The autobiographical story “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” by a native American writer Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who is also known as Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), is a literary work that present great importance for native American literature and world literature on the whole. It is worth mentioning that the nineteenth century was a period of intensive upheaval of American Indian tribes, which was caused by the danger of disappearance of oral traditions because of the fragmentation of Indian community and demoralizing conditions of reservation life (Zitkala-Ša v). This was the reason for desperate attempt of the indigenous people to commit their traditions, memory, and culture to paper in order to fix, save, and transfer them to posterity. Literature became a perfect chance for Native Americans to appeal to wider audience and to tell it the story of their people (Zitkala-Ša v). Zitkala-Ša, as a Native American woman, has made a first try to tell the reader her own story without any assistance: neither editor’s nor interpreter’s. With the help of her literary heritage the authoress makes an attempt to “bridge the gap between tradition and assimilation” (Zitkala-Ša VI).
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“Impressions of an Indian Childhood” is a story, the main character of which is a little Indian girl. The choice of the protagonist was not random because the authoress understood that the image of a child would create the most genuine and reliable picture for the audience. What is more, the whole story is based on real memories and it creates an impression of warm and soft patchwork quilt that is wrapping a reader making him absorbed into the Indian past. The female gentleness, sincerity, and love of her childhood make a reader feel that he/she can see the pictures described in the story.
It should be mentioned that the story consists of nine chapters, and all the chapters but the last one create a true picture of a Native American reservation. They may be considered a guide into the genuine past of the heroine. Absolutely without obtrusiveness the authoress presents the reader a number of cultural realities of the life in reservation, such as “wigwam”, “tepee”, “a slip of brown buckskin” (Zitkala-Ša). The very recreation of her memory is very valuable in itself as it may be treated as the return to traditions. Briefly, but precisely, word by word, the authoress describes all major spheres of life of the Native Americans.
The first character we meet is the heroine’s mother who is, certainly, a real person, but in the story she is a generalized image that symbolizes all Indian women.
She is the mother, the person who gives life; she is the beginning of everything and the source of everything. However, the very first pages suggest that the mother is very sad and is often reduced to tears. The causes of her tears are injustice and oppression of her people by the paleface, the process of assimilation that is constantly going on. She fears that the white will take everything away from them, even water, even their culture, as she says: “If the paleface does not take away from us the water we drink” (Zitkala-Ša 9). She is the bearer of the traditions, and we can see the way she cherishes and worships the past and tries to imbue her child with her immense love of her people, culture, and the past. In fact all representatives of the older generation are the keepers of the traditions: the deceased uncle of the girls, the elderly tattooed women who come to their wigwam regularly in order to recall the ancient legends (Zitkala-Ša 13). The chapter under the title “The Legends” is especially interesting as it presents the way people are trying to save the memory and experience that was their greatest treasure, and there, under the roof of one tepee, all generations gathered in order to take part in the symbolic cultural ritual. The fact that Zitkala-Ša chooses not to present the plot of any legend in the chapter is determined by the purpose of the chapter: she did not want to present the legend; she merely wanted to show the reader the importance of the legends in the life of an Indian. However, the fragment of a legend is presented in the chapter “The Dead Man’s Plum Bush”:
A brave is buried here. While he lived, he was so fond of playing the game of striped plum seeds that, at his death, his set of plum seeds were buried in his hands. From them sprang up this little bush (Zitkala-Ša 32).
It shows the symbolism and the beauty of the legends, making the girl, as well as a reader, eager to hear more.
The girl herself is a remarkable character; she is the link that unites the past and the present. It can be observed in eight chapters, that she is like a sponge, which accumulates traditions and knowledge of her ancestors, probably, realizing the danger of their extinction subconsciously. However, the last chapter, “Big Red Apples”, differs from all other chapters, which could be characterized by the description of the quiet life in reservation. This chapter describes the intrusion of the paleface missionaries “who wore big hats and carried large hearts” (Zitkala-Ša 39). They have brought assimilations of traditions with them; they want to take the Indian children away to show them the miracles of life outside their native world. The vigorous protest of the girl’s mother is a desperate cry for help; she understands that this is the most dangerous weapon of the white who want if not to exterminate, then at least to assimilate the Native Americans, to make them study at the same educational establishments, to imbue them with their culture, and to make them forget their past.
It is known that Zitkala-Ša gave up teaching and became an advocate for Indian affairs. This deed of her may be considered a symbolic as well as real return to her people. By taking up this mission she somehow continued the mission of her mother and other Native Americans; she became the keeper of the traditions. She has made her contribution to the struggle of traditions against assimilation. The little girl in her soul reminded her that the roots should never be forgotten and abandoned.
In conclusion, it may be stated that Zitkala-Ša has shown her active position in life by her practical actions and her literary heritage. Her powerful appeal to the vast audience cannot be left without attention. The sincerity of the autobiography of the authoress is the spiritual attempt to awaken our feelings, to make us conscious of the problems of people who live near us. What is more, the book is aimed at the Indians because Zitkala-Ša wants to awaken their pride and self-consciousness, to make them return to their childhood and see the real values of life. The book may be considered a guide to Indian culture, a reflection of the authoress’ soul, and an attempt to preserve the things that are of great importance for the whole people.
Zitkala-Ša. American Indian Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.