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  • Zitkala-S̈a, The Song of Hiawatha, and the Carlisle Indian School Band:A Captivity Tale
  • Ruth Spack

In early 1900, Richard Henry Pratt, superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, invited Zitkala-Sa to travel as a violin soloist with the Carlisle Indian School Band on their tour of the northeastern United States. He also asked her to recite a scene from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It is not surprising that Pratt would select Zitkala-Sa to play the violin, for her classical training at the New England Conservatory of Music (1899-1901) fit well with the band's repertoire, which included selections from Il Trovatore and Lohengrin ("What the Papers Say"). Furthermore, Pratt would have been well aware that the Hiawatha recitation would appeal to his target audience: European Americans who, across the country, were eagerly attending cultural performances by Native Americans, under the mistaken assumption that indigenous people would soon disappear from the American landscape (Trachtenberg xxiii). But the timing of Pratt's invitation was peculiar. Zitkala-Sa had just defied the assimilationist ideology of Carlisle, where she had taught music from mid-1897 to the end of 1898, by publishing controversial pieces in the Atlantic Monthly, sketches that venerated indigenous ways of life on the one hand and criticized European American approaches to educating Native American children on the other.1 And Pratt had responded by publishing an anonymously written review of her work in a Carlisle newspaper, The Red Man, which accused her of providing a "misleading" portrayal of Indian schools ("School Days of an Indian Girl" 8). If Pratt felt that Zitkala-S a represented a threat to his educational mission, why did he give her such a prominent position on the tour?

My curiosity about Zitkala-Sa's participation in the Carlisle tour led to my discovery of a letter Pratt wrote to a colleague on 30 March 1900, in which he explained his reason for inviting Zitkala-a. He wanted to gain control over her and put a stop to her criticism: "I believe in capturing her and keeping her [End Page 211]

a (1898). Photograph by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy of Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, negative number: 2004-57787.">a (1898). Photograph by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy of Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, negative number: 2004-57787.">
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Fig. 1.

Zitkala-Sa (1898). Photograph by Gertrude Käsebier. Courtesy of Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, negative number: 2004-57787.

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on our side" (Pratt Papers; emphasis added). Reading Pratt's letter, I came to understand Zitkala-S a's performance with the Carlisle Indian School Band as a captivity tale waiting to be told.

The Scene of Captivity: Boston, Massachusetts, 1900

It was from Boston that Pratt lured Zitkala-Sa, yet her impressive résumé in that city would suggest that she was an unlikely candidate for capture. At the time of Pratt's invitation, Zitkala-Sa was almost twenty-four years old, deeply involved in the Boston artistic community, and much admired for her talent and beauty. Among her friends and mentors were Boston's most prominent musicians, photographers, and writers—an admirable accomplishment for any woman living independently in that era and an extraordinary achievement for someone of Native American background. When she arrived in Boston to study music at the beginning of 1899, Zitkala-S a entered what Deborah A. Devine calls "arguably the richest" musical culture in the United States (1). Her violin teacher, Eugene Gruenberg, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and head of the violin department at the New England Conservatory of Music, taught "the finest violin students in the United States" (4), which would suggest that Zitkala-S a's talent was prodigious.2

Zitkala-Sa's physical beauty contributed to the development of several other close associations in Boston. She was photographed by Fred Holland Day, one of the most influential artistic photographers in the world, a man she called a "true...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 211-224
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-06
Open Access
No
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