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Allotment Protest and Tribal Discourse: Reading Wynema's Successes and Shortcomings

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2000
pp. 420-440 | 10.1353/aiq.2000.0010

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The American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000) 420-440

Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), a recently rediscovered and republished novel by the Muscogee writer S. Alice Callahan, has been attracting scholarly attention for a number of reasons. It may be the first novel written by an American Indian woman. It is an eloquent argument on behalf of indigenous peoples, openly denouncing the United States for not fulfilling its obligations and for provoking hostilities. It is a vocal, often sassy, protofeminist tract, featuring educated women characters who delve into heated debates on suffrage and senators. And, as A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff's extensive introduction to the new edition shows, the novel draws on and reworks a host of literary conventions, including those variously labeled domesticity, romance, and sentimental protest.

But there is a further reason why Wynema should be important to scholars and readers of American Indian literature and history, and that is its radical opposition to the U.S. policy of dividing tribal lands in severalty. Published just four years after the passage of the Dawes (General Allotment) Act, Callahan's slim sentimental drama makes one of the only explicit literary critiques of the legislation, with a chapter actually entitled "Shall We Allot?" and the answer a resounding no.

The Dawes Act offered a great deal to object to. The culmination of many decades of efforts to break up communally held lands, it provided for the creation of 160-acre plots to be owned and farmed by individual Indian families. The land was to be held in trust for twenty-five years, at the end of which time heads of family would be given title to their properties and made citizens. Such title was supposed, by many progressive white reformers, to protect Indian lands from rampant white encroachment. The result, however, was exactly the opposite. Between the immediate sale of "surplus" lands left over after initial allotments were made, and later leasing, sales, and continued theft, the indigenous land base was reduced by some ninety million acres -- two-thirds of what had remained in 1887.

Allotment was twinned with a drive for assimilation. The legislation purported to give Indians something -- fee patents, citizenship, and attendant civil rights -- and yet it clearly aimed to make Indians something -- agrarian, Christian, possessive individuals, homogenized "American" subjects. The Dawes Act thus rode to its passage on a wave of zealous reform, including Christian missionizing, the home matron movement, and boarding schools. All of these aimed to further disintegrate tribal communities and traditions. One speaker at the famous Lake Mohonk Conferences of Friends of the Indian, offering himself as a representative, put the matter thus:

I am desirous to promote the Christianization and civilization of all the Indians in this country, and I am one of those who think it desirable that the Indians should be dispersed or diffused throughout our population; that they should not be encouraged to live in bodies; that they should not maintain their own language and habits, but be brought into contact with the better portion of our communities scattered through the land, where they might be brought under good influences, and ultimately be Americanized. . . . We began by making treaties with these Indian tribes; we treated them as independent tribes. It was a little absurd; it was within our borders, a little imperium in imperio.

These revealing remarks underscore that allotment was not just about land, although it was certainly and devastatingly about that. It was also a full-frontal assault on American Indians as collective entities, as culturally and politically self-determining nations.

The damage initiated by the Dawes Act is well known. What is less remarked upon is the paucity of recorded late-nineteenth-century protests against allotment and assimilation. Tribal peoples -- including, as we will see below, the Muscogees -- vigorously resisted and argued about the division of their lands. In many cases this resistance was anticipated and circumvented by U.S. lawmakers; the Dawes Act, for instance, included a provision for the secretary of the interior to choose land for any Indian who failed (that is, refused) to select an allotment. Moreover, indigenous dissent was written out of mainstream history and literature, which registers far...

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