Students and faculty gathered in the Special Collections Room of the Francis Harvey Green Library on Tuesday, April 12 to hear Dr. Carolyn Sorisio speak about her recently published, award-winning anthology, “The Newspaper Warrior.”
In an interview led by Dr. Eleanor Shevlin, Director of the West Chester Center for Book History, Sorisio discussed her work and advocated for Native American rights.
Edited with Cari Carpenter, an associate professor at West Virginia University, the book contains newspaper articles, letters and other texts written by or about Native American activist Sarah Winnemucca.
Winnemucca was a Northern Paiute lecturer and advocate for indigenous tribes in the U.S. during the late 1800s, and the first Native American woman to publish an autobiography.
She is also recognized for her work with the U.S. military during the Bannock War of 1878 as a guide, scout and translator of five languages.
Sorisio conceived of the anthology on Winnemucca several years ago when she realized that, despite Winnemucca’s prolific career and renowned presence in the late 19th century, little comprehensive knowledge had been compiled on the activist.
When asked by Shevlin why she chose print as the medium for her publication, Sorisio commented that there is currently very little archival and supplemental material on historical minority women.
“She deserves a book,” Sorisio said.
With the help of four graduate students and one undergraduate, Sorisio scoured through hundreds of newspaper archives and other forms of writing to encapsulate the primarily non-print culture in which Winnemucca lived.
“These were texts in their own right,” Sorisio said. “[They] broaden the idea of text.”
The compilation of these texts shines a well-deserved light on Winnemucca’s accomplishments in her fight for justice for Native Americans during Peace Policy years. President Ulysses Grant’s Peace Policy of 1869 established Native American reservations and boarding schools designed to assimilate Native Americans to European culture.
Winnemucca began her career as a lecturer in 1879, after more than 500 Paiutes were forced from their land and made to walk to the Yakima Reservation at the height of winter, where they were confined. Winnemucca had been persuaded under false pretenses to deliver the Paiute people to General Oliver Howard, with whom she had worked closely during the Bannock War. She brought her tribe to Howard under the assumption that he meant to help the Paiutes, but his actions led to their eventual internment.
She first spoke out against their mistreatment and betrayal across California and Nevada, before heading east and delivering close to 300 lectures. She eventually negotiated for their freedom and, in 1883, Winnemucca published her autobiography, “A Life Among the Paiutes.” She also established her own private school for Native American youths and worked closely with newspapers to make sure that the plight of her people was known.
Sorisio said that the collection of records and writings in “The Newspaper Warrior” offer “glimmers of how you can piece together Winnemucca’s authorship.”
The book also settles questions about Winnemucca’s influences. It was previously thought by some, for instance, that Winnemucca was driven to publish work by Mary Peabody Mann and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, two important figures in her career.
Sorisio, however, argues this perspective is condescending. The research in her book reveals that Winnemucca was already engaged in print culture by the time she met Peabody and Mann.
Published by University of Nebraska Press, Sorisio’s first pitch to the publisher was rejected with concern that the work would be too theoretical. She met Carpenter sometime later and was surprised to learn that Carpenter was coincidentally working on the same project and topic of Winnemucca.
“It was weird,” Sorisio described. “Someone else is working on this in America?”
The two chose to collaborate together, and their second pitch was successful. Sorisio emphasized that she was extremely grateful to the Nebraska Press as they took a risk publishing a book about a relatively unknown author and obscure topic. The compilation won the 2015 Susan Koppleman Award for Best Anthology, Multi-Authored, or Edited Book in Feminist Studies in Popular and American Culture from the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association.
During a Q&A session with the audience, Sorisio discussed the irony with which Winnemucca approached the romanticized “Indian Princess” image that became embedded in European culture, alternating between traditional costume and European attire to possibly throw off audiences. When a point regarding the importance of Winnemucca’s skills in translation was brought up, Sorisio said Winnemucca called attention to its complexity.
She has argued that Winnemucca shows the complexity of translation but did not believe this extends to a point where people cannot understand each other. She was a “universalist,” said Sorisio. She believed that people “could speak across culture,” and it was this work to which Winnemucca dedicated her life.
Etta Griffin is a fourth-year student majoring in English writings with a minor in journalism. Contact her at EG826453@wcupa.edu