- The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman
Some years ago, following the paper trail of Ella Deloria’s correspondence in collections scattered over the Midwest and the northeastern coast, I located a one-page letter to “Rosebud” (whoever she was) suggesting that they might work together. From the context, educational outreach pertaining to American Indians was somehow involved, and Deloria promised that her materials were authentic. What came of that suggestion I don’t know, but with the publication [End Page 367]of Marjorie Weinberg’s The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman, now I know that Deloria was addressing a colleague based in New York City, Rosebud Yellow Robe. The granddaughter of a Brule Sioux who had fought against Custer and daughter of one of the Carlisle Indian School’s most celebrated graduates, Yellow Robe (1907–92) was one of a number of Indian women who succeeded with careers in performance widely defined: nightclub acts, hotel stages, public speaking, radio (and eventually television) programs, storytelling, theater, and movies.
Rosebud starred in all but the latter: Cecil B. DeMille wanted her for Ramona(a part eventually played by Dolores Del Rio), but Rosebud’s father, Chauncey Yellow Robe, a member of the Society of American Indians, was vehemently opposed to Wild West Shows and Hollywood’s portrayals of Indians. Ironically enough, he is remembered, among his many distinguished achievements, as the writer and speaker for the prologue to the movie The Silent Enemy(1930). He also played the role of the chief Chetoga who dies from that enemy (starvation), and the privations he practiced to prepare for that role may well have killed him. Rosebud continued her father’s efforts to educate the mainstream culture about North America’s Indigenous peoples, in her case Lakotas and eastern woodland peoples, but in a successful format and venue of her own.
There are undoubtedly more analytical and theoretical possibilities for telling Rosebud’s story, but Weinberg eschews placing her in broader political and historical contexts (although her narrative is enriched by findings from both, over decades of research) or in the history of American Indian women, particularly in New York City, in performance. For her, Rosebud was “teacher, friend, and second mother”; this biography fulfills a promise to continue Rosebud’s own research about her family (which, for Weinberg, is ongoing). They first met when Weinberg, a lonely thirteen year old whose mother was ill, talked her father into letting her and her sister attend Rosebud’s “Indian Village” summer culture camps at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island: this biography, in effect, started on a beach, continued in public libraries, and led Weinberg to graduate study in anthropology. It is the account of a friendship that lasted forty-five years, until Rosebud’s death, with Weinberg as well as Rosebud’s daughter and granddaughter at her side. Thinking how to situate this eloquent and moving tribute, I think of another “testament” of friendship written by Vera Brittain after the death of her friend Winifred Holtby, a novelist and social activist, in 1940. In both books each woman’s life is reciprocally transformed by the other.
If we seek a more “Indian” context in which to locate Rosebud’s life, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s (Crow Creek Sioux) essay “The American Indian Woman in the Ivory Tower” (in Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays: [End Page 368] A Tribal Voice) presents some of the quandaries and restricted opportunities available for educated Indian women, some of mixed heritage, in the early decades of the twentieth century:
For the women who, after schooling, did not return to the reservations, for the women who ignored traditional marriage patterns by marrying nontribal men, for the women whose children no longer represented the bloodlines of the tribes, the matter of claiming intellectual, spiritual, or social leadership roles was complicated and difficult. They often became useful only as they served to further and support assimilationist views and were often...