Kristen Brown

Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Cynthia Davis


During opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the Lakota words mni wičoni, “water is life,” came to define the ongoing movement at Standing Rock and serve as a reminder of not only humans’ dependence on interconnected ecological communities, but also of the vitality and sentience in more-than-human beings. Looking to Indigenous author-activists producing texts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries— when colonial ideologies of land exploitation and Indigenous dispossession were codified by federal policy—provides valuable insight into the tensions between these land-ascommodity and land-as-community worldviews. While scholars like literary and cultural theorist Joni Adamson and anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena explore the political implications of contemporary Indigenous cosmopolitics, this project looks to the turn of the twentieth century for self-narratives, tribal legends, erotic verse, boarding school newspapers, and magazine serials that reveal the emergence of an Indigenous ecocosmopolitics. Grounded in both tribe-specific and Pan-Indian philosophies, the ecocosmopolitics in these texts presents land-as-community worldviews that resist dispossessive frameworks of settler governance. I explore how Indigenous authoractivists producing texts on the brink of modernity—Sarah Winnemucca, Charles Eastman, Zitkala Ša, and E. Pauline Johnson—critique the violent logics of settler colonial ideologies with their narratives of transgenerational Indigenous ontologies undergirded by ongoing, reciprocal relationships with the more-than-human world.

Leveraging the often painfully gained agency associated with English language literacy, these authors articulate a sophisticated ecological engagement that challenges raced and gendered concepts like “adapted to agriculture” and “the habits of civilized life” in contemporaneous federal policies. Incorporating theories from both Indigenous and non- Indigenous scholars, this dissertation especially draws from settler colonial and ecocritical theories while looking to innovative applications of sound studies and queer ecologies. Each chapter analyzes an author’s strategic recasting of a pillar in the colonial project—literacy, health, education, and sexuality—while underscoring their advocacy for Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. Their rhetorical strategies for speaking back to oppressive regimes in their own historical moment, as well as the stillresonant environmental insights they provide, I argue, can inform our current understanding of relations among ecological health, Indigeneity, and settler colonialism. Rather than reducing their works through an assimilation-resistance binary, reading for ecological underpinnings in these works reveals their potential as works of environmental justice, both then and now. Together, they provide Indigenous perspectives on dispossession while offering Indigenous philosophies and practices for developing communities whose sense of shared, eco-conscious connection predates and transcends that of the bounded nation-state.


© 2020, Kristen Brown