Shire on Dean, 'Unconventional Politics: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers and U.S. Indian Policy'

Janet Dean
Laurel C. Shire

Janet Dean. Unconventional Politics: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers and U.S. Indian Policy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 270 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-203-4.

Reviewed by Laurel C. Shire (Western University) Published on H-AmIndian (August, 2017) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe

Writer-Activists Who Mastered Sentimental Tools

In 1983 poet and essayist Audre Lorde published “‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,’” a now famous call for (white) feminists to confront racism and homophobia. Broadly, Lorde urged her audience to invent new tools for social and cultural criticism: “What does it mean,” she queried, “when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Alas, she concluded, “[i]t means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”[1] I was often reminded of Lorde’s essay while reading Janet Dean’s Unconventional Politics. Dean suggests that some women writers did use the master’s tools in the nineteenth century to raise important critiques of US Indian policy. The tools in this case were mainstream literary forms including Indian lament poetry, captivity narratives, sentimental assimilationist novels, and commercial magazines. She cautions, echoing Lorde, that those critiques were constrained by racism, gender norms, and sentimental literary forms. It is important to recognize that (with varying degrees of success) some women writers managed to assert politically relevant and timely protests against US Indian policy. They did so, however, in the narrowest of gaps between sentimental culture and a thoroughly sexist and racist American society. 

As Audre Lorde would have predicted, Dean finds that Native American women writers launched more direct critiques than did their white counterparts, whose uninterrogated racial assumptions often diminished the efficacy of their sympathy for Native peoples. The two white writers she analyzes, Sarah Wakefield and Lydia Sigourney, used sentiment to encourage white readers to consider the injustice of US Indian policy, a strategy that cast Indians as victims and whites as potential saviors. Native writers S. Alice Callahan (Muscogee/Creek) and Ora Eddleman (Cherokee) articulated more thorough critiques of white racism and sentimentalism, and could therefore disrupt some of those racial assumptions that Wakefield and Sigourney could not overcome. All four of the writers strained against the social and literary norms that muffled and warped their messages. None could dismantle the political, economic, and cultural structures arrayed against Native American rights in nineteenth-century North America.

In her introduction, Dean lays out her argument, which unfolds on two horizons: one of them political and the other literary. How, she asks, did the unconventional politics (their clear-eyed assessment of unjust US Indian policies) of Sarah Wakefield, Lydia Sigourney, Alice Callahan, and Ora Eddleman, inform their writing? She finds that each “writer-activist” found ways to counter popular ideas about white racial superiority, Native backwardness, and the inevitability of assimilation or extinction. A second question concerns the extent to which their politics against Indian oppression transformed the literary forms they used. While most nineteenth-century sentimental literature insisted on “consensus and compliance” and therefore “did not easily accommodate political outrage,” women invested in the major reforms of the period often used writing as a political platform to champion causes such as women’s rights, abolition, and justice for indigenous peoples (p. 1). Dean argues that rather than seeing these literary forms as inherently conservative, we ought to recognize that “protest exists in print culture across a broad spectrum of expressive possibilities” (p. 4). Rather than emphasizing the ways that literary forms and social norms limited these writer-activists, Dean focuses on the ways they might surprise us; how each stretched literary forms and pushed within and against the expectations of their times. This approach is more satisfying with some authors (Sigourney) than with others (Wakefield), but her consistency makes all four chapters fit nicely together.

Dean’s arguments are informed by a lively combination of cultural theorists and literary scholars, from Walter Benjamin and James Baldwin to Homi Bhabha, Michael Warner, Nancy Fraser, and Lauren Berlant. Dean uses these ideas pertinently, precisely, and sparingly, and with very few exceptions the text is readable and clear. While the authors she analyzes here are all women, the study does not take up questions of gender extensively, except where that is relevant to the sentimental literary norms of the day.

In each of her four chapters, Dean delves into the ways each writer produced critical visions of US/Indian relations, and explores how each writer-activist’s chosen form shaped that protest, as well as how the writer herself reversed some literary conventions. Wakefield, for example, insisted that she had never been raped nor witnessed any Native American man abuse any white captive, a direct contravention of the “nameless outrages” enumerated in other captivity narratives of the time. As an antithesis to the popular captivity genre, it was ignored and silenced, but Dean reminds us that it remains an important text for what it reveals about its milieu, even if it did not have the effect Wakefield desired. Perhaps because Wakefield was so unsuccessful (Chaska, her benevolent captor, was killed in a mass execution carried out by US authorities), this chapter is the least satisfying of the four.

Lydia Sigourney used the Indian Lament, a form of sentimental poetry that dramatized the end of each “vanishing race.” Dean argues (following Lauren Berlant) that Sigourney fashioned “countersentimental” verses that placed the blame for Native sorrow squarely at the feet of whites, immanently critiquing the genre. Dean’s analysis unfolds nicely in this chapter, as she reveals how “the counterfeit nature of white sympathy haunts the scene of removal” in Sigourney’s poems which “indict[ed] middle-class sentimentality as the accomplice of settler colonialism and ruthless expansion” (pp. 97, 111). Both Wakefield and Sigourney were at times just as racist as their contemporaries, an ambivalence that marks their protests as simultaneously accommodationist and subversive (p. 96).

In the final two chapters, Dean takes up the work of Native American women writer-activists who used sentimental cultural forms for effective political protest. S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1891), appears to be a typical didactic assimilation romance novel aimed at teaching young Indian girls the virtues of white ways. Reading it against another popular assimilationist romance novel, however, Dean makes clear that Callahan used it to teach whites the errors of their own ways of thinking, feeling, and reading about Indians. Dean argues that Callahan’s novel offered both white and Native female readers an opportunity to rethink the their own assumptions about the stock characters in these stories: the white teacher and the white male love interest both confront their own racism when they meet “real Indians” for the first time. The Native protagonist is humanized by her position, caught between the pull of assimilation and pride in her indigenous heritage.

Ora Eddleman’s Twin Territories: The Indian Magazine was a mass-circulated commercial magazine “published for the Indians of the Indian territory and Oklahoma.” Dean reveals, however, that Eddleman’s magazine also had a white readership, who wrote letters to the editor and received blunt reprimands for their ignorance and racism. At the same time, Ora Eddleman is precisely the kind of ambivalent postcolonial subject that Homi Bhabha predicts: she is both pro-assimilation and defiantly proud of her Cherokee identity. Even as she advocated for “progress” she also castigated white publications for trading in Indian stereotypes and used her own magazine to counter them, asserting her own authority as she did so. A magazine, Dean notes, is the perfect venue in which to represent the ongoing debates about allotment, assimilation, and Native identity, as competing opinions could appear in its pages without requiring any resolution. Dean is at her analytical best once again in this chapter when she reads the visual arguments Eddleman made using studio portraits of young Native American women. Juxtaposed against popular images of Indians posed in “natural” settings in full exotic dress, the head shots of middle-class young ladies in full Victorian splendor that Eddleman titled “Types of Indian Girls” illustrated that one could be both Indian and modern, both Native and respectable, both indigenous and wealthy. In those photos, it was not their difference on display, but their singular humanity, established in white cultural terms.

Her choice of writers makes these compelling comparisons possible, but it also raises important questions. Should Native authors be compared to white ones, or should we judge them by criteria that are more culturally relevant? Dean calls on indigenous scholars such as Craig Womack, Robert Warrior, Lisa Brooks, and Simon J. Ortiz to explore and defend her choice to compare the works of white and Native women writers and the choice to measure their success in literary and political terms drawn from the dominant, white, American culture. She recognizes the fraught politics of these choices, but argues for a nuanced, anti-essentialist postcolonial critique that can capture how Native women writers might “indigenize” European literary forms, as well as how white women used sentiment to question Indian Removal even as their sympathy reinforced white racial superiority.

In making this argument, Dean reinforces an argument made by scholars of Native rhetorical studies, such as Ernest Stromberg. They note that Indians often applied white rhetorical strategies to combat anti-Indian attitudes and policies. In doing so, they established their equal humanity with whites, encouraged whites to identify with Indians, and challenged “savage” stereotypes.[2] In Unconventional Politics Dean shows that Native women writers understood the cultural and social power of sympathy and of literary form, and used both to offer Americans alternative views of white/indigenous relations. That their words did not always persuade those in power, or result in the justice they sought, should not preclude us from appreciating their strategic attempts to intervene, especially during a time in which women and Native Americans had no formal citizenship and very narrow access to political debate.

Dean ends with an inspiring epilogue about the ways that Native women writers continue to use print (and online media) forms to disrupt stereotypes of Indians and, at the same time, to indigenize and change popular literary forms. Dean’s reading of Arigon Starr’s Super Indian comic books brings her arguments nicely into the present, and left me wanting to read more. This is a highly readable book that makes engaging analytical insights. Readers in literary, American, Native, and women’s studies should read it, and the chapters would pair nicely with primary literary sources in an undergraduate course.


[1]. In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table, 1983), 94-101.

[2]. Stromberg, American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance: Word Medicine, Word Magic (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 1-14).

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Citation: Laurel C. Shire. Review of Dean, Janet, Unconventional Politics: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers and U.S. Indian Policy. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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