I recently finished reading a 195 page book called American Indian Stories. It is a collection of traditional legends of the Sioux Indian tribe, written by Zitkala-Ša, a member of the Yankton band of the Sioux tribe. When Zitkala-Ša left her tribe in the late 1800s to pursue her writing career and earn a “white man’s education,” her family and friends felt betrayed. Around the turn of the century, the relationship between most Native Americans and U.S. citizens was anything but positive. There were numerous cultural differences that contributed to the misunderstandings of land treaties, in which the U.S. took Native American land. Furthermore, the Sioux tribe was outraged to learn of Zitkala-Ša’s choice to follow the “enemy’s ways” by going to college. Despite her tribe’s disapproval of her, Zitkala-Ša became one of the first Indian authors, and published many books, such as her first, titled Old Indian Legends, in 1901.
American Indian Stories was originally published in 1921. Like most of her other books, Zitkala-Ša wrote American Indian Stories to help preserve her culture by writing down some of its legends. I read this book because I was curious about the traditions of the Native Americans we learned about in social studies while we were learning about the U.S.’s westward expansion. The reason why I chose this book about Native American stories is because the Sioux tribe participated in the civilization program, and Zitkala-Ša was a member of this tribe. This book was not very suspenseful, but it was interesting to read because of the narrator’s perspective in each story. The narrators were always cautious to be respectful to nature, and had strict, unspoken codes for how to interact with other tribe members, depending on if they were family, elders, or friends.
The books starts off with the part of Zitkala-Ša’s childhood when she was a student at a school built to help civilize her tribe, and she soon shares her experience at Earlham College with the reader. Her “white man’s education” forces her to change parts of her culture such as the way she dresses and her religion. The rest of the book tells a variety of Native American legends with similar plot lines, each teaching the reader a different lesson. The main character in each story usually wants either land, money, or justice for something they feel is unfair. However, the main character is usually so focused on their desire their words and actions are less cautious. Most of the stories conclude with the character having an “aha” moment as they realize a mistake they made because they were not being careful. One example of this is when Zitkala-Ša tried to make coffee for the first time so that she could give it to her grandfather. Rather than admit she didn’t know how to make coffee, she served him her attempt – a cup of dirty water. When her mother entered the wigwam, her mother resolved the situation by turning it into a joke, although it was clear that Zitkala-Ša was very embarrassed and had learned her lesson.
I noticed that throughout the book, the author was against the U.S. citizens. In a few of her stories, Zitkala-Ša calls them “palefaces,” and the reader can tell from the context that this is meant as an insulting term for Americans. She frames a few of her stories so that the U.S. citizens appear to be cheaters or people with bad character. She probably adopted this view of Americans from her mother, who complained to Zitkala-Ša since she was little about the unjust acts of the “palefaces.” According to Zitkala-Ša’s mother, “Both your sister and uncle might have been happy with us today, had it not been for the heartless paleface,” (p. 11). This part of the book made me realize why Zitkala-Ša’s mother hates the U.S. citizens so much. Zitkala-Ša was forced to travel with her family to new lands, and because of the condition they walked in and their exposure to the other, sick members of their tribe that walked with them. Zitkala-Ša’s sister and uncle must have died because they became sick, dehydrated or got hypothermia (the reader is not told the time of year, or the sickness). One of the reasons why Zitkala-Ša wrote this book may have been to spread awareness about how U.S. citizens were treating her tribe unfairly.
I’d say that the theme of the book is to always be respectful. While all of the stories incorporate this theme, one stands out. The story of the Dead Man’s Plum Bush highlights the importance of respect to the Sioux tribe. In this story, a man dies while holding plum seeds, so he is buried with plumb seeds. According to Zitkala-Ša’s mother, “Never pluck a single plum from this bush, me child, for its roots are wrapped around an Indian’s skeleton. A brave is buried here,” (p. 32). Even though Zitkala-Ša has the chance to pick the plums and get food for her family, she does not because it would be disrespectful to the “brave,” who protected her tribe (a “brave” is a Native American warrior). Throughout the book, the Native American characters are always concerned with showing respect to other people and value good character a lot.
This book reminded me of another book I read a little while ago called Greek Myths. Both Greek Myths and American Indian Stories were a collection of legends related to different groups’ beliefs. There are two stories that I found particularly similar in these two books. In Greek Myths, the author, Olivia Coolidge, included a story about a greedy king. The king was already very wealthy, but he wished for everything he touched to become gold. He soon regrets this wish as he almost breaks his teeth on the gold bread he holds. In American Indian Stories, there is a story called The Big Red Apples. Zitkala-Ša is very happy with her mother, and is having a happy childhood on her tribe’s land until she hears of the rumors of the land of the big red apples. Rather than be grateful for the life she has, she decides to abandon her mother and go to the “white man’s school,” in hopes of seeing the big, red apples. According to Zitkala-Ša as she leaves her mother, “When I saw the lonely figure of my mother vanish in the distance, a sense of regret settled heavily upon me,” (p. 45). Both the greedy king and Zitkala-Ša had everything to make them happy, but they still wanted more, and both of them regretted their greed.
I thought that this passage was interesting, when Zitkala-Ša is at school being mischievous, because it highlights the theme of the book:
“I renewed my energy; and as I sent the masher into the bottom of the jar, I felt a satisfying sensation as I felt my weight go into it … Then she gave one lift and stride away from the table. But lo! The pulpy contents fell through the crumbled bottom to the floor… I felt triumphant in my revenge, though deep within me I was a wee bit sorry to have broken the jar,” (p. 60-61).
This is one example of a time at school when Zitkala-Ša did not cooperate. Even though she is proud of her revenge on the person who always yells at her, she still feels guilty for disrespecting the person by not doing as she was told. Since she broke the jar, she has to pay the consequences and get yelled at once again in front of everyone. I wonder if she would have become as mischievous if she had stayed home instead of going to school. I liked this book because Zitkala-Ša included a lot of snapshots, which were very descriptive and helped me to visualize what was going on. I rate this book an 8.5 out of 10. I would recommend American Indian Stories to anyone who enjoys reading about myths or legends.