‘A Chance to See Indians’: John Joseph Mathews’ Sundown (1934) and Native Americans in early automotive culture
The discovery of oil on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma in the early 1920s made the Osages the world’s richest community almost overnight given their collective ownership of the land’s mineral resources. The booming North American automobile industry ensured that demand for petroleum remained constant, and many citizens of the Osage Nation used their newly-acquired wealth as a means to participate in automotive culture, with all of its privileges and limitations. Up to this point, the (colonial) history of the automobile in the United States had Native Americans positioned not in the driving seat but in the background, as primitive people who made up part of the scenery. Their assumed technological ineptitude and deep connection to the land made them natural curiosities, to be observed from the safety of a motor vehicle. This singular perspective was perpetuated in all manner of automotive literature from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, including the first periodical in the English language dedicated to the automobile—The Horseless Age.
As well as advocating for the removal of horses from “civilised” society due to their anti-modern associations (a familiar colonialist solution), The Horseless Age also encouraged nationalistic attachment to the automobile—the new hallmark of civilisation. This idea was complicated, however, by Native Americans owning and operating cars, a sight which became all the more conspicuous following the Osage oil boom. One story which addresses these complications is the novel Sundown (1934) by Osage writer John Joseph Mathews (1894-1979), which, I will argue, narrates the difficulties inherent in separating the colonial symbolism of the car from its practical usages. Thus Mathews’ Osage characters find themselves in a double-bind as they seek to refute stereotypes of technological primitivism whilst still maintaining and respecting Indigenous connections to the land.
Daniel J Bowman is a PhD Candidate in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, funded by the White Rose College of Arts & Humanities. After receiving his BA from the University of Northumbria in 2014, Daniel lived and worked in South Korea before returning to Sheffield in 2017 to complete his MA in English Literature. His PhD thesis—entitled ‘Horsepower: Animals in Automotive Culture, 1895-1935’—examines the impact of the automobile on the lives of animals, both human and nonhuman, in U. S. literature and culture. Daniel is also a member of the Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre.