Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Tiresias Speaks: Sarah Winnemucca's Hybrid Selves and genres.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Tiresias Speaks: Sarah Winnemucca's Hybrid Selves and genres.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Winner of the Award for Best Graduate Student Essay

In her preface to Sarah Winnemucca's Life Among the Piutes (1883), editor Mary Mann claims that Winnemucca's authority stems from her position between Indian and white cultures:

It is the first outbreak of the American Indian in human literature, and has a single aim--to tell the truth as it lies in the heart and mind of a true patriot, and one whose knowledge of the two races gives her an opportunity of comparing them justly. At this moment, when the United States seem waking up to their duty to the original possessors of our immense territory, it is of the first importance to hear what only an Indian and an Indian woman can tell. (2)

As a participant in both white and Paiute communities, Winnemucca--like the mythical Tiresias--is said to be able to speak the "truth" of each. (1) But for whom is this knowledge spoken? If she is indeed a "true patriot," exactly to what (or to whom) is she patriotic? Further, how is our reading of the first-known autobiography by a Native American woman altered when we consider the author a mediator between whites and Paiute Indians?

Growing up during the critical period when Northern Paiutes first encountered white settlers in large numbers, Sarah Winnemucca (also known as Thocmetony, or Shell Flower) was confronted at an early age with complex questions of identity. Born around 1844, she spent her childhood living with the Northern Paiutes in the arid stretch of the Great Basin now known as Nevada. She was only a young girl when white settlers who were seeking land and promised gold began to enter Paiute territory. When Winnemucca was about twelve, her grandfather sent her and her sister to live with several white families. It was during this period that Winnemucca became fluent in both Spanish and English. Upon returning to the Pyramid Lake Reservation in 1866, she discovered that because she could speak and write English, she was expected to serve as a go-between for the Anglo and Paiute communities that were increasingly at odds. As an interpreter, Winnemucca was at times associated with the "half-breeds" who were thought to be easil y manipulated by whites. As she herself declares in Life Among the Piutes, "I am sorry to say these Indian interpreters, who are often half-breeds, easily get corrupted, and can be hired by the agents to do or say anything" (91). Although Winnemucca attempts to distance herself from such untrustworthy interpreters, her association between language and racial/ethnic identity highlights her awareness of the precarious nature of her own position; in transmitting commands from whites to Paiutes, she is a potential conduit of colonial control.

Because of her role as an interpreter, Winnemucca has often been described as "a tool of the military" who had little control over her words (Fowler, Foreword 4). Critics point to Sarah's family's commitment to reconciliation as well as her own support of assimilation as evidence that the Winnemuccas were "Whitemen's Indians" who betrayed the Paiutes (Fowler, "Sarah Winnemucca" 34). Her support of allotment, which she believed would improve the Paiutes' lives but which ultimately resulted in the wide-scale loss of Indian lands, has further sullied her reputation. Some of her fiercest critics are Paiutes who maintain that the Winnemuccas do not deserve such prominence in the historical records. According to them, the Winnemuccas were considered the leaders of the Paiutes simply because they were the ones, beginning with the amenable "Captain Truckee," who had the most interaction with whites. One such critic is Nellie Shaw Harnar, who claims that while Sarah's father was an influential man among the Paiutes, " he was not considered the chief of the tribe as stated by Dodge in 1859" (104). Lalla Scott's biographical account of the author's mother also suggests the Winnemuccas' traitorous alliance with the whites. …

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