Reproduced below are excerpts from my review of Angela Pulley Hudson’s Real Native Genius: How An Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015, which appeared in the most recent issue of Mormon Historical Studies. MHS kindly granted me permission to post these excerpts.
Angela Pulley Hudson’s Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians, winner of the Evans Biography Award, is an engrossing dual biography of former-slave Warner McCary and his white wife, Lucy Stanton. Before this book, Mormon historians had known the McCarys primarily for their schismatic religious group in Winter Quarters and for their contribution to the development of the race-based priesthood and temple ban. Hudson, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, demonstrates in Real Native Genius that the McCarys’ Winter Quarters imbroglio was just one chapter in the lives of the couple, who subsequently reinvented themselves as “professional Indians”—Choctaw chief Okah Tubbee and Mohawk princess Laah Ceil Manatoi Tubbee—first as famous traveling performers and then as “Indian” medical practitioners. Hudson uses the couple’s gaudy lives as a window into the concept of “Indianness,” which she defines as “a wide-ranging set of ideas about how American Indians looked, talked, lived, and loved” (5). Real Native Genius is therefore one of a growing number of works that explore ways that Mormon history can illuminate broader themes in American history and culture.
Hudson situates her work at the nexus of two veins of scholarly inquiry: “playing Indian” and “passing.” “Playing Indian” is a low-stakes activity historically engaged in by powerful white men—for example, at the Boston Tea Party, or in elite clubs such as Order of Red Men, and in the Boy Scouts. “Passing,” on the other hand, is a high-stakes activity in which African Americans “passed” as white in order to access the privileges granted to whites and denied to blacks in American society. The McCarys present a compelling case study for these activities because they illustrate the malleability of these categories and particularly how adopting Indian identity could be a vehicle for a former black slave to escape the stigma of his skin color, for McCary and Stanton to deflect attention from their interracial marriage, and, perhaps unexpectedly, for the couple to perform religious beliefs.
Real Native Genius is well researched and well argued. Although a newcomer to Mormon Studies, Hudson worked with Spencer Fluhman, David Whittaker, Connell O’Donovan (who shared with Hudson his extensive research on McCary and Stanton), Paul Reeve, and seasoned Mormon historians, who helped her navigate the often-complicated terrain of the field. The book is not without occasional factual and interpretive problems, however. For instance, Hudson identifies Nelson Whipple as “a member of the Quorum of the Twelve” (87), though Whipple was in fact a seventy. In another place, she postulates that McCary and Stanton were “sealed” by Orson Hyde, relying on deeply problematic evidence (67). Despite these intermittent missteps, Hudson’s grasp of Mormon history is generally sound, and her analysis raises provocative questions about ways that Mormon beliefs about Indians interacted with broader themes in American history.
For the rest of the review, please see the issue. If you’re not a subscriber, you’re missing out. From their website: “Yearly subscriptions are available. Annual U.S. subscriptions are $30, Canadian subscriptions are $35, and international subscriptions are $40. To subscribe to Mormon Historical Studies, you may click on the link on the left sidebar or contact Kim Wilson at 801-916-7000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.”