Michael Oberg is Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneso. This interview is based on his new book, Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Professional Indian?
MO: I had been working on the Oneida land claim case with the specific task of examining the role played by the United States in the Oneidas’ dispossession. Eleazer Williams seemed to pop up everywhere in the records: As a Mohawk-born missionary to the Oneidas in New York State; as an early advocate and supporter of the policy of “Indian Removal,” and as a leader in the process through which the Oneidas and other New York Indians became pioneers in the vicinity around Green Bay.
As I began to go through Williams’s writings, however, I was fascinated by this shape-shifter, a man who, it seemed, played different roles as he traveled through the many worlds of the nineteenth century Haudenosaunee. His own “real” life was fascinating enough: a descendant of the unredeemed Puritan captive Eunice Williams; as a successful missionary; as an advocate for Indian removal; and as a native leader who had the ear of political leaders at the state, territorial and national level. But he also invented identities—characters, really– with elaborate backstories: he had said, for example, that he served as the Superintendent for Indian Affairs in New York during the War of 1812 and, late in life, he toured the northeast as the Dauphin, the long lost child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. With all of this, he seemed like too rich a character not to write about.
So I set out to gather as much material as I could find, beginning work on the project in 2009. A number of other projects intervened, as well as a year-long move to Texas, so the work took longer than I had expected.
I initially had thought that a study of Williams’s life would shed some light on the still under-studied history of the Iroquois in the first half of the nineteenth century, as well as providing a history of the removal of a northern Native American community. I hoped to write a book illuminating the process through which Native peoples became pioneers, like the many tens of thousands of other Americans who moved westward during the nineteenth century. The book ended up being something very different—the biography of a troubled man who in many ways, despite his importance in the history of the Iroquois, in Indian policy and in the history of New York State, lived a very sad and lonely life.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Professional Indian?
MO: Eleazer Williams, whose American odyssey carried him through the many worlds of the nineteenth century Iroquois, became a “Professional Indian” who cultivated many personas and political interests during a period of dispossession and shrinking options for native peoples. Williams—and many native peoples like him—fought for a place in an American Republic that was trying to eliminate and erase them, and his struggle illustrates the precariousness of the Indians’ place in white America.
JF: Why do we need to read Professional Indian?
MO: The book began as the story of the descendant of an unredeemed Puritan captive carried away to the Catholic Mohawk town of Kahnawake, who became a missionary to the Oneidas in central New York and Wisconsin, and an active supporter of the effort to “remove”—I hate that word in that context—eastern Indians to new homes in the west. It follows Eleazer Williams through the many worlds of the Iroquois that Williams passed through over the course of his long public career, from the pressed-upon Indian towns in New York and Wisconsin to the centers of Anglo-American power in Albany, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But it became more than that. It is also a story of identity, of self-fashioning, in Indian America in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. It looks at the varied roles native peoples might play in the American Republic. It is also a story about getting by and making do, and the struggles of an important, if underappreciated, Indian leader as he attempted to do so. If you are interested in any of these subjects—the Iroquois, Indian Removal, Christian missions– I think you will find the book worth reading.
But the book is also about an interesting and rich and complex character. I really try to emphasize that when I talk about this book. Writing it was difficult for me in that I have never had to devote this much time, energy and effort into developing a character, and understanding the motives and thinking of a man who was seldom honest. Williams lied in his diaries, after all, and writing the life story of a liar was a difficult task. We all make choices about how we present ourselves to the world. And to some extent, I suppose, we all play roles. Williams certainly did. We might conform to or challenge at times the expectations that come with these roles. Eleazer Williams told stories. He made choices. He played roles. On a number of times, he made things up, creating characters for himself with elaborate backstories and complex plots. But he was limited. As an Iroquois who was a Christian he found only a small number of doors open to him. As an Indian, or a person of mixed race, or as a European; as a missionary or an intercultural diplomat, or, he claimed, a king—all identities that he claimed at one time or another—he found himself confronted by the expectations of the various audiences before whom he appeared. His livelihood depended upon not disappointing these audiences.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MO: The “Why?” is a much easier question to answer than the “When?” At each stage of my career as a historian, I have always liked what I was doing. I liked my undergraduate history courses, for the most part, and I enjoyed the reading I did in graduate school. My first teaching job, at a small, underfunded college in eastern Montana, was horrible in so many ways, but I loved teaching there and the rare occasions when I was able to cobble together enough money to go do research. And I love Geneseo, where I teach now, working with talented and upbeat undergraduate students at a fantastic public liberal arts college. That the main archives I rely upon for my research are all within a half-day’s drive is pure gravy.
I teach a survey course in Native American history, courses in American Indian Law, the History of the Iroquois, and in American Colonial history, as well as some general education humanities and freshman writing courses. They all present challenges, and by some standards I suppose the teaching load is heavy. But the enjoyment I get out of talking history with bright students and the satisfaction I get when I am able to find time to conduct my own research leave me feeling pretty certain that I have been more than fortunate in the choices I have made. I am a historian because I have had the good luck to be able to do what I love.
When? That is a more difficult question. I have always been interested in history. I worked at a wargame store in high school and that forced me, in a fashion, to engage with the past—military history, mostly. Like I said, I liked my history courses in school. I still remember some of my high school history teachers well. I bounced through a couple of majors at the junior college I attended and at CSULB, and after struggling in those I changed my major to history and never really looked back.
I knew that I wanted to be a historian, even if I had a very poor understanding of what that meant. As an undergraduate I had no understanding of committee work, learning outcomes, and the various sorts of administrivia that sometimes comes with the job. My first try at applying to graduate schools did not go well, so I stayed at Long Beach and earned my MA. I was able to do well enough there to get a free ride to Syracuse for my Ph.D. It was only there where I really was convinced that there was a future for me in this field. I had wonderful teachers in graduate school, and they prepared me well, especially Stephen Saunders Webb and James Roger Sharp, along with Ralph Ketcham and the late Joseph M. Levine, even if I still feel like I have much to learn about teaching and if I still struggle to keep up with all the literature in my field.
JF: What is your next project?
MO: After I complete revisions for the second edition of Native America: A History, a textbook I wrote some years ago, I plan to get back to work on a big project that I have been tinkering with for some time: a history of the Onondaga Nation from the earliest times to the present. The material is collected. Now I need to sit down and start working my way through it.
JF: Thanks, Michael!