Hertha D. Sweet Wong: The long history of Native identity, in words and pictures

Picturing Identity by Hertha D. Sweet WongToday we welcome a guest post from Hertha D. Sweet Wong, author of Picturing Identity:  Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text, just published by UNC Press.

In Picturing Identity, Hertha D. Sweet Wong examines the intersection of writing and visual art in the autobiographical work of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American writers and artists who employ a mix of written and visual forms of self-narration. Combining approaches from autobiography studies and visual studies, Wong argues that, in grappling with the breakdown of stable definitions of identity and unmediated representation, these writers-artists experiment with hybrid autobiography in image and text to break free of inherited visual-verbal regimes and revise painful histories. These works provide an interart focus for examining the possibilities of self-representation and self-narration, the boundaries of life writing, and the relationship between image and text.

Picturing Identity is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The long history of Native identity, in words and pictures

My interest in autobiography in image and text began with my first book on pre-contact modes of indigenous self-narration, Sending My Heart Back Across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography. Contrary to European representations of natives as “primitive”–lacking self-conceptions and writing, indigenous people in North America had well developed conceptions of themselves as individuals and peoples prior to the arrival of explorers and settlers. Although the over 300 native languages in America north of Mexico had no alphabet, indigenous people had well-established modes of self-expression. Indigenous pre-literate modes of self-representation and self-narration include petroglyphs carved in in caves and on rocks, picture writing with vegetable dyes on animal hides or tipis, drawing on birch bark scrolls, sewing strands of wampum, porcupine quills or beads, weaving grasses and reeds into story baskets, creating clay story objects, and performing stories orally and kinetically through speech and gesture. In the Southeast, indigenous men tattooed their exploits onto their bodies. Pictography, in fact, was a pan-indigenous mode of communication. When individuals from different culture and language groups traded with each other, picture writing helped them communicate. In the Northern Plains pictography was used as a form of mapping, historical record keeping, and self-narrating. When Europeans encountered pictography, they saw “inferior” art (two-dimensional stick figures lacking perspective), rather than a system of communication. Generally, pictographs had some basic conventions: right-to-left flow of action, flat or two-dimensional figures, detailed ornamentation of warriors to communicate identity and rank, elongated horses, side view, the principle of synecdoche (such as a few horse hooves indicating many horses), and absence of landscape.

Beginning in the 1830s, with the introduction of European materials–paper, commercial paints, watercolor, pencils, and pens, indigenous pictographic narratives began to change. The new materials encouraged more detailed depictions and made pictographic narratives more portable. In addition, rather than individual and tribal records focused on indigenous communities, pictographic narratives were increasingly addressed to European American ethnographers, ministers, military officers, or prison officials. Visual personal narratives on hides and tipis were soon translated into sketchbooks and ledger books. Native people even fashioned their own books, drawing on the remnants of paper scraps left behind by the military and stitching those papers into booklets. Certainly the sketchbooks from Fort Marion, Florida are prime examples. Between 1875-1878, the U.S. military imprisoned over seventy Plains Indian men at Fort Marion. “Friends of the Indian” provided sketchbooks and asked the prisoners to depict personal and cultural narratives for circulation to European Americans curious about native life. Drawing for a non-Native audience and having nothing but time in prison led to more detailed pictographic depictions of cultural practices. The going rate for a sketchbook was $2.00.

Pictography was increasingly accompanied by a syllabary, a native language translated by using a set of symbols, each symbol representing a syllable, into the English alphabet. By the 1890s, then, with the so-called “end of the Indian wars” and the “closing of the frontier,” many Plains Indian pictographic conventions were already transformed by new materials and new audiences/readers. These pictographic images, as well other visual practices, are recuperated in some twentieth-century literary and artistic autobiographical modes. It is pictography (picture-writing) that initiated my interest in visual narrative. I see at least two distinct streams of indigenous visual life narrative: those that arise from and consciously refer to earlier pictographic and other visual modes of self-narration; and those that arise from Western literary or artistic traditions and from eclectic possibilities of the contemporary moment, though native artists-writers give those practices and forms an indigenous inflection. As Picturing Identity illustrates, my interest expanded from Native North American practices of visual self-narration to multiethnic American experimentations in image and text.


Hertha D. Sweet Wong is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.