Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Autobiographical Vignettes by Zitkala-Sa

Edition: American Indian Stories
Zitkala-Sa's three autobiographical vignettes were published in the Atlantic Monthly in January, February, and March 1900: "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "The School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher among Indians." Zitakala-Sa was by this time taken up by the Boston literary coterie, and also published a number of stories and essays in Atlantic, Harper's, and Everybody's Magazine. One of her most controversial pieces was an essay entitled "Why I am a Pagan" in Harpter's, 1902.  Eventually, the vignettes and other stories were collected under American Indian Stories by Hayworth Press of Washington D.C. in 1921.

Zitkala-Sa, a member of the Sioux American Indians, came of age during a time when American Indian writers had begun to transform traditionally oral literature into written literature, for purposes of preservation and also reaching larger audiences via the mechanisms of periodical culture. Much of Zitkala-Sa's literary career was concentrated earlier in her life; later on she became an important advocate for American Indians in Washington D.C., creating the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and holding a position as its president until her death in 1938. (Source: Deter Fisher, Introduction to American Indian Stories)

"Impressions of an Indian Childhood" chronicles a carefree and idyllic time for Zitkala-Sa, dominated by memories of spending time with her mother. The account is written from a retrospective viewpoint tinged with a tone of loss and remembrance--in noting, for example, how she recalls feeling "not wholly conscious of [her]self, but was more keenly alive to the fire within" she draws a direct contrast to how she felt stared down by "palefaces" on her way to school. From her birth to the age of seven, Zitkala-Sa learns of her mother's sadness at the deaths of Zitkala-Sa's uncle and sister at the hands of the white men,  eagerly hears legends during the evenings from elders coming over to their wigwam for dinner, learns the craft of beadwork, and roams free outdoors with her childhood friends, chasing her own shadow or eating roots and gum from the earth. There are many humorous moments, such as when she poured lukewarm water from the Missouri onto some used coffee grinds to serve her grandfather when he came over. In retrospect, she is deeply grateful that he nevertheless drank, and when her mother returned to the wigwam, she too refrained from embarrassing her. Again, this is later contrasted with experiences of belittling and embarrassment at school. In her eight year, Zitkala-Sa encountered "two paleface missionaries" who offered to take her away to school. Yearning to ride the "iron horse" and to experience new places (her brother had already been away to school), she deeply wanted to go away to school despite her mother's deep reservations. Her mother relents, and speeding away on the horses and looking back at her mother's lonely figure, Zitkala-Sa says that she "no longer felt free to be myself, or to voice my own feelings."

"The School Days of an Indian Girl": The lines of regret that conclude the "Impressions" set up the lonely, self-conscious days that Zitkala-Sa spends at school. Though she would end up being an extremely apt pupil, even winning a state speech competition, her account downplays her successes and focuses on her difficulties. They begin on the train to the Quaker school she would attend--white mothers and children would stare at her and point at her moccasins. The school is a sterile, cold building with white walls, in direct contrast the colorful and warm surroundings of her home. She underscores in particular the loud noises of hard shoes on the floors, and the clanging bell which imprisoned them under a routinized regime. In a particularly traumatic episode, Zitkala-Sa remembers running away to hide because she did not want her hair to be cut; they drag her out and tie her to a chair and do it anyways. She remembers, "Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only on e of the many little animals driven by a herder." After this initial breaking in period, Zitkala-Sa began to learn some English, and to rebel in quieter ways--one time, she was supposed to mash turnips for a meal and she mashed so hard that the bottom of the jar broke and all the mashed turnips fell to the floor. Still, she learned the paleface's curriculum, including about the white man's devil, in addition to the "iron routine" of "the civilizing machine." After three years of school, she returned home, feeling alienated and unhappy, having lost her carefree innocence of her early years. Eventually, she decides to go back for a college career, which meets with displeasure from her mother. It was during this time that she won the oratorical contests, a victory downplayed by her sketch's focus on the racist white flag depicting an Indian girl which an audience member waved as she gave her oratory. When a prize is given to her, it almost seems like an afterthought.

"An Indian Teacher Among Indians":
She decides to become a teacher in an Eastern Indian school, avoiding going home to her mother on account, she says, of her "pride." She recalls her employer looking disappointed when he sees that she is "the little Indian girl who created the excitement among the college orators." She finally returns to her mother's house, when she is sent off by the school to find pupils. Her mother doesn't immediately welcome her into her arms, since at first she thinks that her driver is someone she has brought home. The misunderstanding cleared, her mother welcomes her. They have fallen on hard times--Dawee, her brother, had been fired from his position as a government clerk because he had spoken up against injustice perpetuated on their tribe. Returning to the school after visiting with her mother, Zitkala-Sa finds it to be woefully inadequate: student work was done up just so that the inspectors could grant approval and it was all about the satisfaction of those who "were paying a liberal fee to government employees in whose able hands lay the small forest of Indian timber."

CRITICAL APPROACH/ANALYSIS: (Quotations from this section are from Fisher's Introduction)
A Harper's Bazaar piece on "Persons Who Interest Us" describes Zitkala-Sa as a "young Indian girl, who is attracting much attention in Eastern cities on account of her beauty and many talents...until her ninth year she was a veritable little savage, running wild over the prairie" but that "she has...published lately a series of articles in a leading magazine...which display a rare command of English and much artistic feeling." The description is indeed very much at odds with Zitkala's own account of herself and rather seems to treat her with the very attitudes that she seeks to resist in her account. Her stories far from tell of her progress from "little savage" to educated literary elite, rather, they are intensely critical of the sterile, routinized, surveillance-heavy, and freedom-killing nature of the "paleface" education system. As mentioned above, she hardly celebrates the moments which put her on the map as far as mastering a "white education" goes; winning the oratorical state competition is dramatized more for its triumph over racist attitudes than mastery of a white, rhetorical form. Back at home, she was treated as a valuable and reasonable individual, in both trivial situations like when her mother and uncle refrained from laughing at her mistake in making coffee and more important ones, like when her mother allows her to make the decision to go to school. Upon entering the train car, she is treated like an object to be stared at, and once at school, she is thrown up into the air like a doll and herded along with the rest of her classmates like animals. The piece in Harper's simply does the same thing to her, appropriating her as a celebrity-object to be stared at for her "youth," "beauty," and (vaguely enough), "many talents."

Zitkala-Sa's vignettes clearly show that she is not proud of her beauty or her ability to excel in a "civilized" world--she would rather not feel like she was being "looked at" and self-conscious, and she doesn't view her education as really all that valuable at all, compared to the things which her mother and older members of the Sioux knew. Learning to function in the white man's "system" is not necessarily to have a voice, as borne out by such statements as the one above, or by her brother's firing because he had spoken up against injustice. Interestingly, it is a negative review of one of her stories in a school newspaper that actually gets closer, perhaps, to getting her right: "All that Zitkalasa 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 that she has written for the public." This seems true in my own readings of her autobiographical material and I suspect she isn't "grateful" because getting a white man's education was something of a necessity for survival in a time during which her people, culture, and traditions would soon be entirely wiped out. There was no choice, and the education was no "gift."

It is, perhaps, not surprising, finally, that Zitkala-Sa moved from a more literary sphere to a more politically active sphere. There seems to be a way in which speaking at all in the press means subjecting oneself to be its property and losing control over one's own intended image and ideas.

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