In June, a dozen scholars—college professors, librarians and graduate students—took a deep dive into the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection in Amherst’s Archives and Special Collections.

The occasion marked the first time the Rare Book School, a Virginia-based institute devoted to teaching the history of books and printing, held a session about Native American books. The class was the culmination of a years-long effort by the school to expand its focus beyond Western and European book history.

Started in 1983, the Rare Book School attracts academics and librarians from all over the world, as well as book collectors, book dealers and archivists working in fields such as art history, English and history. The school has held sessions at Harvard, Yale, UPenn and the Library of Congress.

Amherst caught their eye when it came to telling the story of books by and about Native Americans. “This was the place that we really wanted to go,” said Laura Perrings, program manager for the school.

This is a place that actually now can be seen as a center—as a place to go to learn about Native history, culture, tradition, from Native peoples themselves.

Since purchasing the 1,400-book Pablo Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection in 2013 (thanks to a generous gift from Younghee Kim-Wait ’82), Amherst has added many more books to it, said Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections. He estimates that the collection—which includes Native American works published from 1772 to today—now stands at about 2,600 volumes.

Kiara Vigil, assistant professor of American Studies, who co-taught the course with Kelly, said the class offered an opportunity to expose the collection to a wider audience, and to help establish the College as a research stop for scholars of Native and Indigenous studies.

“This collection is exciting from a scholarly perspective, but beyond scholarship, in a wider community, I think this reshapes how you think about Amherst,” she said. “This is a place that actually now can be seen as a center—as a place to go to learn about Native history, culture, tradition, from Native peoples themselves.”

The course offered a comprehensive history of Native American engagement with books as authors, editors, printers, publishers and consumers, and covered relevant parts of U.S. and Canadian history, taking an interdisciplinary approach.

It covered the process of decolonizing bibliography, namely reclaiming the Native perspective in the organization of Native works. Students also discussed the phenomenon of “firsting and lasting,” or how European settlers and their descendants wrote Native Americans out of New England history books and perpetuated the mythology that Native peoples had simply gone extinct.

Students read or examined books in the collection such as the only surviving copy of Gertrude Bonnin’s 1926 Constitution and Bylaws of the National Council of American Indians, extremely scarce poetry chapbooks, and dictionaries and other Indigenous-language resources.

“My one lingering concern is you won’t get to touch as many books as I want you all to touch,” Kelly told the students.

“This entire collection and this entire course is like a dream come true for me,” said Mark Langenfeld, a second-year Ph.D. student in history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He did his master’s thesis at Arizona State University on King Philip’s War, Samson Occom and early Christian/Native American writers; now he is working on a history of Native peoples of the Great Lakes region.

“To have Samson Occom’s Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian—to have multiple copies of that, just to see these texts and touch them—it’s so precious,” he said.

Native American Book Collection

Related Reading

In August 2013, Amherst College acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of books by Native American authors ever assembled by a private collector.