Although the maltreatment and oppression of Native Americans is not to the same extent as before, it is still a prevalent issue in modern times. Timeless writing enables people to experience and further understand the context of the issues the Native Americans are fighting against. Going back to the 1800’s where settlers have come and conquered Native American land, people such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (also known as Zitkala-Sa) helped stand up for Native American rights and fight against the oppression. As a young girl, Zitkala-Sa was taken from her tribe and sent to a “assimilative boarding school system” where she became educated and used her education to help Native Americans (Hafen 199). She was a very active member of the Indian Service, the Society of American Indians, and the National Council of American Indians. Through her work and her writings, she was able to express the pain and confusion that Native Americans experienced during the times dealing with the assimilation.
Her work, Impressions of an Indian Childhood recounts her personal experience growing up watching the pain and sorrow from her mother as she still grieves the loss of a child and husband from the war. As well as her recount on the bribery and confusion on being taken away from her tribe to attend a boarding school. Zitkala-Sa also wrote a short story called The Soft-Hearted Sioux told from a boy’s perspective. The narrator is, again, taken from his home to attend an assimilative school and comes back years later to his father ill and dying. Having lost touch with his tribal roots, he is untrusting of the medicine-men and in return, the medicine men are untrusting of him and his faith in God and belief in Christianity. The tribe abandons him and he struggles to hunt for food for his starving parents. He ends up stealing meat from a white mans farm and kills the white man as he is desperately trying to make it home to save his father from starvation. He returns home to his father already dead. He is sent to die and ultimately, questions his beliefs as he is confused and torn between the culture he grew up in and the culture forced upon him. Zitkala-Sa’s Impressions of an Indian Childhood and The Soft-Hearted Sioux both embody the still relevant cultural conflict of Native Americans being taken away at a young age to become more Americanized, questioning their beliefs and culture, and being distrusted by their tribe.
During the 1800’s it was common for young Native American children to be taken from their homes and brought to boarding schools in order to educate them formally and culturally. Zitkala-Sa describes her experience being taken away at eight years old in Impressions of an Indian Childhood. Zitkala-Sa explains how they would bribe the young children into believing that going away was something they wanted to do. They played on the idea of a fantasy for a child even using the term “iron horse” instead of train (659). She recalls the “lure of the red apples in the boarding school” as well (Hefan 212). To a child who is innocent and especially one from a tribe who is unable to experience luxuries of countless apples or riding a train, given the opportunity was tempting. This is where the confusion between the rift of cultures begins for the Native Americans growing up in this time period. Although Zitkala-Sa begged to be able to go and when her mother finally caved (against her will), as soon as she was taken from her mother the excitement vanished. Instead, she felt feelings of regret and sadness. She explains how she was “trembling with fear and distrust of the palefaces” and explains how their “first step, parting [her] from [her] mother, was taken” (660). She was initially excited to go to a new place of endless red apples but when she was taken away from her tribe she realizes the truth of what was happening. She was taken from her mother and was alone with the “palefaces” who she cannot trust. She was unfamiliar with their language or culture, which further makes her feel alone, scared and lost between the two cultures.
Furthermore, the assimilation that was forced upon the Native Americans caused them to question their beliefs and disassociate with their culture. She describes how her older brother had already spent couple of years in the boarding school and when he came back, their mother was influenced to “take a farther step from her native living” (658). Their mother slowly started to adapt and change their home into a more “Americanized” version of a home, replacing “buffalo skin to the white man’s canvas” (658). Although her mother was never taken as a child and forced to assimilate into American culture, she still conformed to the American culture through the knowledge that her son would bring back from the boarding school. In The Soft-Hearted Sioux Zitkala-Sa uses this short story to further emphasize how they were made to question their beliefs and disassociate from their culture. The narrator of the story explains how he was taken from his home for ten years where he was taught to believe in Christianity and instead of growing up to be the traditional “warrior, huntsman, and husband” from the Sioux tribe, he was taught that those parts of his culture were wrong (661). In essence, forcing him to disassociate with his Sioux tribe culture. Another instance where Zitkala-Sa exemplifies this issue is when the narrator kicks the medicine-man out of their home because he believes it will “ensnare” his fathers soul (662). Medicine-men are an important part of the Native American culture and beliefs, where they come and help heal the sick. The narrator has a change of belief in his culture believing the medicine-man is a entity of evil that will damn him fathers soul from Heaven. The narrators change of beliefs comes from the forced education of the Christian religion and being convinced that his culture is wrong and evil, causing a drift between the elders in his tribe (such as the medicine-man and his parents) and himself.
Adopting aspects of the American culture and leaving behind their old Native American culture caused tension and distrust between Native Americans. Zitkala-Sa and her husband opted to stick with their religious beliefs. This resulted in their son Ohiya being “turned away from a Christmas party social on the basis of his Catholicism” (Hefan 201). This lack of trust and tension between the Native Americans came to light as more of them began to gear away from their traditional beliefs and accept and incorporate the new American traditions that were taught to them. This topic is also discussed in The Soft-Hearted Sioux when the narrator tries to preach the word of God to his tribe. The medicine-man recognizes him and convinces everyone that he is a “traitor to his people” so that night, the tribe abandons the narrator and his family (663). A clear divide arises as the narrator is viewed as untrustworthy and a traitor to his tribe as he has fallen victim to the white mans teachings. The story ends with the narrator awaiting his sentence of death and he questions whether he will see “the loving Jesus” or his “warrior father” greeting him when he dies (665). This brings forth a personal cultural conflict as well between deciding what the people of the tribe expect and what has been taught at the boarding schools. The narrator begins to question his beliefs between both cultures and he is torn between them.
Although a majority of the assimilation occurred many years ago, the issue of oppression for Native Americans is still prevalent today and writings such as those of Zitkala-Sa provide context for the continuing fight for their rights. According to Barbra Perry and Linda Robyn, their study of the Chippewa’s tribe of Northern Wisconsin show “Native Americans across the country continue to experience myriad and interrelated forms of economic, political, and social oppression” (590). Although many of the issues regarding Native Americans have advanced a significant amount, there are still more issues to be addressed such as the violence geared toward them in certain areas as well fighting for their treaty rights. This can be seen between 1960 and 1980 when the government tried to take away the Chippewa’s right to fish (592). The government would try to restrict them from being able to fish by doing a treaty abrogation. This was a huge set back considering they are dependent on fishing “financially” and “culturally” as their “cultural forms and religion and diet, and the entire culture is based around it” (592). This oppression not only strips them of their financial needs to live but also of their culture, similar to the experiences Zitkala-Sa expresses through her forced assimilation into a more “Americanized” person. Although it is it not common to hear, in present times, of Native American children being forcefully taken away and stripped of their culture, their culture is still vulnerable and being taken away with other forms of oppression and assimilation.
In conclusion, Native Americans have dealt with and still are dealing with very traumatic oppression. It is important that people like Zitkala-Sa have written of their experiences because their writings are still relevant in present time issues and bring forth context needed to understand the fight that Native Americans are still fighting.
Hafen, P. Jane. “‘Help Indians Help Themselves.’” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, Summer 2013, pp. 198–218. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/aiq.2013.0041.
“Miss Robertson’s Scholars at the Mission School at Mus-Ko-Gee Indian Territory.” Photographs – Western History, digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15330coll22/id/24093.
Perry, Barbara, and Linda Robyn. “Putting Anti-Indian Violence in Context: The Case of the Great Lakes Chippewas of Wisconsin.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3/4, Summer/Fall2005 2005, pp. 590–625. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/aiq.2005.0102.
Simmons Bonnin, Gertrude. “Impressions of An Indian Childhood.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Robert S. Levine, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 655–660.
Simmons Bonnin, Gertrude. “The Soft-Hearted Sioux.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Robert S. Levine, 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 660–665.