What one needs to know about the content of the periodicals which the Carlisle Indian Industrial School has published, is that every publication of these magazines was edited by the so-called “Man-on-the-Bandstand” to insure that those publications were suitable for a white audience. This mysterious person might have been Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the school. However, in this case of Cora’s contribution to the “Red Man,” the periodical in which the story was printed, Pratt could not have been this person, as he resigned as head of the school in 1904 and this issue was published in 1913. In any case, as a reader, we cannot be sure whether Elm’s very compressed version of the creation myth was intentional or if it had been adjusted by the editor, as the representation of Indian identity in those texts were strictly regulated, according to the literary scholar Amelia V. Katanski.
General R. H. Pratt is known to have been a great assimilator, thus his main goal was to civilize, Christianize, or, in short, to Americanize the Indian students. Therefore, in my following analysis, I will try to find traces of this Americanization, taking into account other representations of the Oneida Creation Myth.
Cora Elm’s version of the myth can in many ways be regarded as highly ambiguous. It is cryptic what her real intent was to contribute this legend, especially since she revised the myth in that she seemed to have left out a lot of crucial details of the story, which appear very prominently in the other versions of the Creation story. Did she simply want to educate her white American audience about her nation’s beliefs, or did she try to simultaneously convey a deeper message? A close reading of her version suggests that Cora indeed tried to go beyond the role of a tribe educator.
The first thing that I noticed while reading other representations of the origin story was the absence of any male creature. Now, this could simply suggest that this is how the story had been orally transmitted to her, as oral transmissions always imply discrepancies to the original source. It could also mean that Cora wanted to stress the idea of a matrilineal society, which her nation represents, since only the mother of the daughter in the story is mentioned. One last possible, although rather far-reaching assumption, could be that Cora regarded herself as feminist, given the fact that she took part in the woman suffrage parade in Washington, and that she therefore did not want to contribute with a story portraying men in power, which the other versions of the story do, to the patriarchal society, in which she found herself.
Another factor that seems quite prominent in the juxtaposition of the other versions is the absence of any spirits. Rather, Cora writes about the human race having lived in the clouds. Here one can speculate whether this was a conscious editorial decision, in order to make the story more relatable to the white, Christian audience and to simultaneously oppress the Indian belief, as there are no spirits involved in the Christian Creation story, but only God and humans, personified by Adam and Eve. Another proof that would contribute to this speculation is the fact that Cora writes about the daughter having committed a “sin,” a concept that plays a key factor in the Genesis story. Additionally, the description of the daughter as being beautiful and charming could function as the personification of the treat of seduction, which, in the Christian belief, obviously is a sin, as Eve is seduced by the snake to eat the forbidden fruit. Involving such Christian images would again speak in favor of Cora having customized this Oneida belief for her American readers, who were, after all, possible donors to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Nonetheless, if one assumes that Cora tried to show in her story how different living beings are able to live with each other in peace and harmony, in order to challenge Pratt’s mania of assimilation, it appears to be more plausible that it was a conscious choice on Cora’s part. By speaking about humans rather than about spirits who live jointly with the animals, a reader could identify more easily with the characters in the story.
An issue, which this story seems to address, is that of Xenophobia (def.: “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign”). The animals were first afraid of this “extraordinary being” and immediately held a council to decide how they could protect themselves from her. However, after the woman landed and the animals got closer to her, they decided she is not a threat and actually found her “delightful.” This is where Cora’s version matches other representations of the story. The animals were initially afraid of this creature falling from the sky only to then realize that they like her and do not need to be afraid of her. Again, one could argue that Cora simply displays the Oneida Creation story. On the other hand, since the employment of humans rather than spirits in her version could suggest possible ambiguity, Cora could also be regarded as a quiet voice of resistance in that she disagreed with the idea of “the melting pot,” which Pratt seemed to impose upon the Indian students, by telling a tale of different beings who manage to live with each other without forcing one group to assimilate to the other group.
She also does not acknowledge how the animals were specifically responsible for creating North America, which would have represented their high value inside her nation even more (not to forget, the turtle carries the Earth on its back and thus offers the humans in the story earth as home). This fact is, in my opinion, the most obvious proof that Cora either intended to leave out this crucial piece of information, or that “the-Man-on-the-Bandstand” edited her story, to make it more fitting for the American readership, as animals clearly have a different significance in our society and generally, this would have not conformed to the Christian belief.
No matter Cora Elm’s true intentions, I argue that this work should be included in our anthology, as it offers invaluable cultural as well as religious and spiritual insight into the Oneida Nation. According to oneidaindiannation.com, the act of storytelling is “an important component of the Oneida culture,” as they teach their people “how to live, act, and care for one another.” Thus, Cora might have applied this tradition to her story not only to educate her audience, but to also teach them important values.
I have shown that the meaning of Cora’s version is constructed through conversations with other representations. Due to its high ambiguity, especially in juxtaposition with other works, her work adds valuable literary merit to the canon.