Symbolic Suicide as Mortification, Transformation, and Counterstatement

The Conciliatory (Yet) Resistant Surrender of Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak

Jason Edward Black, University of Alabama

Abstract: This essay explores how Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak’s (Chief Black Hawk) surrender rhetoric unfolded through mortification and transformation devices, whereby he began to transition from chief to dependent and Native to American. The chief-as-agent committed a form of symbolic suicide—according to popular histories and narratives—to alleviate the Sauk’s guilt over having violated the authority of the U.S.’s Indian Removal Act (1830). While this assessment is partially apt, I alternatively argue that Black Hawk’s symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed a subaltern resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender. He preserved Sauk sovereignty through a type of American/Native hybridity that allowed him to offer a defiant counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification. The essay proceeds by analyzing Black Hawk’s discourse through the frames of mortification, transformation and cultural hybridity. Finally, implications are offered to assess the role of symbolic suicide in identity transformation.

IN THE SPRING OF 1832, a band of the Sauk Nation—under the leadership of Maka-tai-mesh-ekia-kiak (Chief Black Hawk)—journeyed east from an Iowa reservation to their former Rock River, Illinois home. Violating President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, Black Hawk sought a reprieve from the disease, starvation, and spiritual separation suffered by his nation following its new life on the reservation.1 The return was instigated as a peaceful means of survival; that is, Black Hawk’s intentions involved neither symbolic protest nor physical assault on the white settlers already squatting on the land previously occupied by the Sauk.

Whites, along with frontier forces, however, viewed the homecoming as a sign of savage encroachment—the commencement of an “aggressive warpath.”2 Black Hawk recalls Major General Edmund Gaines asking one last time for the Sauk’s removal: “I came here, nether to beg nor hire you to leave your village,” Gaines exhorted. “My business is to remove you, peaceably if I can, but forcibly if I must! I will give you two days to remove—and if you do not cross the Mississippi within that time, I will adopt measures to force you away!”3 Two days passed, and still Black Hawk’s nation refused to budge. Following suit, President Jackson’s troops engaged the Sauk in a bloody battle that ended the following August with 300 Natives dead, hundreds wounded, and the nation permanently displaced from its spiritual home.4 The Black Hawk War, as it came to be known, lasted merely fifteen weeks, but impaired a centuries-old indigenous community.

According to popular reports, Black Hawk surrendered in early September 1832 under a veil of shame and despondence.5 He noted in his autobiography the gravity of the war’s end and significance of the Sauk’s defeat:

I surveyed the country that had cost us so much trouble, anxiety, and blood, and now caused me to be a prisoner of war…and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village, pride and graveyards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.6

Sauk identity suffered a dismal fate following the Black Hawk War; the Nation was robbed of its land, heritage, and pride in one fell swoop. With America’s physical and social robbery eminent, Black Hawk delivered an address entitled, “Farewell to Black Hawk” to finalize his surrender.

Black Hawk’s tribulations did not end, however, with his departing speech. First, federal Indian agents forced him to sign the Treaty of 1832, which officially removed the Sauk Nation and “by which the tribe paid an indemnity for expenses incurred in this Black Hawk War.”7 Second, a buffer zone between the Sauk’s Iowa reservation and their Rock River, Illinois encampment was established to prevent Black Hawk from returning to his ancestral home.8 Third, after several months in isolation at Jackson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, the great chief was summoned, literally, to Jackson’s feet in Washington City. The purpose of the meeting was to issue a severe tongue-lashing, assuring that the Chief “learned his lesson” in the wake of the war. 9 Jackson then conducted Black Hawk “through some of our great towns” in order that the Chief experience “the strength of the white people” and see “that our [United States’] young men are as numerous, as the leaves in the woods.” He asked, “What can you [Black Hawk] do against us?”10 Black Hawk’s meeting with Jackson, his ensuing tour, his capitulation speech and his subsequent autobiography embodied the Chief’s surrender rhetoric.

Tales of American Indian demise and removal are not uncommon. As U.S. frontier history reveals, hundreds of American Indian nations were displaced. Moreover, General (and later, President) Jackson’s so-called “indian hunters” squashed dozens of Native insurrections generated in the years between the War of 1812 and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.11 The recovery and examination of American Indian oratory is important, though, and in the episode of Black Hawk’s surrender we find a rich sampling of Native leadership and voice. Black Hawk delivered his farewell address—upon his capture by white-friendly Winnebagos—and accepted (perhaps halfheartedly) Jackson’s admonitory talk and penalizing “trip” around the United States to complete the physical and symbolic end of Black Hawk-as-chief in September 1832.12 The following year, he published his autobiography. His speech, in particular, is noted as “one of the most touching of the recorded Indian speeches.” 13

Black Hawk’s farewell address and surrender rhetoric are best understood with the aid of Kenneth Burke’s system of rhetoric and conceptions of cultural hybridity.14 Black Hawk’s surrender unfolded through mortification and transformation devices, whereby he began to transition from chief to dependent and Native to American. According to popular histories, the chief-as-agent committed a form of symbolic suicide, in part, to alleviate the guilt over having violated the authority of Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, though that was but a legislative device designed to assert white control over the Sauk Nation. While this assessment is apt, I alternatively argue that Black Hawk’s symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed a subaltern resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender. He preserved Sauk sovereignty15 through his newly-acquired Native/American hybridity that allowed him to offer a defiant double-tongued counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification. The essay proceeds by analyzing Black Hawk’s discourse, and revealing the entailments of the Chief’s symbolic suicide, through the frames of mortification, transformation and cultural hybridity. Finally, implications are offered to assess the role of symbolic suicide in identity transformation.

Black Hawk’s Symbolic Suicide

Black Hawk alluded to his own guilt throughout the many phases of his surrender rhetoric. The Chief chose to victimize himself instead of his nation, and blamed the Sauk’s defeat on his own lack of military leadership: “Farewell my nation! Black Hawk tried to save you and avenge your wrongs. He drank the blood of some of the whites. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more! He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black Hawk.” 16 Black Hawk’s conciliatory surrender here—for he, indeed, bid adieu to himself as chief—is illuminated by Burke’s notion of mortification. According to Burke, with mortification

[w]e have in mind the Grand Meaning, “the subjection of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted on the body,” mortification as a kind of governance, an extreme form of “self-control,” the deliberate, disciplinary “slaying” of any motive that, for “doctrinal” reasons, one thinks of as unruly.17

Black Hawk, in order to save his nation from blame and outright conquest, paid the ultimate penance with his life; he scapegoated, and thereupon destroyed, himself through a rhetoric of suicide. Consequently, Black Hawk “rises no more,” “his sun is setting,” and “his heart is dead and no longer beats in his bosom.” 18

Black Hawk seemed to have carried Burke’s order-guilt-purification cycle to its fullest consummation. Experiencing guilt over “keeping the Sauk band together” one last time, and violating Jackson’s Removal Act, the Chief was compelled to choose an act that restored order to American hierarchy and Sauk sovereignty.19 Rather than engaging in a victimage of his nation, he tied its fall to his poor decision-making. Accordingly, we find Black Hawk’s self-deprecating remarks in his autobiography: “I felt the humiliation of my situation: a little while before, I had been the leader of my braves, now I was a prisoner of war…[;] this was extremely mortifying.”20 The Chief’s symbolic suicide additionally established order within the Sauk Nation. For, if the Sauk were convinced that Black Hawk remained at fault, they might continue embracing the positive qualities of the nation, as “no coward,” “dutiful,” “true Indian,” and “commendable.”21 In sum, Black Hawk’s cycle fit into Burke’s conceptions of guilt and redemption. Burke writes, “if we are right in assuming that governance (authority) makes ‘naturally’ for victimage, either of others (homicidally) or of ourselves (suicidally), then we may expect to encounter many situations in which a man, by attitudes of self-repression, often causes or aggravates his own bodily or mental ills.”22 Indeed, Black Hawk demonstrated his own guilt and attempted to shed his “mental ills” by transforming his identity to meet the demands of the United States.

At the same time that the Chief’s mortification and transformation pointed to a conciliatory surrender, it also enacted a covert resistance. Rather than limiting or weakening Sauk empowerment through surrender, Black Hawk constructed the nation “as a more or less unrestricted actor in shaping (their) own life and a more general social destiny.”23 This enhanced view of tribal agency allowed the Sauk to “experience being a particular subject” for themselves instead of “becoming a subject” of the United States.24 In a word, Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric manifested a hybrid double-vocality whereby “within a single discourse one voice is able to unmask the other” and create a self-sovereign voice.25

For instance, one of Black Hawk’s main epideictic motives in his “Farewell” oration (in addition to capitulating surrender) centered on memorializing his warriors and, more generally, the Sauk Nation. Though they had suffered defeat, Black Hawk remembered their stoic nature and strong will exhibited in battle. He claimed that when the Black Hawk War ended, the Sauk may have perished physically, but not spiritually; true, the Sauk were now prisoners of the United States and may have been beaten, enslaved, or exterminated. Regardless, though, Black Hawk exhorted: “He [the Sauk warrior] can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward ... [he] is an Indian! He has done nothing for which an Indian ought to be ashamed!”26 Facing abuse and possible death, he harkened back to the past: remember, Black Hawk said, the Sauk are strong, proud and righteous.

Perhaps with this memory of their heritage, Black Hawk’s warriors could remain strong even in defeat, never buckling physically or giving in passively to the United States. Black Hawk continued, “The spirit of our fathers arose and spoke to us to avenge the wrongs or die…. He is satisfied. He will go to the world of the spirits contented. He has done his duty. His father will meet him there and commend him.”27 Black Hawk reminded the defeated Sauk of the reasons they fought, and the explanations as to why they might likely die. Invoking the “spirits of our fathers,” the Chief waxed nostalgic, connecting the Sauk cause with the past by way of a moral inheritance to the pride, sacrifices and legacies of the nation’s ancestors. Regardless of the war’s outcome he implied that the Sauk had done as their forebears would have done; Black Hawk’s warriors are then to be commended, they are righteous, and they will be rewarded. The Chief understood that the Sauk would never be the same, but that their defeat could not diminish the nation’s past. Hence, he memorialized them as valiant and fearless.

Ostensibly, Black Hawk crafted a “doubleness” that brought together, fused “but also maintain[ed] the separation” of concession and self-agency in one message. 28 The following two sections, therefore, elaborate on the Chief’s conciliation and resistance throughout his transformations.

Transformation from Sauk Chief to Dependent American

Paying a penance, or exacting self-atonement, forms the core act of the mortification device in ritual purification.29 The self becomes, what Burke contends, an empty cipher one fills with guilt and sin: “So we get to the ‘scapegoat,’ the ‘representative,’ or ‘vessel,’ of certain unwanted evils, the sacrificial animal upon whose back the burden of evils is ritualistically loaded.”30 Rather than killing himself literally, Black Hawk rid the Sauk Nation—and the United States—of his tainted Black Hawk-as-warrior persona by transforming himself into the quintessential “good Indian.” Such an oratorical transformation accomplished his symbolic suicide. Burke discusses symbolic suicide as an amalgamation of old identity and new identity. Consider his comments in Philosophy of Literary Form:

We should also note that a change in identity, to be complete from the familistic point of view, would require nothing less drastic than a complete change of substance…a thorough job of symbolic rebirth would require the revision of one’s ancestral past itself…. Hence, from this point of view, we might interpret symbolic parricide as simply an extension of symbolic suicide, a more thoroughgoing way of obliterating the substance of one’s identity—while, as we have said before, this symbolic suicide would be but one step in a process which was not completed until the substance of the abandoned identity had been replaced by the substance of a new identity.31

Symbolic suicide, here, involves a transformation of identity that alters “one’s ancestral past itself” and reconfigures “the substance of one’s identity.” Penance for Black Hawk arose in the form of such transformations.

Black Hawk first transformed himself from a paternal to dependent figure. Cultural critics argue that the parent-child relationship works, now and in the past, to move American Indian cultures away from the so-called “savage” realm and toward a more civilized (western) ethos. Dominance mounts, in part, when Americans employ naming to possess the other. Western law allows parents to control their children (a form of possession). Such power is encouraged as a socio-legal duty, and its abrogation is likewise punished, as when a court fines or jails parents for the illicit actions of “their” children. Labeling American Indians “children,” then, provided nineteenth century America the license to possess them as such. Todorov contends that custody comes about rhetorically. He harkens back to early Westernization of Native peoples wherein “others’ words interest him (the Westerner) very little…. He seeks to give things the right names. Nomination is equivalent to taking possession.”32 In the same way that naming a child symbolically transfers control to a parent, so too does the establishment of a parent-child relationship provide America with cultural possession.

Patriarchal metaphors, thus, permitted the United States to decide the interests of American Indians. When naming prompted the de-legitimization of Native identity as “child-like,” American Indians could no longer make decisions; they became cultures of the perpetual “underaged.” Given this construction, Morris and Wander argue that Natives’ “resources, intelligence and rhetorical capacities are limited; and, consequently, [their] values and interests are best determined by others who are in a better position to decide such things.”33 By convincing Natives of their fatherliness, Jackson and like-minded Indian agents seized control over the Sauk Nation and others. Paternalism, thus, spiraled into a justifiable form of dominance. 34

Black Hawk accepted this transformation, mainly by submitting to Jackson’s dominance during their meeting of 25 April 1833. Jackson greeted Black Hawk with an admonitory tone: “You will go to Fort Monroe and remain there until I give you permission to leave. Your captivity is conditional upon the Sac and Fox warriors and the diminution of all bad feeling which has led to the bloody scenes on the frontier.”35 Here we see the paternal strategy of granting permission and holding a ward in captivity. Such language paralleled a fatherly lecture that denied permission, say, to leave the house and instead “grounded” the “red child” to his room (or, in the nineteenth century case, the reservation). Black Hawk, admitting “[I] gave myself up to the American war chief, and died,” accepted Jackson’s instructional demands as atonement for his past violations of the white authoritarian order.36 All Black Hawk responded with was: “I concluded it best to obey our Great Father and say nothing contrary to his wishes.” 37

Black Hawk converted from chief to dependent during this first transformation. Jackson became paternal and gained the moniker “Great Father,” replacing Black Hawk’s earlier description of him as the brutal enemy, Jacksa Chula Harjo—the infamous “Sharp Knife.” 38 The Chief chose to listen to and behave for his so-called father; if Black Hawk failed to embrace his new reliant role, Jackson warned that he would “send a force which will severely punish [he and the Sauk] for [their] cruelties.” 39 Jackson continued, “Bury the tomahawk and live in peace with the frontier,” to which Black Hawk replied: “My Father, my ears are open to your words…. I did not behave last summer…. I will remember your words. I won’t go to war again.” 40 Within this exchange, we find the Chief fulfilling his augmented roles of the “good Indian” and the apologetic ward. Such compliance differed greatly from Black Hawk’s earlier war rhetoric of obstinacy and independence. 41 Overtly, he accepted Jackson’s power position as “patriarch” and communicated as a child to his “Great Father.” 42

Burke suggests seeing through such “structural analysis of the symbolic act, not only the matter of ‘what equals what,’ but also the matter of ‘from what to what.’” 43 Tracking the Chief’s identity from warrior-leader to America’s dependent helps determine his self-inflicted punishment. In his parent-child metaphors, we “detect, under various guises” the transformation “of an old self, in symbolic suicide.” 44 The reduction to “child-like” assisted Black Hawk in fulfilling his mortification and by reconfiguring his old roles.

In consummating his mortification, Black Hawk openly killed his own “Indian-ness” through a symbolic suicide. For instance, he agreed to take a tour of the United States sponsored by Andrew Jackson as both a fear and conversion tactic. The tour through “civilized white” cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Albany, Buffalo and Green Bay functioned as proof of American ingenuity and strength—a deterrent to future Sauk insurgences—and as a “vision quest” for Black Hawk in becoming “like the white man.” 45 Jackson explained to the Chief: “Major Garland will conduct you through some of our great towns. You will see the strength of the white people. You will see that our young men are as numerous as leaves in the woods…. You may kill a few women and children, but such a force would be soon sent against you, as would destroy your whole tribe.” 46 Black Hawk responded plainly, “I shall hold you by the hand.” 47 Perhaps Black Hawk viewed the trip as a rite of passage from Native to American. He took in the sights of America’s cities and was awestruck by the progress and automation he witnessed. He was so taken, that he agreed “to remember what he saw” and would later argue on behalf of adopting white ways.48 Ostensibly, Black Hawk altered his Native identity—which, in the past, had included avoiding American culture—and walked “hand-in-hand” with the U.S. government. 49

The Chief, additionally, became a bridge between the American Indian and European worlds following the tour. Jackson wanted him to report back to the Sauk and various other nations (e.g., the Winnebago of Iowa and Illinois) the strength of America. Hence, the Chief would spread not only fear of American authority, but also the word of civilization and technology. Black Hawk as a hybrid leader would then “infect” American Indians with his experiences. Burke argues that identity change must be sought by taking “it back into the ground of its existence, the logical ancestor that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then he may return, this time emerging with non-A instead.” 50 In this sense, Black Hawk diluted his “Sauk-ness,” but embraced just enough to enter indigenous cultures with his new experiences as a converted American. 51

The Treaty of 1832—the official document that transferred Sauk land to the United States—offers another glimpse into Black Hawk’s transformed character. In exchange for nearly 400 square miles of land along the Rock River, Black Hawk accepted Western gifts such as American money, “one additional Black and Gun Smith shop, with the necessary tools, iron, and steel” and a yearly allowance “of forty kegs of tobacco, and forty barrels of salt.” 52 Granted, Black Hawk had little choice in signing the treaty. What other alternatives did Black Hawk have to consider? 53 Still, Black Hawk’s acceptance and subsequent use of Western products and utilities demonstrated his movement toward accepting the cultural precepts of American culture. As Whitt argues, such acceptance of assimilatory materialism transformed nineteenth century identity from an old to a new self: “A form of oppression exerted by a dominant society upon other cultures, cultural imperialism secure[d] and deepen[ed] the subordinated status of those [Native] cultures.”54

Black Hawk’s transformations seemed visible following his tour-as-conversion and the signing of the Treaty of 1832. Though perceptible, however, transformations are never complete, uncomplicated or rigid. Rather, as Kohrs Campbell contends of cultural subject-positions: “they are, simultaneously, obstacles and opportunities, but they are shifting, not fixed, identities.”55 What makes identity so fascinating might be the Burkean notion of “permanence and change” that accounts for a critic’s ability to observe identities at a synchronic moment while concurrently tracking transformations of subject-positions diachronically and across rhetorical situations.

Hybridity, Counterstatement, and Resistance

Transformations of identity are translated and understood through discourse; after all, subject-positions are communicated through oral, textual, visual and performative means of expression. In the case of U.S.-Native relations, transformations occur through a type of cultural hybridization. According to Kaup and Rosenthal, “the encounter between indigenous peoples” and white Americans “represents one of the main cultural stages of…crossbreeding in America.” 56 Such encounters “are sedimented in identity changes (or hybridization) on the part of both partners in the exchange.”57 Hybridity involves a triangular relationship—reminiscent of Burke’s theory of identification—wherein identity is fomented as “a poetics of culture as in-between” or “between which” at least two mingling subject-positions.58

The prevailing academic stance on hybridity argues that bringing together dominant and less dominant identities consequentially forces the less powerful to assimilate and, essentially, “kill off” their original (authentic, germinal, generative) subject-positions.59 Recently, cultural and American studies traditions have begun to challenge this unilateral and monolithic understanding of hybridity. Scholars in this stream have asserted that hybridity can also be emancipatory, allowing the less dominant to constitute and secure new subject-positions by, and in addition to, resisting the dominant culture. 60 A middle-ground position articulated by Kaup and Rosenthal admits the empowering dynamics of hybridity for subaltern identity while also appreciating that the dialogic encounter “is asymmetrical, not parallel.” 61 That is, the process or existence of hybridity tends to be instigated by contact initiated and desired by the dominant group. Kaup and Rosenthal’s posture, here, seems to model Burke’s notion that authority sways the process of symbolic action (especially transformations guided by victimage) but that authority likewise assists in transforming, versus obliterating, altered identities.62

With this model of hybridity in mind, analysis next turns to how Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric worked through his hybrid position—between the Sauk Nation and American culture—to defy American dominance. Analysis of the Chief’s discourse, especially through his autobiographical account of the Black Hawk War and the milieu surrounding his surrender, reveals how Black Hawk employed counterstatement in the forms of irony, moral certitude and self-identification to challenge (and complicate) his conciliation. In this way, the Chief’s double-tongued rhetoric inserted resistance shrouded in the ritual of surrender.

Black Hawk’s transformative movement toward U.S. dependence allowed the Chief an entrée into the American imagination. That is, his surrender and mortification—in lieu of his previous bellicosity or so-called savageness—made the Chief a “safe” subject for the American public to approach, learn about and ogle. Black Hawk’s objectification did not singularly harm him through embarrassment or a weakening of ethos, as historians have argued. 63 Rather, his widespread and passionately interested American audience also commanded a new kind of presence for the Chief. Seemingly, Black Hawk funneled his newly recognizable and popular agency into an opportunity to address the public outside the scope of the federal government. He accomplished the task of talking to the public through the publication of his autobiography. That the Chief bridged the worlds between the Sauk Nation and the American public allowed him to mold his new hybridity into a resistant counterstatement that helped preserve Sauk sovereignty.

To begin, Black Hawk employed irony throughout both his surrender rhetoric and autobiography to reconfigure the way that the Sauk Nation was treated by the United States. Irony, leveled covertly at the United States and its Indian policies, worked here as a veritable Trojan horse. The Chief, having secured the eyes and ears of the American reading public, cloaked his defiance in sardonic benevolence. For instance, in contrasting his present and past conditions, he related:

I am now an obscure member of a nation that formerly honored and respected my opinions. The path to glory is rough, and many gloomy hours obscure it. May the Great Spirit shed light on your’s—and that you may never experience the humility that the power of the American government has reduced me to, is the wish of him, who, in his native forests, was once as proud and bold as yourself. 64

On its face, his discourse appeared to be a sobering resignation accompanied by an apologia in the form of compassionate well-wishes for his conquerors. However, upon deeper exploration—and bearing in mind the influence of counterstatement—Black Hawk’s rhetoric revealed how dastardly the U.S. government functioned: it reduced character, weakened honor, dissipated respect and diluted pride. He drew his audience in empathetically by praying to the Great Spirit that his American audience would never have to suffer the disgraces and oppression imposed by the United States on the Sauk Nation. The irony of pairing his own kindness with the U.S. government’s tyranny allowed Black Hawk a chance to issue a counterstatement as to the aftermath of the Black Hawk War and his nation’s surrender. As Bhabha argues, such responsive (and resistant) discourse “enables a form of subversion” that “displaces the space” of a dominant power.65

Black Hawk also wove irony throughout his autobiography in less covert ways. In discussing the Sauk Nation’s displacement from, and subsequent return to, its own ancestral land, the Chief crafted a near-sarcastic invective against U.S. land squatters. In turn, Black Hawk reversed the roles of American settlers and Sauk members. He insisted, “The whites were complaining at the same time that we were intruding upon their rights! THEY made themselves out to be the injured party, and we the intruders! And, called loudly to the great war chief to protect their property.” 66 Referring to the Sauk’s proper ownership of the land and appealing to the U.S. public’s sense of reason and justice, Black Hawk called into question the evenhandedness of the Indian Removal Act and its related campaigns. He closed his ironic resistance by charging the Americans with lying and double-crossing: “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.” 67 Black Hawk’s use of antithesis—the pairing and conflation of “right” and “wrong,” in this case—questioned whether U.S. Indian policies were, indeed, fair and proper.

The elevation of the Sauk Nation as morally superior also occupied a great portion of Black Hawk’s autobiography.68 As a strategy of counterpoint, the Chief’s semblance of “moral certitude” worked on both veiled and superficial levels. Covertly, for instance, Black Hawk contrasted his nation’s morality with the United States’ depravity:

It has always been our custom to receive all strangers that come to our village or camps, in time of peace, on terms of friendship—to share with them the best provisions we have, and give them all the assistance in our power. If, on a journey or lost, to put them on the right trail…and from my heart I assure them [Americans], that the white man will always be welcome in our village and camps, as a brother. The Tomahawk is buried forever! We will forget what has past[sic]—and may the watchword between the Americans and Sacs and Foxes ever be—Friendship! 69

The Sauk Nation’s outlook, here, is described as helpful and humane. In addition, despite being oppressed through removal and indignity, Black Hawk and his community were willing to forgive the past degeneracy of the United States. The United States’ regrettable treatment of the Sauk was probably a surprise to Black Hawk’s American readers. His implied criticism was confirmed by conspicuous invective when Black Hawk wrote: “I had not discovered one good trait in the character of the Americans that had come to the country! They made fair promises, but never fulfilled them!” 70 Black Hawk promoted the morality of his people above the impiety of the Americans.

More noticeably, Black Hawk issued several denunciations about the comparative moral certitudes of the Sauk Nation and the U.S. government, in particular. About his own imprisonment, he reproached the public saying, “I was forced to wear the ball and chain! This was extremely mortifying and altogether useless…. If I had taken him [President Jackson] prisoner on the field of battle, I would not have wounded his feelings so much, by such treatment—knowing that a brave war chief would prefer death to dishonor!” 71 Again, we witness here the counterbalance of cultural morality, with the Sauk’s innate humanitarian character trumping the Americans’ disregard for respect and cultural principles. Perhaps the most robust use of the moral certitude strategy came with Black Hawk’s censuring of the United States for its unashamed and impertinent acts of violence. He related to the public, for instance, “Our people were treated badly by the whites on many occasions. At one time a white man beat one of our women cruelly for pulling a few suckers of corn out of his field.” 72 Similarly, some of his peaceful scouts “were discovered by the whites, and fired upon” for no reason other than propinquity to white-owned cornfields, plots—Black Hawk reminded his American audience—that had been part of ancestral Sauk land for 300 years. 73 Also not lost in Black Hawk’s translation was the notion that “whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us and removed us across the Mississippi.” 74

Under the aegis of moral certitude, Black Hawk’s rhetoric tendered a resistance by reconfiguring and revising the historical narrative of the Black Hawk War and the circumstances of the Chief’s surrender. Borrowing from Bakhtin, Black Hawk’s transformation to, and ability to speak as, an American dependent provided him the hybridized license to use, “within a single discourse,” one voice to “unmask another.” 75 Use of his new-found hybridity also helped him resist American domination through self-constitution.

Black Hawk’s appeals to the American public gave the Sauk Nation, more generally, a chance to refashion its self-identity—both to its own people and U.S. communities. It is no surprise that Black Hawk’s narrative opened with a singular, yet complex, motive: “Before I set out on my journey to the land of my fathers, I have determined…to vindicate my character from misrepresentation.” 76 The Chief aimed to resituate the Sauk Nation’s moral fiber and to recover its honor. 77 According to Black Hawk’s discourse, peace became the primary maxim of the Sauk Nation. He said, for instance, “I must contradict the story of some [American] village criers…. This assertion [that the Sauk murdered] is false…[;] my nation never killed a white woman or child. I make this statement of truth, to satisfy the white people among whom I am traveling.” 78 Even in the midst of removal and the subsequent battle with U.S. forces, Black Hawk said his people were willing to “remove peaceably” had it not been for American atrocities. He added that “[we resolved] to remain in my village and make no resistance…. I impressed the importance of this course on all my band, and directed them, in case the military came, not raise an arm against them.” 79 Eschewing the common mythic storyline of the Sauk Nation’s savagery and belligerence, that then was circulating within the American public sphere, Black Hawk countered that “[we] were determined to live in peace.” In fact, he argued, the only reason his nation violated the Removal Act of 1830 by returning to Rock River was that “the corn that had been given to us [on the new reservation] was soon found to be inadequate.” 80 Moreover, counter to what popular accounts suggested, Black Hawk reminded readers, his nation had never retaliated against American malice: “Bad, and, cruel as our people were treated by the whites, not one of them was hurt or molested by any of my band.” 81

As with irony and moral certitude, Black Hawk’s resistance through self-identification functioned to dislodge American dominance and, in the process, injected a heightened sense of Sauk sovereignty that “effectively [permitted] them to intervene in the course of history” by contributing Native agency to the story of Black Hawk’s surrender. 82

Implications of Black Hawk’s Symbolic Suicide: The Legacy of Moral Revenge

By and large, Black Hawk’s hybridity became an instance in which the dominance of American agency was weakened by Native voice. Such hybridity-as-resistance forced the United States (a “colonial authority”) to lose “its univocal grip on meaning” and to find itself “open to the trace of the language of the other.” 83 In the Chief’s case, his resistance crafted a powerful counterstatement that wedged its way into American consciousness. This essay has argued that Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric proceeded through mortification and transformation, and that his apparent symbolic suicide simultaneously revealed conciliatory and resistive motives.

Black Hawk’s surrender rhetoric and its resultant symbolic suicide reveal a number of implications about the workings of discourse and its conveyance of cultural identity. First, the double-voiced nature of the Chief’s oratory and writing challenge the prevailing conception that Native identity suffered a complete erasure at the hands of American dominance and assimilation. 84 If Burke is correct, identity never vanishes. That is, a dominant authority rarely eclipses a “subaltern” or less powerful population. Rather, indigenous identities, in this case, undergo a transformation of sorts. Recall that Burke argues, “a change of identity (whereby [one] is at once the same man and a new man) gives him greater complexity of coordinates. He ‘sees around the corner.’ He is ‘prophetic,’ endowed with ‘perspective.’” 85 This essay does not argue that transformation is fair, equitable or welcome; indeed, the trajectory of U.S.-Native relations from contact to the removal era demonstrates the heinousness and inhumanity of white encroachment into Native cultures. 86 Instead, the analysis suggests that identity change—as reflected by discourse—is fluid, multivalent and, in a post-structural sense, not rooted in certainty. Or as Kohrs Campbell fittingly contends, “because they are linked to cultures and collectivities” subject-positions must “negotiate among institutional powers and are best described as ‘points of articulation’” rather than monolithic or unproblematic constructs. 87

Second, this essay implies that further work might be performed within American Indian rhetorical studies to examine the notion of “transformation” as a counter or complement to research on unidirectional identity change. “Seeing around the corner,” or what W.E.B. DuBois deemed “double consciousness,” is not equivalent to a complete eradication of one’s historical or traditional identity.88 That contact between cultures—according to Burke, Bahktin, Bhabha and Young—involves transformation on the parts of both dominant and less dominant groups intimates that more study might also be undertaken to assess how the U.S. government’s identity, as well as that of the American public, was transformed as a result of U.S.-Native affairs. 89 I point, particularly, to American identities shifting in the face of confrontation wherein conciliation and resistance undergird a rhetorical moment between cultures.

Finally, hybridity and the way it “challenges the centered, dominant cultural norms” with its “unsettling perplexities generated out of their ‘disjunctive, liminal space’” renders the possibility that the legacy of resistance can flourish over time. 90 When a counterstatement, such as Black Hawk’s, challenges an entrenched history on a popular scale, perhaps it leaves scars on the American psyche. Though Black Hawk’s identity was negatively impacted in the wake of the Battle of Bad Axe, 91 and though he committed a form of symbolic suicide through mortification and transformation, these are not the only legacies the Chief left behind. Black Hawk and his symbolic suicide reminds us today of the countervailing rhetorical power in even the most abject of physical defeats. His transpersonal identity and trickstering character transcend time and cultural space. The Sauk chief enacted a moral revenge that has helped construct our collective memories of the Jacksonian-era and U.S.-Indian relations more as genocidal stratagems and racialist machinations than as heroic fantasies.


1. Donald Jackson, “Introduction,” Black Hawk: An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1964), 15.
2. Ronald N. Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975), 113.
3. Black Hawk, Black Hawk: An Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1964), 112.
4. Robert Remini, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (New York: Viking, 2001), 258.
5. See Donna Hightower-Langston, The Native American World (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2003), 335-37; Jackson, “Introduction”; Remini, Andrew Jackson, 258-261; Satz, American Indian Policy, 113-14; and W.C. Vanderwerth (ed.), Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989), 90.
6. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142.
7. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
8. For complete language of the treaty, see Treaty of 1832, Microfilm copy of original manuscript (Davenport, IA: Davenport Public Museum, 21 September 1832): 2. A secondary copy may be found in the appendix of Black Hawk’s Autobiography, ed. Donald Jackson (Urbana-Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1963).
9. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
10. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142-147; Niles’s Weekly Register, “Black Hawk Tour,” Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833): 182; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
11. Donald Jackson, “Introduction”; Remini, Andrew Jackson; and Satz, American Indian Policy.
12. The address was recorded by a Potawatomi translator in attendance, and was later conveyed to Major General Winfield Scott, under whose guidance Black Hawk was delivered, literally, to the feet of President Andrew Jackson. Reports from Black Hawk’s autobiography note that he repeated a similar version to Jackson, whereby the President provided his infamous, heated lecture. See Jackson, “Introduction,” 1-24; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 258-259.
13. Vanderwerth, ed., Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971), 87.
14. Hybridity is defined as a process of cultural intermingling (whether through discursive interface, material exchange or genetic intermixing) in which differing parties or social groups emerge following exchanges as changed subjectivities (May Joseph, “Hybridity,” in Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Payne [Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1996], 251). According to Greaves, the defining quality of hybridity is the “ritual of transition when a noviate is neither the former nor the subsequent social category” (“Liminality,” in Payne, Dictionary, 251).
15. Sovereignty, here, is defined as the agency to: control one’s own destiny; remain close to ancestral, linguistic, familial and spiritual roots; self-identify as an independent political entity holding land; and cultivate and maintain a sense of group nationalism, oftentimes despite oppression (i.e., U.S. Indian policies considered detrimental to Native nations and enclaves). See Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: U of California P, 2003) 88-89; 95-96; nn41; nn42.
16. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” in Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains, Ed. Vanderwerth (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989), 91.
17. Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970), 289.
18. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 90-91.
19. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 118.
20. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 142.
21. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 91. Black Hawk’s Nation revered the chief as a stoic leader, and embraced him despite his faults during war because he had proven to sacrifice himself to repent for the Sauk’s losses. As Jahoda argues, the Sauk Nation, understood that if “he [Black Hawk] could save his people, he would. It would be enough” for them. (Gloria Jahoda, The Trail of Tears: The Story of the American Indian Removals, 1813-1855 [New York: Wings Books, 1975], 136.) Though the Sauk’s loyalty to Black Hawk - notwithstanding his liability, seems to contemporary American standards confusing - the leader-centered structure of Sauk (and Sac and Fox) society was such that loyalty and faith in leadership trumped western logic. See William T. Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1958).
22. Burke, Rhetoric of Religion, 289.
23. Peter Brooker, A Concise Dictionary of Cultural Theory (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford U.P., 1999), 3.
24. Brooker, Concise Dictionary, 211.
25. Mikhail Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981), 344.
26. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 90.
27. Black Hawk, “Farewell to Black Hawk,” 91.
28. Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), 22.
29. Burke, Rhetoric of Religion, 289.
30. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York: Vintage, 1957), 34.
31. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 36.
32. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 27.
33. Richard Morris and Philip Wander, “Native American Rhetoric: Dancing in the Shadows of the Ghost Dance,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 76 (1990): 165-166.
34. Richard Morris, “Educating Savages,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 152-171; and Kent A. Ono and Derek Buescher, “Deciphering Pocahontas: Unpackaging the Commodification of a Native American Woman,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18 (2001): 23-43.
35. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
36. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 139.
37. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
38. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 80.
39. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
40. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
41. Black Hawk, Black Hawk, 118-149.
42. Whether Black Hawk assumed his “red child” role in order to return to Illinois is not clear. No evidence suggests that he employed a rouse to placate Jackson’s anger over the Black Hawk War. The only extant rhetoric concerning Black Hawk’s mood, tone, and motivation spawns from his “Farewell” speech and, most overtly, his autobiography. As a critic, one must work within the limitations of the available rhetorical documents. See Black Hawk, Black Hawk; Remini, Andrew Jackson; and Satz, American Indian Policy.
43. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 33.
44. Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 34.
45. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260-261.
46. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
47. Niles’ Weekly Register 8 (1833); and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 259.
48. Black Hawk, 144-145; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
49. Black Hawk, 144-145; and Remini, Andrew Jackson, 260.
50. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: U of California P, 1969), xix.
51. Burke contends that symbolic suicide “(on the page) is an assertion, a building of a role and not merely the abandonment of oneself to the disintegration of all roles” (Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form, 34). The author interprets his argument as meaning that an old self never fully falls away, but consubstantiates with a different self to form a transformed identity, or put differently, “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another” (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives [Berkeley: U of California P, 1969], 21).
52. Treaty of 1832, Microfilm copy of original manuscript (Davenport, IA: Davenport Public Museum, 21 September 1832): 2.
53. Cecil Eby, ‘That Disgraceful Affair’: The Black Hawk War (New York: Norton, 1973); Miriam Gurko, Indian America: The Black Hawk War (New York: Crowell, 1970); and Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians.
54. Laurie Anne Whitt, “Cultural Imperialism and the Marketing of Native America,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 19 (1995): 3.
55. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, “Agency: Promiscuous and Protean,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2 (2005): 4-5.
56. Monika Kaup and Debra F. Rosenthal, “Introduction,” in Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, eds. Monika Kaup and Debra Rosenthal (Austin: U of Texas P, 2002), xiv.
57. Ibid. Though both cultures undergo identity transformations during cross-subjectivity interactions, this essay focuses only on the Sauk portion of the exchange between Chief Black Hawk and the U.S. government. Heuristically, a similar study might examine how American identity was constructed or figured alongside the transformations of Sauk identity.
58. Monika Kaup, “Constituting Hybridity as Hybrid” in Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, eds. Monika Kaup and Debra Rosenthal (Austin: U of Texas P, 2002), 205.
59. This stream of scholarly thought—rooted in structuralism and non-critical historical studies—can be found in classic works of U.S.-American Indian relations prior to the 1990s. Such pieces include: Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1982); Donald L. Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1986); Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984); Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984); and William W. Savage, Indian Life: Transforming an American Myth (Norman: Oklahoma P, 1977).
60. See Frederick E. Hoxie, Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era (Boston: Bedford Press, 2001); Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth Century American Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1998); and Siobhan Senier, Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca and Victoria Howard (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2001).
61. Kaup and Rosenthal, “Introduction,” xiv.
62. See above note 50.
63. See Eby, That Disgraceful Affair, Gurko, Indian America; and Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians.
64. Black Hawk, Black Hawk’s Autobiography, ed. Roger L. Nichols (Ames: Iowa State U P, 1999), 7.
65. Homi Bhabha, Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 154.
66. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
67. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
68. Readers should bear in mind that the seemingly incongruous conciliatory and resistant discourse enveloping Black Hawk’s surrender milieu was not judged as such by the U.S. government. The “resistive” rhetoric analyzed in the ensuing parts of my analysis was published in Black Hawk’s autobiography (1833), one year after his official surrender (1832). Resistance, then, came about after Black Hawk’s construction of his surrender as conciliatory.
69. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
70. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 21.
71. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
72. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 52.
73. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 61.
74. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
75. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 344.
76. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 7.
77. Also not lost to observation, however, is the way Black Hawk’s ancestral “fathers” came to displace the “Great Father” of whom Black Hawk spoke in his surrender speech.
78. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
79. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 58.
80. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 79.
81. Black Hawk, Autobiography, 88.
82. Brooker, Concise Dictionary, 3.
83. Young, Colonial Desire, 22.
84. For a countervailing conclusion, see S. Elizabeth Bird, Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996); Haig A. Bosmajian, “Defining the ‘American Indian’: A Case Study in the Language of Suppression,” The Speech Teacher 21 (March 1973): 89-99; and Morris and Wander, “Dancing in the Shadows.”
85. Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984), 209.
86. Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997), xxi-xxx.
87. Kohrs Campbell, “Agency,” 4-5. Constitutive rhetoric, certainly, confers subject identity on an individual or group. As Jasinski argues, constitutive rhetoric “functions to organize and structure an individual’s or culture’s experience of time and space, the norms of political culture and the experience of communal existence (including collective identity)…” (James Jasinski, “A Constitutive Framework for Rhetorical Historiography: Toward an Understanding of the Discursive (Re)Constitution of the ‘Constitution’ in the Federalist Papers,” in Doing Rhetorical History: Concepts and Cases, ed. Kathleen Turner (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998), 75. But, the individual or group also possesses agency in defining the constitutive agent, or in the least reconstituting their identity if it is imposed from a dominant or central authority. See Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Quebecois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 222.
88. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Minneola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 7-15.
89. See Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination; Bhabha, Location of Culture; Burke, Philosophy of Literary Form; and Young, Colonial Desire.
90. Young, Colonial Desire; see also Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windrus, 1993), 406.
91. Bad Axe is the battle that officially ended the Black Hawk War in 1832.

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