Rick Pointer, professor emeritus of history at Westmont, has written a biography of Papunhank, a little-known Munsee reformer and Moravian leader. The work illuminates the turbulent middle decades of the 18th-century during which Papunhank doggedly maintained an unwavering love of peace. “Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America” (University of Nebraska Press) gives voice to an important element of 18th-century American Indian thought and intellectual tradition.
“I suggest that many of us continue to live with a kind of misimpression about American Indians as always warlike,” Pointer says. “Part of correcting that misimpression is illustrating and giving examples of American Indian peacemaking and peacekeeping strategies through the story of one Indigenous leader who most have never heard of.”
Pointer’s work didn’t come without its share of challenges, with one of the biggest being the loss of most of his notes.
In 2008, Pointer lost most of his early research notes in the Tea Fire that destroyed his Las Barrancas home. Pointer also served as acting provost at Westmont from 2009-2011 and led several Europe Semesters, further delaying his work.
The average American is likely familiar with only two Native Americans from the colonial era: Pocahontas and Squanto, according to a school news release. “They are about as atypical of Native persons in early America as we could come up with,” Pointer says. “The book raises larger questions and issues about who and what gets included in our retelling, recovery and reciting of American history. This missing piece speaks into our propensity to perpetuate incomplete and sometimes racist conceptions of Native peoples.”
As with most 18th-century Indigenous persons, little physical evidence remains of Papunhank’s existence. “When you write a biography, typically you’d have a lot of material written by that person as well as documents in their handwriting,” Pointer says. “I found only two documents that have his name written on them with a symbol that shows he was a member of the turkey clan within the Munsee tribe. These are the only tangible pieces or material objects of any sort that have survived.”
Much of what we know about Papunhank comes from government documents, such as minutes of treaties, conferences, letters to and from political and military officials, legislative proceedings and diplomatic dispatches. Religious sources, such as Quaker and Moravian letters and diaries, provide the rest of the information.
“Petitions, pamphlets and meeting minutes offer a particularly good basis for tracking his political and diplomatic dealings as well as his religious thought and practice,” Pointer says. “But thanks to the Moravian discipline of having their congregations keep daily diaries, and their missionaries write frequent letters, there’s also much rich information about the practical realities of Papunhank’s life from 1764-75.”