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  • Gender, Literacy, and Sovereignty in Winnemucca’s Life among the Piutes
  • Leah Sneider (bio)

Arming themselves with “manifest destiny” rhetoric, which claimed divine Anglo-Saxon superiority as justification for the conquest of Indigenous and Mexican peoples and the land they occupied, white settlers forcefully pushed into California territory. The two-year-long Mexican-American War resulted in the acquisition of the present-day states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. However, Native tribes and landed Mexicans continued to stand in the way of not only “civilized progress” but the vast riches that gold and the California soil offered the ever-growing numbers of US citizens.

Relationships with the Paiute Nation became key to movement into the area as their lands stood directly in the path of settlers and miners moving toward California through the Sierra Nevada.1 Paiutes were subject to various methods of removal and attempts at assimilating or civilizing the Indian, then became wards of the state through the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871. Daughter to the chief, Sarah Winnemucca witnessed and engaged in her tribe’s struggles to remain in their ancestral lands and maintain sovereignty while attempting to build balanced relationships with their white relatives according to her cultural traditions. Her Life among the Piutes, Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) is the first autobiographical account written by a Native woman and reveals valuable information regarding this history and conflict. However, her autobiography focuses less on her life and more on the trials and tribulations of her tribe’s relationship with the United States. Born around 1844, Winnemucca learned to read and write English while a domestic worker for a white woman after expulsion from a convent school for being Indian. Furthermore, her birth coincided with the politicization [End Page 257] of the women’s rights movement with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848; leaders in the movement would later be vital in supporting Winnemucca. With such a history transpiring around her, Winnemucca learned about cultural and gender differences at a young age. She became a translator and then an activist, using her strong literacy skills as both a lecturer and an author. Her autobiography appeals to readers to stop the government from removing the Paiutes from their land or attempting to control them.

While on tour with her stories and lectures, Winnemucca portrayed herself as “a civilized Indian woman” dressed in supposedly traditional costume that seemingly reinforces stereotypes of the “other.”2 However, she would complicate such stereotypes by changing into modern American female attire in the second part of her act. Winnemucca’s performances negotiate “popular discourses of womanhood” and the “Indian princess” by “position[ing] and reposition[ing] herself as both apart from and a part of Euro-American and Paiute discourse.”3 While other scholars focus on similar performances of femininity in her autobiography, I contend that Winnemucca simultaneously performs masculinity and enacts Indigenous feminism through complementary and reciprocal relationships that promote social balance. Combining a variety of others’ definitions and explanations, I define Indigenous feminism as the responsibility for the nurturance and growth of Native communities through storytelling as a communal process and action reflecting personal sovereign power. As Sandy Grande explains, “For indigenous women, the central dominating force is colonization, not patriarchy; and the definitive political project is decolonization, not feminism.”4 Decolonization requires stripping away colonial ideologies that have infected tribal identities and, as Linda Smith elucidates, “left a permanent wound on the societies and communities who occupied the lands named and claimed under imperialism.”5 Indigenous feminism helps to contextualize the history of colonization and opens “a space to plan, to strategize, to take greater control” over the decolonization process.6 More to the point, it advances the process of decolonization through the recovery of Native stories and histories. Writing and reading texts from this perspective is also, I believe, a form of social activism.

At the core of my understanding of Indigenous feminism are the principles of complementarity and reciprocity. Complementarity summarizes concepts of social responsibility and sharing; reciprocity involves [End Page 258] the actions or performances necessary to maintain or enact complementarity by recognizing and attempting to respectfully know and/or respond to the “other” in...


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pp. 257-287
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