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  • John Milton Oskison and Assimilation
  • Lionel Larré (bio)

John Milton Oskison (1874-1947) was a Cherokee writer, journalist, and activist and the author of novels and biographies as well as numerous short stories, essays, and articles about a great variety of subjects. Oskison thought of himself as "an interpreter to the world, of the modern, progressive Indian."1 He was interested in new representations. In his own words, this is how and why he wanted to represent the Indian:

A new series of Indian portraits is needed. The "noble red man" of Fenimore Cooper and of Catlin, the fierce figure in war-paint and feathers, lost his romantic interest when he was confined to a reservation and fed on rations. He became of no more interest than any other stall-fed creature. Admiration of the untamed savage gave way to contempt for the dirty beggar in the streets and under the car windows. . . .

Now the stall-fed reservation dweller has been supplanted in turn by the new man, Indian only in blood and traditions, who is stepping up to take his place in the life of the West.2

The kind of representation Oskison gave of the Indians-the "new Indians" stepping up to take their places in the social and economic life of the West-earned him the label of assimilationist.3 However, Gretchen Ronnow warned against such simplistic interpretations of Oskison's work:

American Indian authors, Oskison included, writing during these years are often credited by critics with (or accused by them of) being assimilationists who proposed the idea that the "Indian [End Page 3] problem" would disappear according to the natural laws of "social evolution." A naïve reading of Oskison's articles on Indian topics would seem to justify aligning him with assimilationism, but a closer look at his rhetorical technique raises strong doubts.4

Other scholars have argued that Oskison did not write, or wrote very little, about Indians. This idea probably comforted the proponents of the assimilationist interpretation. Among other scholars, Paula Gunn Allen claimed that Oskison's three first novels had "little or nothing to say about Indian life." Yet she conceded in the same paragraph that although "Oskison's three novels do not treat identifiably Indian themes . . . they are each set in Indian Territory and include Indians as minor characters" before adding that in Brothers Three "Indians (breeds like himself) appear as major characters and the futile struggle to function in the white world is that book's major theme."5 Commenting on Allen's understanding of Oskison's texts, Craig Womack wrote that they "do not present the kind of Indians she is looking for."6 I would argue that his statement also applies to the other scholars with the same interpretation.7

Besides the fact that such comments are founded on a superficial knowledge of Oskison's work, it seems that they are also trapped in what Maureen Konkle calls "the assimilate-or-become-extinct narrative" and what Robert Allen Warrior calls "parochial questions of identity and authenticity."8 In Writing Indian Nations, Konkle aptly demonstrates how "early" Native American writers were reified by modern literary criticism in a struggle to preserve their culture when, in fact, they were pursuing an ongoing political struggle. Although Konkle focuses on a period that ended eleven years before Oskison's birth, I believe that Oskison-along with contemporary Native intellectuals such as Eastman, Zitkala-Ša, Arthur Parker, and Carlos Montezuma, to name but a few prominent ones-belongs to this "early" group of writers whose reputation has somehow suffered from the prevalence of that binary and simplistic narrative. The very term "early"-which I used between quote marks better to deconstruct it now-is a manifestation of this reification. Indian writers are generally referred to as "early" if they wrote before what came to be known as the American Indian Renaissance, the beginning of which is usually marked by the 1969 Pulitzer Prize awarded to N. Scott Momaday for House Made of Dawn. For a long time, these "early" intellectuals were hardly considered worthy of close attention. [End Page 4] Oskison is a case in point. If scholars have not paid much attention...


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