Zitkala -Sa’s talents and contributions in the worlds of literature and education challenge long-standing beliefs in the white man’s culture as good, and Native Americans as sinful savages. She aimed at creating understanding between the dominant white and Native American cultures. As a woman of mixed white and Native American ancestry, she embodied the need for the two cultures to live having a mutual understanding of both cultures within the same body of land.
Zitkala -Sa faces various conflicting instances in her autobiographical essays. Her early childhood consisted of a very simple and loving upbringing from her mother and other surrounding family members. Zitkala-Sa and her mother were very close. Both Zitkala-Sa and mother performed various chores together and the occasional beading, an Indian tradition. Like many women during that time Zitkala-Sa’s mother could not adapt to white culture nor did she want to. “The paleface has stolen our lands and driven us hither. Having defrauded us of our land, the paleface forced us away” (10). You can tell from her mother’s comments that she and the white man do not get along and she thinks that all of the Indians problems stemed from the white man and his actions.
At only eight years of age, Zitkala-Sa decided to leave her mother and the reservation to attend schooling for Indians. Her mother was not fond of this idea because her older brother was taken away early on in his life and has not been the same since.
The white settlers would send missionaries out to the reservations to tell the Indian children of wonderful stories of a life back in the east. The missionaries lured children with stories about a paradise with apple trees where they could pick all the apples they wanted right off the trees. Zitkala- Sa was one of these children that thought they were going to a paradise only to find disappointment.
At the White’s Manuel Institute Zitkala-Sa found it to be extremely regimented. She did not like the constant bells to wake up, sit down, and go to sleep. She found it almost jail like. The missionaries forced abuse as punishment and stripped them of their Indian culture. Their first attempt to demolish their culture was to give them new clothing and cut their long black hair short. By doing this the Indians were one step closer into the assimilation of American Society.
Zitkala-Sa was petrified to have her hair cut short. She felt dead and helpless in a place where she had no support and no religious aid. In the Institute Zitkala-Sa was taught by the white man’s bible. When she seeked religious aid it was through a God that she had not herd or even thought about. There were many nights where she cried herself to sleep hoping that the Great Spirits would save her. But there was no hope, she put herself in a situation where she was forced to abide by unknown and unfamiliar customs of the whites. She described that the assimilationist schooling left her “neither a wild Indian, nor a tame one” (74).
Zitkala-Sa returned after three years to a heightened tension with her mother and ambivalence regarding her heritage. The emotional detachment was apparent as soon as she walked into her mother’s home. Against her mother’s will she enrolled in further schooling, where she found that she didn’t fit in any more there than she did any place else. She thought that the transition to a different school may have been better for her because she knew the language but also the color of her skin, she was treated no differently.
In later years she became a teacher and taught to save Indians from white abuse and destruction by assimilating them and teaching them a trade. Zitkala-Sa began publicly to express her estrangement from both cultures and her anger over the treatment of her people by state and church. She articulated her struggle with cultural disturbance and injustice, thereby becoming a serious bridge builder between cultures, using language as a tool to create an identity surrounding both cultures.
Zitkala-Sa’s choice to educate all that proper education for Indians is paramount was her political agenda along with educating whites that Indians are not savages and deserve proper respect. This was a flashback to her early years of schooling where she was treated like an animal. Her tough regimented schooling and or lack of schooling was later figured out that it was not the right approach to take when teaching Indians. Her activist commitment to these goals became a full-time job. Her struggles to inform of these prejudices of Indians, not getting proper schooling and consideration was through writings and spoken word where she was able to reach an audience and get her point across. She embedded thoughts that missionaries were not good enough for her people to be educated by and that they deserved equal education as whites.
Zitkala-Sa had a masterful use of language and a grasp on western suggestions that adds to the effectiveness of her writings. Like many other minority authors, Zitkala-Sa uses her experiences as growing up a part of the oppressed society to hopefully reach her target audience, the white man. Her tireless advocacy of improved education and respect left an impression on American Culture that all people are equal.
Fisher, Dexter, American Indian Stories Forward. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.