Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Native American Studies

The Irony of “Preservation”

I have little to say, so far. I’ve just started reading Cogewea: The Half-Blood by Mourning Dove (Hum-Ishu-Ma). The introduction discusses her relationship with Lucullus V. McWhorter, a “pioneer of encyclopedic interests.”  McWhorter encouraged Mourning Dove in her efforts as a writer, and she became the first recognized American Indian woman to write a novel. McWhorter, however, did not want her to focus on writing fiction. He wanted her to work to preserve the “vanishing” culture of her people (the Okanogans), before it was “hopelessly corrupted by intermarriage and the influence of white civilization” (Introduction viii).

In a letter to her, McWhorter wrote, exhorting her to become a folklorist:

Why should this young woman hesitate… I see in her vast possibilities. I see a future of a renown; a name that will live through the ages, if only she will decide to take the righthand trail. Helping hands are held out to her, and the trail will not prove so rough as it appears. Her race-blood will be of actual benefit to her in this work. It is a duty she owes to her poor people, whose only history has been written by the destroyers of their race. Let the Mourning Dove of the Okanogans take cheer and step out from the gloom of ghastly fears, into the golden light of opportunity, exulting in her own strength and show to the world her nobility of purpose to perpetuate the story of her people in their primitive simplicity. Nothing is in the way of your success. November 29, 1915

There are quite a few problems with his assertions, the main one being that her people are destroyed. Of course, this goes along with the then (and still now) prevalent idea of the Vanishing Indian. The implication that her race is finally good for something (her “race-blood will be of actual benefit”) and his total lack of acknowledgement that she wants to do a different kind of writing are also troubling.

Later in the introduction, though, is what I find most ironic about McWhorter. Mourning Dove did end up recording folklore, and she took some of the stories and used them in Cogewea, “yielding inadvertently at times to pressure from McWhorter to change some of the ‘facts’ of the legends and traditions in the interests of taste and decorum” (xii).  So, he urges her to make “preservation” her priority, while at the same time asking her to edit out the less tasteful elements of the work. Any time I encounter an account of a person like this, I’m confused as to why the writer of the introduction has only praise for the figure. I also find it troublesome that “facts” are in scare quotes, but “taste and decorum” are not. Why is it that the white patron, who is patronizing and controlling, is praised? This is one of the central problems to issues of preservation, particularly for a people that is still living.  McWhorter becomes a respected figure for his willingness to help the “poor Indian” but we do not acknowledge how he is altering the culture he claims to want to preserve.

This, I suppose, is the irony of preservation efforts. There is always a certain amount of editing and white washing (I use the phrase intentionally, for its many implications) that takes place.

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