Native Women’s Resurgence at UIUC

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Ask your friends and family to name any American Indian
women. It is likely that Sacagawea and Pocahontas will be
the only ones they know. Why is it that these two Native
women have acquired mythical status in American history
and popular culture, to the exclusion of all others? We suggest
it is because they are seen as the benefactors of men—
“good Indians” who mediated friendly relations between
Indian and whites. Stereotypical representations of American
Indian men dominate the popular imagination (e.g.
Chief Illiniwek), and as a result, a masculine discourse influences
how most people imagine who “Indians” were and
are. Those imaginings, as well as the subordinate positioning
of Native women as sidebars to, and helpers for, both
white and Native men, mask the contributions of American
Indian women, both historically and in the present.
We want to address these misconceptions and misrecognitions
by first acknowledging some of the overlooked
historical contributions from American Indian
women in this region. By recognizing the long history of
American Indian women and the contributions and resistances
they made, we celebrate and honor the return of
Native women to this particular landscape, a landscape
emptied of Native peoples through forced removal and
genocide in the early nineteenth century. Facilitated by the
creation of a vibrant American Indian Studies Program at
the University, American Indian women have returned as
artists, activists, scholars, and community leaders to help
us begin to heal from the traumas and legacies of violence
that have for so long erased Native women’s presences. In
so doing we recognize a continuing line of resistance,
recovery and reclamation by American Indian women that
rewrites the dominant popular narrative.
Betsy Love (Chickasaw): Married Women’s Property
Rights, 1839. Research by LeAnne Howe, professor of
American Indian Studies and Creative Writing at UIUC, has
uncovered the legal contributions of Betsy Love, a 19th century
Chickasaw woman who, despite the turmoil of forced
removal and genocide in the early 1800’s, played the formative
role in establishing the Married Women’s Property Act of
1839. This act affirmed the legal rights of all married
women, Native and white, to own their own property and
prevent it being seized by their husbands or their husbands’
creditors. Significantly, the Mississippi courts upheld matrilineal
Chickasaw culture and traditions in which women
owned and controlled property, and retained that property
even through marriage. Betsy Love, married to a white man
through a Chickasaw marriage ceremony, resisted her husband’s
creditors who wanted to sell her property—which
included African American slaves—to pay off her husband’s
debts after his death. In 1837, the court ruled that Chickasaw
customs of property rights in which the wife’s properties
did not transfer over to the husband’s control were
affirmed, and through this decision, along with Betsy Love’s
challenge to the creditors, precedent was established to protect
the property rights of women in general.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Ojibwa): First American
Indian literary writer. Recent work by Robert Dale Parker,
professor of English and American Indian Studies faculty
affiliate at UIUC, reveals that the first known American Indian
literary writer was an Ojibwe woman, Jane Johnston
Schoolcraft (1800-1842). Collecting Jane Schoolcraft’s writings
into one volume for the first time, Dr. Parker’s book,
The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky, demonstrates
that American Indian written literature and poetry
has a longer and richer history than previously assumed by
scholars focused on mid to late nineteenth century contributions
by Native writers. The author of many poems and
traditional stories in both English and Ojibwe languages,
Jane also translated songs and other Ojibwe texts for her
husband, the well-known folklorist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,
who adapted and published her work without
attributing the source. It is her work and poetry that became
a primary source for Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Meskwaki, Ho-chunk and Potawatami Women in
19th Century Economics. Until recently, historians have
ignored the key roles that tribal women played in the economic
systems that developed in the Great Lakes and
Upper Mississippi Valley regions during the first half of the
19th century. A new textbook co-authored by Frederick
Hoxie, Swanlund Professor of History and American Indian
studies faculty affiliate at UIUC, corrects this bias.
Indigenous women frequently intermarried with French
or Creole traders, producing a population of mixed lineage
with extensive and prosperous trading networks. For
example, Meskwaki, Ho-chunk and Potawatomi women
controlled much of the production and marketing of lead
from the rich mines near modern Dubuque and Galena.
They used their mixed lineage husbands to “front” for
them in trading, and employed their extensive tribal kinship
networks to promote their business ventures among
tribal communities.
Likewise, in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan,
two Potawatomi women Kakima and Mouto (a.k.a Madeline
Bertrand) are known to have played pivotal roles in
their husbands far flung trading activities. Kakima’s kinship
ties to prominent Potawatomi village chiefs enabled
her husband William Burnett to pass freely among the
Potawatomi communities in the region. Mouto, who was
also active in trading, also spent considerable time promoting
Roman Catholicism within the Potawatomi villages.
Massaw, a Miami business woman, was an entrepreneur
who owned and operated an “inn and gambling
house” in modern Fulton County, Indiana, and held considerable
political influence. Despite the trauma of forced
removal from their homes and lands in the 1830s, historical
records show that Potawatomi women rebuilt their
lives and continued their business activities in Kansas,
reestablishing inns and restaurants to market food and
lodging to settler populations traveling West.
The emergence of the American Indian Studies Program at
UIUC enables us to mark the return of a vibrant, effective
Native women’s presence to our local landscape. In the
rich contributions of faculty members LeAnne Howe, Debbie
Reese and Jodi Byrd we recognize the ongoing project
of resistance, recovery, reclamation and healing.
LeAnne Howe is an enrolled citizen of
the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and an
Associate Professor of American Indian
Studies and Creative Writing. Born and
educated in Oklahoma, she writes fiction,
creative non-fiction, plays, poetry,
and screenplays that primarily deal with
American Indian experiences. Her first
novel, Shell Shaker won the American Book Award from
the Before Columbus Foundation in 2002, and as a finalist
for the 2003 Oklahoma Book Award. In 2004, Equinoxes
Rouges, the French translation of her novel, was the finalist
for one of France’s top literary awards, the Prix Medici
Etranger. Her collection of poetry, Evidence of Red won the
2006 Oklahoma Book Award. Her next novel, Miko Kings
(forthcoming from Aunt Lute Press) is an Indian baseball
novel set in Ada, Oklahoma in 1903 and 1969. Howe is also the screenwriter and on-camera narrator
for the 90-minute PBS documentary Indian Country
Diaries: Spiral of Fire, which first aired nationally on PBS
in November 2006. It takes Howe to the North Carolina
homelands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to discover
how their fusion of tourism, community, and cultural
preservation is the key to the tribe’s health in the 21st
century. She is currently writing and co-producing a film
entitled Playing Pastime: American Indian Fast-pitch Softball,
and Survival with James Fortier, an Emmy award winning
Ojibwe filmmaker. The film examines the rise of fastpitch
softball in Oklahoma, explores the evolution of ball
games from Southeastern sports traditions, and dares to
ask the question: “Did Indians invent baseball?”
Professor Howe, who is currently the 2006-2007 John
and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University
of Mississippi in Oxford, draws upon Choctaw cultural
traditions, knowledges, and historical memories to narrate
and explore the centrality of Choctaw women as agents of
resistance, innovation, and survival.
Debbie Reese, an enrolled member of
Nambé Pueblo in New Mexico, has been
a resident of Urbana for 13 years, and
was the first faculty member to be hired
into the American Indian Studies Program
at UIUC in 2003. Her untiring
commitment was instrumental in making
the Native American House and American
Indian Studies Program a reality on the UIUC campus.
Her research focuses on the widespread (mis) representations
of Native Americans in children’s and young adult literature,
textbooks, curricular materials, and other forms of
media used in the classroom. Her Internet resource
disseminates valuable information on these topics for
teachers, parents and librarians. She is currently writing a
book, Indians as Artifacts: How Images of Indians are used
to Nationalize America’s Youth. An award-winning teacher,
Dr. Reese offers courses on the Politics of Children’s Literature,
and the History of American Indian Education, as well
as courses in American Indian Studies.
Jodi Byrd is an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw
Nation of Oklahoma and Assistant Professor of American
Indian Studies and English. Prior to joining the UIUC faculty,
Dr. Byrd was an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics
within the Political Science Department at the University
of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her work seeks to understand
the legacies of colonialism and genocide on the North
American continent by foregrounding Chickasaw and
Southeastern Indian interpretations of history and oppression.
She teaches courses on Federal Indian policy, Indigenous
literatures, and Indigenous governance.
2006–7 Post Doctoral Fellows Kim Furamoto (Yakima)
and Katrina Ackley (Oneida/Chippewa) have also
enriched our community. Dr. Furumoto received her PhD
in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry in the College of
Law, Arizona State University and is currently working on
a book manuscript, Racial Juris-Fiction: Federal Indian
Law from the Discovery Doctrine to Allotment. Reading law
as literary text, this interdisciplinary project traces the
racial-colonial conceptions of Indians in U.S legal discourses,
drawing upon critical race theory and studies of
colonialism in various global contexts.
Dr. Ackley, a faculty member at Evergreen State College,
Washington State, holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from
SUNY Buffalo, and an MA in American Indian Studies
from the University of Arizona. Her research centers on
discourses of unity surrounding the Oneida land claim in
her home community of Oneida, Wisconsin.
We also acknowledge the multiple contributions to our
community made by Assistant Director of Native Ameerican
House, Molly Springer. Molly’s energy and dedication in
building support services and cultural programming has
provided a welcoming space and important resources for
American Indian students on campus during these difficult
and hostile times.
The Native American House and American Indian
Studies Program (NAH/AIS) has also brought distinguished
Indigenous women to campus from fields such as
politics, music, poetry, and theater, as well as scholars of
Indigenous feminisms, histories and anthropologies. For
example, in Spring 2004, we were honored to welcome
Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be serve Principle
Chief of the Cherokee Nation from (1987–1995.) Ms.
Mankiller was part of the political resistance that led the
American Indian Movement during the 1960’s, with firsthand
knowledge of events such the occupation of Alcatraz
Island and the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” at a time when
women’s voices were being silenced, even by Indian men.
The community has also benefitted from the presence of
poet and musician Joy Harjo, and the inspiring Native
Women’s theater group, Turtle Gals. Cultural anthropologist
Bea Medicine honored us as our Elder/Scholar-in Residence
in 2005, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Andrea
Smith convened a groundbreaking Native Feminisms
Conference in Spring 2006. This spring we look forward
to our 2007 Artist-in-Residence, Teri Greeves. Known for
her award-winning beadwork, Ms. Greeves’ refined use of
traditional materials and techniques combined with the
influence of contemporary culture make her work exceptional,
as she combines the past and present to express
Native experiences in modern American society.
These strong, talented Native women of NAH/AIS are
committed to the recovery of Indigenous community and
presence, constituting a spiral that moves out from the
center to where we hope things will go toward indigenizing
the academy and decolonizing Native peoples and
nations. We invite Public i readers to stop by NAH and
learn more. For more information on programs and activities,
please see or send e-mail to

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