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  • Legible Natives:Making Native Women Visible in the Literary Arts
  • Penelope M. Kelsey

This essay holds integral the assumption that any analysis of Native American women's literary traditions must consider intersections of the political and the literary, as before and since contact, stories have been the primary means of knowledge keeping and an important mode for asserting sovereignty. By itself the seemingly simple act of Native people telling stories, with its implicit insistence that those truths obtain, is political, because Native stories refuse to conform to benign narratives of settler colonialism that safely situate Natives in the past. In fact, Native people, especially Native women, must work continually to resist what Lisa Kahaleole Hall has termed "strategies of erasure" that work to conceal the Native and the female in imperial optics.

This essay considers past and present Native women authors and storytellers who told their stories, insisted upon being made visible on the page, and made the Indigenous origins and underpinnings of those stories plainly evident. Following current practice in Native American and Indigenous studies, I use the term Native to include all indigenous peoples, whom I define as those whose traditional territories have been usurped by settler populations and who have remained disempowered, antagonistically educated, underfed, and pauperized in their own land via settler colonialisms that Patrick Wolfe has rightly identified as "structure" and not "event" (388). Throughout this essay, I will make conscious connections to important trends in areas not traditionally understood in American literary critical circles to be germane to American Indian studies scholarship; as I do, I will explain their relationships to the field and how their contributions apply to the literatures studied by readers of Legacy. Thus, while acknowledging the sovereigntist roots of many of these texts, [End Page 198] this essay engages the strategies of a transnational Native American studies, as defined by Hsinya Huang, Philip Deloria, Laura Furlan, and John Gamber, by connecting the Native American to the Native Hawaiian to the Alaska Native and so on (1–3). The term sovereigntist denotes those scholars (and their texts) who self-identify as nationalist with a core emphasis upon advancing Native sovereignty (that is, self-determination); this impulse constitutes a distinct and predominant strand in Native American literary criticism at present, as evident in work by Lisa Brooks, Daniel Justice, Robert Warrior, Craig Womack, and many others. I am also alive to the fact that my translation of my field to Legacy readers reiterates a pattern, from contact to the present, of Native women writers and storytellers making legible their unique experiences and histories to non-Natives; these educative moments of translation are important for continually rendering the Native visible in a nation that imagines itself as possible only via Natives' disappearance.

kellogg and bonnin: politics, networks, letters, and literature

Literature shall be my life work, and its aim shall be to benefit my people. Laura Cornelius Kellogg, "One Indian Maiden: Her Literary Plans for the Uplifting of Her Race"

(1903)

As scholars have made clear since Native American literary studies emerged as a distinct field in the 1970s and 1980s, Native American women's writing is often inherently political, and attempts to enforce apoliticism would render it meaningless and extraneous. Native women write with a keen awareness of the unique history of Native American political structures of governance, the obfuscation of deep and rich intellectual traditions, the erasure of histories acknowledging the sacrifice of the indigene upon which the settler colonial state is predicated, and the necessity of organizing and speaking from the space of Indigenous political consciousness (that is, sovereignty and resurgence), whether based in traditional governance structures or in the non-Native governmental forms intentionally imposed upon Native peoples via and through the treaty and reservation confinement periods. A range of recently published works on Native American women writers highlights exactly these thematics of the political and the literary. Kristina Ackley and Cristina Stanciu's scholarly edition of Laura Cornelius Kellogg's Our Democracy and the American Indian and Other Works is one such volume, exploring an oft-overlooked but integral and arguably paramount figure in pre-1930 American Indian literary and political [End Page 199] circles. Born in 1880...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 198-211
Launched on MUSE
2017-06-20
Open Access
No
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