- A Cherokee Woman's America: Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, 1831-1907
In this edited memoir, Karen L. Kilcup, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, argues that Narcissa Owen's narrative enriches our understanding of both Native American and American women's writing at the turn of the twentieth century. This assertion of Owen's relevance across literary fields is fitting because Owen's life traversed boundaries. The daughter of a member of the "Old Settler" faction of Cherokees, Owen grew up in the Cherokee Nation immediately following the Trail of Tears. As a young woman, she was educated both inside and outside of the Cherokee Nation before supporting herself by teaching music. In 1853 she married Robert Latham Owen, a non Indian surveyor and later president of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and she moved to Virginia, where, after her husband passed away in 1873, she returned to teaching to put her two sons through college. In 1880 she moved back to the Cherokee Nation, where she worked at the Cherokee Female Seminary while her son, Robert Jr., launched his political career. Following Robert's election to the U.S. Senate, Owen moved with him to Washington, DC. She reinvented herself there as a socialite and artist. She wrote her memoir in 1907, four years prior to her death in 1911. [End Page 87]
As Kilcup points out, Owen's memoir is not notable for its accurate account of Cherokee history. In fact, Owen fabricated some details to emphasize her family's prestige and to impress her readers. Although her father's kin, like a significant minority of Cherokees, owned slaves and were relatively well-off, Owen suggested that his family, the Chisholms, were hereditary royalty, a title the egalitarian Cherokee did not recognize. Likewise, Owen's memoir does not provide a thick description of Cherokee culture. Rather, Owen tells but a few anecdotes about life in the Cherokee Nation that seem carefully selected to cultivate a particular image of refinement and to dispel readers' stereotypes about Native people.
In her introductory essay, "'The art spirit remains in me to this day': Contexts, Contemporaries, and Narcissa Owen's Political Aesthetics," Kilcup asserts, however, that it is not the details of Owen's story but the method of its telling that makes her account both rich and noteworthy. Kilcup suggests that Owen straddled a transition between tribal methods of expression rooted in orality and the literary styles that Native people were adopting from non Indians and adapting to their own purposes. Kilcup calls Owen a "cultural mediator" who would "ventriloquize a white editor, either consciously or unconsciously, for the purposes of creating a narrative bridge between themselves and their white audiences—in effect a kind of translation." (20) In this sense, Owen told her life story and shared intimate details while nonetheless attempting to give voice to a larger community, albeit one to which she was only marginally tied. Kilcup argues that Owen thus speaks to both Native and women's literature.
Kilcup notes that Owen's work presents problems for modern readers who seek to categorize Native authors as either assimilated or traditional. Clearly, Owen, who was raised by her Euroamerican mother and educated at boarding schools, does not speak for Cherokee traditionalists, who participated in a cultural and spiritual resurgence during the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, Owen was writing in defense of the Cherokees with whom she identified and critiqued non-Indians by asserting her people's superiority and characterizing the tribal [End Page 88] nation of her birth as a people of the law and of their word. In particular, Kilcup emphasizes Owen's account of her family's experience on the Trail of Tears as a way to both personalize that well-known tragedy and validate her tribal identity. In her introductory essay, Kilcup skillfully makes the case for Owen's usefulness and comparability to her better-known literary peers, such as Sarah Winnemucca...