Storytelling Central to Separate, Related Lives
"My friendship with her brought me face to face with my own ignorance of Native American culture and history," Brown said. "I knew about Manifest Destiny...but I had no idea...I realized I existed in total erasure."
The native Texan also realized she was teaching in a state with 13 Indian tribes, seven reservations and plenty of racism toward the state's minority population.
"I had been raised to not find difference fearful," Brown said. She wanted to address the prejudices of her students head-on, and what better way, thought the English teacher, than through literature. But this was 1978 and, with just a few exceptions, "there was no published voice" for Native Americans, Brown discovered.
The story explores young adulthood through the eyes of a mixed blood living on the Montana frontier. Its author was Mourning Dove, a woman of Colville, Okanogan and Irish descent born near the close of the 19th-century. She grew up on Washington's Colville reservation and spent her adult years in various parts of Washington, Montana, Oregon, Alberta and British Columbia.
Mourning Dove experienced firsthand the federal policy of assimilation--dislocation, forced white schooling, punishment for speaking a native language-- that created a split cultural consciousness for Indian people.
But in what Brown sees as an extraordinary act of resilience, Mourning Dove used her white education to explore the pressures of assimilation as well as to record the stories of her people, stories she knew would disappear along with the oral traditions of her tribe.
Mourning Dove eventually met Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, a Caucasian editor nearly twice her age, who at the time of their meeting was transcribing Yakima legends. The two began a 19-year collaboration aimed at getting Mourning Dove's stories published. Brown spent years studying their correspondence, now in the archival collection at Washington State University in Pullman.
She learned that McWhorter, although well-intended, made mistakes. He brokered some bad deals. He trusted the wrong people. And he altered some of Mourning Dove's passages to fit his own cultural and social agendas.
This tension between the author and her collaborator shouted at Brown as she read the splintered text of Cogewea, republished so many years later.
"I was horrified at what McWhorter had done," Brown growled. "I saw him as a guilty party. I taught him as an example of how a patriarchal author overwrote the voice of a Native American and of a woman, so his violation was two-fold."
She paused for emphasis. "I had him nailed."