"Pushing from their hearts a new song": The (re)construction of the feminine in American Indian women's poetry

Date of Completion

January 2006


Women's Studies|Literature, American|Native American Studies




Although American Indian women traditionally have been held in high esteem in their communities and have been essential to the survival of those communities because of their abilities to ensure physical continuity through the act of birthing and cultural continuance through their roles as purveyors of tribal wisdom, centuries of colonization have led to the maternal disempowerment of Indian women and to the dismantlement of their once intimate and supportive communities. ^ This dissertation examines the ways in which American Indian women poets confront a history of maternal disempowerment by adopting poetry as an avenue through which they can reconstruct kinship networks and reestablish lines of communication between themselves, their ancestresses, and their contemporary daughters. In the space of the poem, Paula Gunn Allen, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, nila northSun, and Luci Tapahonso take over the roles long played by grandmothers and elder women in traditional societies by passing down crucial cultural and gender-specific knowledge to their daughters. ^ They not only reinvent the process of communication between generations of women, but they also reclaim and reassert the importance of knowledge about and access to a matrilineal inheritance. Allen reimagines the narratives of historical mothers; Hogan reconnects women to a nurturing natural world; Harjo taps into the powers of mythical maternal figures; Rose constructs her own matrilineage through art; northSun exposes the dangers of disconnectedness from maternal figures; and Tapahonso expresses veneration for traditional ways of mothering and forms of maternal empowerment. This dissertation situates these women, the first generation of living, writing, and publishing Indian women poets, within an Indian and an American literary tradition and explores the ways in which they rediscover, redefine, and give birth to new constructions of Indian womanhood.^