restricted access Cont(r)acting Whiteness: The Language of Contagion in the Autobiographical Essays of Zitkala-Ša
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Cont(r)acting Whiteness:
The Language of Contagion in the Autobiographical Essays of Zitkala-Ša

In early 1900, 'the atlantic monthly' published three autobiographical essays by Dakota Sioux author Zitkala-Ša that recount her experiences with Indian boarding schools in the last decades of the nineteenth century.1 The essays are characteristic of The Atlantic Monthly in both their literary quality and the contribution they provide to the cultural construction of the "American experience," yet they distinguish themselves by challenging preferred narratives of that experience. The January 1900 issue, in which Zitkala-Ša's premier essay appears, leads with the first installment of another autobiography, that of William James Stillman, an artist and writer whose standard approach to the American success story confirms readers' generic expectations and sense of national identity. Two chapters of Mary Johnston's popular novel To Have and to Hold also accompany "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," but unlike Zitkala-Ša, Johnston prefers a literary account of Anglo-Indian contact "In Which an Indian Forgives and Forgets," the title of Chapter 31. Barbara Chiarello observes that Stillman's, Johnston's, and other Atlantic Monthly contributions by Anglo Americans upheld the publication's reputation as "a respected journal that reflected and (re)produced American ideologies" (9). "By appearing in the Atlantic," Chiarello suggests, "Zitkala-Ša's essays [too] may have done just that" but with the distinct purpose "to transform" (9, 8). To Chiarello, "resistance literature" like that of Zitkala-Ša "functions [End Page 55] like a virus. The very act of mounting a defense has the desired effect of altering mainstream institutions" (23, emphasis added). The simile is apt: as we might say today, Zitkala-Ša's appearance in The Atlantic Monthly positions her account to "go viral." In fact, as this essay argues, popular notions of disease figure prominently in Zitkala-Ša's approach to social reform. "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher among Indians" engage with heavily encoded rhetoric of disease to reveal the distortions in dominant cultural views of self- and nationhood. Specifically, Zitkala-Ša complicates the signification of whiteness by exploiting its metonymic connection to contagion and death, thereby offering an alternative narrative of Native American-white contact, one in which "whiteness" threatens physically and culturally to contaminate and eradicate the Native American subject. These tropes expand extra-textually as acts of composition and publication render communicable a set of ideas that stand to effect social change.

"Impressions of an Indian Childhood" immediately establishes Zitkala-Ša's focus on disease with a story of the forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux people and its deadly effects on the author's sister and uncle. Gesturing toward the hill on which the two are buried, Zitkala-Ša's mother cries, "There is what the paleface has done!" She continues:

With every step, your sister, who was not as large as you are now, shrieked with the painful jar until she was hoarse with crying. She grew more and more feverish. Her little hands and cheeks were burning hot. Her little lips were parched and dry, but she would not drink the water I gave her. Then I discovered that her throat was swollen red . . . . At last, when we reached this western country, on the first weary night your sister died. And soon your uncle died also . . . . Both your sister and uncle might have been happy with us to-day, had it not been for the heartless paleface.


In this story, Zitkala-Ša's sister suffers from and dies of a "fever," a diagnosis that in the nineteenth century signaled infectious disease. The mother describes her daughter's symptoms in the kind of detail bred by familiarity, her attention to the girl's parched and dry lips and swollen [End Page 56] red throat consistent with the "all-too-everyday experience with death and disease" common to Americans of the era (Tomes 26). But rather than dread disease itself, Zitkala-Ša's mother targets her fear and anger at the "paleface." This term we might not tend to parse, for contemporary readers expect—as Zitkala-Ša's readers expected—to encounter...