March 20, 2017 02:40PM
By Catherine Hewitt Sun staff writer
EXETER — With few avenues of expression open to them, some 19th-century women writers politicized conventional forms of fiction, poetry and magazine-writing to protest the U.S. government’s oppressive policies toward Native Americans.
In honor of Women’s History Month, author Janet E. Dean, Ph.D, who is chair of the English and Cultural Studies Department at Bryant University, talked about four women writers featured in her book “Unconventional Politics: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers and U.S. Indian Policy,” at the Tomaquag Museum Saturday.
“The aim of this book is to amplify stories that we as a culture tend to forget, silence or ignore,” she said to the audience of about 15 people. “The women in this book were involved in showing their courage, creativity and determination in an effort to make a difference in the world, and that’s what we celebrate with Women’s History Month.”
In the 19th century, women couldn’t vote, hold office or participate in political life in any formal way, Dean said, but they could write and circulate their published work. At that time, women’s writing gained a wider audience as literacy rates soared, improved printing technology made production more efficient and expanded road and railroad infrastructure allowed for wider distribution of books.
During the same period, the U.S. government was taking steps to expel Native Americans from their ancestral lands, including the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Dakota War in 1862, Wounded Knee in 1890, and the Trail of Tears resulted in the deaths of thousands of tribespeople.
The four women featured in Dean’s book wrote in genres typically used to reinforce government policies of removal and war toward Native Americans: the captivity narrative, Indian lament poetry, assimilation fiction and commercial magazine nonfiction.
The captivity narrative was typically about a “vulnerable white woman” captured by “savage tribal men” and rescued by “heroic white men,” but author Sarah Wakefield, a white woman, used the genre to write about how native Americans hid and protected her and her children during the Dakota War in 1862.
“She took the genre — she knew it would sell because it was labeled a captivity narrative — but she sort of exploded it from within,” Dean said.
Similarly, Poet Lydia Sigourney, of Norwich, used the genre of Indian Lament poems, which were “very sad, sentimental and melancholy,” to protest the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the southeastern U.S. in the Trail of Tears between 1830 and 1850.
“It’s typically a poem about someone who is the last in their tribe and it’s the moment when they are weeping over the graves of their lost tribe,” Dean said. “It does a particular culture work and makes the disappearance of Native people seem like a natural occurrence, kind of like the changing of the seasons, without a human cause like the U.S. government.”
Dean also explored Muscogee/Creek S. Alice Callahan’s satire of assimilation fiction, which typically showed native tribespeople successfully adapting to Western culture. She also wrote about Cherokee Ora V. Eddleman, a magazine publisher, who used the conventions of studio photography to depict tribal women wearing traditional dress in a fashionable way similar to the “society pages” in upscale publications.
“These writers figured out how to make to make those genres work to voice protest,” Dean said. “In this case, it was all of the things in U.S. policy that impacted Native Americans in a negative way.”
Securing the rights of Native Americans and protecting civil liberties, civil rights and the environment has strong parallels to current events, such as the conflict at Standing Rock, South Dakota, Dean said.
“These are battles we’re still fighting,” she said. “This spirit of activism is an ongoing thread and we continue to need to find creative means of resistance.”