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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Regional Realism Alexander Posey (1873-1908)

[5168] Russell Lee, Street scene, Muskogee, Oklahoma (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-012332-M3 DLC].

Alexander Posey recorded his insights into Creek Indian tribal politics and Native American customs in his poetry, journalism, and political satire. He lived through a crucial period in the history of the Creek Nation, when the tribe’s land base and political autonomy were threatened by “progressive” reforms intended to force Indians to assimilate to Euro-American culture. The creation of the state of Oklahoma in the early twentieth century also significantly impacted the Creeks: fierce debates raged about whether to admit Oklahoma as a single state or whether to organize part of its territory into a separate Indian state. Posey registered these conflicts in his sharp and often satirical writing, in the process creating a unique record of both Native American politics and Native American literary developments. His interest in accurately representing the dialect and speech patterns of his Creek characters has made his work an important chronicle of his own time and a source of inspiration for subsequent Native American writers.

Posey was born into a bicultural and bilingual family: his mother was a Creek Indian and his father was a white man who had been raised in the Creek community. He grew up learning to appreciate both Native American and Euro-American traditions and benefited from a traditional western education at the Bacone Indian University in Muskogee. It was at Bacone that Posey began composing poetry, most of which is heavily influenced by the British and American Romantic tradition. While some scholars see Posey’s poetry as derivative and constrained by European traditions, others point out that the Romantic worldview that pervades his work in some ways coincides with traditional Indian beliefs. Like the Romantics, many Native American cultures are committed to a respect for nature, a belief in the interrelation of all things, and a refusal to impose a sharp division between the material and the spiritual.

After leaving Bacone in 1895, Posey was elected to the lower chamber of the Creek National Council and embarked on a long career of public service as an administrator to tribal schools. In 1902, he also began serving his community as a journalist, establishing the Eufaula Indian Journal, the first daily newspaper published by an Indian. As editor of the paper, Posey composed the works for which he is best known today: the Fus Fixico letters. Narrated by a Creek character named Fus Fixico (which translates as either “Warrior Bird” or “Heartless Bird”), the letters offer humorous political and cultural commentary written from the perspective and in the dialect of Indian speakers. Revolving around the conversations of four men–and usually centering on the monologues of Hotgun Harjo, a medicine man–the letters narrate Indian responses to political issues and lampoon the corruption that was rampant in Indian Territory. Posey’s tendency to parody the names of Euro-American political figures with clever puns–“Rooster Feather” for President Roosevelt, “Itscocked” for Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock–deflates the power of these public figures and critiques their pretensions to authority. The Fus Fixico letters do not always correspond to Posey’s own convictions or political positions; instead, they offer a variety of perspectives on the difficult issues that faced the Creeks in his time. Tragically, Posey died before he was able to completely fulfill the promise of his innovative writing. He drowned at the age of thirty-five when his boat capsized on the North Canadian River.

Teaching Tips

  • In a commencement address that he delivered at Bacone University, Posey celebrated the achievements of Sequoyah, the Cherokee who created a syllabary that enabled his tribe to record its language in written form. Later, Posey wrote one of his most famous poems, “Ode to Sequoyah,” on the same subject. Have your students read “Ode to Sequoyah” out loud. Ask them to think about why Posey might have identified with Sequoyah. What is the role of writing in Indian culture, according to Posey? What is the relationship between Posey’s representations of Indian dialect and Sequoyah’s creation of a syllabary for the Cherokee language? You may want to define the ode, a subgenre of the lyric, for students. An ode (from the Greek aeidein, to sing, chant) is more than a poem that celebrates an occasion or individual; it is a poem that celebrates language and investigates its power to combat mortality and the ravages of time. Why is the form of the ode, then, an appropriate one for discussing Sequoyah? You may want to have students compare Posey’s poem to classic odes such as John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”
  • Although the Fus Fixico letters (found in the archive) were sometimes reprinted in Anglo newspapers like the Kansas City Star and Posey was frequently asked to contribute to larger, national newspapers, he generally confined his publication to the Indian Journal. Ask students to consider why Posey was not interested in syndicating his work to a larger audience. How might nineteenth-century white Americans have responded to the Fus Fixico letters? How might they have responded to Posey’s representations of Indian dialect? Why might Posey have been invested in keeping his work specific to his local community?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How is the poem “Hotgun on the Death of Yadeka Harjo” different from Posey’s other poetry? What is the role of dialect in this poem? How does the use of dialect affect the meter and rhyme scheme? How does the use of dialect impact the poem’s status as an elegy (that is, a poem written as a memorial to someone who has died)?
  2. Comprehension: What proper names appear in the Fus Fixico letters? Whose names are most frequently turned into puns?
  3. Context:Both Posey and Joel Chandler Harris published their dialect stories in the form of newspaper columns. Why do you think dialect pieces were so popular with newspaper readers? What do the Fus Fixico letters have in common with Harris’s Uncle Remus stories? How are they different? What kinds of audiences were Posey and Harris writing for?
  4. Exploration:How might Posey’s work have influenced subsequent Native American writers like N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko? Do you see a relationship between Posey’s depiction of Indian language patterns and metaphors and these later writers’ development of a Native American style?

Selected Archive Items

[1121] Harper’s Weekly, Scenes and Incidents of the Settlement of Oklahoma [Land Rush pictures] (1889),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96521].
These illustrations from Harper’s Weekly, May 18, 1889, are titled (from top to bottom): The arrival of the first train at Guthrie–The head of the line outside of the Guthrie land-office on the opening day–The Guthrie post-office.

[5168] Russell Lee, Street scene, Muskogee, Oklahoma (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-012332-M3 DLC].
Alexander Posey attended the Bacone Indian University in Muskogee. In his life as in his writing, Posey confronted the forms and traditions of European American culture while commenting on the difficult social and political issues facing the Creek Indians.

[5569] Anonymous, Indian teams hauling 60 miles to market the 1100 bushels of wheat raised by the school (c. 1900),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-75-SE-39A].
Government attempts to “civilize” or assimilate Native Americans included the use of boarding schools and model colonies where Indians could learn farming or manufacturing techniques. This photo is from the Seger Colony in the Oklahoma Territory.

[6823] F. W. Greenough, Se-Quo-Yah [Sequoyah] (c. 1836),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4815].
Half-length portrait of Sequoyah, dressed in a blue robe, holding a tablet that shows the Cherokee alphabet. Sequoyah developed a Cherokee syllabary that enabled his people to write in their own language.

[8508] Alexander Posey, “Ode to Sequoyah” (1910),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [10022763].
Posey dedicated this ode to Sequoyah, the Cherokee who created a syllabary that enabled his tribe to record its language in written form. An ode (from the Greek aeidein, to sing, chant) is a poem that celebrates language and investigates its power to combat mortality and the ravages of time.

[9068] Alexander Posey, Letter 16 of the Fus Fixico letters (1903),
courtesy of the Reed College Library.
Posey offers humorous political and social commentary from a Native American perspective through the characters in his Fus Fixico Letters. In letter 16, Fus Fixico satirizes the policies of the Roosevelt Administration.

[9069] Alexander Posey, Letter 18 of the Fus Fixico letters (1903),
courtesy of the Reed College Library.
In letter 18, Fus Fixico comments on U.S. Indian policy and the propaganda that supported it. Fus Fixico uses humor to address governmental policies that essentially stripped Native Americans of their cultural heritage.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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