- Formal Responses:Women and Native American Writers in the Nineteenth-Century Press
A year after Captain Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle School in 1879, the institution put out the inaugural issue of its student-run newspaper, the School News. It rolled off the press some six months after the publication of Eadle Keatah Toh, a periodical written primarily by the school's white administrators and intended to trumpet its successes in transforming Indians into citizens. This perhaps explains the defiance implicit in Pawnee editor Samuel Townsend's acknowledgment of the paper's constraints even as he promised a new perspective: "We know that this is a small paper. It is the smallest that we ever saw. … We put everything in this paper that the Indian boys write for us. Not any white man's writing but all the Indian boys' writing" (Emery 55). His terse cadence reveals the strain of pressing meaning into language, but Townsend's insistence on "all the Indian boys' writing" belies ambitions beyond the practical skills his teachers intended. "We will try to make it good," he wrote, "so everybody will want to read it and will give us twenty-five cents a year for it" (56).
Carlisle installed a printing press in its first year, and it is tempting to see the press as a metaphor for its mission to eradicate indigenous cultures and imprint students with the language and appearance of their colonizers. When it comes to the mechanisms through which the imperial conquest of Native lands, cultures, and bodies was justified to the American public, the nineteenth-century popular press [End Page 178] is a clear culprit. Throughout the long century, the press reflected, reinforced, and amplified narratives that legitimated dispossession, dependency, and genocide. Scholars have thoroughly investigated visual and textual tropes of "Indianness" even as they recognize how such conceits were weaponized against indigenous individuals and groups. Yet other historical and literary scholars have questioned a paradigm that—however sympathetically—privileges white audiences, instead calling for "red readings" of both white and Native-authored texts in order to center Native perspectives and priorities. In his introduction to a 2018 special issue of Transmotion titled "Red Readings: Decolonization through Native-Centric Responses to Non-Native Literature and Film," Scott Andrews describes "red readings" as projects that not only "reveal the pervasive mechanisms of settler colonialism in American culture" but also "re-imagine those mechanisms in order to resist and alter them."1 Rather than treating indigenous literary and oral traditions and Anglo literary productions in isolation, this approach recognizes counternarratives produced in the interplay between form and author, text and reader, white and red consciousnesses.
This interplay—and the tensions it produces—is the subject of Janet Dean's Unconventional Politics, which argues that both Anglo and indigenous writers responded to federal policies by altering conventions of the literary forms most accessible to them. The result was radical in both politics and form. Dean's call to reevaluate modes that critics might regard as conservative suggests the resistance embedded in the editorials, essays, and letters that Jacqueline Emery has collected in Recovering Native American Writings in the Boarding School Press. Both Dean and Emery build on scholarship such as Robert Warrior's The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction (2005), Philip Round's Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country (2010), and Beth Piatote's Law in Native American Literature (2013) by arguing against what Emery calls the "restrictive assimilationist-resistance binary" (5) in discussions of literary production by Native Americans. Centering on formal possibilities shifts the conversation from attempts to define Native American literature to questions about how Native American priorities, politics, and identities emerge from literary production and consumption.
Dean departs from analyses of "Indian literature" by foregrounding gender, arguing that both Anglo and indigenous women were constrained by the forms most...