Zitkala-Sa: Companionship Through a New Narrative
There are snarls in the fabric of our language, obscuring or falsifying issues of sex, race, sexuality, class and gender. The untangling of language is a painstakingly ongoing process, but the task is made easier by those early writers -- many of them essayists -- who laboriously picked apart the first few strands, laying bare a few repressed truths of the human experience: Virginia Woolf is among them, as is James Baldwin, and so is Zitkala-Sa.
Born in 1876 on a Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala-Sa -- who would later publish essays in Atlantic and Harper's -- didn't learn the language in which she would eventually write until she was eight, off at school in Indiana. "Don't believe a word they say!" her mom says of the white missionaries in Zitkala-Sa's essay "The Big Red Apples," named for the treat promised to children who chose to go away to school. "Their words are sweet, but, my child, their deeds are bitter…"
Nevertheless, Zitkala-Sa elected to go. Though it "was not yet an ambition for Letters that was stirring me," this would become one of her reasons for staying in school, despite the many things she hated about the institution. School was simultaneously traumatic and exciting, and Zitkala-Sa parsed the muddled experience with cutting clarity in her essays, most of them collected in American Indian Stories.
The bad: she was separated from her family, forced to give up the clothes she wore on the reservation, and expected to obey rules communicated to her in a language she didn't understand.
"The Cutting of My Long Hair" explicates the emotional trauma of regular institutional indignities. She'd already traded in her moccasins and clothes, agreeing to wear the hard shoes and pinafore dresses that constituted the school uniform, but when it was time to have her hair cut, she refused, panicked, ran away and hid under a bed. Short, shingled haircuts were the new norm, but "our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!"
Zitkala-Sa was neither, so why should she get a haircut? But white schoolteachers didn't know -- or didn't care -- about the role hair played in Sioux culture. Zitkala-Sa was found, dragged out from beneath the bed, and subjected to a haircut. "I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit."
It was not just hair she lost at school. She also lost her place within the social structure of her tribe. When she returned after three years away, she wasn't happy or at home; she wasn't ready to relive her childhood of "Western rolling lands and unlassoed freedom." Rather she "seemed to hang in the heart of chaos, beyond the touch or voice of human aid."
"My mother had never gone inside of a school house and so she was not capable of comforting her daughter who could read and write," wrote Zitkala-Sa in "Four Strange Summers." "Even nature seemed to have no place for me. I was neither a wee girl nor a tall one; neither a wild Indian nor a tame one."
She had never felt completely comfortable at school, but now she also felt uncomfortable at home. Nothing was simple. She found herself remembering things she'd liked about school: learning to read, write and play the piano; gaining the ability to communicate her experience.
Learning was intoxicating, and halting her education to remain on the reservation -- which was changing anyway, slowly trading teepees for log houses, old religions for new Bibles -- had become untenable. At age fifteen, she made the decision to leave again and pursue college. Over two decades before Woolf read the lectures that would become A Room of One's Own at one of the early women's colleges, this was a rare choice for a woman at the time. For a Sioux woman, it was even more rare.
Zitkala-Sa's mother was decidedly displeased with her decision, and thus it was "homeless and heavy-hearted" that Zitkala-Sa began her collegiate life. As much as she didn't fit on the reservation, neither did she feel at home at Earlham College. Prejudices were stacked against her, and she endured daily small abuses. These all culminated at a debate she recounted in "Incurring My Mother's Displeasure."
Zitkala-Sa had been recognized as an excellent public speaker at Earlham, so it was no surprise when she was selected to represent the school at an inter-collegiate debate. But when she stood up to make her speech, a group of men from another college stood up as well, holding a white banner that read "Squaw" beneath a picture of a "forlorn Indian girl."
Zitkala-Sa was mortified and furious. "While we waited for the verdict of the judges," she wrote. "I gleamed fiercely upon the throngs of palefaces." Fortunately, she got the last laugh, winning second place. "The evil spirit laughed within me when the white flag dropped out of sight, and the hands which hurled it hung limp in defeat."
But even victory was complex. As a forerunner in the realm of education both for women and for American Indians, Zitkala-Sa was an anomaly, so there was nobody with whom to talk about her feelings: anger when she saw the derogatory banner, pride when she won, and, afterwards, the loneliness of not being able to share her victory with anyone who'd really get it. She couldn't even confide in her mom. "The little taste of victory did not satisfy a hunger in my heart," wrote Zitkala-Sa grimly. "In my mind I saw my mother far away on the Western plains, and she was holding a charge against me."
This was a big deal, as Zitkala-Sa's mother is a central figure in nearly all of her essays. Her childhood, until she left for school, was spent almost solely with her mother: cooking, doing chores, visiting with elders, learning beadwork. One day, as she recounts in "Impressions of an Indian Girlhood," her mom began to cry as the walked home. When pressed, she explained that her tears were for family members who'd died on a forced reservation relocation not long before. "This aroused revenge in my small soul," wrote Zitkala-Sa. "Stamping my foot on the earth, I cried aloud, 'I hate the paleface that makes my mother cry!'"
There was no shortage of wrongs to avenge. In the mid-1800s, when Zitkala-Sa's mother was young, the railroads began hiring hunters to exterminate buffalo herds, destroying the primary food source of many Sioux. The tribes became more and more dependent upon the federal payments guaranteed by treaties in order to buy food. In 1862, a little over a decade before Zitkala-Sa was born, one of these payments was late and there was little option but to go hungry. The Sioux were refused help at nearly every turn. In a show of ignorance worthy of Marie Antoinette, one trader even said: "If they're hungry, let them eat grass."
Then came the U.S. Dakota War, a six-week battle leading to hundreds of deaths plus increased limitations on Sioux rights. After one massacre, 303 Sioux were sentenced to execution without lawyers or witnesses. Abraham Lincoln signed off on this, the largest mass-execution in U.S. history, and suspended federal treaty payments for four years.
Tensions had reached a fever pitch by the time Zitkala-Sa was born, and she would be one of the last to experience her particular, idyllic childhood: "loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet, I was as free as the wind that blew my hair." She was fourteen during the Wounded Knee Massacre, the last armed battle between the Sioux and the U.S. government, in which over 150 men, women and children died.
Perhaps her mother saw Zitkala-Sa's desire for education as a betrayal -- defecting to the enemy -- rather than a simple thirst for knowledge. But nothing was simple. Even her mom's relationship to the European-Americans was complicated. Zitkala-Sa's father was a white trader, of whom little is known besides his name, Felker, and the fact that he abandoned the family shortly after she was born.
Zitkala-Sa could have been subsumed in thoughts of revenge, or taken the opposite route and immersed herself completely in European-American culture. Instead, she chose to walk the fine line of biculturalism. She played violin in the New England Conservatory of music while writing about her childhood; she was the toast of Boston society while simultaneously publishing provocative essays like "Why I Am A Pagan."
Eventually she took a job teaching music at the Carlisle School for American Indian children, but it wasn't long before she argued with the founder, disapproving of the school's modus operandi: encouraging children to assimilate fully and pursue menial labor jobs. In 1901, she moved back to the reservation to collect Sioux legends for a book -- Old Indian Legends -- "strongly drawn by the tie of a child to an aged mother."
Zitkala-Sa was fired from Carlisle, and historians surmise that this was most likely fired for a selection of essays and short stories she'd published that were critical of missionary schools, notably "School Days of an Indian Girl" in Atlantic and "Soft Hearted Sioux" in Harper's. A review of the latter in the Carlisle newspaper read: "All that Zitkala-Sa has in the way of literary ability and culture she owes to the good people, who, from time to time, have taken her into their homes and hearts and given her aid. Yet not a word of gratitude or allusion to such kindness on the part of her friends has ever escaped her in any line of anything she has written for the public."
But nothing was ever as simple as all that. That was the point. She was glad to have had an education, and said so, but one of the many things she'd learned was how unfairly the Sioux had been treated. Her eyes were open, so she lived a liminal existence, occupying the space between assimilation and rejection, anger and gratitude. This is the space her essays were written in.
Zitkala-Sa created a new narrative -- the emotional conflict of a Sioux woman at the turn of the century -- using the language of one world to translate the needs of another. Nothing like it had ever existed before, and its vocabulary would give future writers what Zitkala-Sa lacked most: a companion, in both victory and defeat.