- Pluralism, Place, and Gertrude Bonnin’s Counternativism from Utah to Washington, DC
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, racial nativism wielded considerable direct and indirect influence on policies that affected broader American attitudes concerning Native American people. In this three-decade period, many factors caused the kinds of national insecurity and instability that make a cultural climate ripe for upsurges in protectionist nativism. America experienced its greatest wave of immigration, the nation’s soldiers fought in a heretofore unimaginable global conflict, the African American northern migration began, and an economic collapse took hold. Yet xenophobic nativism, also called Anglo-Saxon nativism, is more than a mere protective or “ethnocentric habit of mind,” as John Higham points out. Within racial nativism, “race” becomes a vague glyph, employed in specific ascriptive fashion to groups of people who, for whichever of a variety of reasons, don’t seem to have the requisite “national character,” in Higham’s phrase, to be “American.”1 Functionaries of race-driven nativism that had particular impact on indigenous Americans were the Dawes Act, the Native American boarding school system, and the associated “outing” program. Between 1902 and 1938 Gertrude Bonnin (also known by her self-given name, Zitkala-Ša) came to understand that the employment of pluralist rhetoric could help her to textually and oratorically combat the zeal of race-based nativist nationalism and its narrow view of “national character.” Further, her pluralist counternativism, with its specifically Native senses of reciprocity and place centrism, propelled her efforts toward political empowerment and land rights for Native people across tribes.
This thirty-six-year period includes Bonnin’s fifteen years in Utah and the final twenty-one years of her life in the Washington, DC, area. [End Page 318] Because of her dedication to land rights as a necessary component of Native futurity, we can see across this time period Bonnin’s evolving commitment to place (a concept that transcends territory and physicality) as the critical component of her activist work. Her unshakable commitment to place rights (which encompass personal, familial, and community traditions, histories, and futures) is the emblem, I argue, of her pluralist counternativism. Bonnin’s place centrism and its role as her tactic to invalidate the racial “logics” of nativism can be plotted from her Utah era political and activist apprenticeship to the fully developed pluralist counternativism of her Washington, DC, years. In this study I trace this evolution. By establishing a context for Bonnin within the volatile nativist climate of the Dawes era and by recognizing the palpable countercurrent of the antiassimilationist leftist intellectuals of the period, we can better appreciate the complexity and uniqueness of Bonnin’s political work. Bonnin insisted on the essential role that place must play (and has always played) for Native people as they strive for rights and acceptance in early twentieth-century America. This place centrism was Bonnin’s tactic for untangling the knotty problem of race-centric nativism that propelled the policies that excluded and defined “marginal” Americans of many kinds in the 1910s and 1920s.
The watchwords “race,” “American,” “pluralism,” and “assimilationism” identify Bonnin’s concerns throughout her literary and political life. In a nativist America, particularly in the war years and the years immediately leading into and out of the war, Bonnin worked as an advocate for Native people and against Anglo-Saxon nativism. While the term “nativism” has been used in recent years to denote pro-Native (in fact, Native-initiated) traditionalist movements that vaunt Native nationalism, it was not this sense of the term that dominated American political discourse in Bonnin’s era. Of course, etymologically, the iterations of “nativism” share a concern with protection and nativity, but “nativism” as a minority challenge to majority hegemony was not the “nativism” of early twentieth-century European American political movements and cultural attitudes. The nativism that Bonnin challenged was the nativism described by such newspaper-article titles from the turn of the century as “Nativism Rampant” (in the Milwaukee Journal) and “The Nativists Are Restless” (from the New York Times). Bonnin foregrounded the value of land—of place—over that of race, rhetorically, in that discourses of place could provide her...