Samson Occom's Dream

Paul Harvey

I blogged about this collection a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, but time to do so again as I'm going through it now more carefully and thoroughly: Joanna Brooks, ed., the Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America (with a foreword by Native American scholar Robert Warrior) -- Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.

Occom is best-known as the student (and later critic) of Eleazar Wheelock, and Indian emissary for Moor's Indian Charity School in England for two years before returning to New England for a career as a minister, author of hymns, and increasingly bitter critic of the treatment accorded to himself and his people. He was the author of a short autobiography and a classic address at an eighteenth-century execution, "A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, An Indian," from 1772. Those are of course reprinted here (the autobiography in 2 drafts, showing the handwritten amendments that you don't see in other reprintings).

What is especially fascinating here, though, are not the pieces that have dominated reprintings of Occom's work elsewhere, but the extensive letters, petitions, tribal documents, diary entries, and sermons, which document the daily texture of Occom's life. Brooks provides a splendid introduction which sets Occom in a different context than we see him in other literature:

Occom thought of himself first as a Mohegan with profound responsibilities to his own tribal community and to American Indian people in general. He was an herbal doctor, a hunter, a fisherman, a father, a husband, a tribal leader, and an intertribal political figure as well as an ordained Presbyterian minister, a schoolteacher, and an itinerant minister. . . . He could write a letter, preach a sermon, or tell a story by carving a box. . . Occom's elm bark box reminds us that English language literacy did not cancel out other forms of Native writing. It emblematizes the fullness, the richness, and the complexity of the thought-worlds inhabited by Occom and other early American Indian writers and intellectuals.

Occom left behind the "largest extant body of writing produced by an American Indian author before Santee Sioux intellectual Charles Eastman (1858-1939) began his writing career . . . " This volume is a much purchase for your university library, and a painstaking work of scholarly/literary recovery that brings to life a figure who often frustrates or disappoints readers who encounter him in the sparse documents reprinted in many anthologies.

Just as a taste, here is Occom's recording of a dream he had in 1786, of his friend George Whitefield, the famous evangelist and "divine dramatist" of the Great Awakening:

Last night I had a remarkable dream about [Mr] Whitefield. I thought he was preaching as he use to, when he was alive, I thought he was at a certain place where there was a great Number of Indians and Some White People - - and I had been Preaching, and he came to me, and took hold of my wright Hand and he put his face to my face, and rub'd his face to mine and Said, -- I am glad that you preach the Excellency of Jesus Christ yet, and Said, go on and the Lord be with thee, we Shall now Soon done, and then he Strechd himself upon the ground flat on his face and reachd his hands forward, and mad a mark with his Hand, and Said I will out doe and over reach all Sinners, and I thought he Barked like a Dog, with a Thundering Voice.

Here's a description of the work from its Oxford page:

This volume brings together for the first time the known writings of the pioneering Native American religious and political leader, intellectual, and author, Samson Occom (Mohegan; 1723-1792). The largest surviving archive of American Indian writing before Charles Eastman (Santee Sioux; 1858-1939), Occom's writings offer unparalleled views into a Native American intellectual and cultural universe in the era of colonialization and the early United States. His letters, sermons, journals, prose, petitions, and hymns--many of them never before published--document the emergence of pantribal political consciousness among the Native peoples of New England as well as Native efforts to adapt Christianity as a tool of decolonialization. Presenting previously unpublished and newly recovered writings, this collection more than doubles available Native American writing from before 1800.


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