A rare find: Amherst College acquires comprehensive collection of Native American writing

Laste modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013
One title has a handmade binding of birch bark and a cover decorated with porcupine quills. Another, ragged with age, contains a famous funeral sermon given in 1772 by Samson Occom, a Mohegan who became the first American Indian to publish his writings in English. Then there’s the bevy of work by Charles Eastman, the American Indian man of letters who lived in Amherst in the early 20th century.

They’re all part of what scholars and librarians at Amherst College say is one of the most significant collections of American Indian writing in existence — a collection the college has acquired through the help of a former student and a local rare bookseller. With some 1,500 titles — novels, biographies, poetry, tribal histories and memoirs, political tracts, sermons — the collection will be a huge benefit to the school’s Native American Indian Studies program, professors say, and not due to numbers alone: It’s made up entirely of writing by American Indians about American Indians.

“It’s an absolutely unique resource,” said Barry O’Connell, professor emeritus of English at Amherst and the founder of the Native American Indians Studies program, which is now a Five College program. “It will provide a very visible example of the breadth of Native American writing, which is something many people aren’t aware of.”

“In terms of its scope and size, it’s the most complete collection [of American Indian writing] in one place that we’re aware of,” added Michael Kelly, the head of Archives and Special Collections at Frost Library.

Kelly notes that the materials date from the 1700s up to the present day, including items that can’t be found in other major collections of American Indian writing, such as at Yale and Dartmouth.

“It’s really comprehensive,” he said. “It has books that are incredibly hard to find, that were published in very small numbers, on small presses, and it has more well-known materials ... there’s also very little duplication with Native writing [the library] already had.”

About 900 of the volumes are fiction and 600 nonfiction; some copies are signed. Included are first editions of books by modern writers like Sherman Alexie (“Reservation Blues”) and Martin Cruz Smith (author of the “Gorky Park” series of crime novels set in Russia) as well as some of the earliest Native American writers such as William Apess, a member of the Pequot nation in Massachusetts in the early 1800s.

For Lisa Brooks and Kiara Vigil, who both teach Native American studies at Amherst, this new treasure trove — the collection, housed at Frost Library, is still being inventoried — has an emotional appeal as well.

“To have all this writing here is beyond exciting,” said Vigil, who teaches American Studies. She points to an original handbook created in 1926 by Gertrude Bonnin, a Sioux writer and activist of the early 20th century for the National Council of American Indians.

Vigil notes that Bonnin’s life and writings formed a big part of a book she wrote several years ago on American Indian intellectuals of the late 1800s and early 1900s: “To hold an original piece of her writing in my hand means so much to me.”

Costly collection

Kelly said he learned of the collection a little over a year ago from Ken Lopez, a Hadley bookseller who deals in rare books and manuscripts, first editions and other speciality items. Lopez was acting as the broker for the collection’s owner, Georgetown University scholar Pablo Eisenberg, who wanted to sell the books — but only under the condition it be sold in its entirety.

“It was very intriguing, and I can see why in retrospect you’d want to keep this collection together,” Kelly said. But the asking price — $225,000 — was steep.

It wasn’t clear that the school would be able or willing to make that purchase itself, Kelly noted. But after he mentioned the issue at a meeting of alumni and other supporters of the Frost Library, Younghee Kim-Wait, a 1982 Amherst graduate, got in touch with library officials and said she and her husband, who collect American Indian books and artifacts themselves, would help with the purchase.

“We’re extremely grateful,” Kelly said. The college will cover $100,000 of the collection’s cost over the next two years.

For Barry O’Connell, the Native Studies Program founder, the value of the collection lies partly in its mere existence: Few people realize, he says, that some Native tribes not only learned how to write and speak English much earlier than is commonly believed, but also developed their own written languages.

The Cherokee, as one example, developed “a very complex [written] language,” O’Connell said, and many of their leaders were also bilingual, speaking and writing English as well. “It was a survival tool ... developing their own language and learning English gave them additional ways to record their story” at a time when the lives of so many American Indians were being uprooted by relentless white settlement.

“There’s a very long literary tradition in Native American writing,” added Lisa Brooks, who teachers English and American studies and co-chairs the Native Studies program.

Brooks and Vigil say they’ve already incorporated some of the materials into their Native American courses, and they’re taking students to see the collection firsthand. In addition, the two teachers are planning classes for next year that will be built entirely around books from the collection.

“There’s so much to draw on,” Vigil said.

There’s a particularly good sample of books by Charles Eastman, who was born in Minnesota in 1858 of Sioux and Anglo-American ancestry. He later became a doctor and a prolific writer, penning over 10 books — novels, a memoir and studies of Indian culture — and becoming a national lecturer and figure in the early 1900s. He lived in Amherst during much of the first two decades of the 1900s, when he wrote most of his books.

Once the entire collection has been cataloged and digitized, Kelly said, the library plans to display some of the materials in a public exhibit; other plans include bringing in Native American speakers for presentations about the materials.

“It’s going to be a great resource for students, for scholars, for the whole community,” Kelly said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more about the collection, visit www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/nativeamericanlit.