Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) (Sioux) (1876-1938)
Contributing Editor: Kristin Herzog
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Without a knowledge of Zitkala-Sa's life and the near impossibility for an American Indian woman of her time to publish independently, students will wonder where these stories fit in. It is important to point out the extreme difficulties of a writer trying to preserve a tribal heritage and yet to communicate to a white audience.
Besides dealing with matters of biography, history, and style, I think approaching these early American Indian authors from the religious perspective (Native American spirituality versus enforced assimilation to Christian beliefs) is effective in helping students to sense the very basic dilemma of a writer, a problem of cultural and spiritual identity that goes deeper than mere issues of civil rights, important as they are.
Students easily identify with the aspect of social criticism or rebellion, but may not find the style particularly attractive because they do not know the historical and biographical background and the tastes of the literary market at this time.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Zitkala-Sa is a transitional writer whose life and work are expressing deep conflicts between tradition and assimilation, literature and politics, Native American religion and Christianity. If we focus on the tension between her artistic and her political commitments, she can be seen in the middle between Susette LaFlesche, whose fiction was almost submerged by her political speaking and writing, and Leslie Marmon Silko, who is able to create a blend of traditional and modern fiction that organically incorporates a political stance.
Nor by far are all of her political activities reflected in her writings, but in her editorials for the American Indian Magazine, for example, she discussed controversial issues like the enfranchisement of American Indians, Indian contributions to military service during World War I, corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and allotment of tribal lands. The selections reprinted here from American Indian Stories are neither essays of cultural criticism nor strictly autobiographical accounts. They are an attempt at turning personal experience as well as social criticism into creative "stories."
One aspect of Zitkala-Sa's imbalanced, but path-breaking, attempt to merge cultural criticism and aesthetic form is her struggle with religion. In Parts IV and V of "School Days," she vividly describes the little girl's nightmares of the palefaces' devil and the bitterness she felt when a schoolmate died with an open Bible on her bed, listening to the "superstitious ideas" of the paleface woman taking care of her. While Charles Eastman in Indian Boyhood (published in 1902, two years after "School Days") uses the word "superstition" for some of his Sioux traditions, Zitkala-Sa turns the matter around: Christianity to her is superstitious.
Similarly, "Why I Am a Pagan" is an unusual statement in her time. Its sentimentality and self-consciously "poetic" language can partly be ascribed to the popular journal style of the time. There is daring in her point of view. Interestingly, she does not satirize a white preacher, but one of her own kin whom she sees as tragically duped by the Christian "superstition." Even though we learn from other sources that she and her husband denounced the Peyote religion and therefore to some extent hampered the fight for American Indian freedom of religion, the fact remains that she asserted the dignity of Indian religion and put her finger on two blindspots of Christianity that are being overcome only in our time: the disregard for nature and the disrespect for other cultures. What Christian theology is learning today from ecology and anthropology as well as from some of its own forgotten roots, Native American writers learned from their ancient tribal traditions.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The selections from "The School Days of an Indian Girl" expose the blatant injustice of stripping a child of language, culture, religion, and familiar surroundings. At the same time they express the irony that the maltreated student is extremely unhappy upon returning home and finally feels the urge to return to the place of her earlier sufferings. While the style is sometimes stilted or sentimental, it is at other times direct and powerful, as, for example, in the passage on the hair cutting. In learning about American Indian customs and beliefs ("short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards"), we are made to experience the trauma of the child. In hearing the mother's desperate cry for help from the spirits of her departed warrior brothers, we can sense the tragic family divisions caused by forced assimilation.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The many years of literary silence in Zitkala-Sa's life seem to indicate a serious break between artistic endeavors on the one hand and relentless activism on behalf of American Indian health, education, legal representation, and voting rights on the other. However, in her few publications she actually anticipated the concerns of contemporary writers. In blending autobiography with creative narrative, elements of tribal traditions, and social criticism, she helped to pave the way for those recent writers who have focused more clearly and more comprehensively on their own traditions.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What is your knowledge of American life around 1900 in terms of what you have "absorbed" over the years? In terms of consulting recent scholarly works?
(b) What do you suppose were the difficulties of a Native American woman writer in writing for a white audience around 1900?
2. (a) How are literary art and protest merged in Zitkala-Sa's work?
(b) How did Zitkala-Sa pave the way for contemporary American Indian writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, or Louise Erdrich (in case contemporary American Indian women authors have been read in the class)?
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986, 82.
Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership. New York: Van Nostrand, 1977, 40f.
Eastman, Charles A. Indian Boyhood. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902, 172, 177. Christianity and superstitions. See also Hertzberg, The Search for an American Indian Identity, especially 256ff. and 262.
Fisher, Alice Poindexter. "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala-Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional Writers." Ph.D. Diss., City University of New York, 1979, 36. On the quality of the passage on hair cutting.
Fisher, Dexter. "Zitkala-Sa: The Evolution of a Writer." American Indian Quarterly 5 (August 1979): 229-38.
Hertzberg, Hazel W. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1971. Describes her political activities.
Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and James W. Parins. A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772-1924. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981, 17f. For a list of writings by Zitkala-Sa. See also the Supplement to this volume, 1985, 16.
Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1978. Helpful in explaining to students the many reasons for a break in creativity, especially as it pertains to women and members of minorities.
Schöler, Bo. Introduction to Coyote Was Here, p. 10.
Stout, Mary. "Zitkala-Sa: The Literature of Politics." In Coyote Was Here: Essays on Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization, edited by Bo Schöler, 74. Aarhus, Denmark: Department of English, University of Aarhus, 1984.
Young, Mary E. "Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons." Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. I.