- Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature by Beth M. Piatote
“Indian wars are wars on Indian families,” writes Beth Piatote in the conclusion of her excellent book, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in [End Page 145] Native American Literature (173). This statement is eerily resonant today, as the Supreme Court’s decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl demonstrates that wars against Indian families continue. In this June 2013 case, the majority decided that the Indian Child Welfare Act (icwa) did not apply to Dusten Brown, a Cherokee man and biological father of a four-year-old girl, because she had not been in his “continued custody” since birth. He had initially surrendered his parental rights, but when he received papers announcing his daughter’s adoption at four months, he filed for custody, arguing that he had misunderstood the terms of the termination forms. He was awarded custody in December 2011. The Supreme Court decision returned the case to South Carolina, allowing the state court to decide whether to terminate Brown’s custodial rights (and indeed, in July 2013, a South Carolina court awarded the adoptive parents custody, a decision that is still being contested). In her dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsberg and Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion, steeped in an obvious disagreement with the icwa, extends to all Indian parents who have not had continued physical custody of their biological children. The majority of justices presume, she suggests, a particular definition of “family” as one in which parents and child live together, with a lack of physical custody indicating a lack of relationship. This case is also chilling in part because the majority opinion seems to hearken back to the “logic” of the boarding school era, when Indian biological parents were often coerced into relinquishing their children to these institutions.
Piatote’s timely book is situated in the assimilation period between 1879 and 1934, an era marked by a staggering separation of Indian children from their parents as many were sent to boarding schools. The book usefully expands and revises the work of scholars such as Ann Kaplan, arguing that the now-familiar concept of domestic imperialism is, for indigenous people, in fact double: one tribal-national and one settler-national. The usual binary of foreign-domestic, Piatote argues, fails to account for the complex, coterminous relationship between different kinds of families and the US nation-state. One of the implicit values of Piatote’s terminology is that it foregrounds American Indians as opposed to non-Native settlers—defining domesticity in their terms—and positions the settlers as the foreigners. Because these multiple domesticities were regarded as a threat to the settler nation, a single, Anglo-infused form of domesticity (not entirely unlike that imagined by the 2013 Supreme Court majority justices) was applied, often with force, to American Indian families. For scholars of American women’s literature and Native American studies, then, Piatote’s book offers a valuable revision of the concept of domesticity.
The first chapter, a study of Pauline Johnson’s short story “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” and John M. Oskinson’s “The Problem of Old Harjo,” offers a particularly [End Page 146] strong interpretation of Johnson’s story vis-à-vis Canada’s Indian Act. According to the dictates of this act, the indigenous heroine at the heart of the story would have lost legal status as soon as she married a white man. Thus their pending marriage—and Christie’s dissolution of their engagement once she realizes her fiancé’s racism—is of even more consequence. Christie’s refusal of her white suitor, Piatote writes, crystallizes in the line, “‘No,’ said the girl, with quick, indrawn breath’” (24). As opposed to the Indian heroine of white authors’ fiction—and indeed the colonial expectations of the settler state—Christie chooses to live, her resistance joined with her breath.
Piatote also offers a series of terms that help us understand the...