Native American Contact Zones

  • Cabeza de Vaca, from The Relation of Álvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1540s)
  • Bartolomé de las Casas, from The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation  of the Indies (1550s)
  • John Smith, from The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
  • Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)
  • Cotton Mather, “A Notable Exploit: Dux Faemina Facti,” Hannah Dustan’s Captivity Account (1702)
  • The Iroquois Creation Story, from David Cusick’s Sketches of Ancient History of Six Nations (1828)
  • The Cherokee Memorials (1829)
  • William Apess, “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” (1833)
  • Black Hawk’s Autobiography (1833)

In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt explains that contact zones are:

social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination. [….] “Contact zone” in my discussion is often synonymous with “colonial frontier.” But while the latter term is grounded within a European expansionist perspective […], “contact zone” shifts the center of gravity and the point of view. It invokes the space and time where subjects previously separated by geography and history are co-present, the point in which their trajectories now intersect. The term “contact” foregrounds the interactive, improvisational dimensions of imperial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by accounts of conquest and domination told from the invader’s perspective. A “contact” perspective emphasizes how subjects get constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees” not in terms of separateness, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, and often within radically asymmetrical relations of power.

Pratt’s description of the contact zone is a useful way to think about the texts collected in this section. Contact zones, she explains, are moments of imperial conflict, where people from widely different backgrounds and beliefs must figure out how to negotiate the “new” space that has been created once they have come into contact with one another. Pratt doesn’t suggest that we ignore the power differences, which she calls “highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.” Rather, she argues that we should examine those colonial spaces closely, as well as each of the voices that are involved in those encounters. Investigating those moments of contact, or “co-presence,” “intersection, and “interaction,” may give us a clearer picture of what transpired on all sides.

Such a lens will be useful for the texts included in this section. There are a variety of voices here, including Native Americans, Europeans, men, and women. Several texts are captivity narratives, while others are political documents, and others are autobiography. The texts also span several hundred years, including initial contact between Native Americans and Spanish and English colonists, as well as the period of Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal Policy. Some , such as the Iroquois Creation Story that David Cusick includes in his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations are oral texts that are our earliest examples of American literature, predating the arrival of European explorers. Collectively, these varied texts and voices should give you a glimpse into what we might call a Native American contact zone. As you read, it may help you to keep the following questions in mind:

  • How does each author describe the space of the contact zone? How do they explain the “interactions,” “co-presence,” or “improvisational dimensions” that they have experienced?
  • How might we understand these texts as part of a larger conversation? In other words, in what ways do these authors seem to be responding to one another, whether directly or indirectly?
  • Many of these texts are first-person, historical accounts. Consider how these authors present themselves: how do they establish their credibility? What image do you think each is trying to project, and why might that particular image be important in the context of the narrative as a whole?

How are these texts defining what counts as American? How do you see that definition changing from the earlier texts to the later ones?


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Open Anthology of American Literature by Farrah Cato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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