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This essay introduces the understudied archive of early Native American poetry by reading a series of little-known poems that face the routines of ordinary life, including the observation of nature, scientific curiosity, complicity with Manifest Destiny, work, curiosity, resistance to and complicity with ideologies that exoticize Indigenous peoples, sexual anxiety, and self-critical reflection on environmental devastation. These poems speak with a shifting blend of irony, doubt, pride, political resistance or complacency, and resentment or embrace of stereotypes, while each poem also models how lyrical cultural interpretation can confront internal contradictions and competing impulses. In these ways, poetry’s capacity to represent intense literacy moves beyond colonialist, demeaning views of American Indian cultures and histories and invites us to see American Indians not only as topics of literary history but also as its creators.
Perhaps the first thing that needs saying about nineteenth-century poetry by American Indian women from within the boundaries of what is now the United States is both the least and the most interesting thing to say: that it is there. Except for the relatively recent and still-emerging discussions of the poetry (and other writings) of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Olivia Ward Bush, and Ann Plato, poetry by nineteenth-century American Indian women has received almost no scholarly attention and almost never shows up in the classroom. This essay identifies all the known poems by nineteenth-century American Indian women and reads them both as individual poems and collectively, as a related group of poems.
I know of thirteen American Indian women who wrote poems in the nineteenth century. Here they are chronologically, with “B” indicating a boarding-school student and “P” indicating a pseudonymous poet:
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Ojibwe, approximately 50 poems, 1815–1840
Ann Plato, Long Island or Southern New England Algonquian, 20 poems, 1840–41
Corrinne, Cherokee, “Our Wreath of Rose Buds,” 1854, B, P
Lily Lee, Cherokee, “Literary Day Among the Birds,” 1855, B, P
Lelia, Cherokee, “We have faults, to be sure,” 1855, B, P
Emma Lowrey Williams, Cherokee, “Life,” 1855, B
Wenonah, Cherokee, “Thanksgiving,” 1886, P
Elsie Fuller, Omaha, “A New Citizen,” 1887, B
Olivia Ward Bush, Montaukett, 14 poems, 1890–1900 (and more poems later)
Cora Snyder, Seneca, “The Frequent Showers of April,” 1895, B
Melinda Metoxen, Oneida, “Iceland,” 1896, B
Zitkala-Ša/Gertrude Simmons, Sioux, “Ballad” and “Iris of Life,” 1897–1898 (and several poems about 20 years later)
Mabel Washbourne Anderson, Cherokee, “Nowita, the Sweet Singer,” 1900
From the array of poets and poems on this list, which presumably does not represent all the poems that were written, several patterns emerge. The most prolific poets – Schoolcraft, Plato, and Bush – open and close this historical sequence. Beyond those three poets, the record includes eleven poems by ten different women, six of them Cherokees and six of them boarding-school students at the time of their writing. At least five of the six Cherokees attended the Cherokee Female Seminary, either at the time of writing or earlier. And four poems, all by Cherokees, including three of the boarding-school poems, are pseudonymous (assuming that first names without family names are pseudonyms).
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