Christopher Densmore. Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999. xxvi + 166 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8156-0548-5; $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8156-2785-2.
Reviewed by Dean R. Snow (Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-AmIndian (May, 2000)
A Tribute to an Iroquois Orator
Among the lionized leaders of American Indian nations is the Seneca orator Shagoye:wa:tha' (Keeper Awake), better known today as Red Jacket (1758-1830). He rose to prominence during the three-way struggle between the United States, the western Indians, and the Iroquois of New York, the last a confederacy that included the Senecas. He gained further prominence for his 1812 wartime diplomacy and his role in various treaties and land transactions that nearly obliterated the Senecas.
Red Jacket was not without his flaws, often called a coward, a blowhard, and a schemer during his career. He participated in the War of 1812 on the American side. But his critics argued that he never allowed himself to be in harm's way. While Iroquois on both sides were whooping it up, Red Jacket spent his time trying to find ways to keep them out of battle, or at least unlikely to harm each other. Maybe this was unheroic, but wasn't it good politics? Perhaps in the real world, but mythologized individuals are held to a higher standard. Even Arthur Parker, a twentieth-century archaeologist of Seneca descent, argued that had it not been for his flaws Red Jacket might have been appointed an Iroquois League chief by the Seneca matrons. Whether or not that was the reason, Red Jacket always played the roles of orator and occasional ad hoc leader.
What counted was that Red Jacket understood the peculiar bargain the United States had made when the constitution reserved to Congress the power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." The Indian tribes were thus defined somehow like sovereign nations but at the same time dependent nations that either were already within or were potentially within the boundaries of the United States. Red Jacket understood sooner than most that only the Federal government could treat with Indian nations, and he used that and other understandings to advantage the people he represented. He understood the value of political expediency, shifting his position on religion, farming practices, and land deals to suit circumstances. He even understood that it was better to be a signatory to bad deals than to give the appearance of being out of the loop by refusing to sign at all. It was this latter trait that led him to be regarded as vacillating, duplicitous, or even cowardly by some of his contemporaries.
Red Jacket's later reputation rested upon three speeches that were published and widely circulated soon after he gave them. He had some command of English, but his speeches were always delivered in Seneca. Published versions were filtered through translators, at least some of whom might have had their own agendas. The three key speeches were delivered in 1805 (to Rev. Cram) and 1811 (to Rev. Alexander and Mr. Richardson respectively). In them Red Jacket brilliantly exposed the hubris, hypocrisy, and inconsistencies of Christian missionaries, to the delight of a large fraction of the American public. We are reminded that already in the early nineteenth century there were non-Indians in the East that were ready to embrace a romanticized vision of the noble Indian, and Red Jacket was a ready icon.
Christopher Densmore includes translations of all three speeches as appendices (Seneca versions do not exist). Curiously, the first of them was first published anonymously and with some factual errors in 1809. Not only might this version have been doctored for publication, but numerous subsequent republications have been further edited in various ways. Densmore found a manuscript version of the same speech in Buffalo. It is attributed to Israel Chapin, who had been present in 1805, and it differs considerably from the 1809 published version. Densmore does not include the Chapin version on grounds that the famous published version does not contain anything that Red Jacket did not say on one occasion or another. Still, I wish that the Chapin version had been included so that readers could judge for themselves how many liberties "anonymous" might have taken with the original. No doubt it falls short of the egregious misrepresentations of Chief Seattle's words in the twentieth century, but it is bothersome nevertheless. This is particularly so because so few basic facts about Red Jacket's life can be confirmed.
Densmore has written a sober antidote to the traditional image of Red Jacket as romanticized symbol of the noble Iroquois chief. While a few nihilists might argue that he has only substitute a new biased version of Red Jacket for the old one, this book gets us closer to an objective view of the man. Densmore has given us a fine biography of a savvy politician who knew that heros often die young and not infrequently in vain. Red Jacket lived a long life and did his astute best under difficult political circumstances.
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