Split, The Duality in Zitkala Sa’s narrative

Gertrude Bonnin, who later became known as Zitkala Sa, was a Yankton Lakota woman whose narratives have offered us a view into a world we haven’t got a lot information on. As a young girl Zitkala Sa is given the opportunity to attend residential school to learn English and become accustomed to the world of the whites. In our current society (I’m going to define this as the post-residential school era 83’ on) we view our country as a melting pot, a place where things meld together in a way that creates balance for our citizens. However, for many others, particularly for Native Americans, this is just fancy wording for assimilating to survive. Zitkala Sa offers us an internal view of what happens when attempted duality and balance do not go as planned. This creates a schism within her world, one that she never truly rectifies or sets straight for herself internally. This however begs the question, where do we find these separations in both her writing, and her life, and how do we benefit from this dual perspective as readers?

In a paper dealing with an issue of identity we must first consider how to define it. In this case the question is: How to we identify ourselves as people, through and with our writings?   While considering this question and doing research on criticisms of Zitkala Sa’s work I came across some information about her life after the period of time she talks about in “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” (Norton 1107).  Cari Carpenter wrote a piece called “Detecting Indianness:Gertrude Bonnin’s Investigation of-Native American Identity.”  Carpenter explores the side of Zitkala Sa’s life that we as readers may not often consider. Carpenter presents the argument, that as all identities are complicated and often up for debate or challenge, so is Zitkala Sa’s. Identities are often called to question, Zitkala Sa is not exception to this.  Be it outside forces, or internal, we have to consider how many activists, and most people often times have to commit themselves to a facade in order to further in order to promote their cause. Not in a way that questions her ties to her Yankton background, but to her motivations. “While a number of studies portray her as a figure who led a ‘schizophrenic life,’ who was ‘caught between two cultures,’and who existed in ‘two diametrically opposed worlds,’ I would argue that her letters demonstrate that her challenge was not to maintain her connection to an American Indian identity but rather to fine-tune the public persona that was most amenable to her activist work.” (Carpenter 2). Now while this passage does not directly say it, the implication is that all of Zitkala Sa’s writing serve the purpose of maintaining and building a facade of her identity as an activist. Which calls to question the motivation behind her form of writing narratives, and her true intentions behind them.

The background to this matters because Zitkala herself had often had her sense of identity and right to claim her heritage questioned. In 1918 after appearing at the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, taking a controversial stance against the free range use of peyote on reservations (in full regalia). Was criticized and often accused of not being Sioux,(one of such accusers was James Mooney a white anthropologist) mostly as a defamation of character attempt (Carpenter 12). By calling her “indianness,” into question because of  her mixed identity is really just a good way to derail an argument unfavorable to your own. Having to write in a way and present yourself in a way in order to prove yourself Indian enough is another symptom of a divide faced by Zitkala Sa, how true to herself was she allowed to be in here narratives? If she had said something in particular about her childhood unfavorable to her community would her credibility as a Native woman been called into question?

Sadly as a reflection of what I face as a non-monoracial person I can say honestly that when you call a negative cultural trait to light you have your status as a member of that community revoked from you. Often times being called an “apple,” (red on the outside white on the inside) or an “Oreo,” (slurs used to describe Native and Black people who are mixed) because of a refusal to accept mediocrity or harmful traits within a culture, is the easiest answer, and one of the worst that can be spit at you. When engaging in a conversation about tribal issues (specifically) there is a tendency to accuse those who do not agree with a popular opinion of betraying their tribe or worse, not belonging to it. Causing a schism between your own sense of identity, members of your cultural group, and outside observers who are angry when your opinions do not serve them. Zitkala Sa was aware of this “In her own defense Bonnin notes that to be a real Indian is to work for one’s tribe- work she defined in terms of fictional and editorial writing, public speaking, and agitation for land and financial rights of Indians. Doing so often lead, however, to accusations of betrayal,”( Carpenter 13).

So the question I have yet to answer for myself is even if your writing and narratives are not totally true, if they serve a nobler cause for a greater truth, this for me does not discredit the validity or poignancy of her work.This duality within her communities as well as the separation between her ‘true,’ self and the motivations behind her writings are something I had never really considered before. Although, I understand much as Zitkala Sa did that there are motivations behind everything, lessons we hope to convey to our readers. While Zitkala Sa may not have been everything that she promoted herself to be, she did convey to her readers the importance and significance of her heritage. While also drawing attention to the issues her community faced.

While operating in a white focused academic setting another divide often faced by scholars of color is if their work can be “legitimately,” defined within the restrictions and parameters put forth by non-inclusive academia. Zitkala Sa’s Impressions of an Indian childhood is no exception to this. While Norton itself discusses this book as autobiographical, there is dissension as to whether or not Impressions can be categorized as such. Martha J. Cutter discusses the polarity in how autobiographies are typically defined versus how Zitkala Sa presents hers through a lens that is more associated what we would define as a regional narrative. This is because

“Zitkala-Sa’s work violates traditional notions of autobiography on two levels: it does not put forth a model of triumph and integration, nor does it emphasize the importance of language in the overall process of self-authentication. Therefore it is only when we approach Zitkala-Sa’s writing in terms of how it subverts traditional modes of autobiographical and linguistic self-authentication that we can come to see its full richness and complexity, and understand the unique problem of a “canonical” search for language and identity in Native American writing,”(Cutter 1).

This poses the problem for me that if you are restricted to telling you auto biography under such strict and frankly limited guidelines does it leave room for you to write in a truly biographical way that manages to convey your point as well as establish your own voice. A sentiment the Cutter herself shares,


“But whose voyage is this, we might ask. By and large these models of autobiography which focus on achieving “a coherent story” or “integration” are derived from Euro-American, male models.Nonetheless, these generic definitions of autobiography have been applied to Native American writers; in an essay on Native American autobiography, for example, Kathleen Mullen Sands accepts and quotes from Pascal’s work, noting that Native American autobiographies reveal “a wholeness of personal identity”. Yet to apply Euro-American, masculine models of autobiography to writers who might not be a part of this tradition is problematic, as Elaine Jahner explains: “In developing an approach and a vocabulary with which to respond to American Indian literature, critics have to remain constantly alert to the dangers of ethnocentrism, which would force American Indian literature into a non-Indian frame of reference, making the Indian works appear to be lacking” . Indeed, Zitkala-Sa’s writing has been judged deficient precisely because it does not conform to canonical models of autobiography. Dexter Fisher, for example, finds in Zitkala-Sa’s writing a failure of coalescence: “Zitkala-Sa…struggled toward a vision of wholeness in which the conflicting parts of her existence could be reconciled. That she did not fully succeed is evident in her work, which is a model of ambivalences, of oscillations between two diametrically opposed worlds” (“Zitkala Sa: The Evolution of a Writer,” 237).”(Cutter 2)

While this large quote, that itself has quotes within it, has tried to get to is that trying to define Zitkala Sa’s work within European Academic constructs is impossible, it also causes us to lose the gravity of much of the significance. We as readers have been provided the opportunity through this work to essentially Rosetta Stone a historical storytelling tradition, thought process, and information trade off which is so very foreign to the way in which we think. So, while this is a piece of literature in English this is not necessarily definable by our language and cultural standards. It does not follow our form in which there is a beginning, middle, and satisfying end, rather it suggests that there is unknown progression to be made. This follows the seven generations principle of Lakota culture, in which we as the current generation create and leave behind things for the next seven generations to build with. This means that the way we tell stories, can indeed have a point but rarely a conclusion, as even with our individual deaths we are not a conclusion at all. Rather a building block to take something from and create more with. Writings and narratives should stand the test of time and be applicable to readers for generations to come. With cultures that do not necessarily have the concept of the seven generations do often times have timeless themes, however specifically for Lakota writers it is an actually point and purpose to create something to hand down.

The way in which Zitkala Sa’s work has often caused debate on how to define it is another schism that has to be addressed. While trying to reconcile her childhood by writing about it she is forced to do so in the lens and language of the very colonizers that had lead her to this issue to begin with. By even writing and publishing in English Zitkala Sa is distancing herself from the Lakota traditional methods of oral storytelling/history keeping, as well as pushing her outside of what is considered acceptable or definable in English Academic writing. This is however how she has to present her work to her readers in order gain a further reach with her work. In this divide between what we have been taught is the proper way to write narratives and autobiographies we find a sense of truth within the grey area. Just as Zitkala Sa’s mother knew that sending her to residential schools would cause Zitkala Sa inner turmoil, her mother also knew it was a way to make sure the Lakota in some sense could survive. Those actions left us with Zitkala Sa’s narrative, perspective, and work within the Native American Community. By detaching herself in many ways from her people Zitkala Sa may have ultimately contributed to saving the First Nations as a whole.

Rather I have realized by having to navigate complicated intersectional spaces, while doesn’t necessarily create any type of safe space for people in Zitkala Sa’s position. While her works have managed to influence and educate people came after her through her perspectives. Zitkala Sa, in her life as well as in criticism of her writing has been left to us as an almost contrary character in her own world. Zitkala Sa has unintentionally fulfilled the role of  Heyhoka, the sacred contrary of the Lakota people, who use their tendencies as tricksters like Iktomi and Coyote do. To lessons through a complicated lens, for the larger benefit of the people, but not always to the ends of personal happiness. It is in her duality that we find her wholeness. As a reflection of Zitkala Sa’s works as a whole readers both Native and non-Native are left with a foundation from which to question the construct of their sense  of selves and inevitably what does it mean to be whole. For young Native people specifically it gives a foundation from which to question our envelopment into this colonized world, as well as providing us a place to start from while undertaking the process of decolonization.


Works Cited

Carpenter, Cari. “Detecting Indianness: Gertrude Bonnin’s Investigation Of Native American Identity.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 139-159. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.


Cutter, Martha J. “Zitkala-Sa’s Autobiographical Writings: The Problems Of A Canonical Search For Language And..” Melus 19.1 (1994): 31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.


Spack, Ruth. “Dis/Engagement: Zitkala-Sa’s Letters To Carlos Montezuma, 1901-1902.” Melus 26.1 (2001): 173. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.


Totten, Gary. “Zitkala-Sa And The Problem Of Regionalism: Nations, Narratives, And Critical Traditions.” American Indian Quarterly 29.1/2 (2005): 84-123. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

*I wrote this paper forever ago, got a good grade and always planned on expanding, but like with most of my work, never have.


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