American Indian Stories

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American Indian Stories, published in 1921 by Hayworth Publishing House, consists of works published previously in various magazines. These pieces were both autobiographical and fictional in character, and some saw slight revisions before being added to the collected work. Written by Zitkala-Ša (Sioux for "Red Bird"), the pen name for the mixed-blood Yankton Sioux writer and political activist Gertrude Bonnin (1876–1938), these well-written stories portray nostalgic reminiscence and fiery defense of the traditional ways of the writer's people. The stories included in the collection show the life of the Sioux at the transitional period at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The message of the book concerns the humanity of the Sioux in the face of severe wrong and continuing dispossession. Zitkala-Ša's book appeared twenty-three years after she first began teaching at the famous Carlisle Indian School. The intervening years saw her engaged in activism and editing, and the experience gained in both capacities is demonstrated in her pages. To fully appreciate the literary achievements of this writer, readers should consider how difficult it was for Native Americans, particularly women, to publish early in the twentieth century. Furthermore, this is especially true given the efforts of these writers to reach a white audience with the continuing viability of their traditional tribal cultures.


One of several Native American writers at work in this transitional period of literary production of those identifying as Indian, Zitkala-Ša writes to demonstrate continuing conflicts between tradition and assimilation. In doing so, her work also concerns conflicts between politics and literature as well as between traditional tribal religions and the various forms of Christianity that influenced Native Americans at the turn of the century. For instance, whereas Charles Eastman's Indian Boyhood (1902) uses the word "superstition" for some Sioux traditions, to Zitkala-Ša it is Christianity that is made up of superstition. What some have seen to be sentimentalized and poetic language in her work is attributable to the popular journal style of the time, showing that like her predecessors in Native American literature, Zitkala-Ša comprehends the need to adopt the literary fashion of her time in order to reach her predominantly Euro-American audience.

Her first book, titled Old Indian Legends, was published in 1901. A collection of trickster tales, the book was illustrated by a colleague at Carlisle, a Winnebago teacher named Angel DeCora. This book's intention was to validate the continuing viability of Lakota culture. In the category of "retold tales," these stories are typical of many being written during this transitional period by other Sioux writers. Some of these stories were included in readers for schoolchildren on the East Coast.

Her autobiographical work and fictional pieces were published in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly Magazine, and Everybody's Magazine between 1900 and 1902. These articles were later published in 1921 as the collection entitled American Indian Stories, which came to be the writer's most famous work. They suggest that her education caused a rift between Zitkala-Ša and her mother and the Sioux people and also demonstrated disagreement on many issues with Colonel Richard H. Pratt, her employer at the Carlisle Indian School. These disagreements show her pride in her heritage and culture as well as anger toward unjust treatment of Native American people. This is especially clear in the essay "The Great Spirit." While the stories can be read as separate pieces, having been previously published as magazine articles, they become particularly powerful when read together as a narrative. Starting with autobiographical depictions of the move from childhood to boarding school student and subsequently to being a teacher herself, the book leads to several stories concerned with a female protagonist. The final entry, "America's Indian Problem," evokes the political activist she had become over the course of her intense career.


The first section of American Indian Stories is subtitled "Impressions of an Indian Childhood" and begins with a chapter referencing the writer's mother, a significant gesture in a traditional culture with particular respect for matrilineal lines. Also significant is the fact that this first story opens with a reference to her mother's "wigwam of weather-stained canvas" (p. 68). The traditional dwelling of her people, of course, was made of buffalo hide, but in the state to which they had been reduced by the end of the nineteenth century, canvas was more easily obtained than buffalo. A primary part of her memory of her mother is of sorrow, initially associated with resentment toward "the palefaces," who caused the death of others in the woman's family. She insists that Dakotas were the only real men, and the white man is a sham. Of course, it should be noted here that the writer's father was a white man, although her mother notes that since the death of her uncle and sister, even her father is now buried on the hill. In this opening chapter Zitkala-Ša has the mother state that they were once very happy, before seeing their lands stolen by the white man (p. 69).

The second story in the collection describes the author's delight with the old legends of her people. She relates an occasion of inviting people from the village to share the evening meal and her childish impatience to hear their stories at that time. In the context of hearing the stories, she notes the distant howling of the wolves, as if to include the natural world in the telling of the stories.

In chapter 3 the memories of the girl's childhood reflect the children learning from their parents, beginning with her efforts to mimic her mother's skilled beadwork. The story also references the comforts of life in their tipi lodge. The beadwork leads to descriptions of imagined envy of her friends over imagined moccasins, then the story demonstrates the children reflecting the lives of their parents in generosity as they engage in playful gift giving.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss particular incidents and personalities from the girl's tribe, again reflecting the generosity of spirit the child was raised to show. In the first case, a "crazy man" of whom the child was afraid is deserving of pity and is to be shown hospitality, despite her fear (p. 77). In the next case, a plum bush was to be left alone as its roots grew from the skeleton of a brave man who had been buried with the seeds that were used in a game the man had enjoyed playing during his life.

In the sixth chapter the girl remembers traditional ways of preparing preserved foods for the coming winter. The chapter is named for a chipmunk that stole bits of drying corn in his own efforts to lay food aside for the coming hard weather. Here one sees the people and the rodent engaged in a similar practice of preparation. It is in the context of winter that the writer then introduces the intrusion of missionaries, whose gift of glass marbles reminds the child of frozen river water. This chapter functions as a transition in the narrative inasmuch as the appearance of the missionaries reflects the girl's imminent departure from her traditional life.

After these several chapters of memoir, the author shifts to being lured away from home by the promise of apples, which is so powerful a symbol of temptation and regret that apples enter the titles of two chapters. The writer acknowledges that it is the apples that attract her, not yet the lure of learning letters (p. 84). The girl's mother wishes to prevent her from joining those who go with the missionaries to the boarding school, but she acknowledges that the changes that have resulted from the loss of the land will necessitate an education, and she sees that opportunity as belated payment for the theft of the land (p. 86).


The second section of the collection is called "The School Days of an Indian Girl" and consists of several short chapters, the first of which describes her journey to "the land of red apples." Knowing no English, traveling far from home and made an object of derisive curiosity to the children of white travelers on the train, the little girl goes east to a boarding school with other Indian children. Regret soon follows in the depiction of the children's experience there, the loss of every aspect of their culture: language, religion, familiar scenery, and daily activity. This is especially represented by an unwanted haircut that completely ignores the victims' cultural context and leaves them with haircuts only cowards or mourners wore.

The white man's religion enters the text in the figure of the devil, who causes the child a bad dream concerned with what she calls an "evil divinity." After the dream she rubs a ragged hole into each eye of the picture of this devil from the "Stories of the Bible" book that first introduced him to her. The author's introduction into civilization is presented as an "iron machine" in which teachers' pencils moved "automatically" in marking absences. The next chapters show the writer's growing resistance to assimilation, and in the context of having met the white man's devil, she describes her own efforts both to rebel and excel as her own brand of deviltry.

Chapter 6 of this section shows the child returning home after three years of school and finding herself between worlds as a result. She describes herself as "neither a wild Indian nor a tame one" (p. 97). Others who had been to school are in a similar situation, and she notes that they were "no more young braves in blankets and eagle plumes" but rather "wore the white man's coat and trousers, with bright neckties" (p. 98). Sensing the child's uneasiness, her mother asks her to read from "the white man's papers," a Bible that missionaries had left with her years before. She accepts the book "for her [mother's] sake," but claims her "enraged spirit felt more like burning the book" as it "afforded me no help" (p. 99). The final chapter in this section describes her mother's displeasure at her deliberate disobedience in her return to the East. An outstanding example is winning an award for oratory when mean-spirited critics waved a large white flag bearing a dejected Indian girl and "words that ridiculed the college which was represented by a 'squaw'" (p. 103).


Almost abruptly, with a new section in the text, the writer is teaching at the Carlisle Indian School. Sent west to recruit other students, she is reunited with her mother for a time. During this visit she is reminded again of her mother's resentment toward the white man, as seen in her indictment of the "paleface who offers in one palm the holy papers, and with the other gives a holy baptism of firewater." In this context she complains of still further encroachment of the white man as she notes the increasing number of homesteaders living in self-dug caves in the banks of the river (p. 110).

The final chapter of this section, "Retrospection," expresses the author's disgust with the hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christian yet continue to defraud her people. She laments having given up her "faith in the Great Spirit" in exchange for "the white man's papers." Firmly settled in the East, she bitterly decries "this semblance of civilization" in which she now lives (pp. 112–113). This is another transitional chapter because after declaring her loss of faith in her traditional spirituality and concluding this section of the collection, she reaffirms that faith in the subsequent essay.


The final portion of the text is not subtitled and is not divided by chapters. The essay that originally saw publication as "Why I Am a Pagan" appeared under the title "The Great Spirit" in the collected version. Every aspect of the writer's description of that holy wonder is expressed in relation to the natural world of her homeland. Amidst this idyllic depiction of "pagan" spirituality, intrudes the converted Indian missionary. Dismissing his dogma, Zitkala-Ša reflects that she prefers to hear the voice of the Great Spirit in the birds, waters, and even the "sweet breathing of flowers" that ended the original version. To the version published in the collection she adds a paragraph that references "a fleeting quiet" in which she is "awakened by the fluttering robe of the Great Spirit," having "flowing fringes" consisting of the heavenly bodies of the universe (p. 117). Following this moving declaration of Native spirituality, the writer turns to fictional accounts of her transitional times, and the final essay is a manifesto declaring proposals to resolve "America's Indian Problem" and demonstrate the writer's lifelong commitment to working for better treatment of indigenous people of all tribes.

See alsoAnnexation and Expansion; Assimilation; Indians; Indian Wars


Primary Work

Zitkala-Ša. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Secondary Works

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Allen, Paula Gunn, ed. Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Bell, Betty Louise. "'If This Is Paganism . . .': Zitkala-Ša and the Devil's Language." In Native American Religious Identity: Unforgotten Gods, edited by Jace Weaver, pp. 61–68. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1998.

Bernardin, Susan. "The Lessons of a Sentimental Education: Zitkala-Sa's Autobiographical Narratives." Western American Literature 32, no. 3 (1997): 212–238.

Fisher, Dexter. "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala-Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional American Indian Writers." In Critical Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget, pp. 202–211. Boston: Hall, 1985.

Hertzberg, Hazel W. The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1971.

Willard, William, "Zitkala-Sa: A Woman Who Would Be Heard!" Wicazo Sa Review 1, no. 1 (1985): 11–16.

Young, Mary E. "Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons." In Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rick Waters

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American Indian Stories

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American Indian Stories