American Indian Stories

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American Indian Stories Summary

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American Indian Stories is a classic work of Native American literature, written by Dakota Sioux author, educator, and activist Zitkala-Sa. First published in 1921, the volume comprises essays, poems, legends and folklore drawn from Dakota oral traditions, and autobiographical stories from the author’s youth. The pieces underscore Zitkala-Sa’s fierce intellect and iron will as she refuses to assimilate with the larger white culture of the time while trying to preserve her own identity, heritage, and community.

In the first two sections of the book, “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” Zitkala-Sa reflects on her own coming of age. In “My Mother,” she tells of the trip to the river she used to take daily with her mother as the older woman collected water for the household. Young, energetic, and carefree, Zitkala-Sa mentions how, when she is old enough, she too will collect water for the household. However, her mother does not agree, saying, instead, that by the time Zitkala-Sa grows up, the paleface will have stolen all their water. It is an offhand comment, but it ends up having a major impact on Zitkala-Sa’s life and mission. It lays the groundwork for her views and perspectives as she grows up and encounters for herself the cruelty of the white world.

In another piece, “The Big Red Apples,” Christian missionaries are becoming frequent visitors to Native communities. They take Native children and put them in “schools” designed to educate them about white ways. They take Zitkala-Sa’s brother, and she, too, is interested is going. In the end, she agrees to go because they promise her apples—a delicacy little Zitkala-Sa has not yet had the opportunity to enjoy.

Subsequent writings address the tyranny Zitkala-Sa encounters in white schools. In “The Devil,” she remembers the missionaries showing her a picture of the Devil, complete with horns and tail. The missionaries inform her that the Devil tortures children who don’t follow the school’s rules. In “Iron Routine,” she talks about the brutal regimen of life at the white school, specifically how those in charge care little for the health of the Native children. Even when they are ill and unable to get out of bed, the children must force themselves to attend school or they will be punished. One child dies as a result of the school’s harsh rules and shocking neglect.

There are other hardships and humiliations at the school as well. They force Zitkala-Sa to cut her long hair, and they refuse to speak anything but English, even when the children cannot understand what is being taught or spoken. Though racism and bullying are rampant in the school, Zitkala-Sa gradually adjusts to her harsh new reality. She excels in her classes and wins awards as a writer and speaker. Yet, at the same time, she feels as if she has been severed from her Dakota roots. Many of these childhood recollections seem to be Zitkala-Sa asking herself if this was a price too steep, a bridge too far, in order to obtain an education.

As Zitkala-Sa grows up, she reconnects with her culture. She shares aspects of her community’s belief system, such as the vital role of the Great Spirit, as well as stories of her own ancestry. In “The Trial Path,” she talks about her grandparents, in particular, a story from her grandfather’s youth. When he was a young man, he accidentally killed his best friend. As punishment, he had to break a wild pony, which he did, much to the surprise of everyone, including himself.

In “A Warrior’s Daughter,” she tells a story of a young Native couple wanting to marry. The young woman’s father demands that the young man obtain a scalp before the wedding can occur. The young man sets out on his quest, and an enemy tribe captures him. The young woman disguises herself as a warrior and rescues her husband.

These tales challenge the conventional image of Native Americans at that time, the damaging misconception that all Native peoples were little more than savages. Zitkala-Sa paints portraits of Native folks being just as bright and brave and bold as anyone else—perhaps even more so.

Nevertheless, Zitkala-Sa doesn’t shy away from more direct advocacy, either. In the volume’s last essays, she explores the pressing struggles her people are facing and lays out plans for addressing these issues in clear, concise terms. She excoriates the United States government for so callously discarding the needs of Native people, treating American Indians “as wards and not as citizens of their own…land.” She challenges the powers that be to stand up for the rights of Native Americans and give voice to “the voiceless people within [their] midst.” “We would open the door of American opportunity to the red man and encourage him to find his rightful place in our American life,” Zitkala-Sa writes, imagining a truly free society for her people. “We would remove the barriers that hinder his normal development.”

American Indian Stories chronicles the making of an activist just as much as it details Native history and culture. It is also a stunning call-to-action, given that many of the issues Zitkala-Sa addresses here remain unresolved even in the present-day. Ultimately, she is both a representative of her time and experience, and a larger symbol of resilience, strength, and the importance of always, always working for a better world.