American Indian Stories
by Zitkala-a | Dover Publications, Inc. | 89 pp | $5.95
It is said that “big things come in small packages.” Typically, the saying refers to a diamond or a gem having more value than an item much larger in size. “American Indian Stories” is such a gem.
an autobiographic journey
I found the small book that was originally published in 1921 and was republished in 2009 by Dover Publications in the gift shop at the International Civil Rights Museum on a recent trip to Greensboro, North Carolina.
The book contains a letter from Helen Keller to the author, Zitkala-a, dated August 25, 1919 with a caption on top that reads: “This book should be in every home.”
“American Indian Stories” is an autobiographic journey of essays and short stories Zitkala-a wrote. It was a journey for the young Zitkala-a from being an Indian girl to growing up and learning to balance her identity between Native traditional ways and existing in a Caucasian society.
Zitkala-a spent the first eight years of her life on the Yankton Reservation where she was born in 1876. At the age of 8, she convinced her mother she wanted to go to a boarding school in the East. Two missionaries convinced this Sioux child she could have all the big red apples she could have if she went East to attend the boarding school. She begged her mother to go so she could eat all the big red apples and gain an education. Her mother relented and allowed a young Zitkala-a to go East with the missionaries.
Zitkala-a tells a heart-wrenching story of how one of her classmates moped around at the Indian boarding school and died. She grew bitter against the woman who she felt neglected her dead classmate. She writes of this period in her life:
“The melancholy of those black days has left so long a shadow that it darkens the path of years that have gone by. These sad memories rise above those of smoothly grinding school days.”
She recounts how she came home in the summers that she refers to as four strange summers. During these long hot summers, she felt her changing from an Indian girl into young woman who was torn between two cultures.
After gaining her formal education, Zitkala-a ends up teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School.
She was one of the founders of the National Council of American Indians. In the last part of “American Indian Stories,” Zitkala-a writes about the notorious “America’s Indian Problem, “ which was a time period before American Indians became citizens of the United States, which did not come to fruition until 1924. In this chapter, she refers to American Indians as wards of the government.
The book is a quick read that in many instances refers to whites as palefaces. It provides a vivid view of how American Indians transitioned in an ever changing America to survive in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Helen Keller was right. “American Indian Stories” should be in every home, because as the saying goes: “big things come in small packages.”
posted March 10, 2012 9:57 am est
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