Empowering Indigenous Women through Literature and Publishing

By: Kara Kennedy

Indigenous self-expression through common mechanisms that are able to reach the general public is a rarity today. Today movies or common entertainment meant to discuss Indigenous issues are hardly ever articulated by Indigenous women let alone discuss their issues. However this is not to say that Indigenous women do not have a voice, or do not dream of a day where their words or dreams will be able to reach the general public and initiate interest that can change the state of their lives as they know it.

A century ago, a woman by the name of Mourning Dove (ne Hum-Ishu-Ma) wrote a manuscript titled Cogewea. Cogewea is a novel intended to be a western romance however becomes a novel that largely chronicles the identity confused “half-blood” Cogewea. This novel initiates a dialogue of Indigenous rights, as it chronicles Cogewea’s shortcomings, identity confusion, and the stereotypes that plaque her that leading to bewildering actions throughout the novel.

Cogewea is the first novel written by an Indigenous Canadian author. As esteemed as this reference is, Mourning Dove comes from humble roots. Mourning Dove, like the main character in her book, also comes from a mixed background. As her mother is Colville mother, and half-Okanogan and half-Irish father. Her home territory being the Okanogan territory in Northern Washington. As an adult Mourning Dove worked as a migrant farm worker, after long hours picking apples and hops, Mourning Dove would work at her manuscript for Cogewea (Bernardin, 1995).

Mourning Dove

It wasn’t until Mourning Dove allowed editor Lucullus V. McWhorter to read her manuscript that publishing became a possibility. Within Lucullus V. McWhorter, Mourning Dove found a strong advocator and imposing editor. McWhorter advocated for Cogewea for eleven years till it was finally published (Bernardin, 1995).

In 1927, Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Range was published. This is a huge feat, as at the time this insertion of Indigenous perspective within the dominant settler society was extremely rare, especially a women’s perspective. Within Cogewea, Mourning Dove initiates and promotes the complexities of female Indigenous Identity and integrates Okanogan culture into the dominant culture by inserting readibly into the text.

By reading the complexities of Cogewea, an understanding is built. As one realized the authors intention of creating an understanding from the reader to the culture that the characters live in. This is very done intentionally by the author, as within her journals, Mourning Dove frequently discusses her ambitions of her writing and other writings by Indigenous Authors will establish an accepting relationship between Indigenous people and the settler society (Bernardin, 1995).

Mourning Dove may not have seen fully the impact of her writing, and the empowerment that she established for her people. Jeannette C. Armstrong, Okanogan novelist, teacher and activist credits her great aunt Mourning Dove to deeply influencing her writing and her publishing works (Shepard, 2005). Today Jeannette Armstrong is a strong Indigenous voice within the literary field, as her presence eliminates the gendered hierarchies that exist within the Indigenous arts sector. In a society where Indigenous women are plagued by racialized and gendered marginalization, Indigenous artists like Jeannette Armstrong are attempting to break these boundaries by discussing them in her works, and teaching others to do the same. It is scary for some to think of, where Indigenous people within the arts sector would be without female influences life Mourning Dove.

Jeannette C. Armstrong

“The purpose of my writing has always been to tell a better story then is being told about us. To give that to the people and the next generations. The voices of the grandmothers and grandfathers compel me to speak of the worth of our people and the beauty around us, to banish the profaning of ourselves, and to ease the pain. I carry the language of the voice of the land and the valor of the people and I will not be silenced by the language of tyranny.

– Jeannette C. Armstrong. Native Poetry in Canada, A Contemporary Anthology


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