- Shaping Survival: Essays by Four American Indian Tribal Women
In the summer of 2001 Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and Professor Chuck Woodard of South Dakota State University organized their yearly gathering for Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota writers, the Oak Lake Writers' Retreat, affording them not only a time and place to devote to their writing, but also a forum for expressing their ideas on art, politics, and tribal literary traditions. Out of this particular retreat grew four parallel memoirs written by tribal women whose early life histories would be compiled under one title that suggests the themes and subjects of their book, Shaping Survival: Essays by Four American Indian Women.
The four sections of this book are individually titled and authored by the contributors, all of whom are enrolled members of the Sioux Nation and born into families in which Dakota or Lakota was the family's first language. With the exception of Karen Lone Hill, each writer experienced a boarding school education that would prompt her to resist the colonizing pressures to shed her Native identity for an assimilated one. While the narratives express unique voices, they also share common topics: the authors' earliest days surrounded by a [End Page 74] tiospaye of immediate and extended family; the land and landscapes with their distinct topographies, spirits and stories; and the forces that worked to shape each writer's life and means of survival. Survival is, of course, a broadly used term, and as these writers contemplate their personal and cultural survival, they explore the roles of education, spirituality, culture, and community in their lives. Inevitably, the stories express varying degrees of social and political critique as they contrast their early, traditional educations at home with their inculcation and upbringing within the boarding school system, an apparatus of colonialism that several of the writers experienced as institutionalized child abuse.
Karen Lone Hill (Oglala Lakota), professor of Lakota language and culture at Oglala Lakota College, titles her memoir "On Learning," shaping her narrative as a quest for knowledge, self-knowledge, and identity. Like many Indian children born in the mid-twentieth century, Hill was brought up by parents who believed that her survival depended upon her assimilation into the dominant culture through her turning away from her Lakota identity, language, and traditional practices. Indeed, when she was young, her father drove her through the South Dakota State University campus, telling her that this would be her future college, thereby planting the seeds of her later ambitions for higher education—not only for herself, but also for future Lakota scholars.
Ironically, given the cultural pressures of the time to deny one's tribal heritage, and the fact that Pine Ridge was a bastion of colonial control, Lone Hill had to leave the reservation to pick up the path that would lead her back home again to the elders and medicine people who could give her guidance. She notes the irony of her sleeping in a tipi for the first time in Hamburg, Germany, and learning Lakota in a language class at South Dakota State University. Paralleling her spiritual journey is her professional development as an educator, as she devoted herself to earning university degrees, while at the same time submersing herself in ceremonial life in response to her visions.
Lone Hill concludes her memoir with a shift away from herself and the educational experiences that both shaped her and aided her in her drive to survive as a Lakota person toward the important work of her life, that is to share her knowledge with not only Lakota students but [End Page 75] also non-Native students working as teachers in South Dakota public schools. Despite the challenges of surviving on the reservation and persevering through high school and university as a single parent, Lone Hill realized her quest to balance traditional knowledge with academic achievement to develop herself as one...