- Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature by Beth H. Piatote
In Domestic Subjects Beth H. Piatote presents an incisive analysis of works written by five Native authors in response to various federal policies—Canada’s Indian Act, the Dawes General Allotment Act, the Burke Act—and legal decisions such as the Marshall Trilogy and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock. She demonstrates the efficacy of tribal resistance in an era when “Indian wars [were] unremittingly wars waged upon Indian families” not by armed cavalrymen, but by field matrons, land surveyors, and boarding schools (56, 3).
Piatote’s work significantly advances current conversations about the interrelationship of US domestic policy and imperial expansion, seeing them as “categories . . . not so much proximal as coterminous” (4). She insists that attention to late-century overseas conquest should not obscure the foundational importance of similar initiatives being perfected on Native bodies, families, and polities at home. The keywords of home, family, gender, citizenship, nation-building, and law structure her demonstration of how “literature challenges law by imagining other plots and other resolutions” (10). In four chapters, often working comparatively, Piatote examines the interweavings of law and policy in short stories by E. Pauline Johnson (Mohawk) and John M. Oskison (Cherokee) and several novels: Wynema, by S. Alice Callahan (Creek), Cogewea by [End Page 122] Mourning Dove (Okanogan), and The Surrounded, by D’Arcy McNickle (Cree/Salish). These texts focus on the citizenship status of married Native women in Canada; the forced removal of Native children to boarding schools; and the domestic upheavals caused by allotment—the putative transformation of Native men into individuated agrarian businessmen, the effort to conform Indian families to heteromonogamy, and the establishment of so-called competency commissions to reconfigure Native domestic practices to match national ideals.
Although the targets of assimilation policies were home and family, Piatote demonstrates that those sites were also the locus of effective tribal resistance. In her analyses of literary resistance she frequently uses invented shorthand terminologies (“tribal-national domestic,” “intimate domestic,” “entangled consent,” “tiered maternalism,” “dialectic of preoccupation,” “performative taxonomy of citizenship,” “disciplinary paternalism”) that at times make straightforward concepts seem unnecessarily complex. Conversely, she astutely teases out multiple valences of commonplace terms such as occupation, a word that structures one of the book’s strongest chapters, “Labor, Land, and Performance in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea.” Here she considers occupation as work, as imperial acquisition, as anxiety (i.e., preoccupation), and as the presumptive alignment of Native interests with white. Likewise, focusing on adoption in texts by Callahan and Johnson, Piatote juxtaposes the ongoing federal insistence that Natives occupy a state of presumptive wardship in relation to the federal government (a status that strands them in an eternal condition of dependency) to intertribal adoption as a strategy of Native recovery and resistance following Wounded Knee.
With its attention to a multiplicity of genres that include short stories, novels, newspaper accounts taken from both white and Indian presses, treaty discourse, and sentimental fiction, Domestic Subjects suggests multiple points of inquiry and brings into sharp relief new possibilities for and reconfigurations of our understanding of the political agendas of Native-authored literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [End Page 123]