Academic journal article
By Watson, Julia
Biography , Vol. 31, No. 3
It is wonderful to live with Indians. They were as gay as we.
--Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed, In the Land of the Grasshopper Song (233)
Autobiography inevitably makes an a historical primitivism impossible.
--Helen Carr ("In Other Words" 152)
The dynamic of transculturation in a contact zone between a settler culture sustained by government bureaucrats and Native people in various stages of assimilation and resistance forms the focus of a little-known popular narrative of early twentieth-century California. Told collaboratively by two young women working for the Indian Service, the story traces the stages of their willed--or fantasized-self--transculturation into the Indians they work with, and links what they call Indian "gayness" to their own unspoken lesbian partnership. Critiquing the racism of the dominant culture and trying to intervene in the US land reassignment that spelled the end of Karuk self-determination in 1910 was a futile effort and part of a tragic story. Yet it is narrated in the humorous and appealing narrative this essay takes up: In the Land of the Grasshopper Song. Two Women in the Klamath River Indian Country in 1908-09 (henceforth referred to as Grasshopper Song) by Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed. If, as Mary Louise Pratt argues, indigenous people can become skilled "transculturators," able to braid diverse languages and cultures, forge hybrid identities, and negotiate from a position of presumed subordination, may we read life writing as a site for imaginative transculturation of other autobiographers, however tentatively? Arnold and Reed, as subjects nominally in the "seeing eye" position of Indian Service field matrons, are ambivalently situated by virtue of their gendered and sexual status. They renegotiate their position by shifting their allegiance to their nominal subordinates, whose ethical superiority they come to admire. (1) Because the narrative was a popular text little-known in literary circles, I will supply several contexts--biographical, theoretical, and literary-historical--before proceeding to explore the autoethnographic conundrums of the narrative.
Arnold and Reed were social activists and non-professional writers who avowedly coproduced the handwritten manuscript now archived in the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, although it is entirely in Arnold's hand. (2) It relates the encounter of two young women working as "field matrons" in 1908-09 for the US Indian Service (which pre-dated the Bureau of Indian Affairs) with the Anglo settlers and post-contact Karuk Indians of Siskiyou County in the rugged interior northwest of California (see the map on 410). Grasshopper Song chronicles the women's movement from living with white settlers in the valley, first to a mixed settler community, then to a remote, mountainous region in proximity to the "rancheria" of the Karuk Indians still living there as a community. This geography of ascent on horses--Mabel's provocatively named "Mr. Darcy," though she is no Elizabeth Bennett under a heterosexual imperative--matches Arnold and Reed's sense of the superiority of Indian civility to that of the white settlers and mixed-race families. When in a separate community, they could be "as gay and as Indian as they chose" (212), expressing a free-spirited merriment disapproved of in the public white world of churches, schools, and meeting houses. I also play with the implications of the "gay" relationship that Arnold and Reed developed in what would become a lifetime partnership. (3) Marking locations as "gay" is by no means characteristic only of same-sex relations, but signals a space of intimate community. Thus the connotations of "gay" are both expansive and provocative.
Grasshopper Song was not published until 1957 by Vantage Press (essentially a vanity press), and reissued in the University of Nebraska Press "Bison Books" series in 1980. It has long been regionally popular as a wryly light hearted story of the young women's misadventures in the rugged backcountry of early California, a view of the narrative that masks its darker story of Mary and Mabel's discovery that Native people were exploited and marginalized by the US governmental bureaucracy of the Indian Service. …