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Building New Bridges - Bâtir de nouveaux ponts

Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

5 – The Uncooperative Primary Source

Literary Recovery versus Historical Fact in the Strange Production of Cogewea

Robert Strong

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1As the first novel written by a Native American woman, Cogewea: The Half-Blood holds a position of historical and symbolic importance for American literature. Prepared in manuscript form as early as 1914, but not published until 1927, Cogewea is a fascinating read that blends tropes from romance, Western, autoethnography, captivity narrative, and realism. In its confusions, earnestness, and collaborative minglings, Mourning Dove’s novel is uniquely North American; it could not have been written by anyone but a North American. The excitement and tension of its contents, its multi-voicings, and the necessary frustrations of its narrative sutures comprise a consummate artistic enactment of the American West in the nineteenth century.

2Unfortunately, the bulk of criticism on Mourning Dove’s novel is stuck on two things: the fact of its collaborative nature with Lucullus Virgil McWhorter and the “recovery” impulse in current literary scholarship. The latter may seem an odd predicament for a text that was never “lost.” But the impulse toward this gesture is so strong that as late as 1999, in an article that otherwise takes some preliminary steps toward a progressive criticism, Alicia Kent feels compelled to proclaim, “My endeavor is an attempt to ‘recover’ a forgotten Native American writer” (41). Granted, Kent makes this statement in the same spirit of this paper - to expand the readership and understanding of an important text - but her use of “recovery” terminology reveals the framework in place.

3This sort of “revisionist reclaiming,” as Kent calls her mission, stands implicitly and firmly in a certain relation to the American canon. This vision, like our history, is tangled up with issues of power, race, and gender. The arguments here are familiar to all. In the case of Cogewea, however, the fact that Mourning Dove created the book we know in collaboration with a white male anthropologist sets the novel in a diametric symbiosis with the “recovery” trend. In a sense, for a critical mode engaging and re-visioning the white patriarchy’s hold on literature, Cogewea is almost too perfect. Current critical impulses lock in a closed-circuit with the fact of the book’s composition; the two circle in an endless loop.

4The irony is large. Cogewea provides the source text for so many fertile issues in our literature, yet the critics cannot proceed. In my investigation of the relevant scholarship, its repeating nature became clear immediately. Take this passage describing Mourning Dove from Dexter Fisher’s introduction to the novel:

Always encouraged by McWhorter to share the knowledge with a wider audience, she began to give public lectures on the traditions of her tribe and was invited back east to speak, but her appearances were infrequent because she was uncomfortable before strange audiences and could not afford the money to cover her travel expenses. The one accolade she did eventually achieve, and the one that meant the most to her, was her election as an honorary member of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society (ix).

5And here, from a completely different author, is a passage from the Heath Anthology’s introduction to Mourning Dove:

Occasionally she traveled to lecture in the East, but she was uncomfortable before strange audiences and could hardly afford the travel expenses. The single honor bestowed on her was her election as an honorary member of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society (1813).

6The Heath is perhaps the most important institution for the spirit of “recovery” in American Literature and, as such, we owe it a great debt. But these mirrored passages serve as a high profile example of the shallow loop which exists in Cogewea scholarship.

7As we will see later, a central problem with this mode of scholarship is that, while it claims to recover texts, it often ghettoizes them in the process. This may be, I am willing to concede, a necessary step on the road to a fuller, healthier, reading; but it’s not a step we should linger on any longer than necessary. The Heath claims that Mourning Dove’s introduction to Coyote Stories (a collection of native tales encouraged by McWhorter) “gives authenticity to her collection by describing her family heritage and the tribal setting in which these stories were passed on” (1813, my emphasis). The barest investigation, however, reveals that Mourning Dove was actively working against authenticity. Her twin reasons for this effort were a desire to make “literature,” as she understood it, in the White/Western tradition and the knowledge that such a thing was very different from her native oral tradition. Mourning Dove removed

morals and “just-so” explanations from some of the stories so they could not be ridiculed by whites. The accounts of how things came to be as they are and episodes likely to suggest superstition to a white audience were deleted, though such alterations made the stories unrecognizable to her own family and other Colville elders (Miller xxiii).

8In pursuing her desire to create a literature that would be accepted by literary society, Mourning Dove “removed scatological and sexual elements of the Coyote stories in order to avoid reinforcing mainstream audience’s stereotypes of Native American peoples” (Bernardin 508). Her “fear that McWhorter’s revisions might alienate a white audience suggests that her western romance was designed to draw in readers otherwise indifferent to Native American perspective” (Ibid., 492). Mourning Dove was aware that her culture and literary culture were separate, so, quite simply, she set out to synthesize them - a very different approach than the Heath’s recycling of dull stereotypes of Native Americans in its assessment that Coyote Stories provides “aboriginal insight into the subtle connections between physical and psychological vitality and their grounding in cosmological mystery” (1813).

9Critical recourse to Mourning Dove’s letters and commentary is shockingly limited. The fascinating thing about this writer and her work/correspondence with McWhorter is that they enacted the opposite positions we would expect of them. Mourning Dove is the aspiring novelist of fictional romantic realism and McWhorter the politically motivated supporter of native rights. For critics invested in the framework of “recovery,” it seems the documentation of the collaboration will tell this story - the “wrong” story. The most referenced letter (perhaps simply because the novel’s introduction makes part of it available) is Mourning Dove’s 4 June 1928 response upon finally receiving a copy of her published novel. Nowhere have I discovered the entire text of the letter put to use. Here is the section which appears in Fisher’s introduction (“Big Foot” was the name given McWhorter by the Colville Salishan):

Dear Big Foot,
I have just got through going over the book Cogewea, and am surprised at the changes that you made. I think they are fine, and you made a tasty dressing like a cook would do with a fine meal. I sure was interested in the book, and hubby read it over and also all the rest of the family neglected their housework till they read it cover to cover. I felt like it was some one else[’]s book and not mine at all. In fact the finishing touches are put there by you, and I have never seen it (xv).

10In an article in American Literature in 1995, Susan K. Bernardin is content to quote from the letter thus:

I have just got through going over the book Cogewea and am surprised at the changes that you made... I felt like it was some one else[’]s book and not mine at all. In fact the finishing touches are put there by you, and I have never seen it... Oh my Big Foot, you surely roasted the Shoapees [whites] strong. I think a little too strong to get their sympathy. I wish we had not gone too strong now. That is the only thing I am afraid of (492).

11Most articles are content to boil the letter down to the single sentence “I felt like it was some one else[’]s book and not mine at all.” Such elliptical citations hint at the correspondence’s untapped potential for Cogewea scholarship. The gaps we are allowed to “see” here are suggestive. Bernardin erases Mourning Dove’s praise for the book (the novelist elsewhere admits to McWhorter it never would have been published without him) while revealing what Fisher omits - Mourning Dove’s complaint concerned with her desired white audience. In the diametric structure of “recovery vs. canon,” the book is too politically “native” for the author’s taste. (As her caution in editing the subsequent Coyote Stories shows, Mourning Dove learned her lesson on this issue.)

12It is the strength of this diametric structure, I believe, that lends itself to a misreading of Cogewea. “Recovery” demands an “outsider” text suppressed or manipulated by the dominant structure to serve its own ends. The Mourning Dove/McWhorter dynamic is not such an easy fit. The critical framework currently at play, entangled as it is with racial history, contemporary identity politics, and corrective gestures from the academy, ironically forces the players into the “proper” positions opposite from the ones they actually inhabited. Thus we have Charles Larson, in what Alicia Kent labels the “seminal study on American Indian Fiction” declaring that it is “regrettable for the student of Indian fiction that Mourning Dove relied on others for help in writing the book, since it is impossible to determine the extent of the editor’s coloring of her story with his own interpretations and judgments. Although the novel might have been less polished if she had written it herself, the author’s stance toward her Indian subject (and toward white culture) might not have been so ambivalent” (Kent 46). Quite to the contrary, as my cursory gloss shows above, Mourning Dove was actually worried about McWhorter’s changes making the text more un-ambivalent. Such concern reveals the author’s understanding, over and above her editor’s, that literature’s mettle is tested by the complexity of its ambivalences.

13I wish to show that the very things which the critics have been shying away from (because they don’t fit into the “recovery” model) are, in fact, the issues that will simultaneously break the critical feedback loop, confirm the issues that have been unproductively pursued, and free Cogewea to give it its full contribution to American reading. Our literature is inextricably bound with issues of politics, power, and race; I suggest no political shifts here. Recovery is, indeed, an essential tool for our scholarship. I am, however, deeply disturbed by the results: a ghettoization of certain literatures inevitably bound within the terms which were meant to set them “free.” This dynamic is beginning to extend off the page, having the horrific and ironic effect of insisting that literary content is inextricably bound to skin color and ethnicity. We want our students of American Literature (who, where I teach, are overwhelmingly white and upper class) to experience all its voices as relevant to them. The critical framework which keeps insisting on Mourning Dove’s “nativeness” in the face of all the evidence that she struggled for a less native effect, makes the same demand of its professors. Ironically, the unedited text of her correspondence, in voice and grammar, would apparently reveal the “native” writer - just not in the correct terms.

14Allowing the recovery framework to dictate the “position” of minority writers reinforces stereotypes; it makes them, first, “minority” writers. My goal here is to offer a corrective extension to that framework which will allow us to continue “recognizing” past injustices and facts-of-literature while using them as a positive tool to continue our critical evolution - both in scholarship and in teaching.


It is all wrong, this saying that Indians do not feel as deeply as whites. We do feel, and by and by some of us are going to be able to make our feelings appreciated... Mourning Dove in a 1916 interview (Miller xxi).
McWhorter was concerned that Indian themes and concerns be highlighted, whereas Mourning Dove wanted to express her knowledge and literary talents (Ibid., xxiii).
When Nature, as self-proximity, comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary. It must be added to the word urgently. Derrida, “That Dangerous Supplement,” Of Grammatology (144).

15Derrida’s concept of “That Dangerous Supplement” of writing is where I begin my reassessment. Mourning Dove, as we see in the first two quotes here, understood the necessity of engaging with the Dangerous Supplement. Indeed, this is the dilemma for any oral culture when confronted with “civilization.” The “danger” of writing becomes a necessary one for a group of people who suddenly have nothing (or everything) to lose. Derrida, perhaps, is considering only a “monocultural” context when he describes the supplemental “act of writing [as] essentially... the greatest sacrifice aiming at the greatest symbolic reappropriation of presence” (Ibid., 142). We can certainly speak of “sacrifice” in Native American writing; indeed, there are issues of cross-cultural translation, power dynamics, and absolute physical survival not included in Derrida’s sense of the word. As the fictional character, Cogewea herself is aware the natives “had suffered as much from the pen as from the bayonet of conquest; wherein the annals had always been chronicled by their most deadly foes and partisan writers” (Mourning Dove 92). If the reality of one’s “presence” is the bayonet, then the “danger” that writing intrinsically “dislocates the subject that it constructs, prevents it from being present to its signs, torments its language with a complete writing,” is less a loss than a positive gesture of adaptive self-preservation (Derrida 141). This fact, at least, is not completely lost on critics:

Mourning Dove’s response to the forced assimilation was to adapt to [make] the transition from oral to written expression. She was thus able to engage in modernity, literally by adopting the modem mode of expression in writing... For many Native Americans, the transition from tribal languages to English and from oral to written meant a loss of culture and tribal identity. But, as another response to the modern period, some American Indians turned to writing literature as a way of surviving and preserving in the face of the dramatic upheaval and forced assimilation at the turn of the century. As Dexter Fisher points out, “Writing became a means to perpetuate tradition in the face of cultural disintegration.” Through the written text, Native American writers attempt to reclaim textually what has been taken from them geographically. American Indian texts aim to right (write) the wrongs of the past and preserve in writing the oral stories for the future (Kent 44).

16I must note, however, how Kent diverges from Mourning Dove in the last sentence. As we have seen, Mourning Dove’s intent was much more complicated than simply to “preserve in writing the oral stories for the future.” This critical slippage is symptomatic (and I will note the shallow critical cycle, again, indicated by the reference to Dexter Fisher). The evidence suggests, actually, that Mourning Dove knew such preservation was impossible. Her goal was to help the white audience realize the humanity of Native Americans by presenting trans-cultural communications of their culture.

17In her conscious appropriation of the Supplement, Mourning Dove necessarily chose Realism, the genre which is closest to the spirit of Derrida’s “Dangerous Supplement” and its “straining toward the reconstruction of presence” (Derrida 141). Mourning Dove, I argue, was conscious of her use of the Supplement in some very sophisticated ways. She was using it to prove her people felt “as deeply as whites.” At the same time, she was aware of the Supplement’s oppositions to the natural structures of her culture, as her letter of 12 February 1930 on the editing of Coyote Stories shows: “You will see in my recasting I have purposely omitted a lot of things, that is an objection to printing and editing, but an Indian that knows the story can read between the line[s]” (Mourning Dove, Letters).

18This is a writer who realizes the Supplement is double-edged, but is confident that she can wield this dagger both ways. I propose a critical approach to American Ethnic Realism that is as brave and headstrong as Mourning Dove’s creative approach. And it is with the Dangerous Supplement that our instincts for “recovery” can be renewed in a way that refuses easy stereotypes and the unintended hypocrisy of institutional ghettoization of the literature.

19If there is one thing in need of (and indeed available to) “recovery” in Mourning Dove’s oeuvre, it is her correspondence with McWhorter. Why, if their collaboration is so central to the existing scholarship on the novel, has it not been recovered? The entire collection is sitting in the Washington State University Library; I have been communicating with the librarians there, and they know of no scholar ever making a full transcription. Why not? I believe that the introduction of the full text of the letters would greatly interfere with current readings of Cogewea - and, yet, I contend that it need do so only to move us forward to a more productive analysis. The recovery gesture makes the necessary move of claiming antitheses to a stifling canon while refusing to move toward a synthesis. In fact, taken together with Derrida’s ideas, Mourning Dove’s technique can become proactive in its own fully synthesized recovery. As we have seen from her statements, this was, indeed, her goal - to bring a native literature to a middle ground to meet a white audience.

20It is perhaps not surprising that the most honest assessment of Mourning Dove’s writing and biography comes, not from a literary scholar, but rather from an expert in native history: the editor of her autobiography, Jay Miller. (He also did the research necessary to establish that Mourning Dove was not, as she claimed, a “half-breed,” but actually a full-blooded Native American.) In detailing his difficulties in preparing the manuscript of her autobiography, he explains that Mourning Dove was “[u]nsure about spelling and usage, she was never comfortable with English, and some of her phrasings can be difficult to understand unless one is familiar with Colville English idiom” (Miller xxxiii). While I disagree with this analysis, Miller is helpful in pointing out how the unique grammatical structures of Salishan and its lack of gendered pronouns influenced Mourning Dove’s English writing. He provides us with this wonderful writing sample from her manuscript:

The clothing of the family is usually made of deer skins tanned, or furs of small animals like the rabbit skin is used for babies in winter months to keep them snug and warm. Coyote skins make the jackets of the older people when tanned with the fur on by tying the rear end around the neck and tying it under the arms and down in front to keep their shoulders warm (Ibid., xxxvi).

21If the scholars I have cited have actually been to the letters, the only reason for keeping such writing from the audience is that it suggests a massive amount of editing done by McWhorter to produce the book’s final form (there are no extant working manuscripts of the collaboration). For critics invested in an uncritical mode of recovery, such an admission might represent a step backward, returning to the previous (and incorrect) critical stance: that Mourning Dove should not be considered the Cogewea full author.

22However, rather than allowing the inclusive gestures which were essential to Mourning Dove’s project as we can now understand it, leaving such writing “unrecovered” has the same effect as McWhorter’s editorial interference (such as his use of epigraphs to frame each chapter): preventing Mourning Dove from writing the synthesis that is the American voice, the voice of the “half-breed.” (And here it is significant that, as we now know, Mourning Dove had to invent her half-breed status.) Both McWhorter’s editorializing and critics’ avoidance of the true nature of the writing it affected is a denial of the possibility of a half-breed language. Just as Mourning Dove was able to draw on all her resources (including McWhorter) to approach the reality of her American existence, we, the scholars of today, should recognize the positive reification of her dilemmas in the odd text that became Cogewea. The facts of its production informs a fertile tension with Derrida’s concept that

the person writing is inscribed in a determined textual system. Even if there is never a pure signified, there are different relationships as to that which, from the signifier, is presented as the irreducible stratum of the signified. For example, the philosophical text, although it is in fact always written, includes, precisely as its philosophical specificity, the project of effacing itself in the face of the signified content which it transports and in general teaches. Reading should be aware of this project, even if, in the last analysis, it intends to expose the project’s failure. The entire history of texts, and within it the history of literary forms in the West, should be studied from this point of view. With the exception of a thrust or point of resistance which has only been very lately recognized as such, literary writing has, almost always and almost everywhere, according to some fashions and across very diverse ages, lent itself to this transcendent reading, in that search for the signified which were here put in question, not to annul it but to understand it within a system to which such a reading is blind [sic] (Derrida 160).

23 Cogewea, of course, is subject to this analysis, but the text also accomplishes the opposite. Rather than attempting to “efface itself of the content it transports,” Mourning Dove’s writing tries desperately to enter into that content. And she is able to attempt this because she is not “inscribed in a determined textual system” but, rather, attempting to co-opt and invent a truly American system. (As McWhorter simultaneously encourages her to co-opt her orality into the system.) Mourning Dove operates, therefore, outside (or, if not strictly “outside,” further than any of her contemporary writers toward the “edge of”) the “entire history of texts.” Given her unique cultural relationship to writing, Mourning Dove’s goal is pre-“transcendent.” She wants to enter and then, rather than transcend, to transform the “immense series of structures, of historical totalities of all orders... organized, enveloped, and blended” into the Supplement she is stepping into (Ibid., 161).


In classical ethnographies the voice of the author was always manifest, but the conventions of textual representation and reading forbade too close a connection between authorial style and the reality represented... The subjectivity of the author is separated from the objective referent of the text. At best, the author’s personal voice is seen as a style in the weak sense: a tone, or embellishment of facts (Clifford 13).

24This passage from a collection of essays on the politics of writing ethnography helps elucidate the unique position of Mourning Dove’s novel. Above, the author is the ethnographer. In Cogewea, that position of authority is split in two: becoming Mourning Dove and McWhorter. The close connection between authorial style and reality represented is therefore collapsed (in that the single author-as-ethnographer conflict of interest which “forbade” the connection does not exist). But this very fact also serves to complicate the connection and complicate our reading. For Derrida, however, it is with the reader that the Supplement moves from dangerous to productive:

[T]he writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws and [her] life discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. [She] uses them only by letting [her]self, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what [she] commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language that [she] uses. This relationship is not a certain quantitative distribution of shadow and light, of weakness and force, but a signifying structure that critical reading should produce (Derrida 158, my emphasis).

25I manipulate Derrida’s pronouns here to highlight how his thinking cannot quite embrace Mourning Dove’s unique situation and to reveal how, on the contrary, the Dove/McWhorter collaboration is a lively enactment of the drama of the Supplement. I argue that the bulk of scholarship is blinded by its need, inherent to the current ideas of recovery, to map “a certain quantitative distribution of... weakness and force.” Rather, it should move forward with critical readings that can “produce” everything that Cogewea makes possible. The critic Brian Massumi, in his recent calls for a more “productivist” criticism, echoes my concern when he claims that critical thinking “disavows its own inventiveness as much as possible... [b]ecause it sees itself as uncovering something it claims was hidden or as debunking something it desires to subtract from the world” (Massumi 12).

26The idea that a critical reading should “produce” is tempered by Derrida’s warning that this mode can also “risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything.” He reminds us that while a “reading must not be content with doubling the text,” there is also “nothing outside the text” (Derrida 158). This is, indeed, the fertile dilemma provided by Cogewea. It is a text that comes to the reader already “doubled" - doubled in authors, cultures, agendas, and productions. It comes to the reader indicating a multitude of forces outside the text, or, perhaps we should say, the novel tells us that its text extends to the correspondence, to the “source” novel The Brand (which Mourning Dove inserts into her own text), and to the ethnography detailed in Cogewea’s notes (appended by McWhorter). If a critical reading is to produce anything that is truly in the spirit of this text, it will be the very synthesis it desires. Mourning Dove did not write to further delineate her American world, but to show it melting together (romantically) in some more humane and just way. The complications of the text’s production and presentation are a raw enactment of that possibility.

27The world depicted in Cogewea represents the American melting pot just as the heat is rising. Today, the metaphor of the melting pot is often derided as a metaphor of hierarchical homogenization. But, as Mourning Dove knew, every ingredient changes the final flavor; the destiny of America is to be a land of “half-breeds.” America may never again produce a novel that so perfectly reveals and enacts the country’s bizarre origins and growth pains. In this sequence of supplements, Derrida writes,

a necessity is announced: that of an infinite chain, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception. Immediacy is derived. That all begins through the intermediary is what is indeed “inconceivable [to reason]” (157, Derrida’s brackets).

28America is derived; the intermediary is a collaborative contact zone of cultures, each taking on the opposite project the critics want them to have. For a culture and its literature created in the melting of many cultures, there is no original presence - all creation meets and begins within the Supplement. It is dangerous and productive, and a necessary synthesis.



Bernardin, Susan K, “Mixed Messages: Authority and Authorship in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, The Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range.” American Literature 67, no. 3 (1995): 487-509.

Clifford, James and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Kent, Alicia, “Mourning Dove’s Cogewea: Writing Her Way into Modernity.” MELUS 24, no. 3 (1999): 39-67.

Lauter, Paul, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Massumi, Brian, Parable for the Virtual. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Miller, Jay, ed., Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1990.

Mourning Dove, Cogewea: The Half-Blood. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1991.

Washington State University Library, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter papers, Mourning Dove Letters.


Received his PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Studies from the University of Denver. In 2004, he held a Mellon research fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He currently teaches at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York

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