Sean Teuton

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


Cities of Refuge: American Indian Literary Internationalism

As early as the 11th century in southeastern North America, American Indian people from different groups established “peace towns.” “These ‘cities of refuge’ were founded on a philosophy of human rights, where the exiled could come for safety and a new life,” explains Sean Teuton, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, “but these places were also centers where people could share ideas across cultural differences.”

The cities were “internationalist,” Teuton maintains, in the sense that “they were cosmopolitan, where people from many Indian nations could trade not only in material goods, but in ideas as well.” In Cities of Refuge: American Indian Literary Internationalism, Teuton uses the peace town as a metaphor to frame his examination of the Indian experience of nationhood and internationalism, as expressed in Native literary forms from 1830 to the present.

This project responds to what Teuton calls “a need for an approach to Indian literature that encourages engagement among nations, with the goal of sharing knowledge and promoting global justice.” While he joins the debate among scholars about exactly what constitutes a “nation,” Teuton places in the foreground the chronic misunderstanding that Americans have about the sovereign status of Native nations.

“From the very beginning of early contact with European countries, Indian people wanted to be considered not an ethnic group, but a people or a nation—in the sense that they had the capacity to govern themselves,” Teuton says. Cities of Refuge traces how American Indian intellectuals developed and defended their nationhood in literary genres including testimony, letter, polemic, autobiography, and novel. He is particularly interested in Native legal thought concerning, for instance, the 1830 Removal Act and the 1887 Allotment Act, as well as the collaborative language created in hundreds of treaties with the United States, in which a nation-to-nation relationship was recognized and even celebrated.

“I’m less interested in proving the existence of Indian nations than I am in examining how Native people in the 19th century thought of themselves as citizens,” Teuton says. “The recognition of cultural ‘others’ as human beings with rational thoughts, histories—and nations—is something Indian people have struggled to achieve from the U.S. for centuries.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of English and American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

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