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An Indian Woman of Many Hats: Laura Cornelius Kellogg’s Embattled Search for an Indigenous Voice

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 87-115 | 10.1353/aiq.2013.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

She is a woman who would shine in any society: it is said that she is destined to take the place in literature Zitkala-Ša [Gertrude Bonnin] seemed about to achieve.

Los Angeles Times March 1904

Laura “Minnie” (Miriam) Cornelius Kellogg was born on the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin in 1879 and came from a long line of Indian tribal leaders.1 Her grandfather, Daniel Bread (Dehowyadilou, “Great Eagle”), was a famous Oneida—a friend of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster—who helped find land for his people after the Oneidas were forcibly removed from New York State to Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century.2 The Oneidas’ uprooting from New York to Wisconsin in the 1820s and 1830s, along with internal tribal factionalism, led to severe changes in Oneida politics.3 The enormous loss of land caused by relocation and, later, by the Dawes Act (1887) shrunk the Oneida land base to less than ninety acres by 1934.4 Most important, Kellogg came from a long line of strong Iroquois women; among Six Nations’ peoples women held great political and social powers, not only providing tribal sustenance but also choosing the representatives of the league’s council. Kellogg’s genealogy is important for understanding her political and aesthetic views both before and beyond her brief affiliation with the Society of American Indians (sai); like Daniel Bread’s activism, her political action and later work on the Oneida land claims were grounded in traditional tribal values and a favorable view of adaptation to new economic and political changes.

Laura Cornelius Kellogg was a founding member of the sai (serving as the first secretary of the executive committee), an activist, orator, linguist, performer, and reformer of Indian policy, as well as an author of fiction, poetry, speeches, and essays. As the epigraph above suggests, there is much to admire in Bonnin’s and Kellogg’s work as Native women activists at a time when women’s rights and citizenship were prominent issues of debate on the national scene. Nevertheless, although they diverged on some issues, Kellogg’s radicalism and political work are more reminiscent of the sai’s bad boy, Carlos Montezuma, than any other sai member. Like Montezuma, Kellogg helped found the sai, was a fervent and acerbic advocate for Native rights, and was often at odds with the Office of Indian Affairs; like Montezuma, she was controversial, exoticized, and misinterpreted in the popular press; and although she differed from Montezuma in her views on education—she strictly opposed the off-reservation boarding school model—Kellogg shared the Yavapai doctor’s ambition and determination to change the lives of Native people for the better.

A public speaker with electrifying charisma, who was often stereotyped as an “Indian Princess” in the popular press, Kellogg drew on Haudenosaunee and non-Indigenous traditions and discourses to support her life’s work to transform Indian reservations into cooperative, self-governing communities and to offer practical solutions for achieving autonomy through economic sovereignty. Reading her surviving work alongside competing representations of Kellogg in the popular press, her public speeches, and internal sai tensions and factions, in this essay I argue that in her cultural work through the 1920s this controversial and fierce public Indian intellectual woman of many hats—literally and figuratively—fought for economic self-determination, education, and the recovery of Oneida land despite the impact those fights would have on her public image and legacy. Her versatility, negotiation of several competing audiences (local, national, and international), and occasional transgressions and irreverence point to Kellogg’s determination to find a voice of her own as she also became the voice of the Oneidas and the Six Nations people on the national scene. Her surviving published literary work, along with her public speeches and addresses to Congress and the sai meetings, offer a useful archive to begin to understand and recover one of the most controversial and misunderstood “citizen Indians” at the beginning of the twentieth century.5 Kellogg’s daring enterprise of diverging from the expected path of “new Indian” leaders came at an enormous personal cost as she sought to envision a future for the Oneidas in Wisconsin.

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