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M A R K T. H O Y E R University of California, Davis “Tobringthe world into divine focus”:1 Syncretic Prophecyin TheLand of Little Rain Author’s Note: This is thesecond essay in a two-part series which examines Austin’s work about “theland oflost borders”in light ofthe culturalcontext ofthe Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshones at the turn ofthe twentieth century. In thefirst article (WAL, Fall 1995) I examined how Wovoka’s Ghost Dance, a syncretic revitalization movement which began amongthePaiutes ofwesternNevada in 1889, spread to thePaiute-Shoshone ofthe Owens Valley and was known to white settlers there. I also traced Austin’s spiritual development through her Owens Valley years, focusingon howit wasinfluenced byhercontactwithNative Californians and in particular on how her interest in syncretism generally and the Ghost Dance religion specifically manifests itself across the body of her work. In this essay I analyze The Land of Little Rain in light of those historical, geographical, biographical, and cultural contexts. Both thematically and stylistically, as Shelley Armitage reminds us, Austin often structures her stories as “ongoing pilgrimage [s] ”which are based on myths and which “offer new versions of old [mythic] patterns” (28). This myth-making is crucial in creating what Austin describes in The Land ofJourney’5 Ending as a work that is both prophecy and ritual (xxvii-xxviii). Like her last desert book, her classic of the California desert, TheLand ofLittleRain, revises an established mythic pattern in a rhetorical act that can be read as both ritual and prophecy.2Though generally classified as nonfiction and variously described as a book of 4 Western American Literature “charming” regional sketches, of descriptive essays, and of natural his­ tory, The Land of Little Rain is structured by a mythical journey to a promised land that is foretold in both Native American and biblical traditions. Tracing in this essay the sources of thatjourney and of the myths and prophecies which authorize it, I argue that Wovoka and the Ghost Dance religion are the models for Austin’s syncretism as mani­ fested in the book. My argument derives from several factors both biographical and literary. Recall thatwe can trace Austin’sknowledge of the Ghost Dance to 1895, by which time she had begun experimenting with Paiute ritual, that Mooney’sencyclopedic study ofitwas published the following year, and that there isevidence that Austin carefully read and took notes on it (though precisely when is not clear) (Earth Horizon 267; Austin Collec­ tion 754-55),3In his report Mooney traceswhat he believes are Wovoka’s models. In addition to those from Paiute culture, the earlier Ghost Dance prophet Wodziwob foremost among them, Wovoka’s biblical exemplars include the Hebrew prophets generally, and especially those who were seen to possess the most power, or booha: Moses, because he led his people to the Promised Land; Elijah, because his power included controlling the weather and raising the dead, feats for which Wovoka would become known; and, of course,Jesus, because of his miraculous powers over the elements and over death (Mooney 928ff; Hittman 6062 , note 6). These three prophets, among others, all make “ghostly” appearances via Austin’s allusions in The Land of Little Rain. In the context of the syncretic vision offered in the book, of the possible ties that a central figure in the book, Winnenap, has to the Ghost Dance religion, and of thejourney to a promised land that, via these allusions, forms the book’s implicit trajectory, these parallels nourish speculation about the influence of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance in Austin’s first major work. Animating the book’smore overt themes, their appearance ultimately transports The Land of Little Rain beyond the boundaries imposed by the generic designations typically assigned to it, and trans­ forms it into a work that is simultaneously spiritual autobiography and cultural, as well as biophysical, ecology. The Prophet Envisions the Journey TheLand ofLittleRain opens with the narrator’sconfession that she prefers and has adopted for her book the Indian fashion of name-giving Mark T. Hoyer 5 (3). According to Christian and many Native American mythological traditions, naming is intimately tied to the act of creation, an act that is in turn linked to storytelling. Austin moves...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-31
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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