Much is made of the fact that Zitkala-Sa became an accomplished, "civilized" writer, musician, and political leader at a time when women, let alone Indian women, lacked society's whole-hearted support in their pursuit of public acclaim. Indeed, Zitkala-Sa demands the admiration of white Americans and Native Americans alike. However, the education of Zitkala-Sa, like Zitkala-Sa herself, was a "mixed one." Zitkala-Sa was eight years old before the white missionaries took her away to White's Manual Labor Institute. Nevertheless, those eight years were long enough for her to learn some important lessons from her mother.
Tate Iyohiwin, Zitkala-Sa’s mother, learned early not to trust the whites. She blamed them for the deaths of a daughter and a brother. When Zitkala-Sa was two years old, her older brother David was taken from Tate Iyohiwin and sent to a boarding school in Virginia for three years. Tate Iyohiwin knew that she would soon lose Zitkala-Sa as well. She tried to prepare Zitkala-sa by warning her not to trust “the paleface.” In the evenings Tate Iyohiwin sent Zitkala-Sa to invite old neighbors--men and women--to come to their tipi for conversation, conversation that always ended with the retelling of old legends. Since Native Americans relied primarily on oral communal storytelling to educate their children, the elders reinforced her mother’s efforts to instill in Zitkala-Sa the history and stories of the Yankton-Nakota.
Zitkala-Sa especially loved the stories of Iktomi, the trickster—a character who epitomizes some of mankind’s more unattractive characteristics. The character of the trickster appears in many forms in Native American oral tradition. Among the Crow tribes, the trickster is Old-Man Cayote. In Northwestern Indian lore the trickster's name is Raven. Other tribes simply refer to him as The Tricky One . ("Native American Trickster Tales"). But for the Nakota, the trickster is Iktomi, the Spider. Like tricksters in other Native American folklore, Iktomi "alternately scandalizes, disgusts, amuses, disrupts, chastizes, and humiliates (or is humiliated by) . . . yet is also a creative force . . . in bizarre and outrageous ways" ("Native American Trickster Tales"). Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale bluntly say that Iktomi is "lazy, sneaky, selfish and vain. He never listens when people tell him things, so he is always in some kind of trouble. He works twice as hard to avoid work, and the person he outsmarts is usually himself” (239). Agnes M. Picotte describes Iktomi as “an unconventional character who breaks all the rules of conduct and tradition. Many times he is purely foolish” (xiv). Nevertheless, Iktomi's funny escapades delight listeners, and Indian children did learn right from wrong by listening to the stories of Iktomi. Zitkala-Sa, too, learned from Iktomi. One of the most important lessons she learned from the stories of Iktomi was that his appetite for things forbidden often led him to actions that transformed his world (Rappaport 14).
By 1901 Zitkala-Sa's experience in the white world led her to publish Old Indian Legends, fourteen Nakota stories, most of which are about Iktomi. Zitkala-Sa was not the traditional Nakota storyteller, an old grandmother sitting before a fire, but an accomplished young woman, "refined" by a white education. She, like a "trickster," transformed herself in an attempt to find a place in a world that was working hard to destroy Native American culture altogether. Her method of telling the stories is white and her reference to Iktomi as a "fairy" is an example of her use of terms from white mythology (Slapin and Seale 240).
Encouraged by her observation of Quaker women, who took active roles in campaigning against the use of alcohol and for the right to vote for women, Zitkala-Sa metamorphosed from a timid Indian girl into a confident speaker and activist. She rejected the image of model boarding school student to write essays like "Soft-Hearted Sioux" and "The Trial Path," in which she "encoded nuanced native cultural values even as federal policies were systematically suppressing such values" (Bernardin 214). She dropped the name Gertrude Simmons and christened herself Zitkala-Sa, Red Bird. She braided her hair and wore Indian beadwork. She claimed to be a full-blooded Yanton and a granddaughter of Sitting Bull--neither of which is true. Zitkala-Sa employed the trickery of Iktomi whenever she felt it necessary. She revised her storytelling. She "drew from sentimental and autobiographical genres and then strategically revised those genres for a predominantly non-Indian readership" Bernardin 213). These stories, later published as American Indian Stories, ironically, lured a white audience to read stories not only about Indians but also about white Americans who, with their lies and treachery, became "non-Native 'tricksters'" (Bernardin 221). Zitkala-Sa aroused the sympathy of readers only to reject it by the end of her narratives, exposing the use of sentimentality to force the assimilation of Indians into white American culture.
Zitkala-Sa recognized that Indians and whites both resort to trickery and that there is a bit of Iktomi in all of us. Doreen Rappaport says that Zitkala-Sa "hid her Indian identity when necessary and exploited it when beneficial" (158). Zitkala-Sa admitted feeling foolish and died questioning the worth of her contributions. Surely, though, if Zitkala-Sa could read Rappaport's book The Flight of Red Bird or the scholarly essays about her, she would be amused and pleased to know that she became herself the central figure of legend, that her attempts to reshape Native American storytelling in the midst of the assimilation process made her a creator of myth. She would think it a fine trick, indeed.
Bernardin, Susan. “The Lessons of a Sentimental Education: Zitkala-Sa’s
Autobiographical Narratives.” Western American Literature 32:3 (Fall 1997):
Fisher, Dexter. Foreward. American Indian Stories. By Zitkala-Sa. 1921.