Domestic subjects: gender, citizenship, and Law in native American literature. by Beth M. piatote. new haven: Yale university press. 2011.
Can i M. Carpenter, West Virginia University
"Indian wars are wars on Indian families," writes Beth Piatote in the conclusion of her excellent book, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature (173). This statement is eerily resonant today, as the Supreme Court's decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl demonstrates that wars against Indian families continue. In this June 2013 case, the majority decided that the Indian Child Welfare Act (IcwA) did not apply to Dusten Brown, a Cherokee man and biological father of a four-year-old girl, because she had not been in his "continued custody" since birth. He had initially surrendered his parental rights, but when he received papers announcing his daughter's adoption at four months, he filed for custody, arguing that he had misunderstood the terms of the termination forms. He was awarded custody in December 2011. The Supreme Court decision returned the case to South Carolina, allowing the state court to decide whether to terminate Brown's custodial rights (and indeed, in July 2013, a South Carolina court awarded the adoptive parents custody, a decision that is still being contested). In her dissent, which was joined by Justices Ginsberg and Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion, steeped in an obvious disagreement with the ICWA, extends to all Indian parents who have not had continued physical custody of their biological children. The majority of justices presume, she suggests, a particular definition of "family" as one in which parents and child live together, with a lack of physical custody indicating a lack of relationship. This case is also chilling in part because the majority opinion seems to hearken back to the "logic" of the boarding school era, when Indian biological parents were often coerced into relinquishing their children to these institutions.
Piatote's timely book is situated in the assimilation period between 1879 and 1934, an era marked by a staggering separation of Indian children from their parents as many were sent to boarding schools. The book usefully expands and revises the work of scholars such as Ann Kaplan, arguing that the now-familiar concept of domestic imperialism is, for indigenous people, in fact double: one tribal-national and one settler-national. The usual binary of foreign-domestic, Piatote argues, fails to account for the complex, coterminous relationship between different kinds of families and the US nation-state. One of the implicit values of Piatote's terminology is that it foregrounds American Indians as opposed to non-Native settlers--defining domesticity in their terms--and positions the settlers as the foreigners. Because these multiple domesticities were regarded as a threat to the settler nation, a single, Anglo-infused form of domesticity (not entirely unlike that imagined by the 2013 Supreme Court majority justices) was applied, often with force, to American Indian families. For scholars of American women's literature and Native American studies, then, Piatote's book offers a valuable revision of the concept of domesticity.
The first chapter, a study of Pauline Johnson's short story "A Red Girl's Reasoning" and John M. Oskinson's "The Problem of Old Harjo," offers a particularly strong interpretation of Johnson's story vis-a-vis Canada's Indian Act. According to the dictates of this act, the indigenous heroine at the heart of the story would have lost legal status as soon as she married a white man. Thus their pending marriage--and Christie's dissolution of their engagement once she realizes her fiance's racism--is of even more consequence. Christie's refusal of her white suitor, Piatote writes, crystallizes in the line, "'No: said the girl, with quick, indrawn breath" (24). As opposed to the Indian heroine of white authors' fiction--and indeed the colonial expectations of the settler state--Christie chooses to live, her resistance joined with her breath.
Piatote also offers a series of terms that help us understand the precise relationship between legal and literary history in this period. In the third chapter, for example, the "dialect of preoccupation" signals the anxiety (the preoccupation) produced by the incommensurability of colonialism and the indigenous pre-occupation of the land (13). This anxiety is encoded, Piatote demonstrates, in Mourning Dove's Cogewea as the title character is threatened with the loss of her land by an unscrupulous white suitor. Similarly, the term "tiered mater-nalism" allows us to conceptualize the ways that American Indian mothers have been subordinated to white mothers as oversexualized, legal wards (13). Piatote uses this term to discuss the limitations placed on the American Indian women of S. Alice Callahan's novel Wynema and E. Pauline Johnson's short story 'Catharine of the 'Crow's Nest': both can find agency only in desexual-ization, which obviously limits their capacity for biological motherhood.
One of the most useful elements of Piatote's book for scholars of American women writers is the way it considers how genre--whether sentimentalism, realism, or the Western--shapes these narratives and the discourse of Indian citizenship itself. In the case of Mourning Dove's Cogewea, for example, Piatote argues that the Western "presents the threat of violence against Indian women, then resolves it without reproducing it" (96). She also goes beyond conventional genres to include a convincing study of how Kateri, a seventeenth-century Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism and was ultimately sainted by the pope, informs Catharine of Darcy McNickle's The Surrounded. As she writes, "[Catharine's] subversive embodiment of Catholicism's most famous Indian convert serves as a reminder that conversions are not fixed conditions but unstable and open to multiple possibilities" (165). Piatote's comparison between Catharine and Kateri is an apt illustration of how Domestic Subjects opens rather than forecloses interpretations of indigenous agency.
As convinced as I am by Piatote's study, I would have liked more attention to the lives of authors like E. Pauline Johnson and S. Alice Callahan. What I imagine here is neither a simplistic biographical account nor a problematic reading of these two mixed-blood writers' straddling of two cultures, but an interrogation of the relationship between the American Indians who produced this literature and the literature itself. What (if any) difference, for example, does their biracial ancestry make in their conception of citizenship and domesticity? Johnson noted the harmonious relationship of her English mother and Mohawk father, for example, and according to A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff, Callahan's mixed-blood father served as a clerk in the Muscogee House of Kings, while her white mother once insisted that the family move out of Indian Territory. Given Piatote's emphasis on Indian families, it seems important to acknowledge the complexities of the actual Indian families behind these narratives. Interestingly, Piatote takes up James McWhorter and Mourning Dove's collaboration in the writing of Cogewea, using a scene in which the title character claims she will wield the branding iron while her white suitor wrangles" in order to argue that it parallels the author's actual relationship with McWhorter: "while McWhorter wrangled words, Mourning Dove was more than using a brandin' iron--she was the brandin' iron. The text, to be marketable, required her mark upon it" (126). Such a productive reading of the text and its historical production makes me hungry for a parallel interpretation of the personal conditions of Johnson's, Callahan's, and other authors' productions.
Sotomayor closes her dissent in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl with the following statement:
In an ideal world, perhaps all parents would be perfect. ... In an ideal world parents would never become estranged and leave their children caught in the middle. But we do not live in such a world. Even happy families do not always fit the custodial-parent mold for which the majority would reserve IWCA'S substantive protections; unhappy families all too often do not. They are families nonetheless.
It is this more inclusive definition of family--reflected in the photographs Piatote includes throughout the book--that is key to indigenous resistance to settler colonialism. It is a resistance that, as this case shows, remains urgent today.
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. 570 US. Docket 12-399. 2013. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-399_q86b.pdf