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Na t iv e A m e r ic a n O r a l Pr a c t ic e a n d t h e Po p u l a r No v e l ; Or , Wh y Mourn ing Do ve Wro te a Wester n V i c t o r i a L a m o n t Wrongly assuming that the death of Native American oral cul­ ture was immanent and inevitable, ethnographic researchers at the turn of the twentieth century attempted to preserve it in print before it disappeared forever, an approach James Clifford has termed ‘“sal­ vage ethnography’” (112). It was in this context that Mourning Dove (Okanogan) wrote her novel Cogewea, The Half'Blood (1927).1 Its editor, Lucullus McWhorter, considered Cogewea an important work because, as he writes in his preface to the first edition, he believed it Susan Point. SALISH REVIVAL. 2000. Acrylic paint, polymer, oil on canvas. 6' x 6' x 6". Courtesy of the artist. V ic t o r ia L a m o n t 3 6 9 the first novel written by a Native American woman (9), but he also felt that one novel was enough and discouraged Mourning Dove from writing another one. Instead, he convinced her to devote her energy to the ethnographic “fieldwork” that resulted in the 1933 collection Coyote Stories (Brown, “Evolution” 162-65; Bemardin 490— 91). In her original draft of the preface to Coyote Stories, Mourning Dove writes, “I first wrote my lines of these stories much against my will” (qtd. in Brown, “Evolution” 173). Clearly, Mourning Dove began writing with intentions that were set aside for the sake of ethnographic fieldwork. Scholars of the text have been trying to recover these intentions ever since, collectively demonstrating how Cogewea highlights crucial issues in Native American literary studies. Paula Gunn Allen considers it a foundational text in twentieth-century Native American literature because of its resolution, in which the main character, a mixed-blood woman, realizes that ritual tradition has relevance in her life (83-85), a theme taken up by later writers including N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Leslie Silko (Laguna Pueblo), and Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa). In different ways, Louis Owens and Susan Bemardin interpret Cogewea's subversive appropriations of Euramerican literary forms— the popular Western, the sentimental novel— as a historically important moment in the development of a Native American literary tradition (Owens, Mixedblood Messages 28-34; Bemardin 495-504). Debates about the authenticity of Cogewea, arising from the heavy-handedness of its nonN adve editor, speak to the complex and difficult questions about the politics of Native American representation recently highlighted in an essay collection edited by Gretchen M. Bataille.2 In this essay I would like to add yet another dimension to our understanding of this text’s importance by situating it in the context of the literary history of Native American oral writing. The focus on the crucial relationship between oral and literary storytelling practice in recent scholarship on contemporary Native American literature overturns the assumptions of early twentieth-century Euramerican ethnographers, who regarded writing as both a vehicle for assimilating Native Americans into the American melting pot and a medium for preserving their supposedly dying oral traditions. Both assumptions were based on the view that oral storytelling was a primitive form of culture that would die out as Native American people “progressed” toward literacy. Cogewea is a groundbreaking novel created as an act of resis­ tance against precisely this model of the relationship between oral and literary practice. Rejecting the belief underlying ethnographic narrative that the death of Native American nations and cultures was inevitable, 3 7 0 W ESTERN AMERICAN LITERATURE W in t e r 2 0 0 5 Mourning Dove gravitated toward the popular Western as an unlikely, yet effective, vehicle for inscribing a living oral culture in print. Early ethnographers did not imagine that oral practice would sur­ vive, let alone become the basis for the highly regarded oral writing epitomized by Leslie Silko’s Storyteller (1981), which combines poetry, prose, photography, autobiography, fiction, and traditional Pueblo narratives . Not only an important literary innovation, oral writing has political significance because...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 368-394
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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