American Indian Stories, Second Edition


American Indian Stories, first published in 1921, is a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and an essay. One of the most famous Sioux writers and activists of the modern era, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) recalled legends and tales from oral tradition and used experiences from her life and community to educate others about the Yankton Sioux. Determined, controversial, and visionary, she creatively worked to bridge the gap between her own culture and mainstream American society and advocated for ...
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American Indian Stories (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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American Indian Stories, first published in 1921, is a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and an essay. One of the most famous Sioux writers and activists of the modern era, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin) recalled legends and tales from oral tradition and used experiences from her life and community to educate others about the Yankton Sioux. Determined, controversial, and visionary, she creatively worked to bridge the gap between her own culture and mainstream American society and advocated for Native rights on a national level. Susan Rose Dominguez provides a new introduction to this edition.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803299177
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 196
  • Sales rank: 1,313,978
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Zitkala-Sa (1876–1938) is also the author of Old Indian Legends and Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and “The Sun Dance Opera,” both published by the University of Nebraska Press. Susan Rose Dominguez is an affiliate scholar of history at Oberlin College.
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Table of Contents

Impressions of an Indian Childhood 7
The School Days of an Indian Girl 47
An Indian Teacher Among Indians 81
The Great Spirit 101
The Soft-Hearted Sioux 109
The Trial Path 127
A Warrior's Daughter 137
A Dream of Her Grandfather 155
The Widespread Enigma of Blue-Star Woman 159
America's Indian Problem 185
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First published in 1921, American Indian Stories is remarkable for being perhaps the first literary production by a Native-American woman created without the mediation of a non-Native interpreter, ethnographer, editor, or collaborator. The text is a powerful articulation of Zitkala-Ša's personal struggles to maintain ancestral Dakota cultural values within Euroamerican-institutionalized educational systems that sought to "civilize" and assimilate Native students at the turn of the twentieth century. American Indian Stories vividly renders Zitkala-Ša's disillusionment with, and resistance to, the harshness of American-Indian boarding schools and the corruption of government institutions ostensibly established to help Native peoples. At the same time, Zitkala-Ša's collection of autobiographical essays, short stories, and political writing charts the progression of the author's estrangement from her Dakota people that her colonial education inevitably fostered. Despite her feelings of alienation, however, Zitkala-Ša's proficiency in the English language she learned in "the white man's" schools enabled her to become an influential writer and an award-winning orator in her day, talents she employed throughout her lifetime to expose the injustices in the United States' treatment of its indigenous inhabitants, and to advocate for their full enfranchisement into American society. During an historical period when it was extremely difficult for a Native woman to publish her own writing, American Indian Stories stands as significant testimony to a deeply transitional era for Native Americans. Much more than an indictment against U.S.attempts at Native deculturation, American Indian Stories portrays one Dakota woman's spirited and successful efforts to resist the restrictions she felt in both reservation life and Euroamerican assimilation by appropriating the very discourse of those who would "tame" her.

A Yankton woman of the Dakota Sioux, Zitkala-Ša was born on the Yankton Reservation of South Dakota in 1876, the same year as the momentous Battle of the Little Bighorn (or Greasy Grass). Born Gertrude Simmons, she later named herself Zitkala-Ša, which means "Red Bird" in the Lakota language, and continued to use both names in various contexts throughout her life. The daughter of Ellen Simmons, a full-blood Yankton woman, and Ellen's third husband, a white man who abandoned his wife and daughter before Gertrude was born, Gertrude grew up living "as free as the wind that blew [her] hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer." At eight years old, Gertrude left home against her mother's wishes to attend White's Manual Institute, a Quaker boarding school for Indian children in Wabash, Indiana. She continued to move between her reservation home and Euroamerican schools, attending Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, from 1895 to 1897, after which she became a teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was established by retired military officer Richard Henry Pratt, whose educational "experiment" for American-Indian children was founded on the brutal slogan, "Kill the Indian and save the man." Disillusioned by the rigidity of Carlisle and questioning its educational value for Native students, Zitkala-Ša resigned her position in 1899 to attend the Boston Conservatory of Music in Massachusetts, where she achieved notoriety for her writing, violin performance, and oratory.

Zitkala-Ša continued to write creatively and make public appearances throughout her lifetime. She married Raymond T. Bonnin, a Yankton man, in 1902; the Bonnins had one child, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin, in 1903. Together the Bonnins spent the remainder of their lives involved in Pan-Indian activism, and in 1911 Zitkala-Ša joined The Society of American Indians (SAI), a progressive group whose Native members worked on both grassroots and national levels to effect Indian self-determination, primarily through assimilation. She was editor of SAI's journal, American Indian Magazine, from 1918 to 1919. In 1913, Zitkala-Ša collaborated with William Hanson to write an opera called The Sun Dance, which incorporated modified traditional Native music and dance. The Sun Dance was enthusiastically received, eventually being performed by the New York Light Opera Guild in 1938 as the "Opera of the Year." After the SAI disbanded in 1920, Zitkala-Ša became active in the General Foundation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), in which she helped establish an Indian Welfare Committee. Zitkala-Ša lobbied hard at this time to see legislation passed that would grant citizenship to Native Americans; this finally happened in 1924 largely through her persistent efforts. Founding The National Council of American Indians (NCAI) in 1926, Zitkala-Ša became president of the group and held this office until her death in 1938 at the age of sixty-one. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The historical crucible of Native-Euroamerican relations in which Zitkala-Ša lived was a turning point for the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota, as the three groups comprising the contemporary Sioux people refer to themselves. In the Battle of the Little Bighorn some two thousand non-treaty Lakota and Cheyenne warriors achieved a powerful victory over approximately two hundred U.S. soldiers under the misguided leadership of General George Armstrong Custer. The Native warriors were defending ancestral hunting grounds rightfully theirs by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, a treaty that had further eroded the already diminished land base of the Sioux Nation. The end of treaty making in 1871 and the confinement of Native peoples to reservations caused tremendous disruptions in traditional hunting and food gathering patterns, gender roles, and cultural practices, and huge numbers of Native Americans lived in poverty and near starvation by the close of the nineteenth century. Yet despite the wrong-headedness of Custer's maneuvers at Little Bighorn, Lakota success there could not go unpunished by a U.S. government intent on eliminating its so-called "Indian problem." The last overt military conflict of the nineteenth century perpetrated against Native people by U.S. troops was the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in which it is estimated three hundred Sioux and Cheyenne were slaughtered in consequence of growing Euroamerican paranoia about the possible political mobilization of Natives in the region who practiced the nonviolent Ghost Dance Religion. Although Zitkala-Ša never refers to this atrocity in her autobiographical stories (the first of which was published just ten years after Wounded Knee), as a fourteen-year-old Dakota girl living on her reservation when the massacre occurred, she would have been well aware of its devastation to her people.

The majority of the selections in American Indian Stories first appeared in periodicals against the backdrop of this recent history. The Atlantic Monthly published "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "The School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher Among Indians" in 1900, followed by the 1901 publication of "The Trial Path" and "The Soft-Hearted Sioux" in Harper's Magazine. In 1902, "A Warrior's Daughter" appeared in Everybody's Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly published Zitkala-Ša's essay "Why I Am a Pagan," which appears slightly modified as "The Great Spirit" in American Indian Stories. These early stories were quite popular, and appeared alongside stories by literary figures such as Jack London, Edith Wharton, W. E. B. Du Bois, Henry James, and Kate Chopin. In 1921, Zitkala-Ša collected these seven pieces and added the new selections "A Dream of Her Grandfather," "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman," and "America's Indian Problem" for publication - along with a laudatory letter by Helen Keller for her first book, Old Indian Legends, published in 1901 -- as American Indian Stories. It was Zitkala-Ša's goal at this time to draw renewed attention to American-Indian issues from a Native perspective during the Progressive Era.

Zitkala-Ša's stories have been sometimes viewed as reflecting a fractured existence because they describe her bicultural movement (like other boarding-school-educated Native people in her day and after) within Euroamerican and Native spheres, and the tensions around this mobility. To view her writing in this way, however, does not do justice to the complexity and skill with which Zitkala-Ša negotiated multiple cultural arenas simultaneously to create an integrated, if ambivalent, portrait of her experiences. "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," for example, reflects a young girl's upbringing shaped by exhilarating freedoms within the rhythms of a Dakota cultural education, but this was not an idyllic existence. Long before leaving the reservation, Gertrude had learned of Euroamericans through the embittered stories of her mother, who was mistreated by two white husbands, and through paternalistic Euroamerican policies toward Indians during the nineteenth century. These situations informed Gertrude's attitudes about Native-Anglo relations prior to her direct interactions within the majority culture. Witnessing her mother's pain, the seven-year-old Gertrude "cried aloud, 'I hate the paleface that makes my mother cry!'" Zitkala-Ša was well aware of the majority culture's images of "Indians," images she at times resisted and at times enacted in the rhetoric of her writing by deploying such phrases as "wild little Indian" and "the heartless paleface." While today such phrases may read as melodramatic or nostalgic clichés, this language succeeded in capturing her readers' attention at the same time it authenticated the author's Native identity.

In "The School Days of an Indian Girl," Zitkala-Ša outlines the allure of the Euroamerican culture that simultaneously her restricted physical, spiritual, and intellectual freedoms while also laying the foundation for later outlets for her creative expression through public oratory, writing, and musical performance. When Quaker missionaries come to Yankton to recruit students for boarding school, Gertrude temporarily forgets her hatred and becomes seduced by "paleface" promises. Gertrude pleads with her mother to go with the missionaries to their school where she had heard "red, red apples" grew abundantly for the taking, like a young Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Reluctantly, her mother consents, although aware that her "daughter must suffer keenly in this experiment." As contemporary critics like Margaret A. Lukens have discussed, Zitkala-Ša's masterful use of Biblical rhetoric "won her instant recognition among the literati of the Northeast." Her stories appealed to early twentieth-century Euroamerican audiences partly because Christianizing "heathen" Natives was the order of the day, and Zitkala-Ša demonstrated that she had learned her Bible well.

Yet Zitkala-Ša subverts her white readers' expectations of grateful Natives conversions from "savagism" by appropriating the very imagery and rhetoric that has elicited Anglo sympathies. "The School Days of an Indian Girl" pointedly reverses the Christian model of the fall from grace by demonstrating that it was the logical, compassionate, and humane education Zitkala-Ša enjoyed as a child among her Yankton people that was "paradise," and the senseless rules, mechanistic activities, and cruelty meted out in Christian boarding schools that resulted in "the fall" to spiritual degradation and physical deterioration for many Native American children. Critic Dorothea M. Susag explains that "To the traditional Dakota, children are wakan, sacred," and are treated by adults with respect as "dignified little individual[s]," as Zitkala-Ša writes. Treated with a distinct lack of dignity and respect in Euroamerican boarding schools, Native children like Zitkala-Ša discovered that the fruit of knowledge tasted bitter indeed. As scholars Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris discuss, it is the point of view in these stories, which "[lend] the maturity of the adult author to the terrified perspective of the small child," that evoked compassion from the Euroamerican readership whose systems the stories sharply critique.

In "An Indian Teacher Among Indians," Zitkala-Ša's indictment of a dehumanizing Euroamerican educational process for Native students seems complete, as she has now taken on, ironically, the very role of institutional authority that had contributed to her own alienation and deculturation as a young student. As a teacher in a federal Indian boarding school, Zitkala-Ša is frustrated by the incompetent staff and by the flow of Anglo visitors to the school who are "astounded at seeing the children of savage warriors so docile and industrious," but "have [not] paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization."

"Why I Am A Pagan," published here as "The Great Spirit," was an even more provocative essay for its time and was deemed "trash" by Zitkala-Ša's former employer Captain Pratt because it dared to directly assert the superiority of Dakota spirituality over Christian ideology. The mainstream's perception of the "civilized/savagism" binary that placed Euroamericans on a higher evolutionary scale than Natives, and other non-white groups, is deftly inverted in "The Great Spirit." Here, the extreme feelings of alienation Zitkala-Ša had felt as a boarding-school teacher are gone. "The Great Spirit" describes the restoration of her original connection with the natural world as a source of spiritual nourishment and psychic wholeness, ironically proving that Euroamerican educational practices have not succeeded in routing out her Dakota identity. Her reconnection with the totality of Dakota spirituality even counters the racial caste system Christianized education for Indians had explicitly delineated. "I seem to see clearly again that all are akin," writes Zitkala-Ša. "The racial lines, which once were bitterly real, now serve nothing more than marking out a living mosaic of human beings." Interestingly, it is on some level "the condescending fascination with Native Americans" by Euroamericans and the popularity of "highly stereotypical and racist image[s]" of Natives that, as scholar Patricia Okker asserts, actually helped gain Zitkala-Ša a wide audience at the turn of the twentieth century.

While the primarily non-Native audience for whom Zitkala-Ša wrote would not have been aware of the many Dakota cultural references woven throughout her stories, contemporary scholarship has highlighted the assertions of Dakota literary sovereignty that undergird much of her writing. One significant Dakota cultural figure who is present in multiple guises in American Indian Stories is Iktomi, the spider trickster or "snare weaver," as Zitkala-Ša writes in the preface to Old Indian Legends. Iktomi's dubious qualities include impulsive action, thoughtless behavior, making a fool of others, smooth talking to manipulate situations to his advantage, and working as little as possible. Those who come to know him, Zitkala-Ša explains in Old Indian Legends, "soon go away sick and tired of his vain, vain, words and heartless laughter." Not wholly negative, however, Iktomi is a multi-faceted figure whose mischief making is instructive, and who is thereby capable of both creation and destruction, and always of transformation.

Iktomi is mirrored in several of Zitkala-Ša's American Indian Stories, beginning with the "smiling missionaries" whose words plant false pictures of paradise in the minds of the children they lure from the reservation and transform in boarding schools, to the smooth-talking Native "nephews" in "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman." In the story of Blue-Star Woman, the two young men who appear in their "short-cropped hair" and "white man's shoes" purport concern at having heard Blue-Star Woman is "slowly starving to death," yet the pair proceeds to devour Blue-Star's entire breakfast of fried bread and coffee. As they eat, the men explain to her how they can help Blue-Star Woman get an allotment of land, for which they will charge her half of whatever they recover. As she watches them devour the rare delicacies a neighbor has given her, Blue-Star Woman silently observes that, "Coyotes in midwinter could not have been more starved." Zitkala-Ša's invocation of the trickster here demonstrates that Iktomi might adopt the guise of Natives as well as Anglos to weave his deceitful web in the notorious project of stealing Native lands from the unsuspecting. "In her dire need," Zitkala-Ša writes, "[Blue-Star Woman] had become involved with tricksters. Her nephews laughingly told her, 'We use crooks, and crooks use us in the skirmish over Indian lands.'"

This story was published some thirty years after passage of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, a piece of legislation putatively designed to assimilate Natives by allotting them parcels of their own communal reservations for agricultural cultivation, and offering so-called "surplus" lands for sale to whites. Under this devastating policy, over two-thirds of the more than 136 million acres of American-Indian land holdings passed into non-Native ownership within the forty-seven years of allotment, until the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 terminated the policy. The bitter irony in Zitkala-Ša's conclusion of "The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman" at once criticizes current governmental practices around Native land distribution, guardianship, and usurpation, and maintains Dakota oral-storytelling traditions through invoking Iktomi in the figures "the two pretenders" who visit Blue-Star Woman.

Zitkala-Ša consistently asserts the strength of Dakota women in her stories, from her mother's own endurance of bitter circumstances to the warrior role adopted by Tusee when she rescues her captured lover in the story "A Warrior's Daughter." Zitkala-Ša expands her vision of female power as an agent for political change by including Euroamerican women in the final two selections in American Indian Stories. Her personal involvement in the GFWC, a philanthropic group whose activities focused on women and children, offers additional insight into the story "The Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman," in which help for Native peoples is envisioned through Chief High Flier's dream of a "great galaxy of American women." The GFWC's influence also appears in the essay "America's Indian Problem," where Zitkala-Ša writes of the corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and asserts that, "Now the time is at hand when the American Indian shall have his day in court through the help of the women of America." Focusing her appeals for Native justice and political enfranchisement through the lens of Euroamerican domesticity was another effective rhetorical strategy Zitkala-Ša utilized to bring popular attention to the causes for which she ardently advocated.

Zitkala-Ša demonstrates her mastery of Euroamerican literary devices and rhetoric to reconfigure Dakota oratorical power and to promote the value of Native systems of knowledge as equal to those of Euroamerica. The majority culture she primarily addressed had only recently ceased its large-scale, outright violence against Indian peoples, yet it possessed little understanding of the violence within its assimilation policies for Native peoples. Speaking as a witness and a survivor, Zitkala-Ša's American Indian Stories is aimed at a massive Euroamerican reeducation about the history and conditions of the nation's original inhabitants, an ambitious, imperative undertaking then and now. Zitkala-Ša's message in American Indian Stories consistently asserts Native sovereignty, dignity, and the right to self-determination within the larger fabric of American society and eloquently affirms that Native Americans have always been quite capable of speaking for themselves.

Jane Haladay holds a Ph.D. in Native American Studies with an emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis, and an M.A. in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona. Her work focuses on literary practices of cultural self-determination and the subversion of ethnic and gender stereotypes in the writings of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Native-North-American authors.
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