- Alternative Histories of the Old Indian TerritoryJohn Milton Oskison's Outlaw Hypotheses
The tacit or explicit criminalization of indigeneity by the settler colonial state has been subject to consistent scrutiny in Indigenous North American literatures since at least the early nineteenth century. In what is currently the United States this thematic preoccupation transcends geographic and temporal boundaries, being palpable in Indigenous literatures from coast to coast (and beyond) throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, including, to name just a few examples, William Apess's Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (1835), Zitkala-Ša's "The Soft-Hearted Sioux" (1901), R. Lynn Riggs's plays The Cherokee Night (1930) and The Year of Pílar (1938), D'Arcy McNickle's novels The Surrounded (1936) and Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978), and Louise Erdrich's The Round House (2012)—to say nothing of similar concerns expressed by Indigenous writers in other settler colonial contexts, including Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Central to these texts, and many more like them, is the historical mediation of tribal sovereignty, legal jurisdiction, dispossession from the land, and the relativity of crime and criminality by tribal and US federal law.
Building upon recent scholarship by Beth H. Piatote (Nez Perce) in which she foregrounds "the ways in which Native literature seeks to confront and suspend the force of law" (19), the present discussion identifies the symbolic potential for outlaw figures in Indigenous writing to literalize that suspension of law and thus stage alternative outcomes for tribal sovereignty and the shape of US–Indigenous relations during the assimilation era (ca. 1879–1934).1 [End Page 339] It is worth noting that this period also coincides with the zenith of outlaw activity in the United States and the passage of perhaps the most onerous and devastating federal Indian policies and Supreme Court decisions in the history of US–Indigenous relations, which resulted in the near-total elimination of official tribal sovereignty, significant losses of the communally owned tribal land base, and severe reductions in Indigenous peoples' civil and political rights.2 To illustrate this claim, I examine two fictional works by Cherokee author John Milton Oskison that were published during this period and feature outlaw protagonists: his early short story "The Greater Appeal" (1907) and his second novel, Black Jack Davy (1926). The outlaw alternatives depicted in each of these texts neither submit to settler legal frameworks nor make compromises merely in the interest of mitigating tribal and cultural loss inflicted by assimilative policies; rather, they actively maintain the sovereign integrity of tribal-national legal, cultural, and familial frameworks. Moreover, I suggest that in at least these two instances, the extralegal nature of Oskison's outlaws permit them to act as vehicles for the expression of anticolonial resistance and the persistence of Cherokee sovereignty. In this way I identify the outlaw figure as perhaps Oskison's most effective trope for communicating a sovereigntist stance in his creative work.
Although Oskison lived most of his adult life outside of Indian Territory/Oklahoma, the people and landscapes that populated his childhood nonetheless dominate his fiction. "The Greater Appeal" fictionalizes the life of Belle Starr, an intermarried citizen of the Cherokee Nation and so-called "Bandit Queen" of the Indian Territory, while a character in Black Jack Davy is suggestive of Ned Christie, alleged "Cherokee outlaw." I suggest that Oskison's deliberate rewriting of the history of these outlaws illustrates what Piatote calls the "anticolonial imaginary" in Indigenous fiction, which she defines as "visions of alternative futures that may explain, in part, how Indian communities survived the violence of the assimilation era" (9). Building upon the provocative potential of Piatote's "anti-colonial imaginary," I suggest that both of Oskison's texts envision the Cherokee home/land not only as the primary site of conflict between Cherokee values and foreign assimilative agendas but also as [End Page 340] the space conducive to the most effective expression of anticolonial resistance.
Notwithstanding the problematic racial and gender politics present in both stories,3 Oskison's deliberate disordering of both outlaws' historical circumstances via the sentimental mode critiques assimilation-era politics and envisions an alternative...