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Cogewea Re-thinking American Identity

Page history last edited by Abigail Heiniger 4 years ago

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  • How did your independent work week work?  




Genre, Form and Ethnic Literature


Cogewea: The Half Blood, published in the 1920s, concludes our nineteenth-cententury protest-novel tradition. Crafts, Chesnutt, and Humishuma all negotiate the mainstream protest novel (epitomized by Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin). The protest novel is usually identified as a part of the sentimental novel tradition: the purpose was to educate the reader through feeling (and thus reform society). Closing out this tradition in the 1920s, Humishuma resists sentimental tone and embraces a hardier message of personal growth in an imperfect world.  


Challenging Manifest Destiny


Humishuma also engages in another tradition: the literature of Westward expansion. Authors like Theodore Roosevelt (and Mark Twain and Louis L'Amour...) were a part of a wide-spread culture of mainstream white male myth-making about the American West. However, their myth is only a part of the story. Louis Sacchar begins to write back to this tradition in Holes (although his novel is set in Texas, and it's Western identity is complex).   


Humishumia was the first Native American woman to write a novel in the United States. She wrote as she worked as a migrant laborer in the American West. And she offers readers a very different view of this region, American identity, and heroism. 


Symbolic Actions:


Whereas Crafts primarily focuses on Hannah's physical journey through slavery to freedom, Cogewea's journey to freedom is symbolic.


Group Work:

Break into groups and find examples of symbolic freedom in the text. You may want to consider: clothing, action, and thoughts. 


Close Reading: 


Here is an example of a close reading of this text. 


Riding a horse is a recurring metaphor in this novel for social negotiation and flexibility. A characters ability to maneuver in society is reflected by their skill on horseback. Race, romance, and citizenship converge in Cogewea’s negotiation of two recurring labels: “lady” and “squaw.” This is most prominent in the often-anthologized chapter “The ‘Ladies’ and the ‘Squaw’ Races.”[1] These races are a part of the Fourth of July celebration in town. While Cogewea acknowledges the emptiness of the celebration for her, she uses it to publically permeate the communities that have rejected her (Humishuma 58-59).  


Initially, Cogewea only plans to enter the “Ladies” race. Jim, Cogewea’s interracial love interest, helps her prepare for the races and decide which horse to use: Bay Devil or White Star. Their conversation is important; it demonstrates that both Jim and Cogewea embrace a fluid concept of race (to the extent that they accept racial categories at all).  

Jim: “Now Sis, don’t pout! I didn’t mean anything. Am only anxious for you to win the ladies race today. Want to see you put it over them there high toned white gals who think they can beat the Injun gals a ridin.’ If you ride White Star, I’ll bet my summer’s wages on you and I know durn’ well he’ll come out in the lead.” 

“Say Jim! I’ll ride the Star in the squaw race,” exclaimed the girl in elation. “I’m part Injun and can participate in that as well as in the ladies race. They can’t stop me from riding in both races, can they? If there’s any difference between a squaw and lady, I want to know it. I am going to pose as both for this day.”  

“That’s a go, little squaw! The Devil in the ladies race; the Star in the squaw race. Come! Let’s get home.” (Humishuma 58-59)

 Jim not only supports Cogewea’s flexible self-definition, he celebrates her fluid racial identity. He is proud of her participation in both races, literally and figuratively. He demonstrates this by betting on her and then challenging the judges who deny her right to self-identify as both Caucasian and First American.


Group Work:

  • How does this fit the description of "close reading" described on the Harvard Writing Lab page?
  • How is it different?
  • How could you do this with your future papers? 



Costuming and Fluid American Identities. 

Cogewea uses costuming to negotiate her racial identity at the races.


Discussion questions:

  • What does she wear for the "Ladies Race"?
    • What is the national significance of this?
    • What is the racial significance of this?
  • What does she wear to the "Squaws' Race"?
    • What is the national significance of this?
    • What is the racial significance of this?
      • What is the IRONY of Cogewea's costume in this race? Cogewea's mother was Okanogan, not Kootenais!
    • What attention does Cogewea draw from the white men in the audience when she dresses as a squaw?
        • " Some swell looker for a Kootenai squaw, eh? Mighty good pickin’ for a young feller like you. Wish I wasn’t so badly married! I’d sure keep an eye out for her. But the Missus would raise a hurry-Cain if she knowed that I rather like some of the squaws around here." (Humishuma 65) 
      • What is the significance of this?


Judging American Identity


Once the judges realize that Cogewea rode in both races, they disqualify her for the prize from the white “Ladies’ Race.” Both Jim and Cogewea confront them with the hypocrisy of the ruling. The argument is finally reduced to a debate over definitions: what is the difference between a “lady” and a “squaw.” The white judge contends that the difference between these terms is essential and thus it does not need a definition: 

Judge: “She is a squaw and had no right to ride in the ladies’ race.”… 

Jim: “Only one word more, Judge, and I ain’t trailin’ for no disagreeableness. You paid the little gal the twenty-five dollars ‘cause she’s a squaw?” 

Judge: “Yes, and I am not going to pay her the forty-five dollars for the same reason; that she is a squaw! Do you get that?” … 

Jim: “My hearin’ ain’t no ways defective,” came the serene reply without notice to this side clamor, “But I may be locoed as to your meain’. I take it that the little gal bein’ a squaw, she can’t be a lady! Is that it She’s a waitin’ to hear you say that. Tell these here people your ‘cisin regardn’ the character of the little gal.” 

The judge was astounded…. The judge, a man of tried nerve in more than one gun fight, like a storm-cloud about to pour its wrath upon a waiting world, paused; choking with livid rage. (Humishuma 68-69)


Cogewea closes the debate by throwing back the money. Her speech highlights the fact that she is no more Native American than she is Caucasian:  

Take your tainted money! I do not want to touch any thing polluted by having passed through your slimy hands! And, since you are disbursing racial prizes regardless of merit or justice, pass it on to the full-blood Kootenai woman, who, like your white protégée, won second place only. She is as much entitled to it as is Miss Webster to the money which you are so chivalrously withholding from me. I am as much Caucasian, I regret to admit, as American, and measured by your rum-fogged ideals, a mere nobody; with no rights to be respected. (Humishuma 70)   


Riding and Metaphors in Cogewea


  • How is the act of riding a metaphor in this chapter?
    • What does this chapter say about Humishuma as an author?
  • What literary categories does she negotiate?
  • What regional categories does she negotiate? 

Competing Voices


American fiction, like American herself, is a world of competing voices. How does Humishuma imagine a new hero for America? 



  1.  How does Cogewea's attitude and approach change in the final chapter of the novel?
  2. How does it compare to other stories we've read?
  3. What does it say about the overarching perceived possibility of change in the novel?

 Group Work:


Cogewea provides the reader with a strong visual sense of the situation. Break into groups and describe how you would film a passage from the book and WHY you would make certain filming choices. 


Using Scholarship:


Mourning Dove and Mixed Blood - Cultural and Historical Pressures on Aesthetic Choice and Author.pdf   


How does Margaret Lucas negotiate biography and close reading in her article? This is a good model for anyone interested in exploring the way that regional or ethnic literature works out a real-world issue. 


Find examples of both close reading and biographical/historical readings in the article and describe how they work TOGETHER to create a message. 



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