Gender, citizenship, and law in Native American literature

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Gender, citizenship, and law in Native American literature

From 'Wynema' to 'Cogewea,' works by Native American writers articulated a message of protest, independence, and self-determination

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - 9:25am

Domestic Subjects book cover

It was 1884, and Reverend Gravatt had come to enroll the Lakota children in boarding school. Their mother viewed it as abduction, but Gravatt saw it as a caring act of assimilation. Writing in his report, he concluded that “these poor creatures know not what they are doing in refusing to take the help offered them.”

The mother had screamed in protest. She “took down a long knife, and gashed herself until the blood flowed.”  Regardless, Reverend Gravatt stood firm in his conviction, mistaking the mother’s protest as "creaturely" protectiveness. Even as he recognized the grief in the mother’s eyes by the blood flowing from her body, he failed to realize the grievousness of the act he was committing – forcibly taking children from their family.

In the late nineteenth century, Native American writers used the power of literature to protest the legal system that Gravatt represented, according to ethnic studies professor Beth Piatote. Five years after receiving her Stanford PhD in modern thought and literature, Piatote visited campus to discuss her new book, “Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature." Native American writers, says Piatote, protested the laws that removed children from their homes, portrayed Native Americans as immature dependents, and otherwise made them subjects of the state.

These writers used the power of the written word to fight against discrimination and oppression, to speak resistance, to show how feeling and family and love persevere in spite of everything.

The dual meaning of "domestic subjects"

The government marked out the family as an arena for "successful" assimilation into mainstream American identity.

Piatote’s title, "Domestic Subjects," puns on Indians’ legal status as subjects of the domestic state and on the United States’ intimate involvement in Indian domesticity. The government, explains Piatote, marked out the family as an arena for “successful” assimilation into mainstream American identity. The legal system “constructed Indians as perpetual children” who didn’t know better, who needed the government to father them and to define their intimate lives.

Piatote analyzes the laws and policies of the Assimilation Period in American Indian history (roughly from 1879-1934), illuminating the moral complexity of a series of legal decisions that replaced violence by sword with violence by pen. New laws removed children from their families for compulsory schooling and required intermarried Indian women to renounce their tribe for their husband’s race.

A literature of blood

According to Piatote, Native American writers sought to prevent reformers like Reverend Gravatt from mistaking maternal love for creaturely instinct. Piatote shows how literature responded to the American government’s assimilationist policies – articulating the wordless grief once symbolized in a mother’s blood into a language of subtle protest. Just by virtue of presenting Native Americans as full-fledged subjects with rich interior lives, these authors contested the laws and policies that figured Native Americans as immature subjects dependent on the state.

Title page of CogeweaNative American short stories, novels, and essays convey both the hurt and the hope of this period. From S. Alice Callahan’s sentimental novel “Wynema” to Mourning Dove’s western “Cogewea: The Half-Blood,” Piatote demonstrates how even popular works of literature reflected contemporary legal policies concerning Native American peoples. “Cogewea,” argues Piatote, demonstrates a “multivalenced meaning of Indian occupation in the novel and in law” — occupation both in the sense of territorial land claiming and preoccupation, in the sense of compulsive worry and anxiety. 

Mourning Dove's novel is bound up in blood in more than one way, according to Piatote. Blood was used to measure citizenship, and the half-bloodedness of the main character in “Cogewea” complicates what Piatote terms the “performative taxonomy of citizenship.”  Blood might determine “Indianness” but Indian identity is also enacted and performed — displayed in literature and also, Piatote suggests, in the photographs of Indian people. Native American photographs and literature partially represented what “Indianness” meant through dress, gaze, and language in a rapidly-changing culture.

Image of Mourning Dove, from Cogewa

Mourning Dove’s photograph, appearing just before the first chapter of “Cogewea,” shows the writer in full regalia, eyes downcast, looking as if she were mourning a lost history. Yet, Piatote asks whether Dove is performing preoccupation and worry in order to meet reader expectations that she appear as part of a “despised breed” or “vanishing race.” The ambiguity of the photograph, according to Piatote, speaks to the novel’s ambiguous treatment of “occupation, preoccupation, and performance.”

Declaring an inscrutable independence

It is an unusual picture, full of stillness and beauty. The camera loses focus on the contours of Dove’s face but sharpens over the patterns of her dress. Her face blurs with the viewer’s own inability to interpret her expression, to read the shape of her eyes and the purse of her lips. The camera’s haze and Dove’s downcast glance tantalize the viewer, a face that protects itself by the inscrutability of its surface. 

We may see her face but never know her. We see her dress, her posture, her glance away from the viewer as forever ambiguous. And this ambiguity – the enigma of Mourning Dove’s glance, her quiet beauty, her inscrutable contemplation – is an achievement, working to ensure that those like Reverend Gravatt will no longer be able to cast rash judgments. In her glance and her enigmatic novel, Mourning Dove portrayed Native Americans as independent, educated, thinking, and literate individuals rather than the “poor creatures” that Reverent Gravatt pitied.

Dove’s novel demonstrates the power of the written word to fight language with language. Just as the law was made in words but enforced by violence, so too could the violence be expressed – and, we can hope, dispelled – by words.

We may never know the thoughts preoccupying Mourning Dove in her enigmatic pose. But perhaps this mystery is not meant to be solved: the mystery of the intimate psychology of a fully-formed subject is the province of the people themselves. These mysteries remain to demonstrate the maturity and independence of a people who are not “subjects,” domestic or otherwise, to anyone save themselves. 


Beth H. PiatoteBeth H. Piatote is assistant professor of Native American Studies and affiliated faculty of the American Indian Studies Program at UC-Berkeley and the author of "Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature." She received her PhD from Stanford in modern thought and literature.  Her talk at Stanford was cosponsored by Native American Studies and the Native American Cultural Center.

Adrienne Rose JohnsonAdrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in modern thought and literature. She studies American popular culture with particular attention to the body, labor, and the landscape. She received the Clayman Institute's Marjorie Lozoff Graduate Prize and is a member of the student writing team.



Credit: Side-profile of Mourning Dove, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter Photograph Collection, PC85B5F71_95-135, MASC, Washington State University Libraries.