment onto tribal lands. Concurrently, the Second Great Awakening had sparked new social movements across the United States. The abolitionist impulse led to a push to relocate freed slaves to Africa. President Andrew Jackson began the process of moving American Indians off of their ancestral lands to the promised permanent Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Advocates of these types of policies couched them in terms of trying to help the minorities by moving them to places where they could live as they pleased, out of the way of the corrupting influence of US expansion. But what Euro-Americans truly wanted was a racially homogeneous American population, and more land. The land that Euro-Americans wanted for profit, however, was a central part of American Indian identity and culture, and their removal from their lands would have dire consequences for their physical and spiritual existence.
Certainly, several Indian leaders, such as Handsome Lake and Tecumseh, advocated for resistance to Euro-American encroachment through spiritual and military means. However, these leaders were largely speaking to Indian audiences, advocating for them to take action in the defense of their way of life. Writers such as Apess were addressing a Euro-American audience, trying to convince them that the course of action they were pursuing was not only wrong but also incongruous with their stated ideals and religious beliefs. As such, Apess and others like him had to approach their audience with an explicitly Christian point of view. To come from an Indian point of view would have been unproductive, as many white Americans saw American Indians only as barbaric heathens—a population to be converted to Christianity and Euro-American cultural values. Whereas Tecumseh won some respect for adopting Euro-American methods of warfare and instructing his warriors to resist “barbaric” actions such as scalping enemy soldiers, Apess sought to win some respect for adopting Christianity. But in doing so, he turned it on its head, using it as a means to point out the hypocrisy he saw in white Americans’ actions toward American Indians.
Born on January 31, 1798, near the Massachusetts-Vermont border, William Apess was the son of William and Candace Apes (the spelling of the name was later changed). In his autobiography, Apess notes that his father was of mixed European and Pequot heritage, while historians have speculated that his mother was a freed slave of mixed Pequot and African descent. At the age of fifteen, Apess converted to Methodism and ran away from the master to whom he had been bound as an indentured servant, joining the American forces preparing for the 1814 invasion of Canada during the War of 1812. After the war, Apess moved home to Connecticut, reunited with his Pequot relatives, and married his wife, Mary Wood. Beginning to preach before both Indian and Euro-American audiences, Apess was ordained by the Methodist Church as a minister in 1829.
Apess’s appearance as a national voice on Indian-white relations with the publication of his autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), coincided with the controversy leading to the passage of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1830. Many Indian peoples had already been removed from their ancestral homelands, but now it was official government policy to move as many of them as possible to Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi River. What was lost on so many Americans in the 1820s and 1830s was clear to Apess: The removal of American Indian people from their ancestral homelands and their forced march to Indian Territory was a fundamental betrayal of the values that made up the US political system as well as the values that comprised American Christianity.
Although known today as a Pequot Indian, Apess lived between two cultures throughout his life, and his perspectives were shaped by both of them. Converted and taught to read and write while living with a white family, among whom he lived for much of his childhood and young adulthood, Apess converted to Christianity when he was fifteen, and was told that his Indian people were cruel savages to be feared. However, when he returned from the War of 1812 and sought to learn about his Pequot ancestry, Apess learned of the cruelty exercised by Euro-Americans toward American Indian people. Like many abolitionists, Apess hoped that his writings would be a sort of mirror that could show the hypocrisy and immorality of Euro-American attitudes and their actions toward American Indians. Unfortunately for him, that mirror image would not be persuasive enough to have an effect in his lifetime, as he died of a stroke in 1839, only six years after the publication of “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man.”
Over the course of US history, American Indian peoples have chosen various ways to resist the influx of Euro-American settlers into their lands. Beginning with the Powhatan Wars that started only fifteen years after Jamestown was settled, to the Pequot War (1634–1638), King Philip’s War (1675–1678), Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763), and the First Seminole War (1814–1819), many American Indians took to armed conflict as a means of resisting the expansion of the white settlers onto tribal lands. However, a few followed a different path of resistance. William Apess, whose heritage included African American, European, and Pequot Indian forebears, took to writing in order to try to demonstrate to the American populace that American Indians were not the savages they envisioned, and that Euro-American efforts to deprive them of their lands and sovereignty went against both the laws of the United States and, more importantly, the moral laws of Christianity. In “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” Apess contrasts the ideals of Christianity with the actions of Euro-Americans in relation to American Indians, in a style reminiscent of many of the slave narratives of the period. He argues that the failure of white Americans to live up to their ideals of tolerance and equality was responsible for the social ills that plagued American Indian tribes: alcoholism, poverty, laws against intermarriage between Indians and whites, loss of land to Euro-Americans, and the general inequality that Indians had to deal with since Euro-Americans had gained enough numbers to overcome Indian resistance.
The essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” was Apess’s most cogent attempt to persuade Euro-Americans that the way they had treated the American Indian populations of the country was both illegal and morally unjustifiable.
Although “Indian’s Looking-Glass” was a written piece, Apess also used it as the basis of addresses he would give to American Indian, African American, and Euro-American audiences on the New England lecture circuit. Therefore, though not originally a speech, it is replete with the elements of a speech or even a sermon. He directly addresses his audience, asking direct questions of the reader in a manner that a preacher might pose rhetorical questions to his congregation. When he is making moral judgments, Apess makes them in a way that is meant to lead the reader to question his or her own presuppositions. In this way, Apess is not original in New England oratory, as many African American abolitionists who wrote slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass, used similar rhetorical devices when they toured New England to raise awareness about the horrors of slavery and call people to action against injustice. The fact that Apess was of Pequot Indian heritage and did so, however, was unusual. The rhetoric he used and the fact that he made Christianity the basis of his critique may have been borrowed from African American speakers who were former slaves, but the subjects he chose to undertake and the national events surrounding his rise to prominence as a spokesperson for American Indian rights made him unique.
Born in 1798, just as the new United States was getting to its feet—only fifteen years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and eight years after the ratification of the US Constitution—William Apess grew up with the nation, and was imbued in its values much more thoroughly than most American Indians. Growing up among Euro-Americans—he served as an indentured servant in a number of households from the time he was five until he was fifteen—Apess learned to read and write in the first of these households, and was later converted to Christianity, joining the Methodist Church in 1813. The family to which he had been indentured, however, attended the Congregational Church, and they forbid Apess from attending Methodist meetings, an order he consistently defied, despite numerous floggings. Fleeing the household with another indentured servant, Apess fought on the side of the United States in the War of 1812. Prior to his return from the war, Apess’s only knowledge of American Indian life beyond his early childhood experiences had been the stories of Indian captivity and savagery that were told to him by his various masters. Despite this, Apess still thought of himself as a Pequot and, in 1817, he returned to Connecticut to reconnect with his heritage. He was baptized in the Methodist Church in 1818, and in 1821 he wed Mary Wood, who was, like Apess, a mixed-heritage American Indian who had been an indentured servant and had converted to Methodism. By 1829, Apess was ordained as a Methodist minister. He spent most of the rest of his life traveling throughout the Northern states, speaking mostly to African American and American Indian audiences, though his writings would have a much farther reach.
The early decades of the nineteenth century might have been remembered as the “Era of Good Feelings” for the general American population, but for American Indian peoples, they were only a continuation of the land-hungry policies pursued by Euro-Americans since their arrival on the continent, and a harbinger of the conflicts that were still to come. The end of the War of 1812 brought a renewed and accelerated movement to the West. Fertile lands such as the Ohio River Valley and the inland southeastern United States beckoned settlers, but were inhabited by American Indian peoples who had been there for countless generations. When the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and noted Indian fighter Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, the stage was set for the forced removal of American Indian peoples on a scale not before imagined.
For Apess’s people, the Pequot tribe, and many other New England tribes, removal and destruction had come nearly two hundred years earlier, when Massachusetts Puritans took the Connecticut River Valley during the Pequot War. The awareness of what Euro-Americans were capable of, combined with the push for removal of the American Indian groups remaining east of the Mississippi River, demonstrated to Apess that despite the best intentions of some Christians to convert American Indians, the true aim of white America was to deprive the American Indians of their land and sovereignty. As such, they did not recognize the basic human rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the US Constitution as applying to American Indian peoples. In a land where the political system and the dominant religion both supported the idea of equality, American Indians were most decidedly unequal. This realization was the driving force behind Apess’s writings, though he never seemed to lose faith that the people of the United States would one day live up to their professed ideals.
Though Apess was well known for his autobiography, A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest, in which he began to develop many of the themes he would carry with him in his speaking engagements, it was his essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” that would form the basis of his many speeches.
Apess makes his main theme known in the essay’s first sentence, when he invokes the idea of Indian and white people both as children of God, whom he describes as “the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same, and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances, but will judge righteousness.” Apess’s writing takes the form of a conversion narrative, which was very common in New England at the time. But his conversion narrative has another goal in addition to spiritual edification. His narrative is aimed at demonstrating to white Americans the various ways in which they have fallen short in their treatment of American Indians, being guilty of prejudice in a way not in keeping with their Christian beliefs or democratic ideals.
“An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” succeeds because it effectively reverses and juxtaposes the stereotypical portrayals of Euro-Americans and American Indians. Apess takes descriptions of Christian virtues and demonstrates how those qualities are embodied in American Indian people. But even more effectively, Apess takes the characteristics his readers and listeners would relate to barbarism and demonstrates how those descriptions fit Euro-Americans, particularly when it comes to how they treat American Indians. This portrayal is even more convincing and effective when placed in the context of the stories of “Five Christian Indians” that accompanied “Indian’s Looking-Glass” in the same volume. Along with his own brief biography, Apess presents the conversion narratives of four other Pequot Indians. This further reinforces his Christian bona fides by demonstrating the effectiveness of his missionary activities among his own people. By portraying these stories of Christian Indians alongside the characterizations of Euro-Americans as barbaric, Apess effectively combats American society’s racial construction of white superiority and the inferiority of people of color, using a religious rationalization to reinforce the idea that all people are equals before god, regardless of skin color.
Apess begins by acknowledging that the reservations on which his people are forced to live are miserable places, characterized by poverty, vices, and an absence of the means or motivation to improve. Apess lays the blame for each of these squarely on the Euro-American leaders who have placed Indians in such conditions. American Indians, Apess argues, are impoverished because Euro-Americans deprived them of their land and lifestyle, relocating them to places of little opportunity. Vices such as prostitution and alcoholism were unknown to Indian people before the arrival of the white settlers. Any motivation toward enterprise has been taken away by whites who treat the Indians as less than people, with few abilities and not enough opportunities to make a decent living.
Apess is making a conscious choice in “Indian’s Looking-Glass” to hold fast to Christianity as the central motif for a successful future for American Indians, while at the same time discarding the Euro-American culture that had carried Christianity to American shores. While extolling the Christian characteristics of converted Indians, Apess talks of the unprincipled nature of white settlers who live near Indian settlements and the negative influence they exercise upon Indian people. These non-Indians “think it no crime to go upon Indian lands and cut and carry off their most valuable timber, or any thing else they chose,” and the government-appointed agents, whose job it is to ensure the success of the Indians living on the reservations and to protect them from any who would deprive them of their property, “are unfaithful, and care not whether the Indians live or die.”
With the proverbial shoe now firmly on the other foot, Apess proceeds to place Euro-Americans into the role American Indians had been forced to occupy. He asks, rhetorically: “Can you charge the Indians with robbing a nation almost of their whole Continent, and murdering their women and children, and then depriving the remainder of their lawful rights, that nature and God require them to have?” The answer is as obvious to Apess as the crimes of Euro-Americans ought to be. The situation is full of irony, which is the key rhetorical strategy Apess employs. He draws the obvious conclusion from this ironic parallel, when he states: “This is a confused world, and I am not seeking for office; but merely placing before you the black inconsistency that you place before me—which is ten times blacker than any skin that you will find in the Universe.”
But, as Apess argues, even greater than the crimes of property theft that had been perpetrated by Euro-Americans against American Indians was the crime of racial discrimination. This is where Apess will have a more difficult time convincing non-Indian audiences of his cause, as racial language and assumptions about racial characteristics and the superiority of white men were extraordinarily entrenched throughout New England, and usually went unquestioned. Apess destroys this by painting a rhetorical picture of all of the races of the world, and then having all of their crimes written on their skins. He then asks the reader or listener which skin would have the most crimes written upon it, and the answer is obvious.
To Apess, there is only one thing that transcends skin color and overcomes the crimes of the Euro-Americans against his people, and that is the leveling effect of Christianity. Rather than advising his people not to accept Christianity as American Indian spiritual leaders such as Handsome Lake and Tenskwatawa did, Apess gives himself authority as a spokesperson for his people by his espousal of Christianity, and shows Indians as more closely holding to the Bible’s teachings than their Euro-American neighbors. Although Apess begins “Indian’s Looking-Glass” by portraying Indians as the victims of unscrupulous white settlers, his larger strategy is to use the conversion narratives to destroy the image of Indians as passive victims—relics of the past that are to be relegated to the dustbin of history and replaced by a new Christian, Euro-American culture. Rather, he demonstrates Indian agency in his own example as a missionary to his own people, and the conversion narratives he cites demonstrate that Indians are active in creating their own future. Rather than portraying Indians as dying peoples or a bygone culture, Apess portrays an Indian culture that is successfully adapting to Christianity.
The indisputable truth is obvious to Apess, and to his readers or listeners: “Jesus Christ and his Apostles never looked at the outward appearances. Jesus in particular looked at the hearts, and his Apostles through him being discerners of the spirit, looked at their fruit without any regard to the skin, color or nation.” Further, Apess points out that neither Jesus himself nor his apostles were white, so any assumption of moral superiority based on whiteness is immediately discredited. But just in case white audiences are not convinced by the demonstration of morality on the part of the Indians—in case they somehow can hold to an idea of white superiority despite Apess’s evidence—he spells it out for them, stating that if white people alone are to be considered children of god, then “the word of the Lord is not true.”
Though Apess is unflinching in his criticism of Euro-American culture, he remains hopeful in the end, pointing out a number of luminary citizens who had taken up the cause of Indian rights, including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and William Wirt. He concludes by urging his readers and listeners to not lose heart in the fight for equality, and that equality is not only good for Indian people, but good for the nation as a whole. By firmly holding the mantle of Christianity, which was unquestioned in American society at the time, Apess was able to reinforce his own culture.
Though the success of William Apess’s “An Indian Looking-Glass for the White Man” might be questioned, given the unjust government policies toward American Indians that would remain in place for more than a hundred years after Apess’s time, his words remain significant today. After the publication of “Indian Looking-Glass,” Apess continued to tour New England, and, two years later, he supported the nonviolent Mashpee “revolt,” helping the Mashpee tribe in Massachusetts to formulate their grievances to the state government and regain a measure of control over their affairs. Again, pointing out the dissonance between the ideals of the United States and its treatment of American Indians, Apess became a well-known social reformer in New England. His success at gaining public attention for his causes is attested to by the large crowds that came to hear him speak and the press attention he garnered for the Mashpee cause. William Lloyd Garrison, the noted abolitionist leader, even took up the Mashpee cause in the pages of his newspaper, the Liberator. In the specific case of the Mashpee, Apess was effective in helping them regain their right to self-governance.
However, in the larger scheme of national policy, Apess’s success was far more limited. As the eyes of the nation’s reform-minded citizens became more transfixed on the abuses endured by African Americans under slavery, the American Indian cause faded from the national consciousness, not to reappear until after the Civil War. The forcible taking of Indian lands would continue unabated. Though the Indian Removal Act had guaranteed a permanent Indian Territory on land west of the Mississippi River, that promise, like so many others, would be broken. On a personal level, the years between the publication of his autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), and the publication of his historical look at Indian-white relations, Eulogy on King Philip (1836), marked the high point of Apess’s influence. He periodically battled alcoholism throughout his adult life, and it appears that this was a contributing factor in his death from cerebral hemorrhage in 1839. However, reform-minded Americans would periodically revive his works to utilize his rhetorical brilliance, and his use of Euro-Americans’ own religion to demonstrate the injustice of how they treated American Indians remains as trenchant today as it was when he wrote “Indian’s Looking-Glass.”
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