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Before the West was called "The West:' it was called either "home" or "el norte" by Indian and Spanish colonial women. Beginning in the 1840s, "free land" and the prospect of gold brought massive Anglo-American settlement into the region. But before that happened, Native American and Spanish-American women had already begun to tell their own stories of the West as home. Writings by these women before the 1840s often take the form of origin stories, a tradition of Western American writing which continues today.
Western origin stories take several forms. Some are stories of having been created in the West, or tell of emerging from another world. Many Native American peoples who live today in the West carry with them oral traditions of creation. The Navaho, for example, tell of being led to this world from another world below it by Grandmother Spiderwoman. The Caddo tell of being saved from a great flood by a giant turtle who carried them to this world on its back. The Ute tell of the first man, formed from a clot of blood by the playful kicks of a rabbit. The Modoc tell of being brought in a basket out of the underworld by an old spirit and his daughter who missed seeing the sun. The Maidu tell of Earth-Maker, who descended from the sky on a rope to create the people. The Arapaho tell of Whirlwind Woman who created the earth from a ball of mud. Like all oral traditions, they have changed subtly over the years of their telling, like the banks of a long-running river. The twentieth-century anthropological collection of these stories, and their retelling by contemporary Native American writers, provide glimpses of the stories that came before. The origin stories carriedforward by Native American women writers writing today preserve oral traditions even while they are new creations, as much products of the times in which they are written as the literary traditions they recreate.
The commonly-known story of the overland journey from the eastern United States is familiar to most readers. Less familiar are stories of Spanish settlement in the West. Long before the Mayflower's first landfall, Spanish settlers from New Spain expanded their colony north into what is today Utah, Nevada, Texas, California, and Colorado. By the 1600s, New Spain was the center of a booming and culturally rich settlement which stretched from the Philippines to the Caribbean, and from Panama north into the Rocky Mountains. From its capital in Mexico City, settlers from New Spain fanned out into the region to establish churches, schools, and cities. While the Puritans struggled through their first winters at Plymouth, Spanish settlers, maintained large permanent settlements in the American Southwestincluding Santa Fe, in today's New Mexico, and the booming Pacific coast settlements of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco in California. For many of, the Spanish (and later Mexican) women who wrote about their lives in this early period, the West was home. Their writing reflects their sense of belonging to this new land, and of their fears at its being taken away from them.