Recovering Sovereignty in Louis Owens’s Dark River



Ezra Pound’s assertion in 1913 that America has “no center” initially seems to endorse frontier as the figure best representing the ideology of American exceptionalism. An America without a center invites the displacement of culture to its margins, or beyond them in the context of imperialism, and offers the justifying pretext for Anglo-European expansionism that Frederick Jackson Turner deftly exploited in his famous essay “closing” the Western frontier.1 Yet Pound’s foundational decentering act in Patria Mia just as brusquely negates the ideological thrust of Turner’s frontier, by suggesting America has “no place” anywhere—everywhere—to test its national identity, thereby sounding an antiromantic, indeed modernist, note of futility within the otherwise triumphal clamor for Anglo-European, global hegemony.2


Safe Passage Indigenous Land Indian Country Willed Ignorance White Supremacist 
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  1. 1.
    Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in Frontier and Section: Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner, ed. Ray A. Billington (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1961), 37–38.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ezra Pound recasts “postfrontier anxiety,” post-Turner, into a positivist ideology endorsing American imperialism before World War I. See David M. Wrobel, The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1993), 71–85.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ezra Pound, Patria Mia (Chicago: R. F. Seymour, 1950), 57.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Afro-Caribbean men constituted a prominent minority among approximately five thousand working-class dead throughout the course of the project. See Michael L. Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904–1981 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 8–10.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), 26–40. Established on August 25, 1916, the U.S. park system was, for indigenous sovereigns, the insulting culmination to the Dawes allotments which after 1877 had surveyed sovereign lands “off-reservation” and ceded them to nonindigenous individuals, corporations, governing authorities (including counties and states) in the event of legal proceedings, tax default, or probate. Subsequent legislation ensured that lands held in common were either privatized outright, or rendered inalienably “public” in the name of ecotourism; in either case, beyond the reaches of their sovereign custodians.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    In Patria Mia, Pound subordinates indigenous sovereignty to his own nativist rendering of Anglo-European racial superiority: “Our [American] convention dates, not from an era of sedan-chairs and lackeys [as in Europe], but from a time when people lived at least ten miles apart. You were friendly with your next neighbor because you wanted his help against savages” (53). For an overview of the scholarship and debates about modern reemergence of nativism in form of parochial, and often reactionary nationalisms, see William H. Katerberg, “An Essay on Nativism, Liberal Democracy, and Parochial Identities in Canada and the United States,” American Quarterly 47.3 (1995): 515.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Owens, Mixedblood Messages, 218–36. The novel acknowledges the violent correspondence between indigenous expropriation within the United States and American neocolonialism abroad. Addressing both “economies of scale” in literary terms, Dark River details the costs to all local cultures of membership within a now-global American neocolonialism, including the exhaustion of indigenous cultures as matériel expended in the effort to expand and sustain capital markets. For an exact illustration of how the resources of local indigenous cultures are targeted within a “national” economy, see Winona LaDuke and Ward Churchill, “Native America: The Political Economy of Radioactive Colonialism,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 13 (1985): 109–20.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Louis Owens, Dark River (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 4. Subsequent references to this text will be made parenthetically by page number.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Referring to World War II, Townsend offers conclusive figures: 25,000 American Indians served in the military, with another 40,000 serving in critical-industry employment. See Kenneth W. Townsend, World War II and the American Indian (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2000), 2. Owens would not, I suspect, have disputed the clear devotion of American Indian veterans in service to the United States, nor have questioned their voluntary right to be patriots on behalf of their own sovereignty as well as that of the United States. The valor of veterans continues to shape indigenous communities today and has changed the course of all foreign wars fought by Americans this century.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    See Tom Holm, Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1996); Townsend, World War II, 61–65; and Thomas A. Britten, American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1997), 59–72. It should be noted that alongside the majority enlistment of eligible American Indian men as clear evidence of patriotism, reluctance to enlist also appeared within indigenous communities. See Britten, American Indians in World War I, 71; Holm, Strong Hearts, 121.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Holm puts the number of American Indians serving in Viet Nam between 1964 and 1973 at more than 42,000, but the number may well be higher. See his “American Indian Veterans and the Vietnam War,” The Vietnam Reader, ed. Walter Capps (New York: Routledge, 1991), 191. Of Native Americans in Viet Nam, Appy argues that along with Hispanics and Asian Americans, “even the most basic statistical data about their role … remains either unknown or inadequately examined.” See Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993), 19.Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    See Renny Christopher, “The Poverty of Mississippi and the Harshness of Indian Territory: Louis Owens’s Representations of Working Class Consciousness,” in Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Louis Owens: Literary Reflections on His Life and Work (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 154–74.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire-Building (NewYork: Schocken, 1990), 451. Drinnon’s analysis builds usefully from an historicist trajectory first established by Roy Harvey Pearce, such that the ideology of “Indian-hating” in North America secures capital markets overseas in a globalized “Indian Country.” The veteran of a foreign war, Nashoba views American ideology increasingly critically as it expands toward the last remaining untapped frontiers of global markets, renewable sources of cheaper, indigenous labor, and demand-side consumerism—a phenomenon, at the dawn of the millennium, some have called postnational “empire.” SeeGoogle Scholar
  14. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000). 19.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Willard R. Trask trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), 15–16.Google Scholar
  16. 36.
    See Lawrence Buell, “The Ecocritical Insurgency,” New Literary History 30.3 (1999): 705.Google Scholar

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© Stuart Christie 2009

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