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“A Son of the Forest” by William Apess is the first-ever published autobiography written by a Native American. The writing became a central piece in the book On Our Own Ground in which Barry O’Connell compiled and edited all works by Apess. “A Son of the Forest” and other writings included in the book are remarkable in many regards. They tell a story of the early life of a member of the Pequot tribe, William Apess himself, and allow readers to understand the struggles that Native Americans live through in the society that marginalizes ethnic minority groups. Besides, Apess literary pieces provide a critical evaluation of the dominant culture and expose its controversies. While the American culture implies that all individuals are equal and have the same rights, Native Americans and other minority groups have been constantly discriminated against and misrepresented in the public. The description of Apess’ identity formation perfectly demonstrates how Native Americans are affected by the ideas about race conveyed through the dominant culture and it will be discussed in the present paper.
During his childhood, William Apess lived in a family of European American people, the Furmans, and, therefore, he was substantially exposed to the majority culture values. The reason why he was adopted by the family is the incident of child abuse that Apess experienced when his grandmother got drunk and beat him. Apess wrote about his grandparents:
… like all others who are wedded to the beastly vice of intemperance, they would drink to excess whenever they could procure rum, and … they would not only quarrel and fight with each other but would at times turn upon their unoffending grandchildren and beat them in the cruelest manner (p. 5).
As noted by Tiro, alcohol-related violence, which was very common in Native American reservations, made Apess alienated from both his family and the tribe (p. 656). Besides, the memory of the experience made Apess believe in all the stereotypes about Indians as savages and cruel people that were integrated into the dominant culture (Tiro, p. 657). However, although he felt loved initially by the Furmans, Apess later realized that, like other whites, they defined him by his race since Mr. Furman removed him from the family one day (Tiro, p. 657). Thus, the boy became both detached from the tribal culture and rejected by the European American culture and had to reinvent his identity.
The incident with alcohol abuse and domestic violence may verify the negative stereotypes about Native Americans. Nevertheless, it may be argued that these phenomena are rather the consequences of the constant mistreatment of Indians by the majority population. As Apess wrote in “Son of the Forest,” “the Indian character … has been greatly misrepresented” in various American media (p. 60). At the same time, Native Americans themselves did not have sufficient resources to tell and publish their own stories and, therefore, “a tale of blood and woe has never been known to the public” (Apess, p. 60). Apess himself learned more about this tale later in life when he became a Methodist and when he traveled across native reservations while performing the missionary work. As a result, Methodism, which he discovered when living among whites, and his ethnicity both strongly influenced the formation of his identity.
Overall, William Apess’s autobiography, which was included in On Our Own Grounds by Barry O’Connell, shows that even though the American culture always promoted democracy and praised equality, in reality, many people were discriminated against on a racial basis. The members of the mistreated groups who live in such a controversial situation adapt to it by using disparate means. While some resort to substance abuse, others choose more positive means. In the case of Apess, the religion that he discovered while living in the white community served as such a means. Besides, after being exposed to negative stereotypes about Native Americans, Apess reclaimed his tribal identity and found out that they were constantly misrepresented in the American culture. Thus, his autobiographic writing may be viewed as the first serious attempt to restore the Indian image.
- Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Edited by Barry O’Connell, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
- Tiro, Karim M. “Denominated ‘SAVAGE’: Methodism, Writing, and Identity in the Works of William Apess, a Pequot.” American Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 1996, pp. 653-679.