Plants, animals, land : more-than-human relations and gendered survivance in early indigenous women’s writing

Barnes, EM ORCID: 2021, Plants, animals, land : more-than-human relations and gendered survivance in early indigenous women’s writing , PhD thesis, University of Salford.

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This thesis argues that Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), Tekahionwake (E. Pauline Johnson) and Mary Kawena Pūku’i mobilise literary representations of more-than-human beings – plants, animals, and the land – to express resistance to the gendered impacts of settler colonialism. Through analysing Native stories from American Indian Stories, Legends and Other Writings (1921), Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and The Sun Dance Opera (2001), Boys’ World (1910) and Hawai’i Island Legends: Pīkoi, Pele and Others (1949) using Indigenous knowledges, this thesis reads more-than-human beings as central to feminine expressions of what Gerald Vizenor refers to as ‘survivance’ (1999; 2008; 2009). Survivance is ‘the union of active survival and resistance to cultural dominance’ (Vizenor, 2009, p.24), and the creation of ‘an active sense of presence over absence’ (Vizenor, 2008, p.4). Developing Vizenor’s work, I argue that the union of ‘survival and resistance’ (Vizenor, 2009, p.24) poses particular difficulties for Indigenous women in settler-colonial contexts, thus rendering Zitkala-Ša, Tekahionwake and Pūku’i to express a form of survivance that is decidedly gendered. I argue that in their depictions of relationships with the more-than-human world, these writers create an active sense of Native, female presence that responds to and resists settler colonialism. The need to examine survivance within a gendered framework emerges from the fact that the triangulation of settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy and capitalism elicits a form of gendered and racialised violence that sought, and continues, to murder Indigenous women and eradicate Native female identity (Arvin et al., 2013; Smith, 2015; Simpson, 2017a). Whilst it is widely acknowledged that Indigenous women are subjected to colonial violence at higher rates than men (Morgensen, 2012; Arvin et al., 2013; A. Smith, 2015), the way this impacts the ability of Indigenous women to unite ‘survival and resistance’ (Vizenor, 2009, p.24) in life as in literature is limited (E. Baker, 2005). I argue that making links between gendered, colonial violence and gendered survivance is necessary because, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explains: ‘[t]he gendered nature of colonialism and settler colonialism means heteropatriarchy has to be critically considered in every project we’re currently collectively and individually engaged in’ (2017a, p.68). This thesis therefore demonstrates that, because settler colonialism and land dispossession are gendered (Simpson, 2017a, p.67), it is necessary to explore the ways in which the resistance to these structures of oppression is also gendered. Contrary to dominant approaches that Maile Arvin et al. (2013) and Simpson (2017a) suggest isolate Native land rights from Indigenous women’s rights, this thesis turns to literature by Indigenous women writers in order to highlight how the rights of land and Indigenous women are intricately interconnected in colonial resistance. This thesis explores three different forms of Native story from three different places: blood memory from South Dakota, periodical writing from Canada, and mo’olelo from Hawai’i. The thesis is structured according to these texts, their place of publication, and corresponding land and place-based epistemologies that are deployed to create survivance narratives. Chapter one reads Zitkala-Ša’s American Indian Stories as ‘blood memories’ (Allen, 1999; Portillo, 2017) rather than autobiography to reveal how Zitkala-Ša uses more-than-human elements to express female survivance in contradistinction to the assimilationist policies of the United States. The chapter draws upon Yankton Dakota cosmologies and the significance of the sunflower in these blood memories to reveal how Zitkala-Ša expresses resistance to colonial boarding school practices and land acquisition. It then illustrates how Zitkala-Ša uses buffalo to represent the continuance of female, land-based knowledges in Dreams and Thunder. In chapter two, I explore how First Nation writer Tekahionwake uses zoomorphism to critique heteropatriarchy and forms of colonial masculinity predicated upon domination of the environment. I read her representation of zoomorphism as a way of reclaiming a form of Indigenous masculinity. I then analyse her depiction of interspecies communication as a way of expressing the political utility of more-than-human voices in settler-colonial spaces. Chapter three provides the first literary analysis of Pūku’i’s Hawaiian stories, or mo’olelo. It examines how Pūku’i’s mo’olelo convey how Indigenous, female vulnerability to hydrological drought emerges due to social, cultural and spiritual roles within Native Hawaiian traditions, and the gendered expectations that women must forego their basic needs for the benefit of others. I argue that Pūku’i uses kaona, or metaphor, to represent how Indigenous women are central to the reparation of the environment despite their vulnerability to drought. Through foregrounding the ways Pūku’i represents the co-existence of gendered vulnerability and Indigenous, female leadership, I critique the use of the term ‘vulnerability’ as a neo-colonial concept. I suggest that ‘vulnerability’ has been co-opted to prevent Indigenous women and Pacific Islanders from leading responses to drought and to obscure the role of colonialism in creating this gendered vulnerability. I make the case that Pūku’i’s depiction of Indigenous women’s relationships with the environment thus challenge a neo-colonial conception of ‘vulnerability’. In examining the relationships between Indigenous peoples and the environment, this thesis does not seek to reproduce discourses surrounding the colonial invention of the ‘ecological Indian’ or ‘noble savage’ that romanticise and appropriate Indigenous relations with nature (Krech, 1999; Harkin & Lewis, 2007; Ranco, 2007; Smithers, 2015). Rather, this thesis considers how three women writers, who experienced settler colonialism in different ways at different historical moments, all articulate their resistance to settler colonialism through more-than-human relations that are irreducibly specific to time and place. As Shari Huhndorf and Cheryl Suzack explain, ‘[a]lthough Indigenous women do not share a single culture, they do have a common colonial history’ (2010, p.3), and thus are united in their efforts to create a sense of Native female presence under colonial, capitalist and heteropatriarchal systems that seek to eradicate Indigenous women. By bringing these diverse Indigenous storytelling forms and epistemologies together, this thesis reveals that more-than-human beings are central to creating aesthetics of survivance that foreground Indigenous women’s voices, and reject discourses of settler colonialism across state lines and continents.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Contributors: Munslow Ong, JM (Supervisor) and White, G
Schools: Schools > School of Arts & Media
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Depositing User: EM Barnes
Date Deposited: 28 Apr 2022 13:11
Last Modified: 13 May 2022 08:46

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