Source File: cat.cs009.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 9

Thea's "Indian Play" in The Song of the Lark

Much critical attention has been paid to the role of southwestern Indian ruins in The Professor’s House; however, far less space has been devoted to the use Cather makes of indigenous culture in The Song of the Lark. In The Professor’s House, Tom Outland’s experiences with cliff-dweller culture include concrete historical and anthropological qualities that appear to be largely absent from Thea Kronborg’s encounters with Native ruins. Tom excavates and catalogs relics; Thea has transcendent moments of identification with long-dead Native women. On the surface, Thea’s response to Panther Canyon appears to be entirely emotional and almost intentionally ahistoric. Yet her sojourn in Panther Canyon is, in reality, heavily grounded in contemporary antimodern anxiety surrounding gender roles and the appropriation of American Indian culture. By allowing Thea to identify herself so closely with these non-white women, Cather is indulging in a variation of the practice Philip Deloria terms “playing Indian.” Thea’s identification with the long-dead Native women of Panther Canyon allows her to identify herself as an artist without completely abandoning the qualities of domesticity that Cather’s successful female characters invariably possess.

Both ethnographers and tourists found Native peoples of the Southwest more historically and aesthetically compelling than the tribes who occupied the Great Plains. Plains Indians’ role as nomadic hunters seemed less appealing and less “civilized” to white Americans than the agrarian lifestyle practiced by the Native occupants of the Southwest.[1] In terms of the evolutionary continuum upon which late-nineteenth-century anthropologists placed non-white peoples, southwestern Indians seemed closer to European culture (and thus more advanced) than their counterparts in the central United States.[2] By the time Cather wrote The Song of the Lark, stereotypical images of Plains Indians dominated popular perceptions of Native peoples. Their aggressive attacks on wagon trains formed the plots of dime Westerns, and their feathered war bonnets were staples of the period’s numerous Wild West shows. As non-Indian Americans imbibed these images, individual Plains tribes were being systematically removed and exterminated.[3] The omnipresence of these stereotyped depictions meant that to middle-class culture seekers, Plains Indians lacked authenticity. In contrast, southwestern Indians appealed to literate tourists, who felt they had a legitimate intellectual and aesthetic interest in Native peoples.

In the early years of the twentieth century, preoccupation with the southwestern corner of the United States was not unique to Cather. She joined a range of intellectuals, including Mary Austin and Mabel Dodge Luhan, in traveling to and writing about the area. With its ethnically diverse population and flexible borders, the Southwest in the later nineteenth century was not quite “American.” This vision of the Southwest as space set aside from the main course of westward expansion is particularly relevant to The Song of the Lark, where it becomes for Thea a refuge from modernizing America. Unlike the rest of the western United States, southwestern territory could still function as a regenerative, imaginative space, allowing individual Americans who visited to recuperate and escape from the complexity of the modern United States. The central feature of the southwestern United States that enthralled everyone from archaeologists, to tourists, to Willa Cather herself, was the presence of sites of Anasazi ruins, known simply as “cliff-dweller” ruins.[4] These structures, actually built into the rock face, were abandoned hundreds of years before the first white settlers arrived in the Southwest. Archaeological evidence shows an agrarian culture that had evolved a settled, domestic lifestyle. The exact fate of the former occupants of these dwellings has never been determined, adding a compelling layer of historical mystery to the region. On a national level, this interest in the cliff-dweller ruins reflected not only a need for another trajectory of exploration but a very real sense of ambiguity regarding the whole project of empire, both within the borders of the United States and abroad. Michael Tavel Clarke asserts, “The failure of the Cliff Dwellers contradicted American faith in the foreordained victory of civilization over savagery and thus also challenged American faith in its new program of overseas imperialism” (400). The notion that a people as “culturally superior” as the Anasazi could simply disappear made Americans uneasy, as it seemed obliquely threatening to the continuance of their own civilization. Americans, eager to lengthen their own national history and produce historic monuments and ancient artifacts that could vie with Europe’s, showcased these ruins as national treasures. Paradoxically, though, the very ruins they proudly exhibited not only had no direct connection with their own national history but also emphasized the tenuous positioning and potential for extinction of all civilizations, regardless of how advanced.

That the Southwest and its prehistoric buildings became a fin de siècle antidote to antimodern anxiety is unsurprising. Richard Slotkin maintains, “The moral landscape of the Frontier Myth is divided by significant borders, of which the wilderness/civilization Indian/White border is the most basic. The American must cross the border into ‘Indian country’ and experience a ‘regression’ to a more primitive and natural condition of life so that the false values of ‘the metropolis’ can be purged and a new, purified social contract be enacted” (15). The escape the region offered was not only geographic but temporal: imaginative visitors could go back in time to a land that had not yet felt the imprint of European colonization and experience the mythic freedom of frontier America. Journeying to the southwestern United States and viewing the cliff-dweller ruins allowed Americans (including Willa Cather) to make this theoretical border crossing and escape modernity. Culture-seeking white Americans were even able to imagine themselves connected with these ancient civilizations. Such identification, Caroline Woidat explains, was enabled by the ruins’ lack of living Indian inhabitants: “While the modern Native American was in many ways ‘other’ to the tourist, visitors thought they could identify with the ancient people whose homes they wandered. Like Cather, they were inspired to claim Native America as part of their own historical past” (33).

Thea’s own retreat into Panther Canyon represents a flight from the hectic pace and “false values” of the modern metropolis of Chicago. Her seemingly fruitless winter of musical study in Chicago has exhausted her physically and mentally. Sitting in a restaurant with her friend Fred Ottenburg, she is a dismal sight indeed: “Thea was as gray as the weather. Her skin looked sick. Her hair, too, though on a damp day it curled charmingly about her face, looked pale” (288). Thea’s lackluster appearance and overall despondency inspire Ottenburg to suggest a summer in the Southwest: “I don’t think I told you, but my father owns a whole canyon full of Cliff-Dweller ruins. He has a big worthless ranch down in Arizona, near a Navajo reservation, and there’s a canyon on the place they call Panther Canyon, chock full of that sort of thing” (289). Tellingly, Cather is careful to avoid any hint that Biltmer’s ranch might be one of the West’s touristy “dude ranches,” established in the 1890s and ubiquitous by 1915. The text emphasizes the ranch’s identity as a private residence run by an accommodating caretaker. A vacation at a for-profit dude ranch with other tourists would interfere with the authenticity of Thea’s private, regenerative experience with Indian culture. Ottenburg suggests that a summer in the open air will make a “new woman” of Thea. His use of the phrase is unintentionally ironic, since a “New Woman” is exactly what Thea, with her frantic routine of study and work in an urban center, has become.

Thea’s ill-health may be partially explained by a bout of tonsillitis; however, her listlessness and general sense of malaise also resemble neurasthenia. An oft-diagnosed ailment at the turn of the twentieth century, neurasthenia was thought to be the consequence of a too-active involvement in the competitive arena of modern life. Women, who were considered constitutionally weaker and less fitted for the aggressive nature of the public sphere, were diagnosed with the malady more often than men. The treatment for both genders involved what Tom Lutz calls “a reconstitution of the subject in terms of gender roles” (32). Women were forced to go on bed rest and were prohibited from any physical exertion, while men, who were thought to be feminized by the disease, were prescribed rigorous physical activity, often in a wilderness setting. Notably, both male and female neurasthenics were encouraged to forgo intellectual activity. Fred’s plan for Thea’s regeneration combines the female rest cure with the male exercise cure. Thea is sent to an unfamiliar place and cared for by people she has no connection with; however, that locale is in the rugged American West near a “canyon full of Cliff-Dweller ruins.” The presence of Panther Canyon and the Indian ruins it contains also help Thea reconstitute and reinvigorate herself. Early-twentieth-century Americans understood Indian life as simple and authentic and viewed it as a healthful antidote to the enervating confusion of modernity.

Neurasthenia and an interest in Indian cultures, particularly those of southwestern tribes, were both important characteristics of the impulse historian T. J. Jackson Lears refers to as antimodernism. In The Song of the Lark, Thea’s retreat to Panther Canyon is a definite antimodern escape, a movement outside the boundaries of mainstream America. For Thea, who has failed to find contentment in the small town of Moonstone and found the urban center of Chicago similarly uncongenial, the Southwest functions as a refuge from both the provincial town and the anonymous city.

The long-dead Native people whose homes and relics Thea appropriates are the Sinaguas, a tribe that disappeared before Europeans entered the Southwest. An interest in “primitive” and “exotic” cultures was characteristic of fin de siècle reactions to the increasing urbanization and mechanization of America that Lears terms antimodernism. According to Deloria, modernity was a “paradigmatic moment” for playing Indian that “used Indian play to encounter the authentic amidst the anxiety of urban industrial and post-industrial life” (7). Turn-of-the-twentieth-century America, fully invested in the myth of the vanishing American, increasingly reached back to its own prehistory and viewed American Indian peoples with retrospective nostalgia. In Playing Indian, Deloria establishes two contradictory ways Americans have historically viewed and appropriated Indian peoples. Native Americans could be viewed as either interior figures “situated within American societal boundaries,” or exterior figures “outside the temporal (and societal) boundaries of modernity” (103). The view of Indians as interior, authentically American figures populated the imaginations of Revolutionary and nineteenth-century Americans, while the view of Indians as exterior figures removed from normative American life dominated the early-twentieth-century United States. As outsiders who had been both literally and figuratively pushed beyond the periphery of American society, these exterior Indians, in Deloria’s words, “represented positive qualities—authenticity and natural purity—that might be expropriated, not for critique (as in the case of the traditional noble savage), but as the underpinning for a new, specifically modern American identity” (103).

The Song of the Lark views Native peoples as exterior figures removed from America’s national consciousness. Leah Dilworth lists several ways of appropriating Indian culture; the first example she gives is collecting: “Once collected (or represented) southwestern Indian life circulated as a spectacle for middle-class consumption in museum displays, books, magazines, and galleries, and as tourist attractions” (7). Tom Outland engages in the process of collecting in The Professor’s House with his carefully excavated and cataloged finds and his trip to the Smithsonian. The Song of the Lark’s Henry Biltmer, the elderly German caretaker of the Ottenburg ranch, is another collector who “had gathered up a whole chestful of Cliff-Dweller relics which he meant to take back to Germany with him some day” (303). In Biltmer we perhaps see an earlier prototype of the German collector in The Professor’s House who buys the artifacts Tom and Roddy have collected and returns with them to Germany. Thea, although surrounded by artifacts in Panther Canyon, does not collect these objects: “Thea had a superstitious feeling about the potsherds, and liked better to leave them in the dwellings where she found them. If she took a few bits back to her own lodge and hid them under the blankets, she did it guiltily, as if she were being watched” (305). Sarah Wilson notes that, in contrast to Tom, who paternalistically possesses and mediates the relics on behalf of a country that is ignorant of their true value, Thea considers the cliff-dweller artifacts outside of a specifically American worldview: “Unlike Tom, Thea sees the ancient Native American dwellings as neither a national right nor a national possession. Rather, she feels herself ‘a guest’ and finds in the ruins an individual inspiration to resist the worst side of American nationality, its assimilative hometown conventionality” (580). That Thea views the Southwest as a personal rather than a national possession does not make her identification with Native peoples wholly positive and uncomplicated. Although she does not gather artifacts the way Tom does, she makes other intangible appropriations. Her self-proclaimed status as a “guest” assumes a welcome that has never been proffered and becomes a disingenuous means of legitimizing her presence in the Sinaguas’ long-abandoned homes.

Although Tom’s anthropological and nationalistic appropriation of the culture of Indian people is easy to condemn, the uses to which Thea puts Native culture present problems that are more difficult to articulate. In the vein of Wilson’s article, most analyses of The Song of the Lark have cited Thea’s experience with Native culture as wholly positive, devoid as it is of the anthropological scrutiny and possessiveness that characterize Outland’s time on the Blue Mesa.[5] This attitude crystallizes in Deborah Lindsay Williams’s statement that “When the two novels are juxtaposed, what emerges is Cather’s subtle condemnation of the desire to possess something as intangible as landscape: a critique of the colonizing impulse” (163). In an early feminist reading of the novel, however, Ellen Moers remarks, “The whole Panther Canyon section of the novel is concerned with female self-assertion in terms of landscape; and the dedication to landscape carries with it here the fullest possible tally of spiritual, historical, national, and artistic associations” (258). Williams is correct that Thea’s occupation of Panther Canyon does not involve physical possession and control, but as Moers indicates, Thea’s “self-assertion in terms of landscape” is not without a range of cultural and nationalistic ramifications. Both Williams and Moers are alive to the female dimensions of both the canyon itself—what Moers famously calls “the most thoroughly elaborated female landscape in literature”—and the artifacts that Thea finds there. What these critiques do not address is Thea’s whiteness and the distance it imposes between her and American Indian cultures.

When Moers claims that Thea’s “own artistic commitment makes her one with the Indian women, who with their pottery began the creation of beauty” (258), then several lines later remarks that “Thea relishes her aloneness” (258), she unwittingly reveals one of the great contradictions at the heart of Cather’s use of Pueblo culture. The cliff-dweller ruins Thea explores are a model of communal endeavor, yet Thea repurposes them as a tribute to individual autonomy. Her treatment of Panther Canyon as a source of, in Wilson’s words, “individual inspiration” bears a startling resemblance to the uses New Age Americans would make of Native peoples.[6] Writing about appropriation of American Indian culture in the New Age, Shari Huhndorf remarks that “‘Native’ traditions generally reflect a heavily European ethos” and that “the fixation on self-discovery and self-healing articulate the very Western ideology of bourgeois individualism” (163). Thea’s use of the Native ruins for both “selfdiscovery and “self-healing” allows her to take her place as an individual in modern America. This anxiety about American individualism runs through the novel and is intimately connected to the fraught role of the female artist. The Song of the Lark frequently and somewhat stridently emphasizes the importance of individual achievement; however, according to Joseph Urgo, “Thea’s belief in her self-sufficiency is sharply qualified in the novel, for Cather makes it clear that one does not climb without stepping on something or someone” (137). This is certainly true, but there seems to be a kind of inevitability determining the roles of both the favored individuals who climb and those less fortunate ones on whose shoulders they stand. Ray Kennedy tells Thea fatalistically that the world is composed of winners and losers and “halfway people” who are “foreordained” to “help the winners win and the failers fail” (123). Sixteen pages later, Dr. Archie informs Thea, “The people who forge ahead and do something, they really count. . . . We all like people who do things even if we only see their faces on a cigar-box lid” (139). The “halfway people” who are fated to be mere instruments in others’ success or failure are not ultimately as important, or even worthwhile, as those who “do things.”

The Song of the Lark’s consistent linear focus on Thea’s upward climb echoes Frederick Jackson Turner’s conception of American settlement and progress. In his 1893 address, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner recounts how “the Indian trade pioneered the way for civilization. The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s ‘trace’; the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads”(14). Turner’s spatial paradigm of the Indian’s relation to the European allows him to naturalize European incursions into the North American continent. He continues: “The trading posts reached by these trails were on the sites of Indian villages which had been placed in positions suggested by nature, and these trading posts, situated so as to command the water systems of the country, have grown into such cities as Albany, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Council Bluffs, and Kansas City” (14). Turner imagines Indian villages fluidly transforming into large cities; these cities, by virtue of their location on Native sites “suggested by nature,” are themselves a part of nature rather than a corruption and a violation of the natural world. Turner depicts the transformation of the American landscape and the disappearance of Native peoples as a process both natural and inevitable. The Sinaguas disappear before European contact, so Cather is able to sidestep the issues of European conquest, land partition, and removal, topics that were particularly acute in the temporal context of The Song of the Lark’s action.

Turner performs a similar evasion, hypothesizing, “Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene, primitive Indian life had passed away” (13). Turner’s designation of the Indian as the forerunner of the modern American dismantles the binary relation of savage and civilized that many white Americans used to understand their relation to indigenous people, creating a new paradigm with the Indian as the white American’s evolutionary ancestor. Huhndorf comments: “For Turner, it was the actions of individuals (in this case individual pioneers) engaged in historical processes, rather than the development of the race as a whole, that enabled civilization to advance. Turner’s thesis thus develops social evolutionary theory by emphasizing competitive individualism and also articulates the ideology of industrial capitalism” (57). This aspect of Turner’s thesis is what allows Ray Kennedy earlier in the novel to link his own individual achievements as a nineteenth-century American with those of the pre-Columbian tribes who occupied the Southwest (118). Thea endorses such “competitive individualism” with regard to the cliff dwellers when she places the labor of the tribe’s women on a hierarchical scale of value: “The stupid women carried water for most of their lives; the cleverer ones made vessels to hold it” (303). This value-laden division of labor comes very close to an articulation of a modern, capitalist ethos. Even as Thea revolts from not only the village of Moonstone but the modern city of Chicago, she brings some of the values of those communities with her to Panther Canyon.

Thea’s regeneration is not only an individual project but also a completely bodily one. The manner in which Thea engages in Indian play differs from more mainstream examples of the phenomenon. In contrast to many of her male contemporaries, who donned ersatz Indian dress and participated in Indian-influenced ceremonies as part of fraternal organizations, Thea’s behavior is devoid of the props, pageantry, and communal activities that characterized more typical Indian play. Thea experiences purportedly Indian culture through acts of bodily mimicry that are not dependent on costumes or ceremony. The lack of material culture trappings enables Cather to convert a fairly typical American activity into something portentous and mythic. Williams notes Thea’s “physical, even visceral appreciation of the past” (157), and Marilee Lindemann describes The Song of the Lark’s “fierce and exuberant reclaiming of the body as a site of power, pleasure, and utopian possibility,” claiming “the text stands not simply as a resistance to coercive heteronormativity but as a positive alternative to it” (56). In the Southwest, Thea resists the “coercive heteronormativity” that would have her stay in Moonstone and participate in one of the novel’s disastrous marriages by enacting a kind of perfect domesticity, free of the often messy and tedious circumstances of childbearing and homemaking. Climbing the trail to Panther Canyon, Thea thinks about the Native women before her who wore the path into the earth, carrying water to the houses above: “She found herself trying to walk as they must have walked, with a feeling in her feet and knees and loins which she had never known before,—which must have come up to her out of the unaccustomed dust of that rocky trail. She could feel the weight of an Indian baby hanging to her back as she climbed” (302). Cather illustrates Thea vicariously experiencing that most female of activities, motherhood. Until now, maternity and the heterosexual relations that precede it have been things to be avoided at all costs. In fact, the domestic sphere in The Song of the Lark is considerably less idyllic than in Cather’s other fiction. Although Thea’s mother is an admirable housekeeper and a wholly sympathetic character, her homekeeping appears to be more of a herculean effort against chaos than the rhythmic and creative process it is in many other Cather texts.

The novel’s problems with domesticity, as Lindemann indicates, reach back to heteronormativity itself. Marriage is almost invariably a problematic institution in this novel. Although in many of her other works Cather exhibits a similar unease regarding marital ties, she reaches new and striking levels of vitriol in The Song of the Lark. Dr. Archie has a disastrously unhappy marriage, and his stingy wife eventually dies gruesomely in an explosion caused by her use of gasoline to clean the household’s upholstery. Fred Ottenburg and his disagreeable wife live entirely separate lives, and we learn later in the novel from Dr. Archie that she has “general paresis,” a complication of advanced syphilis. Both the doctor and Fred are essentially tricked by their conniving wives into their respective marriages. Even more troubling is the chilling Norwegian folktale Thea tells at the Nathanmeyers’ house that depicts an adulterous wife being danced off a cliff by her husband and smashing with him on the rocks below. Themes of marital infidelity followed by graphic violence also occur in The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, lent to Thea by a designing medical student. In this novella, after deciding that romantic love is a fiction, a man catches his wife in adultery and brutally murders her. Moving from her characters’ experiences to folk culture to Russian literature, Cather takes every opportunity to produce examples of marriages that have terrifying consequences, particularly for women. The paradigm in both the real and fictitious bad marriages is the same: the men are ensnared and betrayed by women, who are then doomed to die grotesquely.[7] Most disturbing is the subtext that somehow these women deserve their violent ends, echoed a decade later in The Professor’s House, where Father Duchenne cheerfully designates the preserved prehistoric woman named Mother Eve as an unfaithful wife who has been murdered by her husband.

Urgo interprets Thea’s story about the wife being danced off a cliff as a kind of warning to Fred through which Thea “communicates the necessity of avoiding volitional dependence on others” (138). Indeed, when Fred, sitting with Thea in Panther Canyon, asks, “suppose I were to offer you what most of the other young men I know would offer a girl they’d been sitting up nights about: a comfortable flat in Chicago, a summer camp in the woods, musical evenings and a family to bring up. Would it look attractive to you?” Thea replies to his proposition with the exclamation, “Perfectly hideous!” (317). Both the middle-class home life of the small town and the upper class, urban domesticity that Fred offers are equally unpalatable to Thea. Through mimicking the movements of Native women carrying both water and babies, Thea is able to experience female domestic labor and motherhood at their most ideal and organic, divorced from the cluttered and increasingly programmatic twentieth-century domestic realm.

Deloria suggests that for women at the turn of the twentieth century, “Indian role models demonstrated the difference between natural, domestic labor and unnatural work outside the home. They claimed a transcendent existence as expressions of the universal female activities of childraising and homemaking” (113–14). This elision of indigenous and European-American women’s roles found its most concrete cultural expression in the organization known as the Camp Fire Girls, founded in 1910. Camp Fire Girls began as the companion movement to the Boy Scouts and illustrated the fear of the modern New Woman and her separation from the traditionally feminine roles of housekeeping and motherhood. According to Deloria, “If camping and boy scouting were about restoring masculinity to postfrontier city boys, Camp Fire was about reaffirming female difference in terms of domesticity and service” (113). The Camp Fire movement viewed Native American women, traditionally seen as outside modernity, as domestic role models for American girls. Young women gave themselves what they thought of as Indian names, dressed in fringed and embroidered “ceremonial gowns,” and did supposedly Indian dances, all the while earning “honor beads” for largely domestic activities.[8] These correlations between traditional domesticity and Indian play tap into what Deloria terms “the importance of preexisting symbolic links between Indians and women” (111).

Such “symbolic links” undergird contemporary descriptions of the origins and purpose of the Camp Fire movement. A 1912 article by Hartley Davis on Camp Fire Girls in the Protestant newspaper The Outlook rhapsodizes about the prehistoric roots of the firmly gendered division of labor on which the group was based: “It was also in primitive days that the first grand division of labor was made. The man, the provider and defender of the family, went out into the wilderness to hunt, and the woman stayed at home and kept the fire burning and the pot boiling. And that division, with all the consequences that it entailed, has remained to a very large extent, in spite of all the changes in social life, until this day” (182). Davis views women’s domestic labor as a kind of eternal verity enduring, “in spite of all the changes in social life,” right into the early twentieth century, but he tolls an ominous note with the phrase “until this day,” implying that without a hasty intervention traditional femininity faces extinction. Writing in 1919, James Franklin Page connects Camp Fire Girls’ formation more explicitly to the perceived difficulties of modern America: “The general aim of the Campfire Girls is to help girls prepare for a new social order, and to enable them to overcome the grinding tendency of modern machine work; to show that common life contains the materials for romance and adventure—that even the most commonplace tasks may prove adventuress; to show the significance of the modest attainments of life; to put women’s work into measurable bundles; to develop in girls the power of cooperation, the capacity to keep step” (81). Page acknowledges an altering “social order” and emphasizes the need to “keep step”; however, he believes, somewhat contradictorily, that young women can best acclimate themselves to such changes by embracing the pleasures of “common life” and “commonplace tasks”—that is to say, domestic labor. Regarding this strange paradox, Mary Jane McCallum explains, “Modern messages were imbued with anti-modernist appeal as Camp Fire organizers devised new ways for girls to participate in an increasingly industrial society without renouncing domesticity” (56).

In the Camp Fire movement, striving and ambition, while encouraged, were carefully placed inside a narrowly conceived regulatory framework. According to the Camp Fire Girls’ manual, The Book of the Camp Fire Girls, young women could earn honor beads in seven areas: “Home Craft, Health Craft, Camp Craft, Hand Craft, Nature Lore, Business, and Patriotism” (11). Notably, the categories in which girls could achieve recognition were limited to activities deemed socially acceptable for middleand upper-class women. Honors in “Patriotism,” for example, did not involve agitating for the right to vote. Regarding women’s suffrage, the organization maintained a determinedly impartial official position.[9] The Book of the Camp Fire Girls briefly addresses the issue with regard to the wearing of the ceremonial gown: “In the matter of partisan parades such as woman’s suffrage, the Camp Fire organization cannot take sides either for or against, although individual members among the girls and Guardians are entirely free to identify themselves as they choose. In such cases the ceremonial gown should not appear” (17). Despite Camp Fire’s stated neutrality regarding suffrage, the organization’s emphasis on female domesticity aligned them philosophically with anti-suffrage reformers, who argued that woman’s primary civic duties were enacted within the home. In Elizabeth Duffield’s Lucile the Torch Bearer, one of the many novels that capitalized on Camp Fire’s popularity, when Lucile tells her father that she hopes to be a Camp Fire girl, he responds, “Camp-fire girls you say? What’s that? Anything like a suffragette?” Lucile “contemptuously” replies, “Well, Hardly,” and enjoins her father to let her explain the goals of the Camp Fire movement in order that he “can never make such a mistake again” (8). Thea’s own experiences in Panther Canyon resemble those enshrined by the Camp Fire movement: She hikes up ancient rock paths, ponders the soot from the cooking fires of the site’s prehistoric inhabitants, marvels at the fragments of woman-crafted pottery she finds, regains her physical and mental health, and contemplates her own place in the long line of historical endeavor.

Although Thea’s own Indian play initially revolves around the domestic roles of the tribe’s women, Cather soon enacts a subtle shift from the traditional female role of the homemaker to the less traditional one of artist. The more Thea discovers regarding the tribe’s women and their roles, the more she identifies with them, until even her daily bath, in Cather’s words, “came to have a ceremonial gravity. The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic” (304). Thea learns from Henry Biltmer that the women of the tribe were responsible for procuring and storing water, a vital task in that arid region (303). Despite her earlier bodily identification with the water carriers on the path, Thea is not destined to remain one of the stupid women who carry the water (or by extension the stupid women who carry infants strapped to their backs). In a highly modernist epiphany, Thea suddenly integrates the domestic and the artistic, the contemporary and the eternal. This realization occurs during one of her baths in the canyon stream: The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. (304) Thea unites the functional art of the Indians, high art enshrined in a museum, and her own ability to create music, recognizing all of these things as valid means of capturing what she sees as the indefinable essence of life.

Thea’s experiences in the Southwest seal her exile from her family and her community of origin. While there she completes the process of maturation and separation begun during the previous summer, when her open-air concert with her Mexican neighbors embarrassed her racist siblings and she made the painful realization that her brothers and sister “were among the people she had always recognized as her natural enemies” (240). In Panther Canyon, Thea recalls her experience of the summer before and determines to jettison “whatever was left of Moonstone in her mind,” citing the “older and higher obligations” (308) the cliff dwellers have taught her, which replace the more typical bonds to relatives, friends, and neighbors. Again, there is the transformation of a complex and nuanced community into a monolithic expression of individual desire. In The Song of the Lark, playing Indian allows Thea to formulate an alternative female identity in which the role of the woman artist absorbs and contains the more traditionally feminine roles of mother and homemaker. In this all-encompassing feminine role, Thea, as Sharon O’Brien asserts, becomes “reborn as an artist—daughter to the earth and the women potters, mother to herself” (417). This creative rebirth echoes Harsanyi’s dictate early in the novel that “Every artist makes himself born” (175) and Wunsch’s even earlier remark, “The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing—desire” (76). The advice of her male teachers, both talented artists in their own right, does not resonate with Thea, who must see those ideas expressed in female form.

The end of The Song of the Lark shows Thea as a great opera singer. At the height of her success, she tells Fred, “I don’t know if I would have gotten anywhere without Panther Canyon” (463), indicating how significant this contact with prehistoric people has been to her career. Native cultures inspired Cather in much the same way. What is not clear is the effect of narratives like Cather’s on actual American Indians. Dilworth claims that “as American writers brought the Indian into literature . . . as the Indian was ‘written,’ Native Americans vanished. And furthermore this was a necessary transformation. The Indian was usable only as past” (187). Although in 1915, when The Song of the Larkwas published, a number of Indian tribes occupied Arizona, Cather makes few references to living Native Americans. The glimpse she gives the reader of the Navajos, or Diné, is telling, “The great pines stand at a considerable distance from one another. Each tree grows alone, murmurs alone, thinks alone. They do not intrude upon each other. The Navajos are not much in the habit of giving of or asking help. Their language is not a communicative one, and they never attempt an exchange of personality in speech. Over their forests there is the same inexorable reserve. Each tree has its exalted power to bear” (295).[10] Here, Cather effectively elides the Navajos into the landscape, equating individual Indian people with trees and relegating them to the status of natural resources. She also describes the Navajos as isolated from each other and from other tribal groups and dismisses their language as a means of effective communication. The Navajos surface again later in “The Ancient People” when Thea and Fred take “long rides into the Navajo pine forests” to purchase “turquoises and silver bracelets from the wandering Indian herdsmen” (322). The “wooly red and gray blankets” Thea uses to cushion the floor of her rock house are made by the Navajos as well. The contemporary Navajos were noted silversmiths and weavers, yet Cather does not elaborate on the artistry of either the blankets or the jewelry Thea encounters. The role of the artist in The Song of the Lark is exclusively reserved for the long-dead occupants of the cliff city, and now, for Thea herself.

A peripheral and stereotyped presence in The Song of the Lark, the Navajos gain more attention and more nuance twelve years later in Death Comes for the Archbishop; their artistic accomplishments are recognized and admired, and Bishop Latour’s friend Eusabio emerges as an expressive and sympathetic character.[11] Cather’s detailed description of Eusabio’s clothing illustrates her newfound appreciation for Navajo artistry: “He always dressed very elegantly in velvet and buckskin rich with bead and quill embroidery, belted with silver, and wore a blanket of the finest wool and design. His arms, under the loose sleeves of his shirt, were covered with silver bracelets, and on his breast hung very old necklaces of wampum and turquoise and coral” (220). The Song of the Lark’s “turquoise and silver bracelets” and “wooly red and gray blankets” transform from cheap trinkets and ignored domestic objects into expressions of Navajo aesthetics and craftsmanship. When Latour journeys to meet his friend after Eusabio’s only son has died, Eusabio greets him with the single remark, “My friend has come” (232). Of this greeting the text states, “That was all, but it was everything; welcome, confidence, appreciation” (232). Here we see The Song of the Lark’s clumsy description of the Navajos as profoundly mute recast as one man’s individual reserve. As Latour settles into the hogan Eusabio has provided, he notices the “grove of tall, naked cottonwoods—trees of great antiquity and enormous size—so large they seemed to belong to a bygone era. They grew far apart and their strange, twisted shapes must have come about from the ceaseless winds that bent them to the east and scoured them with sand, and from the fact that they lived with very little water—the river was nearly dry here for most of the year” (231). As with Eusabio’s verbal economy, there are echoes here of the somewhat silly description of the “great pines” in The Song of the Lark that “grow alone” (295). Instead of being personified, however, the trees in Death Comes for the Archbishop are beautifully described and integrated into the natural world. Furthermore, the offensive equation of the trees with the Navajos that Cather makes in The Song of the Lark is nowhere to be found.

By the time of the publication of Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, Cather had obviously begun considering indigenous Americans as individuals rather than cultural exemplars. Both Eusabio and Jacinto, Latour’s Pueblo guide, emerge as distinct characters in the novel. Most interestingly, in contrast to Thea’s and Tom’s blithe assumptions of a shared consciousness with Indian people, Latour realizes that there are aspects of indigenous culture that as a non-Indian he cannot experience. Regarding Latour’s relationship with Jacinto, Cather writes, “There was no way he could transfer his own memories of European life into the Indian mind, and he was quite willing to believe that behind Jacinto, there was a long tradition, a story of experience, which no language could translate to him” (97). Latour’s acknowledgment that Jacinto’s culture is uniquely his own and not available for export or appropriation illustrates Cather’s own evolving cultural awareness and her abandonment of Indian play. Unlike both The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House, each of which features Native culture as experienced and mediated through the consciousness of a central non-Indian character, Death Comes for the Archbishop depicts individual indigenous people as possessing their own desires and agendas independent of the preoccupations of the novel’s white characters. In their introduction to Willa Cather and the American Southwest, John Swift and Joseph Urgo affirm the continuing relevance of the ideas articulated in Death Comes for the Archbishop, citing the text as “providing grounds for analysis and debate of issues that remain central to contemporary visions of the nation’s future as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society” (10). Published in 1927, Cather’s final southwestern novel depicts the region as something other than a vacation spot for disillusioned white Americans. Although Death Comes for the Archbishop is by no means free of imperialism and Eurocentric ideas, it reflects Cather’s willingness to grapple with the extraordinary and exhilarating idea that the Southwest, and by extension the United States, might be more than a place of imaginative and economic possibility for Americans of European descent.


 1. According to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pueblo Indians possessed “sedentary agricultural characteristics” and lacked “the warlike disposition of the Plains Indians” (633). (Go back.)
 2. Itinerant southwestern tribes like the Apaches and the Navajos were often ignored by ethnographers who found them overly “primitive.” (Go back.)
 3. Mike Fischer provides a discussion the absence of Plains Indians in Cather’s Nebraska novels. (Go back.)
 4. Ann Moseley notes that the ruins Cather viewed in Walnut Canyon (the real-life counterpart of the fictional Panther Canyon) belonged to a pre-Columbian tribe retroactively named the Sinaguas (219). (Go back.)
 5. One notable exception is Lisbeth S. Fuisz, who not only recognizes the imperial dimensions of Thea’s use of the Southwest but argues provocatively that critics are often guilty of unintentionally “reinscribing” such imperialism by wholeheartedly endorsing Cather’s own autobiographical designation of the Southwest as a place of potential and renewal (40). (Go back.)
 6. Cather is truly ahead of her time. The mystical, kinesthetic appropriation of Native “essence” she shows Thea experiencing in 1915 greatly resembles the countercultural interest in indigenous spiritual practices during the 1960s and 1970s. (Go back.)
 7. There is a somewhat ironic contrast here between the numerous examples of deceitful women and Fred’s duping of Thea during their trip to Mexico. (Go back.)
 8. The use of beads as markers of achievement added another quasi-Indian touch to the Camp Fire Girls, while avoiding the masculine and militaristic connotations surrounding the giving of badges. (Go back.)
 9. The 1914 edition of The Book of the Camp Fire Girls lists both Jane Addams, who by the twentieth century was noted for her support of women’s suffrage as well as her settlement work (Knight 380), and Kate Douglas Wiggin, author of the beloved children’s book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and an opponent of suffrage (United States Congress) as members of the “Board of Electors” (Camp Fire Girls 6). Such disagreement on the specific nature of reformist principles reflects the miscellany of attitudes that could and did exist under the rubric of Progressive Era American thought. (Go back.)
 10. This passage, one of Cather’s rare lapses of precise description, illustrates the ludicrous metaphoric conceits otherwise excellent writers can be moved to use when they attempt to describe Indians. Janis Stout pointedly remarks, “What, one wonders, would a noncommunicative language be? And how would a tree ‘bear’—in the sense of having to bear a burden, not in the sense of producing or conveying an implication—an ‘exalted power’” (147). (Go back.)
 11. According to Edith Lewis, the character of Eusabio is based on Mabel Dodge Luhan’s husband, Tony Luhan, who was himself Navajo (143). Lois Palken Rudnick concurs, noting that “many of the characteristics that Mabel and other associated with Tony” may be found in Cather’s description of Eusabio (188). (Go back.)


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