beth piatote reflects on a few short stories


Beth H. Piatote, ‘Domestic Trials: Indian Rights and National Belonging in Works by E. Pauline Johnson and John M. Oskison’, American Quarterly 63, 1 (2011):

This interdisciplinary literature and law essay considers the legal mechanism of marriage as a site that joins notions of love and consent with the apparatus of state regulation, and how this affected indigenous communities in the United States and Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Foregrounding the legal context, this essay reads short stories by Mohawk author E. Pauline Johnson and Cherokee writer John M. Oskison that figure the stakes of two forms of marriage—one interracial, the other polygamous—for indigenous communities under the settler colonial laws of the United States and Canada. The law is animated in these stories in ways that both illuminate and challenge its reach; conversely, the literary tropes that these writers worked through and against are made salient through the law. The trope of the suicidal Indian woman, for example, gains new resonance when understood in the context of a Canadian law that required a type of legal suicide through interracial marriage. Competing concepts of sovereignty and the (national) family structure reveal the expectations of the state in co-constituting itself with its citizenry in Oskison’s story of a Creek family under pressure to dissolve during the drive to Oklahoma statehood. Significantly, these stories name consequences of the law for nonindigenous subjects, a problem obscured when reading the legal texts in isolation. That is, the stories show how laws aimed at nonconforming populations can entrap the settler nation’s most secure subjects: white men and women. As such, the unnamed subjects of law can be bound to its force as surely as those who are named, producing a broader critique that addresses all members of society.

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