From Ouina to Black Hawk: The Role of Native American Spirit Controls in the Victorian-Era Séance

by Elizabeth Lowry

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 108] Constructions of the nineteenth-century Native American can be characterized as being at the center of European or white American national consciousness. Throughout the process of colonizing the West, white settlers built around the figure of the Native American an intricate complex of mythologies. Although the iconic figure of the Native American began as a relatively stable construction within the white cultural imaginary, I argue that the ostensive presence of a Native American body within the context of the séance destabilized common perceptions of the Native American experience. As such, the “Indian” spirit control came to represent sublimated guilt and manifested as a potential site of sociopolitical disruption.

Following the famed “spirit rappings” of 1848 in Hydesville, New York, white middle-class Americans began to participate in séances in order to communicate with spirits of the deceased. Participation in séances rose after the devastating losses of the Civil War, during which many Americans experienced what could only be described as a crisis of faith. For many, the séance amounted to nothing more than entertainment, but for others, Spiritualism–that is, the practice of working with a spirit medium to solicit advice from those who had “passed”–became a religious practice, a lifestyle, and beyond that, a social movement. Although both male and female mediums practiced during this period, most were female. Spiritualism held particular appeal for women disgruntled with patriarchal Christianity. Further, Spiritualism allowed for expressions of emotion that normative Christianity did not. The darkened séance room allowed sitters to express their feelings and derive comfort from communicating with the alleged spirits of their loved ones. In the early days of séance, the medium purportedly passed messages from the afterworld to her audience via a spirit control. Later, however, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, “full-form” materialization became popular. That is, the medium was expected to provide “proof” that her spirit control existed by providing a physical manifestation of it. As a result, reports of ghostly apparitions made from gauze and paper (as well as allegations of costumed accomplices) fill skeptics’ accounts of séances offering full-form materializations. By the end of the nineteenth century, séance attendance declined. Spiritualist purists saw the phenomenon of full-form materialization as problematic: the séance had become carnivalesque. [page 109]

While detractors of Spiritualism claimed that mediums were interested only in the opportunity to make money and solicit inappropriate physical contact with sitters, others saw the séance as a means by which people could explore–and possibly find solutions to–pressing social issues. Scholars such as Alex Owen, Ann Braude, Molly McGarry, Amy Lehman, Robert Cox, and Marlene Tromp have examined the cultural impact of the séance on nineteenth-century society and have explored Spiritualism’s potential for inspiring social change. Building on their scholarship, I propose to theorize the role of the Native American spirit control within the context of the late nineteenth-century séance. In particular, I focus on how the implied presence of a deceased Native American in the séance circle may have helped to spur social change.

By the Reconstruction Era, the Native American experience had already been mythologized and Indian iconography proliferated both in theater and in medicine. That is, narratives of a uniquely American experience emphasizing a connection to an untamed landscape piqued the national imagination–along with a fantasy that cures to common ailments lay hidden in the wilderness. Assumed to be part of this wilderness, Native Americans were believed to be uniquely positioned to draw on the healing properties of indigenous leaves and berries. Because of these associations, Native Americans were considered to be ideal spirit controls for séances at which sitters expected to be healed or comforted. However, the role of Native American spirit controls was complicated by the contradictory ways in which white Americans constructed Native Americans. The presence of Native American spirit controls was inherently political, since evoking the Native American meant that it was necessary for whites to–on some level–acknowledge social injustice. Consequently, Victorian-era Spiritualists are revealed to have reacted to the manifestations of Native Americans in ways that exposed their ambivalence: some used the séance to construct a rhetoric that justified colonial expansion and the decimation of Native American populations, but others used the séance to condemn the injustices inflicted on Native Americans and to mobilize in their defense. In this manner, the codifying and re-codifying of the Native American body served to enhance existing cultural ambivalences with respect to colonization. Within the context of the séance, the Native American spirit control was transformed from a symbol of freedom and healing to a discomfiting externalization of white conscience and a possible threat to the status quo (Cox 190-91).

Native American Spirit controls are recorded as having begun to appear in séances during the Civil War era. They grew more and more popular throughout the 1870s so that by the 1880s they had become almost commonplace. The widespread phenomenon of mediums channeling Native American controls has been commented on numerous times in primary sources penned by Spiritualist practitioners, psychical [page 110] researchers, and séance investigators. For instance, in Behind the Scenes with the Mediums, David Abbott and Adrian Plate claim: “As soon as a leading medium started the fashion of having an Indian guide, all of the mediums in the country had Indian guides. Unto this day this fashion is still in vogue. Some mediums now have as many as forty or fifty guides” (53-54). Further, the Seybert Commission–an organization dedicated to psychical research–speaks of how “Almost every medium keeps an Indian ‘brave’ in her cohort of Spirits; in fact, there is no Cabinet, howe’er so ill attended but has an Indian there” (Seybert). Evidently, the Native American spirit control was believed to lend to the medium’s ethos in confirming the patriotic nature of Spiritualism and to spiritualism’s role in healing a nation that had been torn apart by war.

Discourses of Entertainment and Healing

By the late nineteenth century, Native Americans had begun to be viewed with nostalgia because they were dying out. Although the “vanishing Indian” was acknowledged to be connected to white territorial expansion, no accountability was taken for the fact that Native Americans had become victims of genocide. Instead, the figure of the Native American was heavily romanticized and essentialized by the white mainstream. Perhaps the most stable and consistent identity ascribed to the Native American was that of the intuitive healer. Since Native Americans were believed to have a near supernatural connection to the earth, they had gained a reputation for healing and were credited by European settlers with the ability to find cures for local illnesses. The cures were typically made from indigenous plants and were rumored to be panaceas. Here, Robert Shaw describes the genesis of Dr. Morse’s famous nostrum. The doctor had evidently “spent three years among the Indians of our western country, where he discovered the secret of the Indian Root Pills” (Shaw). According to Shaw, Morse did not exist, nor did many of the “doctors” who marketed so-called Indian medicines. Since Native Americans were used to sell any number of nostrums and patent medicines and had already been coded as healers, manifesting a Native American spirit during a séance suggested the promise of relief from physical or emotional pain.

Further, Native Americans were constructed as providing inspiration because they were believed to be unusually courageous if not–given their assumed lack of rationality–a little foolhardy. Stories about Indian warriors or “braves” proliferated within white communities in the form of serial novels, poetry, and plays. Repressed Victorian-era audiences imagined that Native Americans lived lawlessly in expanses of untamed wilderness, free to do exactly as they pleased. Consequently, Native American characters both real and fictional were fetishized. However, [page 111] despite the allure of the mythic Indian brave, the most popular “Indian story” in American history was that of Pocahontas, which had inspired the production of countless “Pocahontas plays” (Lehman). The story of Pocahontas was a classic example of the alleged Native American penchant for self-sacrifice. In theaters all over the country, Pocahontas plays never seemed to lose their attraction: “audiences loved the classic story of the civilized white man falling in love with the pure Indian maiden .... The Indian heroine was willing to give up everything, including her life, for love–particularly for the love of the white race” (Lehman). This narrative constructed Pocahontas as the ideal Native American, one who would support colonial expansion, who would ensure the white man’s survival, and who would affirm his power.

In the theater, heroic Native American roles were usually played by white people–however, the nineteenth century also saw a spate of what were called “red-face” plays (Cox 191). Similar to black-face plays, these performances were deliberately derogatory and involved white people pretending to be Native Americans. In this manner, racial difference was highlighted: whites ridiculed Native Americans in order to foment the notion that they were “other.” The contrast between red-face plays and Pocahontas plays was marked, suggesting that white constructions of the Native American were deeply ambivalent. Native Americans were held up both as examples of goodness and examples of wickedness. Apparently endowed with unusual spiritual power, they were also considered to be godless savages.

In her article on Black Hawk, Kathryn Troy offers an incisive interpretation of white ambivalence toward Native Americans: “The spiritually potent image of the American Indian and the Indian chief in particular is curious, given the concurrent perception of Indians as belligerent heathens” (171). On the one hand, Native Americans were perceived as heathens who were more “natural” and less spiritually developed than whites, while on the other they were believed to be capable of penetrating a world of mysticism that whites could not access. Discussing how Black Hawk’s alleged spirit communications were interpreted and received at séances, Troy explains why (given so much contradiction) the narrative of this particular Native American spirit was so prominent within nineteenth-century Spiritualist discourses. Native Americans “were defined as more earthly and therefore more strongly connected to living souls. Indian spirits were depicted as needing to help the living in order to progress to higher spiritual planes” (172). The idea of the Native American spirit “needing” to help the living before being able to progress spiritually helps to explain how the Native American was apparently so spiritually potent: such spiritual acuity arises from “need.” Indeed, this interpretation accounts for the spiritual potency of the Native American while maintaining the myth of the “earthy” heathen. [page 112]

The ambivalence with which Native Americans were viewed in mainstream white culture came to be reflected within the Spiritualist community. While many Spiritualists believed that manifesting Native Americans bode well, others found such manifestations disturbing and inappropriate. For instance, Abbott describes the appearance of an “old Indian chief” at a séance. Of the chief, Abbott says, “his costume was fantastic to the degree of barbarism. His head-dress feathers etc., were painted with the pure paint … It looked grotesque to see him in the darkness ‘doing’ a war-dance for ardent believers, while in his deep voice he chanted in the old chief’s native tongue” (72). Abbott seems to be fascinated yet repelled by the “grotesque” figure. Most significantly, the costume of the Native American chief–and by extension the chief himself–is “fantastic.” The chief is “other” and therefore set apart from anything with which Abbott can identify. He can barely recognize the form before him as being human.

The Rhetoric of Self Sacrifice

With the manifestation of Native American spirit controls came the inevitable issue of white guilt. However, the nineteenth-century séance typically avoided the problem of accountability for colonial violence: the presence of a Native American spirit control would assuage white guilt over complicity in racial abuse. Thus, in some séances, Native American spirit controls appeared to assure séance sitters that they had been forgiven for their wrongs. More specifically, these spirit controls existed to assure whites that Native Americans recognized the value of the white man’s belief in “manifest destiny” and were prepared to sacrifice themselves so that the seemingly inevitable project of capitalism could take place on American soil.

The popularity of the Pocahontas plays mentioned earlier suggests that (to whites) self-sacrifice was the most desirable of assumed Native American traits. While Pocahontas was undoubtedly a great favorite among séance sitters and was frequently channeled by well-known mediums, Cora L.V. Richmond’s guide, Ouina, also became popular:

Ouina was the brave, self-sacrificing Indian girl of American mythology, a type of Pocahontas. Cora first began to manifest Ouina at a time when the figure of Pocahontas was becoming firmly entrenched in the consciousness of the American people as a national, native heroine. (Lehman)

Because Pocahontas was brave, self-sacrificing, and resourceful, she was seen to be indispensable to the new American nation. The self-sacrificing Native American was thus cast as an ally, willingly giving life and land for a divine plan–namely, the industrialization of the United States. By the same token, whites imagined themselves as bringing progress and civilization to American soil. [page 113]

Using the discourse of the séance as “proof,” many white Americans chose to believe that Native Americans understood the need to turn the United States into a capitalist, white-dominated country and that Native Americans forgave colonial settlers for their crimes. As Lehman puts it, “[i]n the Aristotelian tradition of tragic heroes, the Indian leader had undergone both reversal and recognition, coming through suffering to enlightenment and ultimately forgiveness for his white oppressors.” This discourse of the séance circulated the myth that Native American “enlightenment” meant embracing Christianity. Colonial expansion was justified by assuming that Native Americans wished to be assimilated into white culture. As such, Dana Nelson discusses the role of Native Americans in terms of justifying colonial expansion: casting Native Americans as fellow nation-builders made it possible for whites to “project racial incorporation and gestures toward a construction of an assimilative, expansive ‘white’ body (they are like, or could be like, us; we belong anywhere they are)” (Nelson 55). By projecting the myth that Indians wanted to be assimilated, and that their bravery was emblematic of a true American manhood, Native Americans were used “as a resource for producing white U.S. identity” (55). Further, referencing Michael Paul Rogin’s Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (1991), Nelson details another narrative that was used to defend westward expansion: “Liberalism insisted upon work, instinctual repression, and acquisitive behavior; men had to conquer and separate themselves from nature. Indians were seen as playful, violent, improvident, wild, and in harmony with nature” (Rogin qtd. in Nelson 62). The belief that Native Americans were more “natural” was used to argue that they needed more self-discipline; self-discipline designated civilization and, by association, human progress. In this manner, Nelson suggests that the Indian body “could be interpreted as a material/symbolic supplement for Nation–and Capitalism” (18). Therefore, constructions of the Native American as being still on the very cusp of civilization “helped not only to authorize national expansion through territorial incorporation, but even more importantly to territorialize national stresses and economic inequality as individual responsibility” (xi). This rhetoric of responsibility allowed whites to position themselves as authorities, people who had the right to mark and claim territories that in their view were not being used “properly”–that is, according to capitalist principles.

As mythic representatives of the white American ethos, Native Americans were positioned as sacrificing themselves in the name of progress, thereby encouraging all Americans–or at least all white Americans–to see themselves unified in the common goal of bringing civilization to the New World. Ironically, Native Americans, who had suffered so much as a result of colonization, were believed to be uniquely [page 114] equipped to discuss with their white brothers and sisters the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Séance goers therefore turned to Native American spirit controls to be relieved from guilt.

Assimilation and Accountability

Although Native American spirit guides were usually constructed as being generous in their attempts to provide spiritual succor for whites, some spirit controls apparently wanted whites to be aware of the violence that they had suffered. These spirit controls shared information about the brutal treatment they had undergone and served to raise awareness of Native American subjugation. For example, Emma Hardinge, a British-born medium operating in the late nineteenth century, suggested that “Indian spirits provided an extensive testimony to the horrors that orthodox Christians, both as soldiers and as missionaries had wrecked on their people” (Taves 196). In turn, séance sitters interpreted the presence of Native American spirit controls as a form of spiritual corrective and an opportunity for whites to repent. These ostensive spirit communications became a call for political action, and various prominent Spiritualists became part of the Native American civil rights movement. Molly McGarry writes, “Spiritualists called for the protection of native lands and sovereignty laboring to right the wrongs of colonists while also salvaging the spiritual life of white Americans” (15). Whites, who were complicit (if not directly responsible) for the “wrongs of colonists” had put their own souls in jeopardy. This recognition of sullied virtue was accompanied by the sense that Native American sympathizers needed to atone for their sins. They owed their atonement to themselves as well as to Native Americans. Hence, Troy writes that “[t]he political activism of Spiritualists on behalf of Indians was thus the result of combining white guilt, fear of divine judgment and a new sense of purpose and responsibility that was endorsed by both fearful and helpful Indian spirits” (183). For some Spiritualists, therefore, the appearance of Native American spirits was interpreted as an indictment of un-Christian activity and as a call for whites to repent and attend to saving their own souls while they were still alive: “In this context, Indian ghosts were understood as representing and expressing the desires of all Indian peoples, living or dead, and communicating those desires exclusively to the Spiritualists who were open to such communication and willing to listen” (Troy 183). Acting as a placeholder for the colonial subject, the Native American spirit control challenged Spiritualists to be advocates for the doctrine of natural rights. In turn, Spiritualists positioned themselves as being politically and socially progressive. [page 115]

With this in mind, the séance can be interpreted as a locus of affective power where unorthodox political opinions could be expressed. Cox describes the séance as a place where sympathy and empathy for marginalized peoples could potentially be developed. Other scholars describe the séance as a place where progressive (and perhaps revolutionary) thought could be cultivated. For instance, McGarry argues that the “projection of racial difference into the ethereal realm often deflected back onto national political life, making some nineteenth-century Spiritualists newly aware of the presence and plight of living Native Americans. Far from vanished, Indian spirits directed reform-minded Spiritualists from the séance table to political action” (67). Although many Spiritualists preferred to avoid uncomfortable encounters with Native American spirits during which they could be accused of all manner of atrocity, others acknowledged that there was something distinctly problematic about the fetishization of a race of people who had been slaughtered in the name of civilization. Between the late 1870s and mid-1880s, a number of organizations were founded that were intended to campaign for Native American rights. These organizations included the Indian Protection Committee, the National Indian Defense Association, the Indian Rights Association, and the Women’s National Indian Association.

Women were particularly active in the realm of Native American civil rights, and Lehman suggests that, because of their own marginalization, women were more apt than men to demonstrate “a high degree of compassion and empathy for spirits of marginalized figures.” The process of the séance, insofar as it included spirit controls of color, served both to disrupt as well as to re-inscribe colonial discourses. As such, Tromp writes, “[w]omen were certainly complicit in reproducing racist colonial ideologies but their involvement in the colonial enterprise was disruptive as well. In mediumship, the displacement of binaries associated with gender and race might have created a kind of disruption” (106). That is, the appearance of the spirits of marginalized peoples may have prompted séance goers to reconsider their understanding of cultural “others.” This was perhaps because the female medium was traditionally progressive in her social and political views and was likely to support abolition and other civil rights movements. Cora L.V. Richmond is an excellent example of this: “Richmond frequently lectured (often controlled by Ouina) on the plight of the Native American Indians. From 1868 to 1870 she served as vice president of the American Anti-Slavery Association which had begun to focus its efforts on Indian rights” (Lehman). As mentioned earlier, Ouina was allegedly the spirit of a young Native American girl. Like most Native American spirit controls, Ouina had met with an untimely death. However, Ouina had not been killed by whites, instead having been put to death by her own tribe after her grim prophecies of bloody warfare [page 116] with European settlers. Despite her proselytizing on behalf of Native Americans, Richmond’s spirit control Ouina stopped short of accusing white Americans of genocide. Other Native American spirit controls oscillated in their tone. Black Hawk, for instance, was sometimes harsh and sometimes disarmingly gentle in his criticism (Troy 183). Despite a lack of consistency among the messages passed on by mediums, it was possible that a politicized circle of Spiritualists could have become a significant threat to the status quo. Spiritualists knew and expressed what many others refused to acknowledge–that the violence leveled against Native Americans was morally wrong.

Unfortunately for Native American populations, to many whites, “helping” Native Americans meant assimilating them into white culture. Mrs. Amelia Quinton, a member of the Women’s Indian Association at its inception, speaks of how one of the aims of the Association was to ensure that Native Americans receive legal status and land rights. Yet Mrs. Quinton’s writing soon reveals that, as far as she was concerned, the optimal outcome of petitioning the government was to bring Christianity to the Native Americans and to send them to Indian schools (Quinton 72). Thus, although some of the reforms meant Indian citizenship and civil rights, they also meant that the Native Americans were given little choice but to become Christian and to assimilate. Native American spiritual practices were to be jettisoned, as were other markers of identity. The Native American spirits to whom whites turned for spiritual comfort and guidance could be construed as being both cultural touchstones for American identity and as threats to it.

The Native American spirit control was not only shaped by but also shaped the tenor of the séance with respect to addressing relationships between the colonizers and the colonized. The image of the Native American was evidently empowering to white Americans, who literally and metaphorically absorbed that power through the process of Western expansion. To a certain degree, Native American controls were used to absolve whites of guilt and to justify colonization. However, the séance’s atmosphere often worked to recontextualize the terms of Native American subjugation, which in turn may have disrupted social acceptance of the spoils of colonialism. The séance was helpful to Native American civil rights insofar as it was believed to have sparked campaigns protesting the maltreatment of Native Americans. However, for many Native Americans, being “helped” was a double-edged sword: more often than not it meant that they would be forced to emulate their colonizers. For well over two centuries, colonizers have cultivated an Indian mythos and appropriated the practices of various Native American cultures for material gain. The presence of the Native American spirit control at the Victorian era séance reflects this process of projection and appropriation. [page 117] Native Americans, having already been colonized in life, were now being recolonized in death.

Works Cited

Abbott, David P., and Adrian Plate. Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. Chicago: Open Court, 1907. Print.

Cox, Robert S. Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia P, 2003. Print.

Lehman, Amy. Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2009. Kindle.

McGarry, Molly. Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California P, 2008. Print.

Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998. Print.

Ouina, and Cora L. V. Richmond. Ouina’s Canoe and Christmas Offering: Filled with Flowers for the Darlings of Earth. Ottumwa, IA: D.M. & N.P. Fox, 1882. Print.

Richmond, Cora L. V. Ouina’s Canoe & Christmas Offering ... Given through Her Medium, “Water Lily.” Ottumwa, IA: D.M. & N.P. Fox, 1882. Print.

Quinton, Amelia S. “The Woman’s National Indian Association.” The Congress of Women: Held in the Women’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago U.S.A. 1893. Ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham. Chicago: Monarch Book Co., 1894. Print.

Seybert Commission. Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania: To Investigate Modern Spiritualism, in Accordance with the Request of the Late Henry Seybert. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1887. Kindle.

Shaw, Robert. History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1972. Kindle.

Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

Tromp, Marlene. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. Albany: State University of New York P, 2006. Print.

Troy, Kathryn. “‘A New and Beautiful Mission’: The Appearance of Black Hawk in Spiritualist Circles, 1857-1888.” The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World. Ed. Christopher Moreman. Vol. 3. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013. Print.

MLA citation (print):

Lowry, Elizabeth. "From Ouina to Black Hawk: The Role of Native American Spirit Controls in the Victorian-Era Séance." Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 108-117.