Modern Female Aboriginal Subjectivity (in) the Land: Mourning Dove's Cogewea

Article excerpt

"Isn't it grand?" she questioned. "These are my prairies, my mountains,
my Eden. I could live here always! I shall hate to leave them when the
final summons comes. Wherever I go, I recall every outline of those
embattled ranges, nor can the vision close at the grave. When away, I
grow lonesome, as a child for its mother. I become heart-sick for a
sight of those snow shrouded peaks, so rich in legendary lore. [...]
Leave the land where our braves rest in their last sleep? Never! I could
not be content elsewhere."
--Mourning Dove, Cogewea, The Half-Blood

Mourning Dove's Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range is a novel that speaks to the concerns faced by Native people in the 1920s and 30s of the American West. The novel, written by a Native American woman, (1) explores the complexities of mixed-raced and gendered identities, concerns about the land and its plundering under white imperialism, and problems of tradition (the past) and breaking away from tradition. Mourning Dove, through the genres of the dime store novel--a popular pleasure intended for the masses--the western, and the frontier narratives, non-conventional genres that focus on the landscape, as well as romance genres, is able to expertly situate urgent political commentary in a popular textual context. Cogewea, The Half-Blood is a novel about male camaraderie and female subjectivity; as well, the text employs the voice of Great Spirit, the "god" figure, who appears for Cogewea when she makes the "right" moral moves. In this essay, I want to explore how Cogewea, The Half-Blood has come to be seen as a modernist text. I ask: what definition(s) of modernity are useful for an appropriate analysis of Cogewea, The Half-Blood? Secondly, I ask: what kind of modernity, if any, does Cogewea, The Half-Blood employ? Later in the essay, I introduce an ecocritical framework as a supplement to traditional understandings of modernity, suggesting that thinking about the rural, or the land, in the context of modernity complicates its definition. I see Mourning Dove and Cogewea, The Half-Blood doing this work of transformation. Consequently, both of the frameworks that become central to my analysis, modernity and ecocriticism, influence my reading of Cogewea, the character, as a modern Aboriginal subject. My argument for Cogewea, The Half-Blood is most explicitly situated in the context of landscape and the effects of landscape on Cogewea's subjectivity.

I attempt here to understand Mourning Dove's work through three complementary lenses. First, my aim is to (re)figure definitions of modernity for an analysis of Cogewea, The Half-Blood. Second, I underscore how Cogewea's subjectivity is constructed by and through landscape, and I gesture towards the problems and possibilities involved in reading Cogewea through her connection to land. Third, I position Cogewea as a modern subject-object on the "wilderness" scene, an analysis I enact by using the theoretical material offered by Liz Conor in her important book The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s.

Rita Felski, in her book The Gender of Modernity, argues that "appeals to modernity have [...] been used to further a multifarious range of political and cultural interests. Rather than identifying a stable referent or set of attributes, 'modern' acts as a mobile and shifting category of classification that serves to structure, legitimize, and valorize varied and often competing perspectives" (14). She continues, "My analysis thus begins with the assumption that modernity embraces a multidimensional array of historical phenomena that cannot be prematurely synthesized into a unified Zeitgeist [...]. Rather than inscribing a homogeneous cultural consensus, the discourses of modernity reveal multiple and conflicting responses to processes of social change" (14-15). Felski's definition of the modern works for understanding Cogewea, The Half-Blood--the idea of the modern period points out both the fluidity of the period and its own inherent conflictedness. …