Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Native American Studies

Left and Found Objects

I warned you of this Shoyahpee, but you laughed at my words. You left them by the trail as things to be forgotten and lost. But they can not die! That which is true lives forever, but that which is false has no foundation.”

These words, spoken by the Stemteemä, an elderly Okanogan woman who has seen more “snows” than she can remember, come close to the end of Cogewea: The Half-Blood. Written by Mourning Dove and published in 1927, it is possibly the first novel written by a Native American Woman. A melodramatic Western, with occasional lengthy, sermonic passages about the Shoyahpee’s (white man’s) treatment of the “poor Indian” and a healthy amount of ethnographic sketches of Indian customs, stories, and the plight of the “breed,” the frontier fun is endless, and confusing.

The plot follows as such: Cogewea, the daughter of an Okanogan woman and a white father, lives with her sister, Julia, and brother-in-law, John Carter, on the H.B. ranch. She’s a “girl of moods” that is in tune with nature, a skilled equestrian, and right feisty with her words and manners when she gets riled. She’s been educated back east as a young woman, but was raised as a child by the Stemteemä, so has not lost touch with her “natural” Indian ways.  Throughout the novel, she often reflects on how out of place she is: considered beneath the whites because of her Indian blood, and because she cannot pass for white as her younger sister Mary is able to do, and scorned by full bloods because of her white father, and because her education and way of life earns her the labor of betrayer of her race.

Cogewea is the love interest of Jim, another “breed” and the foreman of the ranch. She insists always that she loves him like a brother, and things get complicated when a Canadian tenderfoot, Alfred Densmore shows up. He develops a liking for her, and, operating under the mistaken assumption that she is extremely rich, sets out to elope for the purposes of stealing her fortune.

This novel is an odd mixture of 19th Century sentimental novel, dime Western, Native American folklore, and moral tract on the evils of the false white man. There’s also a good bit on the philosophical merits and demerits of religion, the hypocrisy of Christians, and a heavy emphasis on remaining with your own kind and true to your heritage and traditions.

The text is highly contradictory in places, sometimes seemingly in favor of assimilation, sometimes not. The message pertaining to the mixing of bloodlines is also unclear; the only element that remains clear is disdain for governmental treatment of the “poor Indian” and the continual romanticization of the “fading” and vanishing race. So, the trope of the vanishing Indian is persistent. Nostalgia for a time when the range was open, and the buffalo were plenty is also persistent. The noble savage also appears a great many times throughout, and what could possibly be Lewis and Clark even show up at one point in one of the stories told by Cogewea’s grandmother.

Something else interesting also continually, appears, though, and that is the lost and found object, or left and found objects in this case. The Stemteemä refers to her words as being left on the side of the trail. This, of course, is a reference to homesteaders, when traveling to settle the frontier, leaving belongings along the side of the road that turned out to be too heavy for the horses to pull in the wagons. Junked objects probably littered the the trails for quite some time. But the idea carries further, with the weight of the old woman’s words. The words, intangible things, when spoken by Stemteemä, actually bear the weight of physical, material objects. In the ecology of Native American tradition and heritage, words have physical impact, tangible effects once they are spoken into the world. The Stemteemä’s words, left ignored, result in the near loss of her granddaughter, but for her, also signal the loss of her way of life and the ultimate death of her people.

Her words stood out to me in part because of the work I’m doing with The Grapes of Wrath and the obsession in the 1930s with ethnography, and the folk object. Many of the ethnography projects of the 1920s and 1930s involved documenting the “vanishing” folk culture, and some of those projects included photographing the “folk” objects left behind by farmers as they migrated looking for work. These objects, as James S. Miller notes, were often actually commercial objects–rusted out signs, cars, department store catalogs and calendars. In the ecology of the rural folk, somehow commercial objects have become the left objects, to be found by well-meaning anthropologists and writers. In the case of Cogewea, and the Stemteemä, what is left behind is a way of life and, as is consistently suggested, an entire race. Well-meaning anthropologists and writers come to collect stories and observe rituals, to make sure the “primitive child-race” will be preserved in some way or another, despite the cruel treatment of the white man and cultural progress.

Mourning Dove walks the line of portraying the Indian as vanishing, but does not cross over into portraying the Indian as a child-race, as primitive, as inferior. She even casts doubt on any ethnographic work that has been done, by having the ranch-hands laugh and joke about the stories they make up for the writers that come to learn about tribal life. The left and found objects, then, become the words that Native Americans speak, and what they choose to put into the world.

My thoughts on this aren’t fully formed at this point, but there’s something useful to think about here, with the association of words and materiality, and the connection of those words to the material traditions and existence cultural ecologies.

2 thoughts on “Left and Found Objects

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