William Apess

“An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man” 1833

William Apess


Although the image above is from William Apess’s autobiography, A Son of the Forest, it serves as one way for us to approach his essay “An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man.” Like many other writers of color during this time period, Apess is careful about how he presents himself to an audience that might be skeptical of his abilities or otherwise resistant to his message. The illustration shows a careful attention to the multiple spaces he inhabits, including his identity (his mother was Native American and his father was a white man), his educational background, and his real-life experiences. This negotiation is equally evident in “An Indian’s Looking Glass,” where Apess skillfully weaves his religious training with real-life examples of conditions on reservations and unfair governmental policies in order to make a powerful statement on behalf of Native Americans.

Discussion Questions

  • Consider how Apess positions himself and his audience. How does he present himself? How does he establish his credibility?
  • Consider how Apess builds his argument, and his use of Christian ideology. Where is he most persuasive?
  • How or why might Apess’s use of the term “looking glass” be important in this context of his essay?
  • How does Apess’s essay engage with the ideas offered by writers like David Cusick or Black Hawk?


An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man

Having a desire to place a few things befare my fellow creatures who are travelling with me to the grave, and to that God who is 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. Now I ask if degradation has not been heaped long enough upon the Indians ? And if so, can there not be a compromise; is it right to hold and promote prejudices ? If not, why not put them all away ? I mean here amongst those who are civilized. It may be that many are ignorant of the situation of many of my brethren within the limits of New England. Let me for a few moments turn your attention to the reservations in the different states of New England, and, with but few exceptions, we shall find them as follows : The most mean, abject, miserable race of beings in the world—a complete place of prodigality and prostitution.

Let a gentleman and lady, of integrity and respectability visit these places, and they would be surprised; as they wandered from one hut to the other they would view with the females who are left alone, children half starved, and some almost as naked as they came into the world. And it is a fact that I have seen them as much so—while the females are left without protection, and are seduced by white men, and are finally left to be common prostitutes for them, and to be destroyed by that burning, fiery curse, that has swept millions, both of red and white men, into the grave with sorrow and disgrace—Rum. One reason why they are left so is, because their most sensible and active men are absent at sea. Another reason is, because they are made to believe they are minors and have not the abilities given them from God, to take care of themselves, without it is to see to a (ew litde articles, such as baskets and brooms. Their land is in common stock, and they have nothing to make them enterprising.

Another reason is because those men who are Agents, many of them are unfaithful, and care not whether the Indians live or die; they are much imposed upon by their neighbors who have no principle. They would 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 I doubt not but they think it clear gain. Another reason is because they have no education to take care of themselves; if they had, I would risk them to take care of their own property.

Now I will ask, if the Indians are not called the most mgenious people amongst us ? And are they not said to be men of talents? And 1 would ask, could there be a more efficient way to distress and murder them by inches than the way they have taken ? And there is no people in the world but who may be destroyed in the same way. Now if these people are what they are held up in our view to be,
I would take the liberty to ask why they are not brouf’ht forward and pains taken to educate them ? to give them all a common education, and those of the brightest and firstrate talents put forward and held up to office. Perhaps some unholy, unprincipled men would cry out, the skin was not good enough; but stop friends—I am not talking about the skin, but about principles. I would ask if there cannot be as good feelings and principles under a red skin as there can be under a white ? And let me ask, is it not on the account of a bad principle, that we who are red children have had to suffer so much as we have? And let me ask, did not this bad principle proceed from the whites or their forefathers? And I would ask, is it worth while to nourish it any longer ? If not, then let us have a change; although some men no doubt will spout their corrupt principles against it, that are in the halls of legislation and elsewhere. But presume this kind of talk will seem surprising andhorrible. I do not see why it should so long as they (the whites) say that they think as much of us as they do of

This I have heard repeatedly, from the most respectable gentlemen and ladies—and having heard so much precept, I should now wish to see the example. And I would ask who has a better right to look for these things than the naturalist himself—the candid man would say none.

I know that many say that they are willing, perhaps the majority of the people, that we should enjoy our rights and privileges as they do. If so, I would ask why are not we protected in our persons and property throughout the Union? Is it not because there reigns in the breast of many who are leaders, a most unrighteous, unbecoming and impure black principle, and as corrupt and unholy as it can be while these very same unfeeling, self-esteemed characters pretend to take the skin as a pretext to keep us from our unalienable and lawful rights ? I would ask you if you would like to be disfranchised from all your rights, merely because your skin is white, and for no other crime? I ‘ll venture to say, these very characters who hold the skin to be such a barrier in the way, would be the first to cry out, injustice awful injustice!

But, reader, I acknowledge that 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. And now let me exhort you to do away that principle, as it appears ten times worse in the sight of God and candid men, than skins of color—more disgraceful than all the skins that Jehovah ever made. 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.

Now let me ask you, white man, if it is a disgrace for to eat, drink and sleep with the image of God, or sit, or walk and talk with them ? Or have you the folly to think that the white man, being one in fifteen or sixteen, are the only beloved images of God ? Assemble all nations together in your imagination, and then let the whites be seated amongst them, and then let us look for the whites, and I doubt not it would be hard finding them; for to the rest of the nations, they are still but a handful. Now suppose these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written upon it—which skin do you think would have the greatest? I will ask one question more. 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 ? And to cap the climax, rob another nation to till their grounds, and welter out their days under the lash with hunger and fatigue under the scorching rays of a burning sun ? I should look at all the skins, and 1 know that when I cast my eye upon that white skin, and if 1 saw those crimes written upon it, I should enter my protest against it immediately, and cleave to that which is more honorable. And I can tell you that I am satisfied with the manner of my creation, fully—whether others are or not.

But we will strive to penetrate more fully into the conduct of those who profess to have pure principles, and who tell us to follow Jesus Christ and imitate him and have his Spirit. Let us see if they come any where near him and his ancient disciples. The first thing we are to look at, are his precepts, of which we will mention a few. ‘ Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two precepts hang all the law and the prophets.—Matt. xxii. 37, 38, 39, 40. By this shall all men know that they are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.’—John xiii. 35. Our Lord left this special command with his followers, that they should love one another. Again, John in his Epistles says, ‘ He who loveth God, loveth his brother also.’—iv. 21. ‘ Let us not love in word but in deed.’—iii. 18. Let your love be without dissimulation. See that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.’—1. Peter, viii. 22. If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.’—John iv. 20, Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer, and no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.’ The first thing that, takes our attention, is the saying of Jesus, ‘ Thou shalt love,’ &,c. The first question I would ask my brethren in the ministry, as well as that of the membership. What is love, or its effects ? Now if they who teach are not essentially affected with pure love, the love of God, how can they teach as they ought? Again, the holy teachers of old said, Now if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his.’—Rom. viii. 9. Now my brethren in the ministry, let me ask you a few sincere questions. Did you ever hear or read of Christ teaching his disciples that they ought to despise one because his skin was different from theirs ? Jesus Christ being a Jew, and those of his Apostles certainly were not whites,—and did not he who completed the plan of salvation complete it for the whites as well as for the Jews, and others ? And were not the whites the most degraded people on the earth at that time, and none were more so; for they sacrificed their children to dumb idols And did not St. Paul labor more abundantly for building up a christian nation amongst you than any of the Apostles. And you know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services, but to a colored one.

What then is the matter now; is not religion the same now under a colored skin as it ever was ? If so I would ask why is not a man of color respected; you may say as many say, we have white men enough. But was this the spirit of Christ and his Apostles? If it had been, there would not have been one white preacher in the world—for Jesus Christ never would have imparted his grace or word to them, for he could forever have withheld it from them. But we find that 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; as St. Paul himself speaks, Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free—but Christ is all and in all.’ If you can find a spirit like Jesus Christ and his Apostles prevailing now in any of the white congregations, I should like to know it. I ask, is it not the case that every body that is not white is treated with contempt and counted as barbarians ? And I ask if the word of God justifies the white man in so doing ? When the prophets prophesied, of whom did they speak ? When they spoke of heathens, was it not the whites and others who were counted Gentiles ? And I ask if all nations with the exception of the Jews were not counted heathens? and according to the writings of some, it could not mean the Indians, for they are counted Jews. And now I would ask, why is all this distinction made among these christian societies? I would ask what is all this ado about Missionary Societies, if it be not to christianize those who are not christians ? And what is it for ? To degrade them worse, to bring them into society where they must welter out their days in disgrace merely because their skin is of a different complexion. What folly it is to try to make the state of human society worse than it is. How astonished some may be at this—but let me ask, is it not so ? Let me refer you to the churches only. And my brethren, is there any agreement? Do brethren and sisters love one another? Do they not rather hate one another. Outward forms and ceremonies, the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eye and pride of life is of more value to many professors, than the love of God shed abroad in their hearts, or an attachment to his altar, to his ordinances or to his children. But you may ask who are the children of God? perhaps you may say none but white. If so, the word of the Lord is not true.

I will refer you to St. Peter’s precepts—Acts 10. ‘ God is no respecter of persons’—&c. Now if this is the case, my white brother, what better are you than God ? And if no belter, why do you who profess his gospel and to have his spirit, act so contrary to it ? Let me ask why the men of a different skin are so dispised, why are not they educated and placed in your pulpits ? I ask if his services well performed are not as good as if a white man performed them 7? I ask if a marriage or a funeral ceremony, or the ordinance of the Lord’s house would not be as acceptable in the sight of God as though he was white ? And if so, why is it not to you ? I ask again, why is it not as acceptable to have men to exercise their office in one place as well as in another? Perhaps you will say that if we admit you to all of these privileges you will want more. I expect that I can guess what that is—Why, say you, there would be intermarriages. How that would be 1 am not able to say—and if it should be, it would be nothing strange or new to me; for I can assure you that I know a great many that have intermarried, both of the whites and the Indians—and many are their sons and daughters—and people too of the first respectability. And I could point to some in the famous city of Boston and elsewhere. You may now look at the disgraceful act in the statute law passed by the Legislature of Massachusetts, and behold the fifty pound fine levied upon any Clergyman or Justice of the Peace that dare to encourage the laws of God and nature by a legitimate union in holy wedlock between the Indians and whites. I would ask how this looks to your law makers. I would ask if this corresponds with your sayings—that you think as much of the Indians as you do of the whites. 1 do not wonder that you blush many of you while you read; for many have broken the ill-fated laws made by man to hedge up the laws of God and nature. I would ask if they who have made the law have not broken it—but there is no other state in New England that has this law but Massachusetts; and I think as many of you do not, that you have done yourselves no credit.

But as I am not looking for a wife, having one of the finest cast, as you no doubt would understand while you read her experience and travail of soul in the way to heaven, you will see that it is not my object. And if I had none, I should not want any one to take my right from me and choose a wife for me; for I think that I or any of my brethren have a right to choose a wife for themselves as well as the whites—and as the whites have taken the liberty to choose my brethren, the Indians, hundreds and thousands of them as partners in life, I believe the Indians have as much right to choose their partners amongst the whites iff they wish. I would ask you if you can see any thing inconsistent in your conduct and talk about the Indians? And if you do, I hope you will try to become more consistent. Now if the Lord Jesus Christ, who is counted by all I to be a Jew, and it is well known that the Jews are a colored people, especially those living in the East, where Christ: was born—and if he should appear amongst us, would he not be shut out of doors by many, very quickly? and by those too, who profess religion?

By what you read, you may learn how deep your principles are. I should say they were skin deep. I should not wonder if some of the most selfish and ignorant would spout a charge of their principles now and then at me. But I would ask, how are you to love your neighbors as yourself? Is it to cheat them? is it to wrong them in any thing? Now to cheat them out of any of their rights is robbery. And
I ask, can you deny that you are not robbing the Indians daily, and many others } But at last you may think I am what is called a hard and uncharitable man. But not so. I believe there are many who would not hesitate to advo–cate our cause; and those too who are men of fame and respectability—as well as ladies of honor and virtue. There is a Webster, an Everett, and a Wirt, and many others who are distinguished characters—^besides an host of my fellow citizens, who advocate our cause daily. And how I congratulate such noble spirits—how they are to be prized and valued; for they are well calculated to promote the happiness of mankind. They well know that man was made for society, and not for hissing stocks and outcasts. And when such a principle as this lies within the hearts of men, how much it is like its God—and how it honors its Maker—and how it imitates the feelings of the good Samaritan, that had his wounds bound up, who had been among thieves and robbers.

Do not get tired, 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 Apes.


An Indian’s Looking Glass for the White Man by William Apes is produced by the Internet Archive and released under a public domain license.


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Open Anthology of American Literature Copyright © 2021 by Farrah Cato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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