October 23, 2014

Book of the Month: Review of David Silverman's Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America

Review by Matthew W. Dougherty

David J. Silverman Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010)

David J. Silverman’s Red Brethren follows two multi-tribal American Indian communities—the Brothertowns and the Stockbridges— whose westward migrations reveal new facets of religion and race in early America. Silverman argues that these communities used Protestant categories and concepts both to make sense of the racial identity assigned to them in early America and to propel themselves from New England to New York to Wisconsin. Like white Americans, they migrated for complex reasons: Federal pressure to sell their land and encroaching white settlement contributed, but so did their desire to form autonomous Christian communities and missionize “heathen” American Indians. Silverman thus contributes to the story of the west by showing that white Americans were not the only ones who migrated because of a belief in their particular divine mission. Although his view of the churches at the hearts of these communities grows fuzzier along the journey west, his tightly-focused narrative retains its power throughout the book.

The shared history of the Brothertowns and Stockbridges began in the 1770s and 1780s when Christian Indians from a number of northeastern tribes settled in two new communities—Brothertown and New Stockbridge—in Oneida territory. The move west was made in the hope that the new towns would be stable bases for cultural survival and missions to their “red brethren” in non-Christian tribes. Silverman argues that the Brothertowns’ and Stockbridges’ belief that they had something basic in common with non-Christian Iroquois indicates that they accepted the racial designation of “Indian,” yet attached their own meanings to it. They believed, for example, that the racial oppression they suffered resulted from of God’s curse for their ancestors’ disobedience of the commandments, and would end when divine justice was satisfied. But their acceptance and modification of the prevailing racial category of “Indian” was not without cost: Stockbridges and Brothertowns who married African-Americans were often excluded from the tribe and claims on tribal land. That internal division grew stronger as the communities moved farther west in the 1820s. Hoping that another move would provide more security from white settlers and another chance at evangelism, the Brothertowns and Stockbridges negotiated a treaty with the Menominee to allow them to settle along the Fox River in Wisconsin. In 1831, however, pressure from the U.S. government and tensions with the Menominee forced them to move yet again, this time to the shore of Lake Winnebago. Fearing that further land cessions would be forced on them unless they made a radical change, the Brothertown voted to abandon tribal status and become U.S. Citizens in 1839. The Stockbridge followed suit in 1843, but “gave back” their citizenship and resumed tribal governance only three years later. Silverman argues that disputes over citizenship in these communities were also disputes about race. Both those opposed to the idea and those in favor of it referred to taking citizenship as “becoming white” and saw it as an abandonment of legal Indian identity, for better or worse. These issues still haunt the Brothertowns, whose petition for federal recognition was denied by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012 on the basis that their acceptance of citizenship in 1839 had put an end to their tribal identity.
Silverman is fortunate in that the Brothertowns and Stockbridges created an unusually large paper trail. In addition to missionary and government sources, he can draw on the writings of prominent leaders from both communities and on tribal government documents. For the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the copious writings of Brothertown’s founder, Samson Occum, are his main source. After Occum’s death, the paper trail goes on but its character changes: As he follows the story of the Brothertowns and Stockbridges to Wisconsin, Silverman relies more and more frequently on the records of both the tribal and U.S. governments, and has fewer first-person accounts. His choice to focus throughout on the religious and racial self-awareness of community leaders minimizes the shock of the transition, but the loss of Occum as a voluminous, reflective writer and vivid witness does make the latter part of the narrative less immediate and clear-cut.

Silverman’s narrative relies on the category of “Christian Indians” to designate the various Native groups that define themselves at least partly through Christianity in his story. That category fails him, however, in the final chapters of the book. So long as he focuses on New England, the dominance of independent, “New Light” Congregational churches in Christian Native communities ensures that the category “Christian Indian” designates a related set of approaches to religion and community life. As Silverman and other scholars such as Joanna Brooks, Rachel Wheeler, and Linford Fisher have shown, Native-led Congregational churches in New England were in contact with one another, circulated ideas and people, and had distinctive approaches to preserving Native traditions through Christian practice. After the Brothertowns and Stockbridges moved to Wisconsin, however, Baptist and Methodist churches began appearing in their communities, presumably undermining any sense of a unified Christian Indian identity. Silverman’s portrays the development of these separate churches as another sad sign of factionalism (200-202), but doesn’t address how changes in church fellowship and theology might have affected what it meant to be a Christian Indian. For example, did membership in the strongly hierarchical Methodist church constrain Native autonomy more than membership churches governed at the level of the congregation? Did the racial theory of the “curse of God” survive in congregations that moved away from the Reformed theology and Providential view of history underwriting it?  

The fact that we can now ask these questions these about independent Native churches in the west, however, is entirely thanks to Silverman’s groundbreaking work. With careful scholarship and a strong ear for narrative, he has brought to life a story that not only casts light on two remarkable groups whose history challenges many widely-held ideas about American Indian identity, but also persistently and clearly exposes the fault-lines in racial thinking in early America. The re-casting of our stories from the west has brought home the importance of empire, land, and migration as themes in American religious history. Silverman’s book provides a new way of thinking about these themes with a clear, affecting narrative suitable for advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students.