Book review: Zitkala-Sa: American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings
Zitkala-Sa: American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings edited with an introduction and notes by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. Highly recommended.
Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), a South Dakota Sioux (through her mother; her father was white) born in 1876, the year of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was an educator, musician, writer, and activist. She served as the secretary and treasurer of the Society of American Indians (SAI) and as editor of SAI’s American Indian Magazine.
This collection of Zitkala-Sa’s work includes background information about the author; a chronology of contemporary events; selections from “Old Indian Legends” (retellings of oral story traditions); “American Indian Stories”; selections from American Indian Magazine; and some of her poetry, pamphlets, essays, and speeches.
“Old Indian Legends” introduces Sioux traditions, including Iktomi (a trickster who often takes the form of a spider), Iya the glutton (able to consume whole villages), and the characters of the Sioux world — coyotes, ducks, the terrifying Red Eagle and the stranger who slays it, turtles, toads, mice, bears, badgers, and more. While at first these traditions and stories may strike the outsider as different and alien, to some extent they can evoke some European fairy tale traditions (which also may seem alien to modern sensibilities). Some of the most charming, like “Dance in a Buffalo Skull,” are written in human terms but have no human characters. “Dance,” with its “two balls of fire” growing “larger and brighter” and building of suspense, is an excellent short horror story as well.
The editors note that Zitkala-Sa “makes significant changes to the traditional tales in order to address key political and social issues . . . specifically, land infringement, challenges to tribal sovereignty, and the effects of missionary boarding schools on Yankton or Sioux culture more generally.” Careful in her use of her second language, English, Zitkala-Sa makes a telling transposition in her preface to “Old Indian Legends”; the Indian is the “little black-haired aborigine,” while the European-American is the “blue-eyed little patriot.” Can the people who subjugate and destroy the original natives of the land be anything more than “little” patriots? How great can their patriotism be? The answer is implicit, but Zitkala-Sa believed the old Indian legends belong as much to him simply because of “our near kinship with the rest of humanity” and because “After all, he [the Indian] seems at heart much like other peoples.”
Several of “American Indian Stories” (which established Zitkala-Sa’s literary reputation) are mostly autobiographical. Some describe her representative experience at a Quaker boarding school in Wabash, Indiana. In these, Zitkala-Sa masterfully makes the reader feel how shocking and horrifying our comfortable culture was to children who grew up in a different — but comfortable — culture, beginning with the cutting of her hair. There are the “loud, metallic voice” of the bell and the “annoying clatter of shoes on bare floors.” There is always a “clash of harsh noises” — but mostly there is the “murmuring of an unknown tongue.” Zitkala-Sa and others are lured to the school by the promise of “red apples” — a clear reference to Genesis. She refers to her own culture for her revenge on the devil.
The most poignant tale, one that is frequently anthologized, is “The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman,” in which a woman must obtain rights she never would have needed but for white man’s law through the trickery of two Indian men who have learned dishonesty in the white men’s schools. “A Warrior’s Daughter,” also often anthologized, tells of an Indian woman who takes action and therefore fate into her own hands — Zitkala-Sa’s prescription for women and for her people.
“Selections from American Indian Magazine” and “Poetry, Pamphlets, Essays, and Speeches” are largely exhortations and expositions of Zitkala-Sa’s viewpoint. In “The Red Man’s America,” she satirizes “My Country, ’tis of Thee” to reflect the Indian’s disenfranchisement — a favourite theme. Although her advocacy of Indian citizenship was not shared by all Indians (for example, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy), Zitkala-Sa felt that, without that right in their own country, Indians would continue to languish unnecessarily as wards of the state, without power or basic rights in a democratic land. Other topics include warnings against the use of peyote; the bravery of Indian soldiers during WWI as well as the place that bravery should have earned the Indian in American society and the brotherhood of man; the need for Indians to become educated and to learn English (her own painful school experience notwithstanding); and the Black Hills claim and similar injustices, such as theft of Ute grazing land, the laws against Indian dance, and the lost treaties of the California Indians. To Zitkala-Sa, Indians were not on an even playing field with whites and, until they took action to educate themselves, secure their rights, and obtain the power of legislative and legal representation, they would continue to be helpless to manage their future.
I recommend that you read Zitkala-Sa together with On the Rez, Ian Frazier’s description of today’s life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Together, they tell a tragic tale of the past 130 years that does not bode well for the “brotherhood of man.”
22 September 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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