- Legacies of the Ever Beating Heart:Delphine Red Shirt's Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter
In her latest book, Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter, Lakota writer Delphine Red Shirt presents the kind of unmediated as-told-to life narrative for which we have long awaited. Her book in fact presents two orally related life stories, that of her mother, Lone Woman (Wiya Isnala), and her great-grandmother, Turtle Lung Woman (Kheglezela Chaguwi). Serving as amanuensis and then translator, Red Shirt edited a body of family stories that her mother related to her in the Lakota language over a period of two years. Lone Woman passed on in 1999, shortly after she completed the dictation of her memories and stories, never to see the book's publication in 2002. The book opens with Lone Woman's account of her grandmother's life, followed by her own story. It is not until the book's conclusion that Red Shirt steps in to narrate the moment of her mother's passing, prompting notice of how carefully she has remained in the background throughout the narration of over one hundred years of her family history. What Red Shirt has achieved in terms of its artistic and ethnographic merit is truly remarkable in itself. Moreover, Red Shirt demonstrates to us how a Lakota person's life may be composed of not only her personal story, but also a myriad of other types of narratives which come together to constitute an identity and a life.
Turtle Lung Woman lived from 1851 to 1933, witnessing and surviving one of the most tumultuous periods of political and cultural transformation that the Lakota Oyate or Nation would ever know historically. She was born into a world and a landscape, as yet unconquered by the U.S. military, where her people traversed freely a territory [End Page 83] spanning from Wyoming to Minnesota, and Nebraska to North Dakota. A contemporary of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, she recalls ongoing warfare with the Crow Nation, bison hunts, descriptions of traditional ceremonies for life passages, horse painting, and songs for the spirits. However, by the time she was twenty-three years old, she and her family would be confined to what is now known as the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota.
Like Ella Deloria's novel Waterlily, Red Shirt's biographies present an insider's look at the domain of Lakota women, offering intimate glimpses of the quiet work of daily life: of Turtle Lung Woman's making bread in a skillet on her outdoor wood stove, hitching her horse and buggy (at the age of eighty years old) to travel the five miles to the trading post, conducting yuwipi ceremonies in which her turtle shells dance, and instructing her children and grandchildren in the myriad, complicated rules governing core values and proper Lakota conduct. Most importantly, she instructs the children in depth and detail in kinship relationships and responsibilities, thereby shaping the construction of their identities as Lakota people. As Waterlily does, Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter provides a wealth of details concerning the interworkings of family relationships, pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing, offering a behind-the-scenes perspective of a world to which male missionaries and early ethnographers would have been denied access.
Finally, like Deloria's text, Red Shirt's book humanizes a people long romanticized and demonized in mainstream American popular culture, even before the time of Turtle Lung Woman's birth in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, Red Shirt's ability to evoke a bygone era and animate the representation of her mother's memories of her relatives long passed is impressive. She includes telling moments and details that enable readers to empathize, even to understand something of the complex lives of people living in a time long removed from the twenty-first century. For instance, the first chapter of her book opens with an account of a young Turtle Lung Woman beading moccasins by moonlight for her beloved husband, Paints His Face with Clay, working all night to complete them before he left for war. Later we learn how she reconciled herself to sharing him with his [End Page...