MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

March 6, 2012: Celebrating Zitkala-Sa

[All this week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be highlighting some exemplary American women. This is the third in the series.]

Celebrating a writer, educator, and activist who turned some of her culture’s and our nation’s lowest points into a pioneering and inspiring life and legacy.

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (Barnett), calling her “A Voice from the Nadir.” I wanted that title to sum up two seemingly distinct and eve opposed yet in fact interconnected and mutually dependent ideas, not only about Wells but about inspiring Americans more generally: that from the darkest moments in our histories (such as was the turn of the 20th century “nadir” for African Americans) often emerge the brightest and most inspiring lights. “Yet the shadows bear the promise/Of a brighter coming day,” wrote Frances Ellen Watkins Harper during this same era; and as I argued in that Black History Month post on Harper, I believe—and am arguing in the book I’m hoping to finish this coming summer and fall—those lines means precisely that it is in the shadows that we must find the light, to the darkest histories that we must turn in search of hard-won hope.

While many historical periods could vie for the title of nadir when it comes to Native Americans, I think the 19th century’s last few decades likewise have a very strong case: the “Indian Wars” were culminating with the final and complete defeat of all remaining independent nations; the removal and reservation systems were concurrently enveloping every nation more and more fully (with even the well-intentioned  Dawes Act playing into those trends); and, perhaps most egregiously, the system of “Indian boarding schools” was taking young Native Americans away from their communities and trying to force cultural assimilation and the loss of heritage on them. It was in direct response to and representation of those trends, and particularly the destructive boarding school experience, that Sioux author Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) emerged onto the national literary scene, with autobiographical pieces such as “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “School Days of an Indian Girl” (both published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900); since most of us American Studiers still encounter Sa through those works in anthologies (as I did), it’s easy to define her through them, and thus to see her as a complex and talented chronicler of this nadir period for her community and culture.

Yet the individual perspective that comes through in those pieces, and even more in 1902’s “Why I Am a Pagan” (also published in the Atlantic), is that of someone who will not be defined, and certainly not limited, by any single experience or category. And indeed Sa spent the next few decades extending her career and activism in a variety of compelling and significant ways: compiling, editing, and publishing Old Indian Legends (1901), a collection of Native folktales and stories; working with composer William Hanson to write and stage The Sun Dance Opera (1913), one of the most unique and pioneering works in American cultural history; and founding (in 1926) and serving as the first president of the National Council of American Indians, an influential political and social organization that lobbied on behalf of Native American rights and citizenship throughout the 20th century. In these and many other efforts, Sa illustrated just how fully she had transcended the depths of the nadir, and exemplified the potential for all cultures and communities—and, most importantly, for America itself—to similarly find hope for a stronger future: in our histories, in our cultures, and in our most inspiring identities.

Next inspiring American woman tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Any nominees for Women’s History week?

3/6 Memory Day nominee: Ring Lardner, the pioneering American journalist, humorist, and novelist whose innovations in vernacular voice and a concise style predated and influenced modernists like Hemingway and late 20th century minimalists like Raymond Carver.

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