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‘Seeing Red: Anger, Sentimentality, and American Indians,’ by Cari M. Carpenter

While I was reading “Seeing Red: Anger, Sentimentality, and American Indians” by Cari M. Carpenter, I kept thinking about an e-mail exchange that occurred on a Yahoo groups list I subscribe to.

“Native discourse is being at peace, not ranting,” wrote one woman.

“What cowardice! What treason!” exploded another writer, “we have only survived because we have protested, when we could no longer fight an armed struggle.”

These days it is relatively easy for most of us, Native and non-Native, to communicate anger, especially with the sizzling immediacy of the Internet, where we can sit in front of our computer and blaze away at our invisible opponents.

“Seeing Red” takes us back to a different time, the 19th century, and examines how anger was communicated as a force for social change by three different American Indian writers: S. Alice Callahan, E. Pauline Johnson, and Sarah Winnemucca.

Callahan, Johnson and Winnemucca used a prevailing literary genre of the time – sentimentality. Though the frank expression of emotion was what moved sentimental literature, how much room did these three writers, as Native women, have to articulate their anger about what was being threatened and destroyed, and how successful were they? Carpenter, an English and Native American studies professor asks this question. She also raises some thought-provoking questions about white Americans’ appropriation of Indian-ness or Indian causes as a way to express their own anger.

Callahan, with some Creek heritage from a well-to-do family, was to Carpenter the least successful at expressing anger from a Native female perspective. Instead, she chose in her 1891 novel “Wynema,” to express her anger at the whites’ treatment of Indians through the character of a white female reformer.

Here, Carpenter introduces the concept of a white heroine “playing angry” on behalf of Indians and links this to early Americans dressing up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party to show their anger at the tax imposed by the British.

“Playing Angry” is a clever turn of phrase, evoking the appropriation of “Playing Indian” – and emphasizing the same kind of patronizing invisibility of authentic Native voices. But I found the phrase too facile and dismissive of the white women of that era who spoke out against the atrocities committed by their own race, closing the door on a deeper analysis. When Carpenter, a white woman, admits that she feels angry about some of her white students’ misconceptions about Indians, and then writes about it, is she “playing” angry?

The performance of anger – and of Indianness – is discussed in her chapter on Johnson, born in 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve to a Mohawk father and a white Quaker mother. As well as publishing 29 magazine short stories, Johnson took to the stage and delivered fierce and eloquent poetry to largely white Canadian audiences:

“Stand back, stand back, you white-skins, touch that dead man to your shame; You have stolen my father’s spirit, but his body I only claim…”

Though she was often able to turn the “savage” stereotype inside out and indict white culture for its own savagery, Johnson’s message was diluted by the eroticization of her performance by her white audiences, who saw her as an alluring and “fiery Indian maiden” Carpenter said.

Winnemucca, author of “Life Among the Piutes,” was to Carpenter the most successful of the women in articulating Native anger to the white public, but perhaps the least successful in being accepted as a true leader or communicator by her own people. Many Paiute still view Winnemucca as a traitor and a tool of the U.S. military.

Carpenter has made an important contribution to the study of Native American literature with this book. But, when she speaks from her own experience with her students, I realize I would have liked to have seen a little more of the Cari Carpenter behind the literary theorist. What prompted her, for example, to write about Native American anger?

In choosing anger as her focus, Carpenter anticipates that “some may argue that a study of any literature through the lens of a single emotion is reductive, or that an emphasis on anger is inconsistent with American Indian values.”

But by examining the early possibilities for expression of anger in Native literature, Carpenter recognizes that these expressions were the roots for Joy Harjo’s “we have just begun to touch the dazzling whirlwind of our anger” and lay the groundwork for Sherman Alexie’s mix of anger and humor.

By shining the light on the anger that was, with varying degrees of success, expressed by these early American Indian writers, Carpenter helps us look at what part anger plays as an agent of change in the contemporary world, in Native discourse and resistance, and in our daily lives.