Beyond Possession: Animals and Gifts in Willa Cather's Settler Colonial Fictions
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Beyond Possession
Animals and Gifts in Willa Cather's Settler Colonial Fictions

When Robert Frost began a famous poem with the words, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he touched on a problem common to settler colonial societies from New Brunswick to New South Wales, from New Mexico to New Zealand.1 The pioneers who came to settle these "new" worlds were unable—so their descendants would allege—to establish an imaginative foothold in the land their labors had so comprehensively transformed. True belonging, and a deeper discovery of place, had been impeded by their practical-mindedness and attachment to old world ways.2 As Frost puts it:

She was our land more than a hundred yearsBefore we were her people. She was oursIn Massachusetts, in Virginia,But we were England's, still colonials,Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

Sensing the deficiency, writers and artists born into a region made prosperous through settlement would seek a more authentic relation to place.3 Some were apt to find it in a return to primary dramas of discovery and settlement, revisiting them, as it were, in a manner that could be at once critical and compensatory, as well as productive of deeper affinities and identities. We see Frost gesture toward these outcomes through the abracadabra of a gift: "we gave ourselves outright . . . to the land vaguely realizing westward." And through that gift, the land, as yet "unstoried, artless, unenhanced," would be improved a second time—not by the plow and ax, but by [End Page 55] the power of story. Troubling the mists of Frost's benediction is a single line in parentheses: "(the deed of gift was many deeds of war)." One thinks, of course, of the mighty furnaces of conflict that might be said to forge a nation—and one also thinks of the littler wars, of massacres and reprisals, of what was promised in treaties and broken by land deeds. Is a history of Native American resistance bracketed in or bracketed out of Frost's poem? The settler colonial answer would appear to be both at once.

By way of comparison, consider for a moment the treatment of the frontiersman Kit Carson in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. On their first meeting, Bishop Latour, whose diocese is the unmapped vastness of the southwestern frontier, senses the man's fundamental decency: "As he stood there in his buckskin clothes, one felt in him standards, loyalties, a code which is not easily put into words but which is instantly felt when two men who live by it come together by chance" (80). Many years later, as an archbishop who can now traverse those vast distances by rail, Latour looks back on his friend's "deeds of war" against the Navajo. After a scorched-earth campaign, Carson drove remnants of the tribe on a brutal march into captivity—"an injustice that cried to heaven," Latour feels (307). What does it mean for one of nature's gentlemen to also be a genocidal killer? The contradiction itself doesn't especially trouble Latour or—it seems to me—the novel. Latour thinks of Carson as a "misguided friend" (308), "a soldier under orders" (309), but the old priest is nonetheless haunted by "the terrible faces of the Navajos" (313), "driven by starvation and the bayonet" (308) into exile in the Bosque Redondo. It is as if the two separate truths of decency and brutality are each allowed a certain weight, but the potential for the one to trouble the other is constrained by other factors and tendencies in the book, not least of which is the way the bishop's own role in the settlement of the southwestern United States is presented. Here too we will find a seemingly inevitable doubleness: there are many deeds of gift—Latour plants orchards of cherry, apricot, pear, and quince—but, as a politic servant of the Church, the bishop refuses to speak out for the Navajo in their time of need. Privately, he is thankful that there has been "a happy issue to these old...