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Saturday, August 9th, 2008

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11:16p
A window to a different world ...
American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) is an interesting book, on several levels. One of these is how books long past their copyright protection get into print (there is a copyright notice in this, but it's just for the introduction, a fascinating essay by Jane Haladay, dating from 2005, not for the book, which originally came out back in 1921). The book is also fascinating as a look at a transitional period for the Native American peoples, being a collection of stories, primarily autobiographical, by Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (or Zitkala-Sa) who was born into the traditional Indian lifestyle, was lured to "go East" to the White schools, and who excelled at these to the extent that she ended up going on to college and becoming involved with the Women's movement (the original publication of the book was in the year following the passage of the 19th Amendment), which she seemed to have thought was going to be the salvation of the Native American peoples (the book starts with a letter from Helen Keller, thanking her for a copy).

Personally, I would have liked to have had this book edited a bit, with some "historical context" put around the stories, which would have also strung them together to some extent. As it stands, the individual stories come and go without much connection, and at this remove seem something like a series of dreams, floating through as narratives from some unreal world. Generally speaking, they do seem to follow through the author's life, from being a young girl, going off to school, and various identifiable coinsurances beyond that, but there are additionally bits that don't seem to be concretely in the flow, standing out sometimes as a pang of loss for ways that were fading, sometimes as a harsh light beamed onto the double-dealing that was rampant with the government.

Frankly, when I bought this collection, I had anticipated it being "American Indian Stories", i.e., the efforts of a Native American to preserve some of the lore and wisdom of her people within the new reality of the White man's literature, so I was a bit surprised to find this was more of an autobiographical effort (if at something of a remove) instead. There certainly are elements of the traditional materials in here (especially in things such as Dead Man's Plum Bush), but it's hardly a focus.

The author and her family struggle with the changes in their world, from living in tepees in mobile villages, to living in log cabins in areas demarcated by the railroad's maps, and trying to process the loss of their religion beneath the wheels of the missionary juggernaut.

Anybody who's read much of the "Indian Literature" of the past 30 years is familiar with what a raw deal the Natives got ... from Jefferson on down, it was policy to promise anything and deliver little. The book concludes with a section called America's Indian Problem which briefly touches on parts of unpublished Congressional reports which contain passages such as:

Behind the sham protection, which operated largely as a blind to publicity, have been at all times great wealth in the form of Indian funds to be subverted; valuable lands, mines, oil fields, and other natural resources to be despoiled or appropriated to the use of the trader; and large profits to be made by those dealing with trustees who were animated by motives of gain. This has been the situation in which the Indian Service has been for more than a century - the Indian during all this time having his rights and properties to greater or less extent neglected; the guardian, the government, in many instances, passive to conditions which have contributed to his undoing.
Still, the tone is not confrontational ... this is not the Indian voice raised by Vine Deloria Jr. and writers of more current generations (still dealing with the neglect and abrogation of treaties) ... but there is clearly a note of silent accusation throughout the whole. Even when the author has "triumphs" in college, the shadow of the passage of her culture hangs heavy over her words.

Certainly, everybody that reads Deloria should pick this up for "background" ... in fact the author is credited (in the introduction here at least) with being instrumental in the passage of legislation leading to Native Americans being given citizenship in the U.S.A., so she is a voice that is essential to what has come to pass in the past many decades.

This is still in print, but, being a Barnes & Nobel book, is a bit spotty on availability outside of their stores. They do have it on-line for the $5.95 cover price, so this is a good throw-in to get an order over there up to the magical "free shipping" level, and the Amazon new/used guys have it as well (but not at any sort of a deal, so you'd do better going through bn.com).


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