Zitkala-Sa’s American-Indian stories explore the culture of the Native-American through examples such as family life, traditions, religion, conventions and social norms.
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The reserved lifestyle Zitkala-Sa lived in had a significant influence in the traditions of her community that she learnt before the Christian missionaries’ arrival. It was a tradition for the elders of the community to support and be extremely patient with the children. Zitkala’s mother supported her decision of joining the white missionary school in order to acquire some knowledge and learn how to write.
According to tradition, the girl-child learnt the house chores and how to respect the elders just the way the author’s mum trained her on how to behave before the elders, how to cook, do beadwork and tell stories about the old Indian spirits. Although Zitkala-Sa’s mother adored her a lot, she still had to follow the traditions by obeying and respecting her as an elder.
As a child, the author witnessed how all the members of the tribe were honored and according to the tradition of the Indians, those who had done memorable acts in the society were worshipped. The traditions of the community Zitkala-Sa belonged to looked high upon the warriors for their bravery and honor of the community’s legacy. Therefore, in appreciation, they came back into the community in every wigwam.
Hospitality among the Sioux was particularly common not just as a tradition but according to the values that the community held, this was expected. It was extremely vital to show respect and honor to others.
The essence of the family had been regarded as one of the Sioux traditions that Zitkala-Sa observed as she grew up. Her aunt attended their wigwam to assist her mother in food preparations for winter. This brings out the togetherness of family in the Sioux traditions.
A restriction, as well as a traditional practice, the stress was put on the imposition of name use in the Native American. There were no publicizing of the experiences and saying one’s name to unknown people.
Zitkala-Sa inquisitive nature drove her outside her reserved world to join a mission school as she thirsted for education. Despite her mother attempts to convince her otherwise about going for school to the Eastland, she still was eager to go.
She, regretted her decision too soon on her arrival at the East land (The Land of Red Apples) as described in her words: “Trembling with distrust and fear of the white people, my teeth were from the freezing ride, I noiselessly crept in my moccasins’ in the narrow hall, keeping close to the bare wall.
I was bewildered and frightened as a young, wild captured creature” she was young and naïve that she never realized the effects of her departure, though her education later bore fruits, it alienated her from her tribe and mother.
The palefaces’ did not care about feelings let alone understand them and she felt lost, and lonely as she reminisce about home. “My tears were left to dry up into streaks because neither her mother nor aunt were near to dry them (The Land of Red Apples)”. Overall, she did not like the white school from her first experience and additionally they were not allowed to utter a word unless asked to by their teachers.
The cause of many misunderstandings was the unfamiliarity with English as a language. The Native American children did not grasp a lot from the teachers as Zitkala-Sa brings out in “The Schooldays of an Indian Girl,” in the chapter called “The Snow Episode”.
The children replied to an angry teacher by using the only one word they were familiar with-“No”. Zitkala-Sa enthusiasm for the white world was shuttered when she saw how the teacher treated the Native American children who did not familiarize with the English language in class; they were beaten, shouted at and ridiculed openly before others in the class.
The ‘iron routine’ that the Indian children had never heard of before was strictly followed, and this made them miss home more. Their lives were directed by strict orders from their teachers and bell, something they were never accustomed to back in at home; to Zitkala-Sa, the white man’s world was like a boot camp drilling and training ground.
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The drilling in the white school robbed Zitkala-Sa of her values and she grew up a melancholic and bitter person as she describes, “The melancholy of those black days left a long shadow that darkens the way of the past years”.
The school did not just strip the children of their cultural values, their traditional hairstyles and mother tongue but of their identities, as well. For instance, the case where Zitkala-Sa’s hair was cut she remains positive because “among the Native American people, short hair was worn by mourners and cowards had shingled hairs.”
Acculturation became one among the many new experiences that Zitkala had to go through in the East land School of the white. They teachers forced them to believe only in the God of Christianity by reading to them the Holy Bible. Instead of following the teacher’s Christian teachings, some of the children rebelled and picked up the opposite ‘Devil’ notion.
They became torn between the Native Great Spirit and the Christian devil, confusion that portrayed their unwillingness in adopting the white norms’ and embracing the white man’s world. Despite the tough experiences and disappointment, Zitkala finished a three-year study term in the white school and returned to her mother and their reserved world.
Zitkala-Sa realized the change in her people despite her going back. Her peers also behaved like the civilized people because they had gone to the ‘White Schools’ and adapted to biculturalism as she did.
Zitkala could speak English, but she never attended the natives’ celebrations because she did not have proper clothes. Hence, her mother was saddened by the effects the white school had on her daughter that she prayed for her to find position back into society1.
Though Zitkala-Sa wanted to escape from her problems, she kept her hope of finding her identity. She disagrees with her mother on her passion to pursue education in college, and this drives an even deeper wedge between them because she showed disobedience’ to her mother.
She does not give up this fight but goes ahead and starts a new living among stranger: “homeless and heavy-hearted I began my life anew among stranger” though she achieved her fellow students respect other people viewed her as the savage girl as she experienced humiliation in her college contest.
This does not deter her from pushing forward with her goals as she won the contest. Zitkala-Sa’s assimilation keeps her strong in the confronting the prejudices from her colleagues as she kept her Indian marks.
She lost her place among the natives but did not belong either to the white society, so she remained lost but determined to fight against the Anglo-trope of racism. She finally rejected the white man’s world because she felt lost in it and homeless.
Her urgent need to find her identity and gain her place back in her native society was another driving force. She felt distant to her people because the white man’s world was not her heritage her African American traditions and values were her identity and heritage.
In conclusion, Zitkala-Sa strived to show her African American heritage through her stories of how their people lived, and many of them share in her experience. She uses the stories to highlight her childhood as an Indian child, family-life, personal growth and preservation of the ways of life from a woman’s experience point of view.
Zitkala-Sa’s private life illustrates the reservation of culture, values and life in general. The account of how her people lived was to emphasize the Sioux traditions, preservation of customs and recount the next generation’s social life. She also educates the whites on a lot of history of the Native American people and the bias they face in a white man’s world.
She encountered two cultures in her life, in her view in the stories, these portrays the interconnection of cultures that blend such as the Native American and Christian culture. In the final analysis of her childhood, she highlights the crucial aspects in her story characters and events that support the Native American heritage.
She shows this; by the way, she missed her people and yearned for her identity and place in her Native world. The Native American tradition is not upheld by Zitkala-Sa’s image in the society alone but the small things like hospitality, loyalty, respect for others and connection with the spirit world and nature.
Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2009.
1 Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2009), 67.