Cogewea – Shifting Indigenous Identities

By: Kara Kennedy

Identity is a delicate issue for a large number of Indigenous people within North America today, this is largely due to the European dimensions that have been constructed and imposed amongst Indigenous people that measures Indigenous identity. The reasoning behind these constructed dimensions are numerous, however Indigenous societies believe that they were mainly constructed in the hopes of eradication and categorization of North America’s First Peoples. This is that the Indigenous people will assimilate and integrate within the larger body politic, which is the settler society. This integration will leave the measurable Indigenous indicator, which is blood quantum to such a small amount there will be no more Indigenous factor available.

This standard of being an Indigenous person has become embedded within Indigenous societies so much that judging a persons state of being Indigenous has almost become natural within many Indigenous societies. Today Indigenous people are become more liberated in seeing the violence associated with these imposed dimensions and nuances of being indigenous. Indigenous people today are reclaiming their identities, and calling for action in saying that they should have the right to self-identify and denounce the existing colonial system.

However a century ago, the state of being for Indigenous people was much different. Racism, discrimination and oppression external to Indigenous communities were widespread. Indigenous people were not allowed to use their voice so the voice dictating them became internalized and mistaken for their own. This form of oppression against oneself and one’s own people is known as internal colonization. This internal colonization is present within the western novel Cogewea, The Half-Blood.

Cogewea was the first novel written by an Indigenous female author, Mourning Dove. In this novel the main character struggles with identity, and this struggle compels her day-to-day life and decisions within the novel.

Cogewea is a woman of mixed-descent, as her mother is a “full-blooded” Okanogan, while her father of European background. Cogewea’s father subsequently leaving his children shortly after her mothers passing in order to seek excavation of gold in Alaska. Her two sisters, and traditional Okanogan Grandmother then raise Cogewea. After seeking an education at the Carlisle Indian School, Cogewea then lives and gains employment at her brother-in-law’s ranch, the H-B Ranch. Cogewea, whom is an accomplished rider falls in with the other male workers and gains a suitor in the foreman Jim LaGrinder, another “breed” (Dove, 1927).

Within the novel, the theme of Cogewea’s identity is strong. During one scene Cogewea decides to test the boundaries of her heritage entering both the “Ladies” and “Squaw’s” divisions at a local rodeo. Although she wins both matches, she is disqualified. Cogewea gains another suitor, in the apparently wealthy “Easterner” Alfred Densmore. Densmore courts Cogewea believing that she has amassed wealth, and seeks to gain it. The romance of Densmore initiates an internal struggle within Cogewea, as she finds a suitor with who is noble and can provide a home life. However if she peruses the romance she must turn her back on her traditional ways. Despite her Grandmothers warnings of Densmore, Cogewea feels privileged with her European ancestry therefore exempting her from her Grandmothers warnings (Bernardin, 1995). Upon Cogewea’s departure she is assaulted and abandoned once Densmore learns she has no wealth. Cogewea is the left to gain from the experience and return to the ranch.

During these experiences Cogewea learns of internal and external oppression. As she learns that despite her European ancestry, she is not exempt from common experiences of “full-blooded” Indigenous women’s and that she is not she was turning her back on her heritage to chase vacant ambitions (Krupat, 1999). The novel Cogewea is a monumental one, as it discusses the issues of identity, which an Indigenous person of mixed heritage might experience. Despite it’s idealistic ending the novel Cogewea is empowering as it utilizes an Indigenous mind-frame to tell a story and open a dialogue to Indigenous issues, especially at it’s time of publishing.

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