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181 CHAPTER 12 “Working” from the Margins Documenting American Indian Participation in the New Deal Era MINDY J. MORGAN There is perhaps no more iconic image of the United States in the 1930s than Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (figure 12.1) Taken in 1936 in Nipomo , California, it portrays a seated woman with a worried expression cradling an infant, with two of her young children leaning against her for support. It captured the hard and sometimes desperate reality of migrant farm workers as well as the endurance of these families. Initially published in the San Francisco News a few days after it was taken, the photo has been reproduced widely and has been the subject of popular and scholarly analysis, including a recent fictionalized account.1 Much of the scholarly attention has focused on Lange and her version of the events that produced the image, but much less has been given to Florence Owens Thompson, the woman who appears in the photo. While Lange provided a narrative sketch of the encounter, she never named the woman in the photo, and Thompson’s identity was unknown until she identified herself in a newspaper interview in the 1980s. Thompson’s own accounting of the exchange diverges in important ways from Lange’s depiction. For example, Lange claimed the family was living off of frozen vegetables at the site, whereas Thompson stated that they had merely stopped temporarily to fix their car. However, the difference most salient to this chapter is Thompson’s self-identification as being of Cherokee descent, a fact never mentioned in Lange’s account.2 While there are not many clues as to how Thompson regarded her relationship to the Cherokee community, there are some important facts: she was born Florence Leona Christie in 1903 outside of Tahlequah in what was then Indian Territory, Oklahoma, to Jackson Christie and Mary Jane Cobb; and she was raised by her mother and her stepfather, Charles Ackman, who was of Choctaw descent. While she cannot be located on the 1907 Dawes Rolls, her father’s name is listed as being “Cherokee by blood,” and her mother’s surname of Cobb appears frequently on the same list. 182 MINDY J. MORGAN Since the Cherokee Nation does not impose a minimum blood quantum on its members, the inclusion of her father on this list would mean that Florence and her descendants would be eligible to become citizens of the Cherokee Nation, though there is no evidence that they ever sought this status. The fact that her identity is contested is not surprising given the complicated politics of blood and belonging within the Cherokee community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.3 It is remarkable, however, that this image is assumed to be a woman of Euro-American descent and is almost never read as indigenous. What is it that allows viewers to see Florence Owen Thompson as a migrant farmworker but not as a Native woman? The answer lies in part with the ways in which the story of the New Deal has been told, beginning with carefully shaped narratives from the time period itself that clearly distanced the experiFIGURE 12.1 Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection (reproduction number, LC-USF34-9058-C). American Indian Participation in the New Deal Era 183 ences of Native communities from that of dominant U.S. society. But this separation suggests another question: is there a way the migrant mother can serve as a bridge between two currents of U.S. history that have been written in tandem but with little intersection? The inability to read Thompson as representative of Native experiences during the 1930s and 1940s is attributable to two connected but distinct tendencies within U.S. historiography. The first is the relative invisibility of American Indian communities in dominant histories of the New Deal era. Relegated to footnotes and asides, American Indians do not appear as central actors in comprehensive works discussing the political, cultural , and economic histories of this era.4 The second is the abundance of scholarship regarding the various federal acts often collectively referred to as the “Indian New Deal” that makes American Indians exceptional rather than part of the broader U.S. population.5 While legislative and political histories of federal Indian policy during this era are valuable, their focus has meant that the participation of tribal members in programs that benefitted other groups as well has not been systematically investigated...


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