“Woven alike with meaning” : sovereignty and form in Native North American poetry, 1800-1910
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The story of American poetry has developed alongside the idea of America itself, becoming almost synonymous with national sovereignty projects in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time the figure of the Indian was, in poetry, customarily depicted as melancholy and moribund, a noble savage making way for a supposedly superior civilization and race. Yet indigenous North American poets also composed and published poetry and participated in reading communities during this time. Examining this poetry reveals how indigenous writers manipulated poetic genres to contest U.S. hegemony and assert sovereignties from the sexual to the tribal to the national. Indeed, understanding early indigenous poets’ formal choices and poetic communities challenges critical narratives of American poetry’s history as having been linear and progressive, demanding a new way of organizing the study of American poetry. In this dissertation, I argue that early Native North American poets chose to write in specific poetic genres in response to local, national, and international publishing worlds. Each chapter examines how indigenous poets comment on the practice and form of poetry, thus speaking to a diverse community of poets and readers through a variety of verse traditions. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft draws from multiple cultural traditions as she manipulates time and genre through her mourning poems, ballads, and lyrics in the Anishinaabe world of the Great Lakes. In the Chicago area, Simon Pokagon uses insurgent practices of appropriation to criticize and revise colonialist American poetry through cross-racial citations and borrowings in his birchbark pamphlets and novel. As public literary tastes shift from poems to legends at the turn of the twentieth century, E. Pauline Johnson helps invent a different kind of modernist poetry that challenges representations of indigenous peoples as pre-modern. Alex Posey composes skeptical elegies, dialect poems, and political newspaper verse from western and Creek literary forms in Indian Territory to heal a divided Creek Nation, practicing poetic appropriations that offered ways of relating to genre that remain powerful for Native American poets today.
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