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  • From “Half-blood” to “Mixedblood”: Cogewea and the “Discourse of Indian Blood”
  • Arnold Krupat (bio)

For Louis Owens

Dismantling the intricate edifice of racism embodied in ‘Indian blood’ is not simply a matter of exposing its essentialism and discarding its associated policies, but a more delicate and complicated task: that is, acknowledging ‘Indian blood’ as a discourse of conquest with manifold and contradictory effects, but without invalidating rights and resistances that have been couched in terms of that very discourse.

—Pauline Turner Strong and Barrik Van Winkle, “‘Indian Blood’:
Reflections on the Reckoning and Reconfiguring of Native North American Identity” 1

Published in 1927, and until recently thought the first novel by a Native American woman, 2 Mourning Dove’s Cogewea: The Half-Blood was paid little critical attention until 1978, when Charles Larson, in his American Indian Fiction commented on it in regard to the problems of dual authorship (although Larson knew only that Mourning Dove and [End Page 120] Lucullus Virgil McWhorter had in some fashion worked together). Mourning Dove—or Hum-ishu-ma, also known as Christine Haines and Christine or Chrystal Quintasket—had completed a first draft of the novel in the years 1912–14, but, after meeting McWhorter, a white businessman with a keen interest in Native American culture and in federal Indian policy, worked with him, in the winter of 1915–16, to revise the text. Finding a publisher in the years of the First World War and immediately after proved difficult, and, in 1922, McWhorter undertook his own independent revision, expanding the text by adding passages critical of the government’s Indian policy and “elevating” Cogewea’s diction in many places. Although Cogewea bears a copyright date of 1927, it appears that copies were not available until June of 1928. It was only then that Mourning Dove herself saw the changes made by McWhorter.

Cogewea was out of print for years until the University of Nebraska Press reissued it in 1981 with an introduction by Dexter Fisher (Alice Poindexter Fisher), a revision of parts of her fine 1979 dissertation on Mourning Dove and Zitkala sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin). Since that time, Jay Miller has done important editorial work on Mourning Dove’s autobiographical manuscripts, and Alanna Kathleen Brown—who has substantial disagreements with Miller 3 —has provided much of the major criticism.

Of the two epigraphs Louis Owens chose for his study of the Native American novel, Other Destinies (1992), one is a quotation from Cogewea, the Half-Blood and one is from Gerald Vizenor’s “Crows Written on the Poplars,” an autobiographical text published in 1987. Both refer to “Indian blood,” and, taken together, the two passages may be read as marking a movement in Native American literature from Cogewea’s view of the constraints on the “half-blood” early in this century to Vizenor’s very different sense of more open possibilities for the “mixedblood” nearer the century’s end. The two epigraphs also serve to contextualize and historicize Owens’s dedication of his book: “For mixedbloods, the next generation.” This essay, dedicated to Owens, attempts to elaborate and expand upon his insights into Cogewea’s depiction of the situation of the “half-blood” in the period just before and after the First World War, in the context of racist, internal colonialism and “the discourse of Indian blood.” 4 [End Page 121]

The epigraph Owens chose from Cogewea quotes the narrator on the plight of Native persons of mixed parentage or “blood” as follows: “Yes, we are between two fires, the Red and the White. Our Caucasian brothers criticize us as a shiftless class, while the Indians disown us as abandoning our own race. We are maligned and traduced as no one but we of the despised ‘breeds’ can know” (qtd. in Owens, n.p.). Owens’s quotation from Vizenor, who wrote some sixty years later, offers a very different view of the “mixedblood.” Rather than being passive subjects, “Mixedbloods,” as Owens quotes Vizenor, actively “loosen the seams in the shrouds of identities” (n.p.). 5 Now, more than a decade later, it is apparent that Vizenor was at once both accurate and prophetic.

By 1987, Native mixedbloods, along with a...

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