the native american voice in willa cather's - Emporia State Institutional

the native american voice in willa cather's - Emporia State Institutional

• \ j v / J , • J 39 t haw pwe lhe "l'urifiel1i" actually were. See f Senalor Pomeroy, 1873," Mid-America 48 mmer'. FfIJIllier GOllernor: ,""mu...

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39 t haw pwe lhe "l'urifiel1i" actually were. See f Senalor Pomeroy, 1873," Mid-America 48 mmer'. FfIJIllier GOllernor: ,""mudJ. Crawford

97J), pp. 135-148. Osborn quoted in &1UJle


Contrary to Inc prevailing criticism which generally ignores or dismisses her exposure to the Native American innuencc, Willa Cather was sensitive to the orality of Great Plains' minority groups. She was as responsive to, and cunou'i about, Native American oral traditions as she was to those of the immigrant peoples, whose homes she oflcn visited. In this article, I argue that Cather incorporated the story-telling strategies of indigenous peoples into her own work, with no intention of writing conventional historical novels.

EARLY INFLUENCES The early innuence~ of the oral tra<.1ition on Cather range from exposure to the mountain story-telle~ of her early years in Virginia to the narratives heard on the Divide, a small height of land between the Republican and Little Blue rivers. Cather's rea<.1y receptivity to story-telling made her empathetic to the legends of those Native Americans who had once inhabited her region and it sparked an inlerest in In<.1ian cullures which culminated in her 19]2 trip to Arizona~ other trips to the Southwest \\'llul<.1 follow. These influences, coupled with her rca<.1ing of dearly biased histOrical texts and essays, like Winchell's Sketches o/Crealio/l (1870)1 and Taylor's flelwcfII the Gates (1888)~ [from her private library]; Parkman's 1he Oregoll Trail (1891)3; Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American Hi~tory" (1893)4; and Paxson's The Lasl American Frolltier (1910)' shaped her fiction. They romanticized, to some degree, her accounts. of native cultures and they tapped into the spiritual center of these cultures. "In 1990," historian Gerald Nash writes, "Western historians number more than 2,OOO---comp:ue<.1 to the two hundred or so of 1890."6 The American hisloriJns of C
40 shared this Hegelian view which she undoubtedly read in Alexander Winchell's Skerches of Creation, Book No. 42, in her private library. In viewing her high school graduation speech of 1890 which begins "All human history is a record of an emigration, an exodus from barbarism to civilization,"9 we observe the Winchell influence as well as the views of romantic historians of her age such as Bancroft, Motley, Prescott, and Parkman, whose works Woodress writes, "Cather must have known then at least by reputation."lQ Winchctl's text, however intellectually stimulating it was for the young Cather, unfortunately patronizes and denigrates Native Americans. The opening line in Cather's graduation speech rings of such a view. Winchell writes, "the Esquimaw: and the Nonh American Indians generally are still in their Stone Age. The Age of Stone is simply the stage of infancy [akin to barbarism)."ll The native cultures, therein, are reduced to a barbaric and savage status. They were given derogatory names by historians and the names stuck. American historians of this period were aware of the power of naming and the type of being that naming conferred upon people; they used disparaging terms to persuade readers to their own vieW'S. These writers of histories were often univef'lity professors who were influential in shaping young minds like Cather's. Winchell, himself, was a Univef'lity of Michigan professor, and, for the impressionable Cather, was credible enough to be believed. More racist "digs" at minority groups persist in Benjamin Taylor's travel book Between the Gales (l888). The reader is taken on an American's journey from Chicago to California's Pacific coast. Taylor sprinkles his experiences in travel with sardonic wit, while quoting pedantically from Shakespeare and resorting 10 Latin phrases. Cather's love for both Shakespeare and Latin may have propelled her inlo adding Taylor's book to her private library, numbering it "Book 11." And the young girl's stereotypical view of Indians as savages wa.<; likely fostered by this book. In his Chapter VII, T
41 oubtedly read in Alexander Winchell's r private libraJ'Y. ion speech of 1890 which begins ~ All ration, an ewdus from barbarism to luence as well as the views of romantic ~otley,

Prescott, and Parkman, whose re known then at least by reputation."IO imulating it was for the young Cather, Native Americans. The opening line in I view. Winchell writes, "the Esquimaux ty are still in their Stone Age. The Age


in to barbarism ll The native cultures, age status. They were given derogatory

ere aware of the power of naming and I upon people; they used disparaging views. These writen; of nistories were Iluential in shaping young minds like ;ity of Michigan professor, and, for the Igh to be believed. lCr.iist in Benjamin Taylor's travel book taken on an American's journey from 10r sprinkles his experiences in travel LIly from Shakespeare and resorting to :espeare and Latin may have propelled :e libraJy. numbering it "Book 11." And lIS as savages was likely fostered by this ::::hinese laborer of San Francisco. The ." 10hn is portrayed as most historians rites: Euclid. We speak slightingly of him, ignificant stature, his luntucked] shirt, enism in his black-hair {pony-tail]. ... rack and crevice of the Pacific Coast. 'here under foot. He is born into this undred at a birth.'l


words of one Indian fighter, whose

that circulated in Red Cloud in the 1890s. Titled "Custer's Death Revenged: the anicle is laden with the horrific genocidal practices of General Harney on the Indians: The soldiers had killed evcty buck Indian they could find, but spared the children. General Harney rode in among us shouting, "kHl'em all, kill'em all, nits make lice." and his orders were literally obeyed.o In The Nebraslw. State Jouma/, Cather wrote an article dated November 19, 1893, that reeks of a similar distaste toward minority groups. The Chinese man described in a patronizing fashion reflects Taylor's ~John, the Heathen": His queue hung down his back, and his wrinkled face was lifted toward the painted image, and his narrow eyes glittered bright and brown as beads of opium. There was a weirdness about him and his red deity that made one shudder. They are an unearthly people, these Chinamen who steal quietly ilbout in our great cities, dressing and living as men did in the days of Noah. All othcr peoples at least affect the ways of civilization, but the son of the celestial land goes his own way among his own people.... ICliviIization cannot reach him; ... He is out [of] place in the nineteenth century.J4 In 1893, Cather's view of certain minorities in the United States was demeaning and racially biased, but was not atypical for her day. This was the same year that saw the publication of Jaekson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner's ~fromicr hypothesis" explained the distinctive features of the nation's civilization; it refused to ad:nowledge the Old World's impact on the New; and it advocated an intellectual-American­ isolationism lnat persisted as the au:epted American history paradigm until the 1930s. The young Cather often sounded Turner's white-elitist words of 1893, "[T]he frontier is the outcr edge of the wave-the meeting point between s
try Argus newspaper on December 25, oount while home for Christmas break The Argw was one newspaper of five

1n the influential parkman and paxson nistories, we find more of this same type of racist rhetoric. In The Oregoll Trail (1891), Parkman tells the reader,

42 MTrust nOI an Indian. Let your dOe be ever in your hand.... War is the breath of their nostrils,MI7 Pa~m's portrayal of Indians, however, is not as hard-hitting as Parkman's, and he does altempt to take a more neutral SI


43 er in your hand.... War is the breath ndians, hOYleVer, is not as hard-hitting e a more neutral stance. Nevertheless, vages" and "half_civilized"lS to describe ~e late 19th century, Cather's view of ese worlds of Parkman and Paxson. At ence to suggest that she grasped the

"savage hordes," "bucks," "recaldtrants," "revengeful," "nits," "hard to civilize," "not good until dead," "turbulent: "cunning: "malcontents: and "men who massacre" is found in 12 articles taken from Red Cloud newspapers in December of 1890, many of which Cather would have certainly read.


In 1912, Cather's perspective of indigenous peoples began to change. No longer did she spew forth the Jackson Turner "frontier hypothesis" that described Indians only as obstacles 10 western expansion. For the first time, Cather saw the humanity in the Southweslern cultures. These people were real and not some Fenimore Cooper characters to be trodden upon and conquered. One senses that Calher, at this point in her life, had begun to empathize wilh Indian cultures and had begun to look at them as respected artists, respected human beings. As David Stouck writes, Cather discovered a different kind of existence than she had ever known, "a way of life lived in intimate harmony with nature."lS Here were cultures "unlike the European settlers with Iheir romanlic dreams of individual power and conquest" which "adjusted their lives collectively to the laws of nature: 2li In The SOllg of the Lark (1915), Cather fuses her knowledge of Pueblo creation stories as well as classical allusions, such as the Orpheus myth. '"The Ancient People" section is at the center of Cather's apology for art and defines Cather's own art of story-telling and the direction in which she was headed. The legends and tales of the Southwest are alive in this section and stem from Cather's travels with a local priest who took her to visit several missions [likely Navajo] around Winslow, Arizona. v Woodress writes, "they had talked about the country and the people, and [Father Connolly] had filled her full of Spanish and Indian legends::!ll From Cather's postcards to her sister, Elsie, we have another glimpse of what she was seeing:

images of Indians because she had

'OWing up in Red Cloud. By the 1880&, noved from her hometown. By 188], :vcn arrived in Nebraska, most of the to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.l~ CatherJ lived in Nebraska in the ]8805 Ie newspapers chiefly as warring tribes ,tory written in ]894, "The Fear that ~r early pieces that depicts the Native :anfield.Fisher on this prize-winning llil)'er that comes back to win the big ~alh. Canfield supplied the plot and em a ten dollar prize in J894. 21 One t team is caJled the "Injuns" and the Bther tells us that their "coach is an th words such as "growled: "darned Ie has the Marathon team say, "Start 'nses that the 21-year.pld Cather too guy-White man trap of her lime and )resses the typical biased view about te playeno. The Marathon players' fighter's fearful notion of Indians­ he lnjuns insist on playing lor waging eak our bones.... IT)hey are going "s portrayal of the Marathon player, tJ combat: "His eyes flashed and he lat hean the bugle sound a charge." Western men lwho] gave their Indian Ilals, and the rushing began." "I don't JI," &a~ one of the home-teamY I the Jndian in disparaging ways are ~r Matinee: and lommy, the l!ion of the Sioux Ghost Dance. The '·half-breeds,~ "squaw men," "crazy,"


... a seventeenth-century Spanish mission church al Acoma; adobe huts,

Hopi Indian pueblos discovered by Coronado's army in 1540; and an Indian

village on the Rio Grande [likely the Isleta Pueblo's], thirteen miles south

of Albuquerque, with a mission church.2\I

For Cather, all of this provided, as Hermione Lee observes, "a more ancient version of the interweaving of cultures which so arrested her at home" on the plains-"one that had fascinated her since childhood."lO The "Ancient People" section in The Song of the Lark begins with a Whitmanesque description of land and language that rivals The Country of the Pointed Firr, a book by her mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett:

44 The great pines stand at ;) considerable distance from each other. Each tree grows. alone, murmurs alone, think:s alone. They do not inlrUde upon each other. The Navajos are not much in the habit of giving or of ask:ing help. Their language is not a communicative one, and they never attempt an interchange of personality in speech. Over their forests there is Ihe same inexorable reserve. Each tree ha:; its e:
4\ ,Ie distance from each other. Each tree IlIone. They do not intrude upon each the habit of giving or of asking help. one, and they never attempt an , Over their forests there is thl:: same exalted power to bear?J

tm ~

connection. And at the hean of the and also the respect for all life­ :ispers here in the background "Singing 'Out of the earthy dusk.~ The poem's aI and organic as does the descriptive the page and foreshado~ what is to noorg, Cather's lead character in The ~tor

o have been moving toward something and "this direction is reflected in her ratives, her reflection of American of personaJ ambitions. ~J: In her book 'riler, Leslie Marmon Silko, strikes a


,flies too. He turned. Evel')'\'l'here he ries, the long ago, time immemorial II was a world alive, always changing to look, you could see it, sometimes of the stars across the sL:y.JJ mist, forever creating; in thi!> sense ndividuals like Thea Kronborg, The 11m, who strive to understand nature's nic and alive, is theirs. An immediate 1 the process, as Thea learns in the ~re

Cather visited for the first time in e bottom of the gorge is the originaJ I worlds of the quick and the dead."'J.t izona country, she musr have It:aflu:d the Underworld at this sacred place. lurn to this chasm as wisps of vapor r return to the Underworld."J5 Some ito bring back sail from around the Qple could be heard~ a<; one traveled

around the last bend to tht:: "sipapu;" however, as one approached it, the voices faded and "only the sound of the river remained.~l/j Likewise, at the canyon's bottom by a stream, Thea listened to the "ironical laughter of the quaking asps' and "a song would go through her head all morning... and it was like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged."31 Cather's use of Panther Canyon reminds one of the Hopis' sacred Kivas, those mysterious underground ceremonial chambers that are the entrance to the spirit world.3I! In the Hopi ceremony, mually conducted after the winter solstice, the kachinas appear, rising along the ladders of the kjv~, and they become believable as other-world beings whose spirits inhabit the bodies. of ordinary men of the Hopi villages. The kiva eeremony opens a doorway 10 the Underv.'orld. allowing for spiril~ to pass frt::t::Iy between the ""'0 worlds of spirit and mass. l9 Cather wriles that "Panther Canyon was like a thousand othe~ne of those abrupt fissures with which the earlh in the Southwest is riddled."40 This canyon is Thea's kiva. Cather then places the Underv.orld. represented by the Ancient People's "dead city," within the canyon: "The Cliff Dwellers liked wide canyons, where the great cliffs caught the sun."4' Barton Wright observes that "Kivas are places of mystery and drama at night. The light emerges from below, and figures of men and kaehinas passing through it assume heroic proportions by its reversed glow."4z Thea's voice is like this sacred light that emerges from Panther Canyon with heroic purpose and vitality. It is imponant to know that kivas are the only structures that belong 10 the men, whereas the village homes arc owned by the women.'l Only the men are allowed in these ceremonial chambers. Cather certainly knew this, and perhaps this is why she portrays Thea as a tomboy explorer, similar to herself as a youth, wllo is allowed ins.ide of nature's. kiva. Thea and her friend, Fred altenburg, are described like a Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, as they throw stones off a cliff: "They looked like two boys. Both were hatless and both wore white shil1s. 0M04 Cather's youthful relationship with Julio, her Southwestern male guide, provides the friendship paradigm for 'l1at of Thea and Fred as the two explore Panther amyon. Sharon O'Brien describes Julio as a "mysterious, androgynous being~ who "Javed music and dance,~ as does Thea. and who ~combined naits Victorian America divided belween 'male' and 'female.'~·s It is interesting to note tl\at irl the Hopi ceremonies, "if the dance requires women, these pans are assumed by the men and boys."46 Thea's wandering:> in the canyon mirror those of Julio and Cather and Thea's descenllO the canyon's stream parallels that of the Hopi men descending the ladder into the lighted kiva chamber: Thea went uown to the SHearn by the Indian water trail. She had found a bathing-pool with a sand hottom, where the creek was dammed by fallen trees. The climb back was long and steep [as i!> the ascent from the kiva on the long lauders), and wilen she reached her little house in the cliff she


always fclt fresh delight in its comfort and inaccessibility. By the time she got there, the wooly red-and.gray blankets were saturated with sunlight, ' , ,~7 Wright points out that in the kiva ceremonies of winter, on top of the ceremonial chambers, the women and other people of the Hopi village may "doze on the banquelles awaiting the arrival ofthe kachina.." from below."lI When Thea ascends from the bathing-pool, her "sipapu" or nature's womb, she feels more connected to life than ever before and awaits nature's spiritual powers that shall infuse her artistic soul with new life: And now her power to think seemed converted into a power of sustained sensation. She could become a mere receptacle for heal, or become a color, like ~he bright lizards that darted about on the hot stones outside her door; or she could become a continuous repetition of sound, like the cieadas. 49 Thea's voice transforms into a receptacle for sound, for music; and this music will sustain her artistic existence. Her music is like the water contained in the Indians' bowl~, for it, likewi-oe, sustains the Cliff Dwellers in their artistic lives in the arid Southwest. In Ccrved the interes-ting role that water played in the healing ritual: The water :;ymoolizes the entrance 10 the underworld. The healing process in this el.'remony is clearly analogous to the symoolism which we find in the collective unconscious. It is an individuation process, an identification with the tmality of the personality, with the self.'iQ Thea's bath in lhe canyon is "a baptism of the spirit,~51 as Ryder asserts, but seen in Jungian terms, the bath al:;o emphasizes Thea's ability to identify with, and to confront for the first time, her elusive "other self," that which comprises lung's "totality of the personality." When she was a young girl studying mu.. ic with Wunsch "she knew ... that there was something about her that was different. But it W,iS more like a friendly spirit than like anything that was a part of herself. The somcthing came and .....ent, she never knew how.~~2 By sacrificing herself to the water.. of Panther Canyon, Thea undergoes a healing proces~ that allows hcr to hold 01110 what she thought of in her youth as "a warm kind of sun.'ncss."'J Thca's new personality imitates the Hopi kachina, "Maswik'china, who represent:; the spirit 01' youth and hoped-for fertility of the tribe.... It the good and rhe beautiful of new life that can be achieved with the ccmperation of Masau'u, the deity who controls Ihe land.... repres~nls

47 and inaccess.ibility. By the time she got :ts were saturated with sunlight....47

Mawsik'china is one of the many Hopi kachinas, and it shares a symbolic interpretation of springtime with several other kachinas.S
ceremonies of winter, on top of the er people of the Hopi village may ftdoze he kachinasft from below. 411 When Thea pu ft or nature's womb, she feels more rails nature's spiritual powers that shall

Thea, likewise, represents a new youthful order of springtime and brings hope to a world caught up in "the lie~ of a new and modernized world of art. Cather, in the preface to the 1937 edition of The Song or/he Lark, remarks that Tltea is the artist who reawakens "10 something beautiful" and who tries to combat the "smug, domestic, self-satisfied provincial world of utter ignorance."55 Eventually, Thea comes full circle in understanding her ftsecond self," that "feeling,~ that ~something" she has "pcotect[edl even from herselCS/i By making a journey like that of the Hopis to the Underworld, Thea emerges as a new artist who realizes that indeed "so much had begun with a hole in the earth." Panther Cmyan unlocks her