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  • Alternate Origin Stories and Unexpected Archives:The Question of the Indigenous Literary
  • Susan Bernardin

Sarah Winnemucca. S. Alice Callahan. Gertrude Bonnin. Mourning Dove. Since the 1980s, the scholarly recovery of these foundational Native women writers in English has pivoted on their dexterous literary engagement with select narrative forms—short story, memoir, novel—and their aligned political engagement with the settler state and tribal-nations. Their visibility—in anthologies, journals, and books and on course syllabi—has reframed Native, US, and US women's literary history. Yet that visibility has tended to obscure other vital dimensions of their work. The focus on individual authorship that still guides literary studies, for example, risks extricating these writers from the complex intergenerational and intertribal relationships that informed their literary production. At the same time, despite key moves in recent years to broaden categories of the literary, the secondary status of texts such as petitions, speeches, and newspaper articles has hampered a fuller consideration of these writers as well as other Native women activists and intellectuals.

In recent years, books such as Beth H. Piatote's Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature (reviewed in Legacy 31.1), Mark Rifkin's When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty, and Kiara M. Vigil's Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (reviewed by Penelope M. Kelsey in this issue), resituate this canon of early Native women writers, as well as First Nations author and performer E. Pauline Johnson, in transnational and what Chadwick Allen calls "trans-indigenous" networks of literary, legal, and political activism. For example, in centering her study on Indigenous people's "legal status as 'domestic subjects' of the U.S. and Canadian settler state and the contest over national domesticity that centered on the Indian home and family" (7), Piatote amplifies an intergenerational model of Native women's literary history linking settler colonization, gender violence, and Indigenous trauma. From Sarah Winnemucca's searing 1883 autobiography, Life among the Piutes, to Louise Erdrich's 2012 National Book Award–winning novel, The Round House, Native women writers have assailed settler assaults on sovereignty over their bodies, families, and lands. In related terms, Rifkin's [End Page 212] pathbreaking work at the intersections of Queer and Native studies, most notably When Did Indians Become Straight?, shows "how U.S. imperialism against native peoples over the past two centuries can be understood as an effort to make them 'straight'—to insert indigenous peoples into Anglo-American conceptions of family, home, desire, and personal identity" (8). Rifkin's chapter on Bonnin delineates how her early writings work to support traditional kinship systems then under attack by federal assimilation policies. Vigil's "collective cultural biography" locates Bonnin's early writings in relation to a cohort of early-twentieth-century Native intellectuals who formed a network "with a rich texture of multiple connections" (3, 11). In doing so, Vigil extends both Robert Warrior's formative concept of intellectual trade routes and Phillip H. Round's histories of the book in Indian Country to foreground the continuity and complexity of relationships among Native intellectuals. Most especially, Vigil builds on Warrior's crucial contention that Native intellectual history is rooted in and sustained by diverse forms of nonfiction writing.

As Piatote, Rifkin, and Vigil provide new entryways through which we can approach well-known early Native women writers, we still await biographies grounded in the territories, communities, and tribal histories that shaped their lives. Although book-length biographies of these most widely taught early Native women writers remain scant, Tadeusz Lewandowski's biography of Bonnin, Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša (2016) moves us in an important direction, especially through its illuminating use of extensive, unrecognized archives. The dramatic shifts in women's literary history made possible by the archival work of many scholars has additional implications when it involves forgotten, erased, or little-known writing by Native authors. Consider the multiple networks such writing traverses: it moves from archives through networks of Indigenous revitalization and knowledge sharing, publication, scholarship, and teaching. Accessing archives and making them accessible is crucial work in Native studies. The...


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