Rebecca Jager’s recent book is exactly the kind historians of early contact and the frontier should be writing: a book that bravely (and [End Page 271] sensibly) sees the commonalities in American frontiers, stresses the importance and agency of indigenous women in these circumstances, and evaluates the previously historiographically isolated titular women as peers. It also considers these three indigenous women as historiographical subjects and explores how their stories were incorporated into national narratives.
In the first half of the book, Jager outlines the social and gender systems of the indigenous societies each woman came from before offering a biographical portrait of each woman, separated into discussions of contact conditions, the labor of these women as intermediaries, and their position as indigenous women in European camps. In telling these stories, Jager sticks closely to an analysis of the most famous sources concerning these women, such as the writings of Bernal Diaz, John Smith, and Lewis and Clark. Each woman emerges as a deeply capable, dignified, and respected figure in their own context. Each biography also emphasizes “cultural ideologies and spiritual beliefs as significant ingredients in the telling of history” by trying to frame each woman within indigenous cultural and religious frameworks, as opposed to western patriarchal ones (p. 12). Although each chapter discusses each woman, Jager never quite makes these stories work together beyond a few concluding comparative paragraphs.
The second part deals with their longer historiographical and cultural legacies, beginning with the perceptions of their contemporaries and ending with their most recent places in the cultural conversation, ranging from queer Chicano/a essayists to Walt Disney Animation. Here, Jager is at her best and seems to be at her most comfortable, pointing out the sexism of earlier histories and questioning the skepticism of contemporary histories about sources and religion. In doing so, she is also able to articulate the historiographical traditions she was reacting against in framing her biographies. Her reading of subsequent secondary literature led her to stress these women’s dignity, prominence, agency, and skill; to take religion and belief more seriously; and to not reject certain categories of evidence out of hand.
Although these are sensible goals for a biography, Jager’s execution [End Page 272] of them will frustrate specialist readers. In her enthusiasm for taking up supposedly rejected sources, she overstates previous historian’s skepticism toward them and as a reaction is perhaps too trusting of them. In defining herself in opposition to earlier scholars, Jager also rejects the work of scholars who undertook similar projects, most notably linguist Frances Karttunen’s work on Malinche and Sacagawea and historian Camilla Townsend’s work on Malinche and Pocahontas.
This rejection of prior historiography and emphasis on skill and agency leads Jager down some strange paths, portraying each woman as a kind of charmed genius, rather than as a figure with profound abilities to survive. For example, emphasizing Malinche’s abilities and her spiritual context leads Jager to speculate that Malinche saw herself as (or was perhaps trained to be) a force of profound spiritual and political change in the mold of the similarly named goddess Malinalxochitl. This both flies in the face of decades of scholarship on the derivation of Malinche’s name and turns this uniquely capable and impressive figure into a kind of “chosen one.” While Jager has made Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea seem admirable, her extreme emphasis on agency makes them seem like destined heroes, rather than the tenacious survivors most historians see them as today.
SCOTT CAVE is a doctoral candidate in American history at Pennsylvania State University.