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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 216-217

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Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca, and Victoria Howard. By Siobhan Senier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. 256 pp. $29.95.

Focusing on three important women's voices from the so-called "Era of Assimilation" (1879- 1934), Siobhan Senier intelligently engages the current lively discussions surrounding earlier writing by and about American Indian women. Although a brief accounting necessarily oversimplifies, Senier's goals are multiple: to complicate and contest previous critics' assumptions about these writers' assimilationist propensities; to contribute to the ongoing work of canon revision; and to advocate (and model) an ethical, contextualized approach to reading unfamiliar texts. Perhaps her most innovative and provocative claim is that rather than being interested in "representing tribal practices for the non-Indian readers who comprised much of their audience," these women were more concerned with "restructuring the relations between those readers and themselves, and between Indians and non-Indians," and determined "to get their readers and listeners to examine their own desires, motives, and positions" (xiii, xiv). Tactfully self-aware, Senier's rhetorical strategies themselves provide a subjective space for the writers under consideration while provoking her own readers' self-study.

The introduction explores a useful set of historical and theoretical frames for the project, including the tensions between individualism and communitism (Jace Weaver's term combining "community" and "activism"), and communitism and nationalism, as well as how those tensions play out in the performative and fluid relationship between authors and readers and in the larger culture. Senier consistently envisions her project as proactive and shared: the writers "help us rewrite the history of the period to account for dynamic, communally based alternatives to individualizing, nationalizing norms" (21). Ultimately, she underscores, these writers' "resistance became deeply entwined with the question of how to speak, whether to speak, and how one might—or might not—be understood" (28).

Organized chronologically, succeeding chapters focus on the three authors, with an additional chapter devoted to Howard, both because she is less familiar in mainstream literary circles and because Senier interprets her work as a more radical intervention into author-reader relations than that of her predecessors. The chapter on Jackson argues persuasively that readings of Jackson's assimilationist stance in Ramona fail to take into account her private actions in relation to the Dawes Act, her correspondence, her nonfiction, and elements in the novel itself. White women like Jackson, Senier argues, often had a genuine investment in activism on behalf of American Indians; however, such activism also enabled them to constitute themselves as individuals, authors, and citizens (59). Thus, Jackson's novel presses simultaneously and uneasily against the boundaries of its own communitist and individualist imperatives. This pressure erupts in the novel's aesthetic form as well as in its rhetoric, which includes sentimental and anti-sentimental, regionalist and realist, didactic and indirect discourses.

By addressing Winnemucca within a similar variety of historical and biographical frames, Senier also contests the reading of her as simply assimilationist. The writer's "mediations and multivocality," she argues, "are also finally the products of a struggle with mediation, cultural contact, and cross-cultural representation themselves" (83). Although her "competing voices" sometimes conceal the "complexity of her communitism," Winnemucca "challenges [readers] to question their own positions of power in this inter-cultural conversation" (84). Winnemucca [End Page 216] contests, however indirectly, powerful notions of American nationalism by proposing another, Paiute nationalism (116-20).

Part of Winnemucca's aesthetic, and even more of Howard's, is the use of silence, omission, and obfuscation. Coupled with a compelling account of how the relationship between Howard and her white editor may have shaped Howard's stories, Senier's sensitive readings of Howard's narratives, especially those about American Indian women, offer us a model for how to understand "the oscillation... in women storytellers between self-disclosure and self-concealment" (162). Always careful not to overread and always judicious in allowing a writer's many voices to be heard, Senier points us to...


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