restricted access Sending Word: Sarah Winnemucca and the Violence of Writing
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Sending Word:
Sarah Winnemucca and the Violence of Writing

Sarah Winnemucca's 1883 autobiography Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims recounts the tragic, frustrated history of the Paiutes' contact with white people both on reservations and through the documents that traversed the continent.1 In the winter of 1878-79, the federal government ordered the Paiutes to be moved from the Malheur Reservation in southeastern Oregon to the Yakima Reservation in the state of Washington; Yakima was far from the regions of Nevada, Oregon, and California that had been their home, and they were ordered to make the journey in the dead of winter and with inadequate supplies. Seeking the return of the Paiutes to Malheur, and decrying many years of mistreatment by the government and reservation agents, Winnemucca records her repeatedly thwarted efforts to facilitate written communications between the Paiute and the federal government. Throughout the text, she emphasizes the great distance between the West and the nation's capital and bemoans the even greater gap between reality and the documents that travelled from agents to Washington, D.C., and back again. The daughter of a chief, Winnemucca had been educated in white schools, and her English fluency and literacy led her to play a prominent mediating role in these written exchanges and to travel in 1883 to Boston, where she lectured extensively and worked on her book in association with Mary Mann, who became her editor, and Mann's sister Elizabeth Peabody, the prominent Transcendentalist. Scholars have focused, understandably, on Winnemucca's faith in the capacity of language to mediate between cultures and to effect change. Cheryl Walker has argued, for example, that "in Sarah's mind a clear representation of suffering must [End Page 49] undo a system based on institutionalized disempowerment. Therefore, for most of her life she believed that her exposition of the truth must prevail. All that was needed was a powerful enough representation" (160). Malea Powell argues that "Winnemucca constructs herself [,] . . . textually representing herself as a literate practitioner of Euroamerican discourse at the same time as she clearly represents herself as a Paiute" (407). Whether one regards Winnemucca as genuinely embracing "clear representation" and exposition, or as constructing herself more strategically in the roles of "literate practitioner" and Paiute, one casts her as embracing the power of textual representation to do something on behalf of her community. Siobhan Senier has more pointedly examined some of the ways Winnemucca aims to "alter the politics of cross-cultural communication," but she also argues that Winnemucca joins other Native American writers in the late-nineteenth century in "seizing a technology that had the power both to help assimilate them and to help them resist or challenge that assimilation" (92, 22).2 Either way, the technology of writing helps rather than hinders.

But Winnemucca's text also displays a profound ambivalence toward writing. She must, of course, rely on many features of Euroamerican discourse if she is to mobilize her readers. It is clear she saw writing as a vital expansion of her lectures since a book would provide the means to reach a wider audience with a fuller account of the Paiutes' grievances.3 However, while Life among the Piutes leads us to make her historical use of writing the object of our inquiry, writing is also an object of Winnemucca's rhetorical inquiry within the text. Even as she navigates white discourses, she writes about the ways written language works—and the ways it fails to work. Senier has argued that Winnemucca "oscillates . . . between wanting to assert the power of cross-cultural speech and sketching out its dangers and misuses" (104). But Winnemucca's uneasiness with writing in particular extends beyond specifically cross-cultural uses of it, for she more broadly critiques the insidious side of textuality itself—primarily, a text's ability to operate separately from the visible reality it would seem to represent.

Winnemucca's opening chapter, a record of seeing the written word for the first time, establishes the foundation of her critique. As she describes her grandfather Truckee displaying his letter of commendation from General Fremont for his service in the war on Mexico, she turns...