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Winnemem Wintu Geographies and Lyric Modernity

The beginning stanzas of Winnemem Wintu journalist and poet Alfred C. Gillis’s “To the Wenem Mame River” have many of the conventional features of a romantic lyric. A solitary, wandering speaker walks along the banks of a river and lyricizes the natural landscape around her. The speaker hears the “river’s roar” and watches its “raging waters plunge and sleep.”[1] She surveys the land’s “ancient mountains” as they rise and “point their columns to the skies” (“To the Wenem Mame River”). In its conventionality, “To the Wenem Mame River” resembles many other lyric poems about rivers and certainly draws on a long Anglo-American tradition of river odes.[2] However, the Wenem Mame river (Winnemem) and the ancient mountains in Gillis’s poems are not simply elements of a pastoral landscape staged for the romantic contemplation of a lyric speaker. These geographic features make up the sacred geographies and “place-worlds” that are central to Wintu peoples and the basis for their sovereignty.[3] Frank LaPena (Nomtipom Wintu) states that “these localities are not discrete elements or cultural sherds. They are combined and bonded into cultural domains and sacred realms which provide essential meaning to life.”[4] These geographies, and the Wintu geographic knowledges that underpin them, need to be accounted for when we read Gillis’s lyric poems. Indeed, Craig Womack (Muscogee Creek-Cherokee) argues for developing a literary criticism that considers Native literatures as expressions by which Native peoples insert their own facts about history and that takes seriously Native ways of knowing and storytelling practices. Doing so, he argues, emphasizes the adaptive and dynamic ways Native peoples take up literary forms like the lyric to resist the predations of empire, confront white supremacy, and discuss Native sovereignty in the midst of settler colonialism.[5]

This brief article takes up Womack’s approach by reading Gillis’s conventional lyric poems within a framework of Winnemem Wintu storytelling practices that continue into the present. To accomplish this, I move between the poems that Gillis published in the California Indian Herald from 1923 to 1924 and the geospatial narratives of the present-day Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s annual Run4Salmon event in order to emphasize Winnemem Wintu-specific temporalities that disrupt and exceed a progressive “settler time” or “colonial time” that positions Indigenous expressions only in relation to the past. In doing so, I also challenge literary periodizations that position Native literatures with romantic and conventional features against conceptualizations of modernism and modernity. Moreover, I not only show what Native and Indigenous critical approaches have to offer for conceptualizing modernism and Native literatures together, but also—and perhaps most importantly—consider what modernism and modernity as an analytic framework have to offer for conceptualizing an Indigenous modernism. I argue that tracing the contexts and ways in which Gillis takes up the conventional lyric form to explore changes in Wintu place-based knowledges provides a model for developing a notion of Indigenous modernism(s).

In many ways, Gillis’s use of the lyric is an example of how early twentieth-century Native literatures use romantic and sentimental forms to explore changes in Native sovereignty, ceremony, and self-representation that were inaugurated by the reservation, boarding school, and allotment eras. Many of these Indigenous “romancers” published “Indian” poetry and song, folklore, and autobiography that carefully navigate American literary modernism’s fascination with Indianness and popular expectations of authenticity (whether in terms of modernist primitivism or in terms of the tragically romantic figure of the “vanishing Indian”). For instance, although John Milton Oskison’s (Cherokee) Black Jack Davy (1926) has many of the conventional features of a frontier romance, put into the context of the long history of Cherokee constitutionalism, these become important means to articulate Cherokee nationhood and sovereignty at a time when the Cherokee Nation’s government had been disestablished through allotment.[6] Mourning Dove’s (Okanogan and Arrow Lakes) Cogewea, The Half-Blood (1927) experiments with the romantic conventions and settings of a Western to bring back into the social present the past politics of reservation life and the importance of ceremony to contemporary Salish peoples.[7] Pauline Johnson (Mohawk) played on audience expectations that positioned romantic Indianness against modernity through “costume switching” in her poetry performances. She would perform her “Indian” poems in plains tribal regalia and then switch into cosmopolitan clothing for her more “contemporary” poems. She would also invert the order of performance and clothing, wearing regalia for her more “modern” poems and vice versa to subvert audience preconceptions about the sentimental figure of the “Indian woman” and authentic Native performance and appearance.[8] Taking care to navigate popular expectations of authenticity and primitivism and to avoid reproducing racist or stereotypical assumptions, these Indigenous authors express their own perspectives on racial identity and anti-Indian racism, blood quantum, boarding schools, and Native self-determination in and through conventionally romantic and sentimental forms.[9] I suggest that Alfred Gillis also participates in what we might call an Indigenous modernist tradition by taking advantage of popular expectations of lyric reading and the lyric’s capacity to render multiple geospatial and temporal frames in order to explore changes to Winnemem Wintu place-based knowledges, geographies, and storytelling practices. Through his lyric poems, Gillis navigates the shifting relationship that Winnemem Wintu and California Native peoples have had with their lands amid pressures of land dispossession, geographic displacement, and Progressive Era assimilationism.

Wintu Geographies and the California Indian Herald

From 1923 to 1924, Alfred Gillis published “To the Wenem Mame River” and other poems in the California Indian Herald, a newspaper produced by the Indian Board of Cooperation (IBC) that circulated primarily among a readership of non-Native, white progressives. The IBC was organized in 1913 by Frederick G. Collett, a white Methodist minister, in order to support judicial and legislative efforts to establish US citizenship for California Native peoples and a venue to settle compensation claims for lands taken by state and federal governments. Many Native peoples, including those in California, were not granted full US citizenship until 1924, and California’s particular history left many without status or recourse to pursue justice for stolen land. Despite US Indian commissioners having signed treaties with several California Native tribes from 1851 to 1852, at the height of the Gold Rush, the US Senate declined to ratify the treaties and ordered an injunction of secrecy that was not lifted until 1905. By then, many tribes had already acted in good faith and moved onto reservations, not knowing that the United States refused to honor their agreements.[10] Federal refusal to ratify created ambiguous legal situations around administrative jurisdiction and status, land title rights, and compensation that would remain unsettled for decades (and beyond), much to the advantage of white settlers who squatted on Native lands.

“To the Wenem Mame River” by Alfred C. Gillis as it appeared in print.
Fig. 1. “To the Wenem Mame River” by Alfred C. Gillis as it appeared with accompanying notes in the February, 1924 edition of the California Indian Herald. Source: American Indian Periodicals, Western Americana Collection, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey.

Although IBC’s progressive objectives aimed to resolve this legal limbo, they followed the assimilationist mandates expressed by the Friends of the Indian, a group of white reformers who met annually at Lake Mohonk in upstate New York to figure out ways to civilize and assimilate “the Indian.” Their paternalistic, self-congratulatory rhetoric casts Native peoples only as victims—either of the cruelty of the US government or of their own inability to govern themselves. Under the guise of redressing the harms of federal Indian policy and uplifting “the Indian” through education, these white reformers created Indian rights organizations that advocated for assimilationist policies, including granting US citizenship and private property to individual tribal members and forcing Native children into boarding schools that suppressed Native language use and spiritual practices.[11]

In California, the Mission Indian Federation, the Indian Welfare Committee of the Federated Women’s Club, the California Indian Rights Association, and others operated alongside the IBC and advocated for Indian rights in response to federal refuse to ratify treaties with California Native tribes.[12] In particular, the IBC focused on developing educational opportunity for Native children and supported a test case in the courts that would establish US citizenship for California Native peoples. To further these efforts, the IBC established several auxiliaries among Native communities throughout California. In addition to contributing poetry and reportage to the Herald, Alfred Gillis served as IBC’s auxiliary president and Native delegate for their lobbying efforts in Washington.[13]

For these Indian rights organizations, newspapers and magazines played an important role in fundraising and building political support among non-Native, white progressive subscribers. These publications would often publish reportage, stories, essays, and poetry by Indigenous intellectuals not only to appeal to non-Native, primitivist expectations for “authentic” Indigenous voices and expressions, but also as proof of their “uplift” to settler modernity and American citizenship. Many of the poems in Robert Dale Parker’s volume of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Native poetry, Changing Is Not Vanishing, were originally published in Indian rights organization periodicals, including those by Gillis in the Herald, Payómkawichum poet Wa-Wa Chaw (Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians) in the Magazine of the Mission Indian Federation, and Zitkala-Ša (Dakota) in the American Indian Magazine.[14] Many of these poets also belonged to the Society of American Indians (who published the American Indian Magazine), an organization of so-called “Red Progressives” who advocated for improving relations between white settlers and Native peoples through progressive governmental reforms and positive self-representative in print and media.[15]

By publishing conventional lyric poems by California Native poets like Gillis, the Herald and other California Indian rights periodicals framed California Native expressions within a notion of settler modernity and national history. This notion, which these periodicals helped extend and produce, is predicated on the inevitability of white possession of California Native lands. It requires the erasure of California Native sovereignty and subsequent uplift into American citizenship, and the assimilation of California Native intellectuals into American letters. The Indian Board of Cooperation, for instance, could present Gillis’s poems to its non-Native, progressive readers as a model of successful assimilation, an example that supposedly demonstrates the possibility of a just and equitable bargain for California Native peoples: modern civilization and citizenship rights for their lands and sovereignty. In the last stanza of “To the Wenem Mame River,” the poem shifts its address and appeals directly to white settlers to guard Wintu land:

O, white man, take this land of ours,

Guard well its hills, streams and bowers,

Guard well the Mounds where Wintoons sleep,

Guard well these canyons wild and deep.

The poem appeals to white settlers not only to be good custodians of Wintu lands as part of their end of the progressive bargain but also to responsibly incorporate the place-worlds that comprise Wintu history—its hills, streams, bowers, and canyons—into an emergent geography of white possession and settlement.

At first glance, it appears as though Gillis is simply complicit in the newspaper’s assimilationist framing of an inevitable settler modernity, elegizing the loss of Winnemem Wintu land to white settlers through a conventional lyric. However, many early twentieth-century Native intellectuals were keenly aware of performing their histories before a predominantly white, non-Native audience. Many strategically positioned themselves within non-Native discourses and institutions in order to claim a place in American national consciousness and redirect those discourses and institutions toward Indigenous ends.[16] Furthermore, although many Native intellectuals during this period embraced US citizenship and notions of racial uplift as strategic paths toward justice and equality for Native peoples, they nevertheless remained critical of the settler projects of assimilation and erasure that US citizenship entails.[17]

Through the form of lyric address above, Gillis articulates the stakes of settler modernity not only in terms of the dispossession of physical territory and geography of hills, streams, and bowers but also in terms of Winnemem Wintu temporal sovereignty grounded in Wintu place-worlds. Kevin Bruyneel and Mark Rifkin both argue that time is an important site of colonization. They point out that settler colonialist narratives, including those pushed by California Indian rights organizations and their periodicals, impose settler temporal boundaries and frameworks that deny the existence of other, Indigenous temporalities. Bruyneel calls these boundaries “colonial time,” which locates colonized peoples along a temporal continuum of “advancing” people and “static” people.[18] The latter is said to be out of time, the former emerging into the shared present of settler modernity. Rifkin names this framework “settler time,” “a singular temporal formation that itself marks the sole possibility for moving toward the future.”[19] Assimilationist settler time prioritizes advancing “static” Native peoples into time itself, into history, a “modern” temporal existence shared with white settlers, while simultaneously denying and dismantling the territorial, cultural, and political bases for Indigenous temporal frames of reference. The loss of land also erodes temporal frames of reference that are grounded in the localized place-worlds of Wintu peoples. Gillis is concerned that the land’s capacity to bear stories and geographic knowledge into the future will diminish, a concern that would prove warranted two decades later in 1945 when the construction of Shasta Dam along the Sacramento River submerged much of the hills, streams, and canyons along the Winnemem.[20]

Throughout the twentieth century, hydropower development and dam construction have continually threatened and submerged Native lands and watersheds. The Flood Control Act in 1944, which would become known as the Pick-Sloane Plan, authorized the construction of dams along rivers that disproportionately impacted Native lands and communities. The resulting inundation further eroded Native land bases and geographies. Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux) notes that the inundation of Native lands brought about by the Pick-Sloane Plan “provided the physical means to terminate Indigenous nations and relocate people—a violent severing of those relations—to end the ‘Indian Problem’ once and for all.”[21] In Wind from an Enemy Sky (1988), D’Arcy McNickle (Salish Kootenai) fictionalizes the struggle over the construction of a series of dams built in the 1920s and 1930s along the Mission Mountain range that submerged sacred grounds. Using the Little Elk Indians as stand-ins for the Flathead Nation, the novel centers on the threat that dam construction and dam-lakes pose to the tribes’ sacred geographies and place-based religious practices.[22] At the dedication of the Coolidge Dam along the Gila River on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in 1930, Will Rogers (Cherokee) satirized the liberal pretense of the dam’s construction by quipping “you folks got this dam built by using the Indians as an alibi.”[23] The stated intent of the dam was to resolve water disputes between the Pima and Maricopa peoples in addition to the neighboring white settler communities, but the interests of either tribe were regarded only when they aligned with white settlers’.

The submerging of Winnemem Wintu lands not only counts as an instance of dispossession via floodwaters but also presents a crisis of representation. The submerging of Winnemem’s place-worlds threaten the knowledges and histories that are rooted in them. Seen in this context, Gillis’s last stanza is not simply an assimilationist plea to the white man; it is a cartographic sketch of the Wintu geographies vital to Wintu sovereignty and to passing down Wintu knowledges. This geospatial preoccupation has been a part of place-based Wintu narratives of survivance that endure into the present.[24]

The (Re)mappings of Run4Salmon

Since 2016, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies have organized an annual 300-mile trek called the Run4Salmon (R4S) to bring attention to federal and state policies threatening Winnemem Wintu and other California Native lands, waters, and fish. Broken up into several boating, running, horse-riding, and biking segments, the journey follows the historical run of Nur (wild chinook salmon) from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem (McCloud River) in Shasta County. Along with the Winnemem and the lands surrounding its banks, Nur are central to Winnemem Wintu sovereignty, culture, and history. They are the “keystone keepers” of their waters.[25] However, because the construction of Shasta Dam and other federal and state hydrological projects have prevented annual salmon runs, Nur have been unable to return to the Winnemem ancestral watershed.

2019 Run4Salmon participant map
Fig. 2. 2019 Run4Salmon participant map showing the different event segments that follow the historical salmon run from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Winnemem (McCloud River) in Shasta County, California. Image courtesy of Will Doolittle.

The various segments of the journey imaginatively restore the network of lands and water that have been cut up and separated by a long history of industrial agriculture, oil extraction, and hydrological projects in the region. Organized around the geographic knowledge of the Nur salmon run, R4S is itself a form of storytelling: its segments compose a particular land narrative that remaps the many place-worlds that constitute Wintu geography.[26] This remapping restores a Wintu hydrological geography organized around reciprocal relationships among Wintu peoples, Nur, the Winnemem, Mount Shasta and other geographical features of the McCloud watershed that are essential to Wintu people, culture, and sovereignty. In addition to calling attention to the long history of dispossession that the Winnemem Wintu people have endured, R4S participates in what Glen Coulthard (Yellow Knife Diné) terms “grounded normativity,” a form of Wintu geospatial storytelling that emerges from specific, place-based Wintu knowledges and geographies.[27] Coulthard argues for grounding Indigenous anticolonial and anticapitalist resistance in terms of a struggle over “the question of land” not only as territory but also as “system of reciprocal relations and obligations” that exceeds the exploitative and extractive relationship by which land is understood in a capitalist and colonialist property regime (Red Skin, 13, emphasis in original). Grounded normativity is “the modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and nonhuman others over time” (13). Through its various segments, R4S reorients the settler extractive geography of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed around the grounded norms of Winnemem Wintu place-based ways of knowing that emphasize reciprocal and ethical relationships among humans, non-humans, and other-than-humans, including the mountains and canyons of the Winnemem watershed, the river itself, and Nur.

R4S illustrates the adaptive and dynamic formal negotiations between settler and Wintu geographies that have always constituted Winnemem Wintu storytelling. Including R4S into a study of Alfred Gillis’s lyric poems underlines the multiple and plural frames of temporal reference that comprise Wintu place-worlds, that result from a connection to lands that has been built over the span of generations, and that cannot be understood only within the chronology of a shared settler modernity. It emphasizes that changes to these place-worlds profoundly shape the “felt dynamics of Native being-in-time” and that it is therefore important to orient a study in a way that registers those changes (Rifkin, Beyond, 31). Furthermore, contextualizing Gillis’s poems in relation to the Tribe’s R4S land narrative takes up Mishuana Goeman’s (Tonawanda Band of Seneca) project of tracing the (re)mappings that Native expressions perform and highlights the enduring power of Native epistemologies to define and shape contemporary moves toward spatial decolonization. She argues that although it is important that Indigenous studies scholars “recover” Native epistemologies for the benefit of Native peoples and communities, it is even more important to understand the processes and mediations that have defined and shaped them so that they can be used to sustain Native futures.[28] Understanding the specific (re)mappings that Gillis and R4S perform not only reveals how the contexts of California Indian rights print culture and California’s contemporary extractive geography have shaped and defined Winnemem Wintu place-based knowledges and geospatial practices but also makes it possible to form unexpected connections across time and form between different Wintu expressions. Furthermore, considering these remappings also helps develop a Wintu-specific notion of modernity that does not simply accede to a shared settler time but instead emphasizes Wintu futurity over extermination, an enduring presence along the Winnemem and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed over erasure and elimination, and the continuance of sovereignty over political termination.

Winnemem Wintu Lyrical Typography

If we trace the (re)mappings that Gillis’s lyric poems perform, it becomes clear that his poems are not only extensions of a longer history of geospatial Wintu storytelling practices that include contemporary land narratives like R4S, but are also geospatial iterations themselves, realized in and through lyric form, that mediate and react to an emergent settler modernity and geography. The poetics of his lyric poems ultimately emerge from changes to Wintu relationships to the land inaugurated by settler colonial forms of dispossession that continue to unfold into the present. I argue that these poetics reflect what might be called a Wintu lyric modernity. For instance, Gillis’s repeated use of the deictic “Here”—“Here ancient tribes in battle stood”; “Here Modoc and the Wintoons fell”; and “Here arrow heads lie broken round”—brings the story of an imagined battle between the Modoc and Wintu peoples along the banks of Topy Mame into the context of what Jonathan Culler calls the specific time of the lyric present that the speaker inhabits.[29] Gillis makes use of the lyric present, which he constructs through the solitary speaker figure in the first four stanzas, in order to facilitate a mode of Wintu storytelling that is reiterative and temporally bound to the present and oriented to the future. By wielding the lyric present to evoke the history of the conflict between the Modoc and the Wintu peoples, Gillis disrupts the settler time of modernity that place the history of California Native life outside of time, or only in relation to a precontact past.

Furthermore, the poem’s addresses to the land’s lilies in the third stanza do not exclusively refer to an abstract and generalized floral figure that circulates and is legible only within an Anglo-American lyric discourse. I argue that it simultaneously refers to a local and specific species of lily admired by Wintu peoples, the Den-Hu-Luly, otherwise known by its settler name as the Shasta lily, that grows in the high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Mount Shasta. Gillis published a poem lyricizing this lily in the Herald just two months prior to “To the Wenem Mame River.”[30] This specificity and locality mediates the abstracting tendency of lyric reading and insists on the importance of retaining a relationship to the specific place-worlds of Wintu lands. While also functioning as abstract and generalized figures, the place-names in the “To the Wenem Mame River”—the references to Den-Hu-Luly, the Topy Mame/Wenem Mame/Winnemem River, and the Shasta/Yolla Bulley, and Saun-chu-luli mountains—simultaneously index a Wintu geography that brings a Wintu past into the literary present. It provides a lyrical typography of Wintu place-worlds around which memory and history cluster.

“The Shasta Lily” by Alfred C. Gillis as it appeared in print
Fig. 3. “The Shasta Lily” by Alfred C. Gillis as it appeared with an accompanying note in the December, 1923 edition of the California Indian Herald. Source: American Indian Periodicals, Western Americana Collection, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey.

Through its shifts in address, from the “land where lilies bloom and fade” to the “fairer waters” of the Wenem Mame River, and finally to the “white man,” Gillis also takes advantage of a mode of lyric reading that had achieved dominance by the early twentieth century—one defined by associating lyrical apostrophe with a ventriloquizing private speaker who is “overheard” by the silent reader.[31] It is possible that Gillis recognizes that the lyric address to the land and the river read as conventional personified abstractions, lyrical features that are clearly legible within the hegemonic discourse of lyric reading of his day. To the white editors of the Herald the apostrophe reads as derivative of the Anglo-American discursive norms governing lyric reading and therefore compatible with assimilationist uplift narratives about Native literary expression. In this reading, Gillis’s address to Wintu place-names such as “topy mame” and “Wenem Mame” resembles, for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s address to the eponymous river in his river ode “To the River Charles.” “River!” Longfellow begins his poem, and throughout addresses as “thou Silent River.”[32] As I read them, however, Gillis’s addresses to the land and the river do not function only within the Anglo-American discourse of the lyric, as personified abstractions. Along with Gillis’s use of place-names, they also function within a Winnemem Wintu epistemology that indexes the importance of geography and territoriality to Wintu life, and that organizes relationships among people and the natural landscape based on grounded normativity and principles of reciprocity.

In this reframing, the lyrical perspective in “To the Wenem Mame River” does not simply serve the individual motivations of the solitary speaker. The poem’s speaker addresses the land and the river as members and relatives of the Wintu community:

Of all fair rivers I have known,

No fairer waters than thine own.

O, topy mame, we love thy name,

Famous waters Wenem Mame.

The speaker in this stanza switches from addressing the river in the first person “I” to addressing it from a collective “we,” shifting from an individual perspective to a communal one. By addressing the river by its collective Wintu place-name and by shifting momentarily into a “we” pronoun, Gillis repurposes the traditionally individualist lyrical form to accommodate communal, sovereign ends. Gillis is interested in using the lyric less as a genre of individual-cum-universal self-expression than as a mode that can socially and geographically recuperate Wintu and California Native communities from the discursive erasures that constitute settler modernity and progressive assimilationism and as a mode that emphasizes the survival of Wintu expression. The shift and juxtaposition of the “I” and the “we” perspective suggest that the “we” significantly constitutes the “I” and are a means by which Gillis mediates the individualism of the Anglo-American lyrical mode with Wintu ways of knowing premised on their longstanding—and ongoing!—relationships to their place-worlds and territory.

Indeed, in a hearing before Congress, Gillis describes the collaborative ways in which Wintu peoples construct their own histories. He remarked that there “are historians among the Indians that make it a practice in the wintertime to gather in the great council house and these stories [of the past] are sifted over, just like a great historian would gather facts and place them in good order to hand them down to their children.”[33] The storytelling practices of Wintu peoples involve a community-wide effort, which Gillis compares (perhaps ironically) to the solitary romantic figure of the “great historian.” Here, as in his lyric poems, Gillis not only gestures towards popular expectations of Native storytelling but also negotiates between settler and Wintu epistemological frameworks. By making this comparison, Gillis remains legible within (and therefore assimilable to) a historiography predicated on the temporal framework of a shared modernity while also simultaneously smuggling in communal storytelling and history-making practices that exceed settler modernity. This process of historiographic mediation, via a careful analogy that does not reduce these Wintu storytelling practices to those of the individual, Western “great historian,” characterizes the relational rhetorical negotiations of Gillis’s distinct Wintu modernity.

By identifying Gillis’s strategic use of lyric form and lyric reading above, I offer not only a reading of Gillis’s poems from a perspective of Wintu-specific, ongoing survivance but also a contribution to ongoing conversations about Indigenous modernist poetics. Any concept of Indigenous modernist poets needs to register both the dynamic and adaptive ways Native peoples respond to threats and the ways these threats have shaped and defined Native storytelling practices. I argue that it is important to consider the multiple frames of Indigenous geographic and temporal reference that orient many Native expressions. Furthermore, it is important also to consider how these Native expressions navigate and contest the singular frame of a shared settler modernity. This singular temporal frame positions Indigenous peoples only outside of time or only in relation to the past and repositions Indigenous lands only within a settler geography of property, extraction, and inundation zones.

Indigenous Geographies of Modernism

By tracing the (re)mappings that Alfred Gillis’s lyric poems and the contemporary Winnemem Wintu’s Run4Salmon event perform, I hope to problematize our understanding of the relationship between a notion of a universal, shared modernity and Native literatures produced within the decades that have traditionally been periodized as modernism. Critiques of modernism, as a period and an analytic, are well worn by now. Recent developments in “new modernist studies” have introduced new transnational approaches and attempted to decenter Eurocentric notions of modernity from modernist periodizations.[34] For instance, Susan Stanford Friedman’s call for a “new geography of modernism” comprised of “many centers of modernity across the globe” has opened the door to reading multiple articulations of differently situated modernisms such that the conventionality of lyric poems like Gillis’s could be thought of as “avant garde” or a response to modernity.[35]

My readings of Alfred Gillis’s lyric poems introduce new Native literary and Indigenous studies approaches to these recent developments and call for further scholarship mapping out Indigenous geographies of modernism in and through local Indigenous geographies, knowledges, and geospatial storytelling practices. However, although this article primarily focuses on the local, these local practices and knowledges nonetheless circulate within intertribal, regional, and global contexts. Chadwick Allen calls for a “trans-Indigenous” approach that accounts for “the mobility and multiple interactions of Indigenous peoples, cultures, histories, and texts” while remaining centered on the local and tribally-specific.[36] By linking Gillis’s poems to the present-day Winnemem Wintu’s annual Run4Salmon event, I juxtapose different forms of Indigenous expressions across time in order to emphasize the mobility of Winnemem Wintu geospatial storytelling forms and to situate Gillis’s lyric poems within a much broader field of Indigenous representation.

In reading across these different forms, I open up possibilities for unexpected Indigenous encounters on a global scale. Indeed, Run4Salmon is part of a larger effort to restore Nur to Winnemem Wintu waters by bringing back salmon relatives from Aotearoa (New Zealand). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a fish culturalist bred Nur and sold them to stock rivers around the world. While dam construction and development have led to the near extinction of Nur in California, they continue to thrive in the Rakaia River in Aotearoa. Upon learning that Nur had survived there, the Winnemem Wintu met with Maori tribes responsible for the river, and with Maori help performed a four-day ceremony to prepare for the salmon’s return to California.[37] The geospatial storytelling forms that run through both Gillis’s lyric poems and R4S unfold not only on a local and tribally-specific scale but also on a global Indigenous and intertribal scale that have helped lead to the restoration of the Nur, an important part of Winnemem Wintu life, culture, and sovereignty.

Through my readings, I hope to reorient new modernist approaches around both global, trans-Indigenous and local, tribally-specific approaches in order to help develop a notion of an Indigenous modernity or modernism irreducible to existing modernist frameworks structured by settler time. I offer a way for reading Native writing and poetry from within a framework of survivance and continuance that does not simply reproduce the erasures and stereotypical assumptions of settler modernity. By bringing together different geospatial forms of Wintu storytelling across time, I argue for bringing a theory of Indigenous mediation to modernist frameworks that can register the imaginative and dynamic ways in which Indigenous peoples engage with settler colonialism. Moreover, my readings highlight the often-neglected settler colonial contexts of modernity itself—the systemic dispossession of Indigenous lands and the genocide of Indigenous peoples.


I want to thank Chief Caleen Sisk, the Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, for reviewing the article, Marc Dadigan and the Winnemem Wintu media team for helping support the review process, and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe for showing us the way to a better future.

[1]Alfred C. Gillis, “To the Wenem Mame River,” in California Indian Herald, February 1924, 10.

[2] For examples, see Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “To the River Otter” (1797), Edgar Allan Poe’s “To the River” (1829), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s river odes, “To the River Charles” (1842), “To the River Rhone” (1878), “To the River Yvette” (1878), and “To the Avon” (1882).

[3] I borrow the term “place-world” from Keith Basso, who defines it as an “adventitious fleshing out of historical material that culminates in a posited state of affairs, a particular universe of objects and events . . . wherein portions of the past are brought into being” (Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996], 6). Basso argues that the making of place-worlds are key to understanding Western Apache identity, history, geography, and ways of knowing. Place-worlds are the basic grammar of history-making and storytelling for Apache. In these place-worlds, geographic features serve as “mnemonic pegs” on which to hang moral teachings of Apache history (Wisdom, 62). The naming of locations is an act where time and space become fused and it is at that fused intersection—fused through the storytelling of the place-maker—that they become available for contemplation. This place-making practice also illustrates what Basso, citing N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), describes as the reciprocity with which Indigenous peoples relate to the land, or what Momaday more precisely calls “reciprocal appropriation,” in which “man invests himself in the landscape, and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience” (N. Scott Momaday, “Native American Attitudes to the Environment,” in Seeing with a Native Eye: Essays on Native American Religion, ed. Åke Hultkrantz [New York: Harper & Row, 1976], 79–85, 80, quoted in Wisdom, 64). Paraphrasing Momaday, Basso further explains that “men and women learn to appropriate their landscapes, to think and act ‘with’ them as well as about and upon them, and to weave them with spoken words into the very foundations of social life” (Wisdom, 75).

[4] Dorothea J. Theodoratus and Frank LaPena, “Wintu sacred geography of northern California,” in Sacred Sites, Sacred Places, ed. David L. Carmichael, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves, and Audhild Schanche (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1994), 20–31, 22.

[5] See Craig Womack, Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[6] See Kirby Brown, Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907–1970 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

[7] See Victoria Lamont, “Native American Oral Practice and the Popular Novel; Or, Why Mourning Dove Wrote a Western,” Western American Literature 39, no. 4 (2005): 368–394.

[8] See Kirby Brown, “American Modernities and New Modernist Studies’ ‘Indian Problem,’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 59, no. 3 (2017): 287–318, 293.

[9] Philip Deloria (Dakota) cautions against thinking of popular expectations only in terms of the noble/savage Indian stereotypes. What’s fundamentally at stake, he argues, is how these expectations (through popular culture) form “the body of accepted knowledge about Indian people” and help produce and extend colonial power relations between Native peoples and the United States (Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places [Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004], 10). Native peoples unexpectedly using popular forms of expression “resists categorization and, thereby, questions expectation itself” (Indians, 11).

[10] See Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 277.

[11] See Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880–1990, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978) and Lucy Maddox, Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race & Reform (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[12] See Kiara M. Vigil, Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 131–32.

[13] See California Indian Herald, April 1923, 3 and James J. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 209.

[14] See Robert Dale Parker, Changing is Not Vanishing: A Collection of Early American Indian Poetry to 1930 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

[15] See Maddox, Citizen Indians.

[16] See Maddox, Citizen Indians, 5 and Kathryn W. Shanley, “‘Writing Indian’: American Indian Literature and the Future of Native American Studies,” in Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, ed. Russell Thornton (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 130–151, 146.

[17] See Vigil, Indigenous Intellectuals, 16–17.

[18] Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 2.

[19] Mark Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 15.

[20] For a history of the hydrological projects that submerged much of Wintu land, see April Farnham, “‘Their Sleep is to Be Desecrated’: The Central Valley Project and the Wintu People of Northern California, 1938-1943,” Ethnic Studies Review 30, nos. 1 & 2 (2007): 135–165.

[21] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 134.

[22] See Jay Hansford C. Vest, “Feather Boy’s Promise: Sacred Geography and Environmental Ethics in D’Arcy McNickle’s Wind from an Enemy Sky,” American Indian Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1993): 45–67.

[23] “Ten Thousand Persons Mass At Coolidge Dam For Colorful Ceremony,” The Arizona Republic, March 5, 1930, 11. See also Al Wilke, “Will Rogers and Indians in Limelight at Dam Ceremonies,” The Arizona Daily Star, March 5, 1930, 1.

[24] Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Nation) first coined the term “survivance” in Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and would later develop an aesthetics of survivance in Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009). According to Vizenor, survivance permeates Native expression and creates a sense of presence over absence, nihility, and victimry. It is the continuance of Native stories in the face of colonial genocide and domination.

[25] Winnemem Wintu Tribe, “What is the Run4Salmon?” on Run4Salmon.

[26] I borrow the term “land narrative” from Stephanie J. Fitzgerald ([Cree] Nehiyaw/Ininiw). In Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press: 2015), she develops an “American Indian ecocritical and environmental literary practice” that can recognize “the inextricability of land tenure, federal Indian law, and environmental issues” by focusing on land narratives primarily created by women (Native Women, 8). She argues that Native narratives of land and place-making are vital to the expansion and maintenance of Native sovereignty and resistance to ongoing attempts to dispossess and alienate Native peoples from their land.

[27] Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 13.

[28] See Mishuana Goeman, Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[29] See Jonathan Culler, “The Language of Lyric,” Thinking Verse 4, no. 1 (2014): 160–76.

[30] See Alfred C. Gillis, “The Shasta Lily, Den-Hu-Luly” in California Indian Herald, December 1923, 3.

[31] A mode of reading that had, in fact achieved dominance by as early as 1851 when John Stuart Mill distinguished poetry from eloquence. For a discussion of the history of lyric reading, see Virginia Jackson, “American Romanticism, Again,” Studies in Romanticism 55, no. 3 (2016): 319–46 and The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), ed. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins.

[32] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston, MA: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872) 1:155–157.

[33] Indian Tribes of California: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs, April 28 and 29, 1922, 67th Congress, 2nd session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922), 2:222.

[34] For a good overview of “new modernist studies” and a summary of its development, see Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48.

[35] Susan Stanford Friedman, “Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/Modernity 13, no. 3 (2006): 425–43, 429.

[36] Chadwick Allen, Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), xiv.

[37] See Winnemem Wintu Tribe, “Salmon Return: The Story of the New Zealand McCloud Salmon,” on Winnemem Wintu.