- The Cook, the Photographer, and Her Majesty, the Allotting Agent: Unsettling Domestic Spaces in E. Jane Gay's With the Nez Perces
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2002
- pp. 53-87
- View Citation
- Additional Information
JANE E. SIMONSEN The Cook, the Photographer, and Her Majesty, the Allotting Agent: Unsettling Domestic Spaces in E- Jane Gay's With the Nez Perces Between 1889 and 1 892, a reform-minded eastern woman named E. Jane Gay took over 400 photographs on and around the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho Territory. Gay went to the reservation as the companion of Alice Cunningham Fletcher, who was appointed government agent in charge of allotting homesteads to the Nez Perces under the auspices of the Dawes Severalty Act (or General Allotment Act) of 1887. The logic underlying the Dawes Act rested firmly upon evolutionary beliefs that positioned the Euro-American patriarchal, property-owning family at the pinnacle of "civilization" and drew its definitions of racial progress from this model. Many of Gay's photographs validate these beliefs, depicting "civilized" Nez Perces with their frame homes, and recording Nez Perce tools, clothing, and other materials in settings that scientifically abstract them from their cultural usage. As the allotting party's unofficial photographer, Jane Gay documented aspects of life on the reservation as object lessons representing both the Nez Perces' "barbaric" past and evidence of a "civilized" future. Gay's equation of domesticity with civilization aligns her with other late-nineteenth-century reformers who believed that the gendered power relations inherent in Victorian domesticity were crucial to evolutionary progress. Contemporary historians, such as Anne McClintock, Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1610 54 Jane E. Simonsen have argued that these gendered dynamics were also crucial to the formation of empire. The Anglo-American family home represented an order in which the struggle for survival depended upon men's work and accumulation of property and in which women were thought to function primarily in a reproductive capacity, laboring quietly to reproduce the household and its citizens. By imagining that the different races were part of an extensive "Family of Man" differentiated by their places in an evolutionary hierarchy, Victorians legitimated imperial power by placing Anglo-Saxonism at the top of the familial order, in the place of the patriarch. Imperialism, McClintock argues, was imagined as "coming into being through domesticity," an assessment that is borne out by the Dawes Act, which sought to convert Native Americans into farmers and farmwives by assigning them homestead plots and forcing children into Indian schools meant to teach them the social and work roles deemed proper to each gender (McClintock 32).' E. Jane Gay's photographs and letters, however, not only document social and governmental insistence upon organization in the nation's interior, but also expose some of the absurdities of the beliefs that supported U.S. social and political order. In a letter home to her niece, Gay referred to one of her photographs, titled Seat of War, Survival of the Fittest, Arch of Triumph, as an "object lesson" (Ms. 65) (figure 1). The photograph, an abstract image of three chairs grouped together, whimsically situates the grandiose ideologies of imperialism, evolution, and nationalism on the most benign and broken-down of objects. The titles Gay bestowed upon these chairs rely on potent nineteenth-century terminologies of power, difference, and hierarchical ordering that were used to legitimate the Dawes Act's "civilization" policies. Gay's photograph unsettles the dynamics of that policy, however, for the chairs are broken and the familial relationships they symbolize parody the order implied by evolution and imperialism. Gay's letter indicates that the vacant chairs represented the three members of the unconventional —and non-patriarchal—household to which Gay belonged while living and working on the reservation.2 The backless "Seat of War" is the chair of allotting agent, anthropologist and assimilation crusader Alice Fletcher. The "Survival of the Fittest, " divested by all but one upright, almost vicious-looking post, belonged to the Cook, Jane Gay herself, who was Alice Fletcher's domestic partner at home in Washington , D.C, as well as during the four seasons they spent in Idaho. E. jane Gay's With the Nez Perces 55 Figure ?. E. Jane Gay, Seat of War, Survival of the Fittest, Arch of Triumph. Courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society. And the...