Bad Land Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction


Using a Pastoral Lens to examine ten fictional narratives that chronicle the dialogue between human culture and nonhuman nature on the Great Plains, Matthew Cella explores literary treatments of a succession of abrupt cultural transitions from the Euroamerican conquest of the "Indian wilderness" in the nineteenth century to the Buffalo Commons phenomenon in the twentieth. By charting the shifting meaning of land use and biocultural change in the region, he posits this bad land-the arid West-as a crucible for the ...

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Using a Pastoral Lens to examine ten fictional narratives that chronicle the dialogue between human culture and nonhuman nature on the Great Plains, Matthew Cella explores literary treatments of a succession of abrupt cultural transitions from the Euroamerican conquest of the "Indian wilderness" in the nineteenth century to the Buffalo Commons phenomenon in the twentieth. By charting the shifting meaning of land use and biocultural change in the region, he posits this bad land-the arid West-as a crucible for the development of the human imagination.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587299070
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2010
  • Series: American Land & Life
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 254
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Cella is a visiting assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He has been both managing editor and book review editor for MELUS, the journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States.

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Bad Land Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction

By Matthew J. C. Cella


Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-907-0

Chapter One

(Un)settling the Indian Wilderness Tribal Pastoralism in Cooper's The Prairie and Welch's Fools Crow

These great steppes seem only fitted for the haunts of the mustang, the buffalo, the antelope, and their migratory lord, the prairie Indian. —Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, 1844

The Plains Frontier and the Indian Wilderness

AS A PERIOD OF SIGNIFICANT TRANSITION AND TRANSFORMATION ON THE Great Plains, the Euroamerican conquest of tribal lands in the West provides a logical starting point from which to begin a discussion concerning the discursive power of bad land pastoralism. An examination of frontier contact from a land-use perspective illustrates the ways in which pastoralism may be employed to make sense of the cultural and ecological consequences of the major biocultural shift precipitated by the arrival of Euroamerican civilization. To uncover the literary-pastoralist response to this historic shift, I examine two historical romances of the "Indian wilderness" that approach the Plains frontier from divergent cultural and temporal perspectives: James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827) and James Welch's Fools Crow (1986). The points of divergence between these two novels are difficult to ignore, particularly as Welch is responding to and countering the tradition of the American frontier romance spearheaded by Cooper. Furthermore, each is writing from a distinct cultural moment that determines his perspective on Plains frontier history. Cooper published The Prairie, his third installment of the Leatherstocking series, at a time when the future of the Great Plains and its indigenous inhabitants was still uncertain and when the "Indian question" was a source of public debate. Welch writes from a more distant vantage point temporally, which allows him to assess the implications of the Euroamerican conquest of the Indian wilderness. In addition, the two novels chronicle separate moments in the history of the Plains frontier: Cooper's romance is set in the years following the Louisiana Purchase and thus examines Euroamerican settlement in its nascent stages; Welch dramatizes the events leading up to the Marias Massacre of 1870 on the Montana plains in the waning decades of what are generally called the Plains Indian Wars.

While it is necessary to be mindful of these divergences, I want to foreground the more provocative convergences between these two narratives of the Indian wilderness. As writers who respond to essentially the same event—the Euroamerican encroachment upon and appropriation of Native lands in the arid West—Cooper and Welch attempt to reconcile the tragic consequences of unsettling the Indian wilderness. Both romances posit what may be thought of as a Native-centered pastoralism, which presents the hunting grounds of the various nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of the Great Plains as a biocultural ideal that is disrupted by the invasive advance of Euroamerican plow culture.

These authors' invocation of tribal pastoral discourse effectively confronts the two main Euroamerican assumptions about the arid wilderness that dominated nineteenth-century debate about the region's potential: first, that the arid West was inferior to the moister environs east of the Mississippi and could therefore not support civilization, and second, that the presence of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in the area offered further proof that the region was uninhabitable by Euroamerican standards. The passage from Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies (1844) quoted in the epigraph succinctly addresses the consequence of this prejudice against the bad lands: the Plains are destined to remain an Indian wilderness, inhabited by wild beasts and the wilder men who hunt them. Such a prejudice relies on an ideological position grounded in conventional frontier rhetoric that devalues Native land-use practices in the West. Unlike grain agriculture or manufacturing, which presumably improve and impart value to nature, Native hunting practices were perceived as more primitive. The indigenous population of the arid wilderness was thus conceived as part and parcel of that wilderness; when land-hungry Euroamerican settlers began to covet these lands following the Civil War, it was the Plains Indians who had to be cleared to make room for farms and towns, just as the forests had to be cleared in the East. Only then could the Great American Desert be redeemed from its savage condition to make room for progress and the growth of the American nation.

Tribal pastoralism works against this ethnocentric perspective by illustrating how land-use practices on the pre-agricultural Plains—practices that evolved through an ongoing interaction between discrete tribal communities and particular environments—were not only viable but capable of sustaining families and communities. The so-called bad lands did indeed support a wide array of continually evolving tribal communities for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The bison-hunting tribes of the West—Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Hidatsas, Mandans, Crows, Sioux, Arapahos, Kiowa, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Pawnees—encompass what James Wilson refers to as "classic" Plains culture, the manifestation of Native American adjustment to Plains space that reached its height at the time of increased contact with white civilization. As Wilson notes, this classic Plains culture was a relatively recent development, one which evolved when the horse was introduced in the North American grasslands by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. While the tribes of the arid West were already nomadic hunters, presumably abandoning agriculture because of the difficult climactic conditions, the "equestrian revolution" led to something of a cultural renaissance among the Plains Indians. Wilson explains: "A previously almost uninhabitable area suddenly offered an accessible, dependable, and—with an estimated total of sixty million or so bison—apparently boundless food supply.... At the same time—in an interesting reversal of the supposed direction of social development —many of the farming peoples on the eastern fringes abandoned their fields and villages and took to hunting full-time" (252–53).

The classic Plains culture, then, grew out of a dynamic process of adaptation to the environment of the Plains. With spiritual, cultural, and economic customs that centered on the buffalo hunt, the indigenous communities of the Plains employed a fully developed and multidimensional system of landuse practices. This system fit well with the arid region, as the population explosion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century suggests. Indeed, based on a paradigm of motion, the nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures of the Plains were well suited for the bioregion. In his extensive examination of the history, biology, and politics of the Great Plains, Richard Manning asserts that motion is the defining characteristic of the physical environment of the Plains: "Always there is motion, retreat and advance. The record is clear: What endures on the grassland is motion. In the long view, in the short view, on micro and macro site, the grassland is a place of motion" (47). Thus, it is not difficult to imagine why the horse-based cultures of the Plains succeeded so well before the arrival of the Euroamerican settlers who, unlike their Spanish predecessors, brought with them a settler-and woodlands-based paradigm that disturbed the indigenous culture of motion by forcing the Native populations to vanish or stay put on reservations.

Cooper and Welch commemorate the multidimensional nature of hunting as a land-use practice in the arid West and portray the tribally controlled hunting grounds as a fleeting pastoral ideal that was disrupted by the arrival and imposition of Euroamerican plow culture. Their romances thus resist the discourse of removal, which furnished legal and institutional support for the eventual conquest of the Indian wilderness on the premise that land belonged to those who would use it best. As Stuart Banner has shown, U.S. removal and reservation policies offered the same solution to the Indian question. Necessitated by an insatiable demand for land, the removal of eastern tribes to the sparsely populated West in the 1830s and the later confinement of all tribes to federally designated reservations were policies rooted in the myth of social progress and the related need "to clear Indians off white emigration routes" (230). These policies put into action what was an already perceived moral superiority over the indigenous population. From this moral viewpoint, the westward-advancing frontier, in all of its stages, was a progressive and cleansing phenomenon that replaced the silence of the primitive void with the noise and industry of Euroamerican civilization.

By demonstrating how the presumably empty grasslands were in fact already domesticated and in use by Native peoples, tribal pastoralism provides an important reminder of how the frontier moved across "contested terrain." In pointing to the ways that Cooper's and Welch's tribal pastorals overlap, I illustrate how they together navigate the complex cultural and ecological struggle at the core of Plains frontier experience. My purpose in locating moments of convergence between writers who might otherwise be considered antithetical is twofold. First, in sketching out the parameters of tribal pastoralism as defined and exhibited in their romances, I examine an important manifestation of bad land pastoralism, one that responds to and tries to make sense of a changing/changed biocultural landscape. Second, it seems to me valuable to place Cooper and Welch, as respondents to the same general phenomenon, with all of its racial and ecological consequences, into dialogue and to highlight both what separates them and what brings them together. Cooper's ambivalent contribution to American environmental thought and his questionable portrayal of Native peoples have received much critical attention, which I believe can and should be extended through the kind of approach I am taking here. To trace lines of comparison between Cooper and a more contemporary historical romancer like Welch suggests a level of continuity within the process of biocultural landscape formation that involves a constant rehearsal, from a variety of perspectives, of what it means to inhabit a particular landscape. If, as I will illustrate, Welch "corrects" much of what Cooper imagines about Plains Indian life, he also builds on textual ground charted by his predecessor. For both writers, this tribal pastoralism is embedded within a Native-centered historical romance that employs the epic pattern of the Waverley model in order to emphasize the heroic quality of Native communities on the Plains.

The Indian Historical Romance and Tribal Pastoralism

The dramatic change to the Plains biocultural landscape wrought by Euroamerican appropriation of the buffalo hunting grounds is an apt subject for the historical romance, which focuses on the contest between what George Dekker terms "the principles of progress and reaction" (36). Building on work done by Georg Lukács and Harry Shaw, Dekker locates in the Romantic Revival an attitude toward the past that would ultimately find its expression in prose-fictional form in Walter Scott's Waverley novels. The specific conflict in Waverley between the Stuart revolutionaries (with the "primitive" Highlanders as the most radical) and the Hanover successors is readily adaptable to address a myriad of cultural conflicts because at its core it dramatizes the more general conflict between social groups: one seemingly rooted in the past (the party of "reaction") and the other with an eye toward the future (the party of "progress"). As the former declines, the latter advances, often appropriating the best cultural practices and spiritual principles of the group it is replacing. As Dekker notes, "working within the established political framework, the parties of progress and reaction struggle with each other to achieve, all unintentionally, a dynamic and life-sustaining equilibrium" (35). This balance is often achieved by a middling hero like Cooper's Natty Bumppo, who mediates between the old and new. This wavering hero finds himself at the nexus of a dramatic historical moment where passing and loss coincide with emergence and conquest. The temporal setting of historical romances in the Waverley tradition, then, fluctuates around what Dekker refers to as "poignant transitional moments" (44). It is in such moments of revolution and radical change that the principles of reaction and progress are juxtaposed in such a way as to highlight the symbolic significance of the conflict. Specific historical moments thus take on broader meaning as local manifestations of archetypal patterns.

The sometimes harmonious, sometimes confrontational interaction of the parties of reaction and progress during these dramatic moments of historical change thus engenders a set of polar oppositions, including nature/ artifice, individual/community, light/dark, good/evil, and so on. This series of interrelated binaries, which can certainly be extended with any number of additional binaries, represents what is at stake and what is exchanged when the old and new collide. The historical romance dramatizes this exchange by chronicling the coming together of the otherwise divergent societies that encompass the cited polarities. It also makes possible the investigation, through narrative, of the effects of this confluence on representative individuals. Lukács puts it this way: "What matters therefore in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events" (42).

Situated within an American context, the contest between binary forces is easily fit into the myth of the frontier where the progressive force of the ever-expanding Euroamerican civilization comes into conflict with the re actionary force of Native savagery, which fights to maintain its integrity. This is evident throughout Cooper's Leatherstocking novels where the author laments the retreat and disappearance of the American Indian before the powerful forces of American progress. As the ambivalence of a frontier narrative like The Prairie demonstrates, the supposed purity of the conflicting parties is troubled by the murkiness of the middle ground where the two parties mutually influence one another. As the middling hero, Natty embodies this process of exchange to emerge as a cultural hybrid who elicits sympathy toward the fallen noble savage even as he retains his faith in the value of the advancing civilization; as he dies defiantly facing west into the "American sunset," the novel forewarns the eventual erasure of much of what the Leatherstocking stood for (452).

That Natty, like his Indian companions, must retreat before the overwhelming force of progress illustrates the generally nostalgic tone of most historical romances. As Dekker notes, the masterpieces of the genre are "commonly skeptical about the blessings of progress" and often offer "fictional treatments of the losing sides" (42, 38). The ideal societies are therefore fleeting and typically live on only in spirit as the New World replaces the Old and the past blends into the future. This is to say that the victory of the new over the old is never a complete one, nor are the values inherent in the conquered society erased forever. Indeed, what David Mogen calls the "frontier archetype," while largely employed by those in service of the historical victors, possesses a useful flexibility: it can as effectively measure the legacy of loss as it can calculate the gains of conquest implicit in any historical conflict.

Welch is particularly instructive here. To negotiate the meaning of the heavy losses inflicted upon Native Americans during the Euroamerican conquest of the West, Welch regionalizes elements of the Waverley model in order to present a Native-centered perspective on the historic and mythological frontier. What he achieves by doing so is a critique of the dominant cultural narrative that celebrates the westward march of Euroamerican civilization. In conventional historical romances, the vanishing Native Americans are certainly treated with nostalgic sympathy, but are often relegated to the static role of tragic victims. While Fools Crow is undeniably a portrait of the losing side in the clash between the Plains Indians and the Euroamericans, it is far from being a nostalgic novel. Welch portrays a community that was historically on the losing side, but he does not present them as victims of progress, as a conventional romance might; in this way, he breaks down and renders obsolete the primitive/advanced dichotomy. He revises what it means to be victorious and creates a tragicomic hero, Fools Crow, who is triumphant in defeat and therefore works against the essentialist implications of the frontier archetype/Waverley model that problematically insists that as one nation rises, another must fall.


Excerpted from Bad Land Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction by Matthew J. C. Cella Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Wayne Franklin ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Biocultural Change and Literary Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction 1

1 (UN)Settling the Indian Wilderness: Tribal Pastoralism in Cooper's The Prairie and Welch's Fools Crow 15

2 Pastoralism and Enclosure: Marriage and Illegitimate Children on the Range-Farm Frontier in Eaton's Cattle and Richter's Sea of Grass 55

3 Harmonious Fields and Wild Prairies: Transcendental Pastoralism in Willa Cather's Nebraska Novels 99

4 Patches of Green and Fields of Dust: Dust Bowl Pastoralism in Olsen's Yonnondio and Manfred's The Golden Bowl 135

5 Healing the Wounds of History: Buffalo Commons Pastoralism in Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole and King's Truth and Bright Water 171

Epilogue: Pastoral Art and the Beautiful 199

Notes 203

Bibliography 215

Index 227

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