Thursday, June 13, 2013

Samson Occom: Between Two Worlds

Today, I read an account written by a man named Samson Occom (1723-1792), a Native American (of the Pequot tribe) who converted to Christianity and became a minister to his people.  Occom's story is fascinating because he was a man standing, as it were, between two worlds at the very beginning of the United States of America--the world of the white colonists and the Native American inhabitants.

Samson Occom

Occom's autobiography, written in 1768, was not published until 1982, when it was discovered in the Dartmouth College archives.  Occom actually played a role in founding the school that would become Dartmouth.  In 1765, he traveled to Europe to raise money for his mentor Reverend Eleazer Wheelock's Moors Indian-Charity School.  Occom delivered some 300 sermons throughout England and Scotland and raised 12,000 pounds.  Wheelock promised to care for Occom's family while he was away, but when he returned he found them sickly and in extreme poverty.  Wheelock further betrayed his friend by using the money raised to move the school to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it would become Dartmouth College, which eventually excluded Indian students.

Reading Occom's autobiography, I get the sense that he was a sincere, hardworking, well-intentioned man who was ultimately betrayed by his Christian mentors.  Reflecting on this injustice, he writes:  "I believe it is because I am a poor Indian.  I can't help that God has made me so; I did not make myself so."

Despite this ill-treatment, Occom ministerd faithfully to his people and became an educator, teaching English for many years to the Montauk Indians of Long Island, New York.  Occom's story raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship between colonizer and colonized, between Native American and European culture, between oppressor and oppressed.  Did Occom play a role in the oppression of his people?  Or did he serve as a bridge between two worlds in perpetual conflict?  Did he do more harm than good?  These questions do not have black and white answers, but they are worth pondering.

1 comment:

  1. Solid post, Jesse. Enlightening. One line prompts a question. You write, "I get the sense that he [Samson Occom] was a sincere, hardworking, well-intentioned man who was ultimately betrayed by his Christian mentors." Here's the question. Does Reverend Wheelock's behavior call into question whether he was a Christian?