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American Indian Stories
by Zitkála-`Sá
Modern Library, $17.00, 320pp
Published: May 2019

Almost a year ago now, I reviewed 'The Heads of Cerberus', a science fiction novel from 1919 written by a pioneering female writer, Francis Stevens, the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett. The reason was that it was part of a new series under the Modern Library imprint called Torch Bearers, which aims to showcase "women who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance."

Along with 'The Heads of Cerberus', I picked up another couple of books from this series that I haven't looked at until now. This one certainly fits that description, even though it's far from a science fiction novel. It's a slim collection of childhood memories, short fiction, articles and poetry which were originally published in 1921. The author is another Gertrude, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, though she was born Zitkála-Šá, which is the Lakota word for the cardinal bird. She was a member of the Yankton Dakota, part of the Sioux nation.

Almost everything about Zitkála-Šá is flavoured by culture clash. The first part of this book reminisces on her early life, which she spent running free in the lands around her mother's wigwam by the Missouri river. However, the white man arrives in the form of Quaker missionaries who are collecting kids for schools they run back east. She chooses, even at a young age, to go with these missionaries and, at that point, the change begins.

Life at school isn't as degrading as I'd have expected but it's not pleasant and only starts with her long hair, culturally important, being cut off with no objections allowed. After a few years, she goes back home and discovers a disconnect has entered her life. She's still Yangton Dakota but it isn't all that guides her. As she becomes a teacher herself, she starts to realise how much she's changed and she sees both the good and the bad in that.

Her short stories are especially interesting, because they tell much of the same story in very different ways. The world of the white man has encroached upon the Dakota and it's both adopted and resisted. In the stories that stay entirely within a Native American framework feel like attempts by the author to remain connected to her roots.

My favourite story here is The Soft-Hearted Sioux, which focuses on a young Dakota man who has become a Christian missionary. Returning to his tribe, he finds his father sick and his new moral code prevents him from bringing him meat. The tribe listen to him but leave, which sparks a crisis and the man's struggle manifests in a tragic fashion worthy of Poe.

Also very telling is The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman, which isn't remotely like Poe, that title notwithstanding, and is a deeply cynical look at the problem of land. Young Native Americans, working with white men, decide to help an older lady of the tribe who has no documentation to prove her heritage and so can't claim land. This altruistic beginning soon becomes as dark as we might expect, though, unlike The Soft-Hearted Sioux, it stays grounded throughout.

'American Indian Stories' is a deceptively clever collection because much of it doesn't seem particularly substantial, especially early on, but it has an overriding theme that gradually becomes clear, sending a firm message to the reader. Once we get to that point, it starts to feel appropriate that those early reminiscences are fragmented and insubstantial. Zitkála-Šá is holding them close as treasures, but her new life is consistently moving her onwards and away from them.

Modern Library are honouring Zitkála-Šá as a writer and she was clearly very important on that front. There are a couple of political articles here that she wrote for Harper's Monthly and Atlantic Monthly, periodicals for white men who she addressed without fear. She would later edit and write articles for American Indian Magazine, where her work was far more political. In 1913 she wrote the book for the first Native American opera, which was staged in Utah, though a 1938 production in New York tellingly omitted her name.

Her work in politics continued until her death in 1938, battling the Bureau of Indian Affairs, lecturing nationwide and campaigning for citizenship for all Native Americans and other legal recognised human rights. In 1926, she founded the National Council of American Indians, with her husband, who was of mixed race. She also served as its first president.

It's clear from even a cursory look into her history that she both regretted leaving what she remembered as an idyllic early life, free from the world of the white men, and understood that it was inevitable, meaning that her path through Quaker education into teaching, writing and political activism was a good and worthy one. If, in this book, she asks the question of how such a balance can be kept, her life answers it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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