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  • Rewriting Billie and Asserting Rhetorical Sovereignty in Linda Hogan’s Power
  • Helen Makhdoumian (bio)

Legal situations in American Indian literatures reveal how Native peoples actively resist the imposed paternalistic federal Indian policy that diminishes their sovereignty. One such example is Linda Hogan’s Power (1998), which rewrites the legal case United States v. James E. Billie (1987) from an indigenous perspective. In Billie, Seminole tribal chairman James E. Billie was charged with violating the Endangered Species Act (1973) after he hunted a protected Florida panther. While the court case in Power similarly revolves around a Native tribe member’s killing of a panther and her violation of the Endangered Species Act, the novel’s larger concern is the tangle of tribal and federal laws undermining Native self-governance. Hogan broadens the relevance of the case by changing the tribe at the center of the novel. Instead of depicting Seminoles—which would enable readers to recall narratives written by European Americans about Seminoles in Florida from the Spanish conquest to the Billie case—Power focuses on the fictional Taiga tribe. In Power, Ama, an older Taiga member, kills a Florida panther as part of a ritual for her tribe’s cultural renewal and ultimately faces two trials and two different outcomes. Ama is acquitted under U.S. law in a federal courtroom but exiled by the Taiga tribal council, which convenes in Kili Swamp. In this article, I argue that by reimagining Billie, presenting two trials and the questions they raise about power and justice, and contrasting rhetorical imperialism exercised within the federal court with Native rhetorical sovereignty in the tribal court, Power resists U.S. federal Indian policy’s erasure of Native sovereignty. Whereas U.S. law subordinates Native sovereignty to a state of dependency, Hogan’s counternarrative envisions Native control over their identities and definitions. [End Page 80]

Indeed, Hogan critiques long-standing and intertwined historical and legal narratives that systematically shape federal Indian policy, which in turn undermines Native nations’ survival. Because the novel raises a number of issues relevant to the environment, previous scholars have understandably engaged with Power through ecocritical perspectives.1 However, I emphasize the social, historical, and political contexts in which the novel takes shape. To read the representation of environmental concerns without these contexts risks reiterating “unstated assumptions [that] can mischaracterize the real makeup of Native communities and reactivate the old ethnographic-formal model” of interpreting American Indian literatures, which focuses on texts’ formal properties in limited cultural contexts (Lyons, “Actually Existing” 279). In contrast, I interpret Power by centering the notion that while “federal Indian law” serves as a “force in the colonizing of Native tribes, or nations,” American Indians resist that force through multitudinous rhetorical practices (Cheyfitz 6). Relevant and prominent sites of resistance leading up to Hogan’s novel include the Red Power movement and American Indian Movement (aim). These activist conversations about Native sovereignty inform Scott Richard Lyons’s concept of “rhetorical sovereignty,” codified in his essay in 2000, which calls for Native communities to control their communicative needs. While previous scholars of contemporary Native American fiction have analyzed courtroom scenes and the assertion of jurisdiction in texts like Winona LaDuke’s Last Standing Woman (1997) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Tayo’s Story” (1975) as sites of negotiating rhetorical sovereignty (Katanski 63, 68), Hogan’s novel has not yet received this attention. This article seeks to restore Hogan and Power to a tradition of Native writers working alongside scholars and activists developing rhetorical sovereignty as a concept and asserting its reach in the late twentieth century. In so doing, I conclude this article by reflecting how my own interpretive practices participate in the crafting of pedagogical and methodological frameworks grounded in rhetorical sovereignty.

To that end, I situate Power in conversation with the original court case upon which it is based and the historical newspaper reports of the trial. I delineate how the novel extracts the Billie case and its portrayal in news media from a larger rhetorical situation that dispossesses Native peoples of their agency. The legal and societal discourses generated by and concerning Billie do not elucidate to a U.S. audience the key issues [End...