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  • Zitkala-Ša and Bicultural Subjectivity
  • Ron Carpenter (bio)

Typing the Indian

Zitkala-Ša, or Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Yankton), thwarts most attempts to categorize her autobiographical subjectivity.1 Her narrative of her youth originally appears in the January, February, and March issues of the Atlantic Monthly (1900), as "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "The School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher Among Indians." These memoirs were reprinted in American Indian Stories, published in 1921 and reissued in 1985 and 2003. Throughout the autobiography, Zitkala-Ša's narrator avoids defining herself prescriptively according to either Yankton or Anglo culture. As Dexter Fisher rightly notes "she [Zitkala-Ša] is not reaffirming the role of the woman in tribal life . . . Nor is her purpose to praise the educational opportunities afforded her through governmental policies" (206). Although popular images, then and now, often posit them as a dichotomy, Euroamerican and Native American cultures are neither mutually exclusive nor antithetical categories.2 I seek to argue that Zitkala-Ša's persona is bicultural, and that she produces a bicultural context in order to reconfigure the representation of Native Americans and their cultural status. By bicultural, I mean that she signs in a context that is inseparably Anglo and Yankton; a context in which she is irreducible to either culture and alienated from each. While Euroamerican and Yankton resources coexist and operate simultaneously, generic dimensions of her bicultural context cannot be stipulated beforehand since Zitkala-Ša's narrator does not privilege Anglo or Yankton unilaterally, nor balance them equally in situating herself among [End Page 1] and against her shared cultures. Instead, she combines her bicultural resources to produce a new type of Indian, one that exceeds the prescriptive roles offered Native American women by either culture.

This biculturality differs from Homi Bhabha's postcolonial notion of hybridity, or the "open-space in-between," because his Third Space is defined by an absence (112-13). He argues that subjects cannot be located within a single culture and its signifying discourses since all cultures are themselves always alienated from within.3 For Bhabha, subjects possess agency in between cultures where the inside/outside dialectic is absent: "It is in this hybrid gap, which produces no relief, that the colonial subject takes place" (58). While I do want to retain Bhabha's contention that hybridity "resists the binary opposition of racial and cultural groups," my category of the bicultural does not vacate the cultural resources that subjects such as Zitkala-Ša employ to constitute their identity (207).

Zitkala-Ša's textual hybridity is thus more closely aligned to those generated by her African American and American Indian contemporaries. Malea Powell (Indiana Miami), for example, has recently delineated how the late-nineteenth-century intellectuals Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Northern Paiute) and Charles Alexander Eastman (Dakota) use "the language of survivance (survival + resistance) [. . .] to reimagine and literally, refigure 'the Indian'" (400). Similar to Zitkala-Ša, these authors utilize self-representation to transform "their object-status within colonial discourse into a subject status, a presence instead of an absence" (Powell 400). Ross Posnock has outlined what he terms the W. E. B. Du Boisian "distinction," as a practice of "anarchy [that] manifests itself as strategic difficulty, which he used to escape from the bondage of racist classification, from stereotypes that reigned supremely as Nature" (507). Du Bois's "double consciousness"

staged the clash [between races] rather than defusing or muZing it [. . .] because the reality that confronted them [his audience] was unsettled, he unsettles, keeping debate alive in his audience so that their perplexity might be clarified, if not [End Page 2] dissolved. This dissonant perspective is not to be the end point but rather the tool of a more nuanced kind of political conduct, one supple enough to make distinctions and double moves rather than relying on a single "frontal attack."


Similarly, Zitkala-Ša stages her autobiography by foregrounding stereotypes, framing the Indian/white binary as faulty; she thus keeps the dialogue between cultures present, rather than reconciling their cultural differences. Zitkala-Ša strategically reforms her subjectivity according to her bicultural resources; her autobiographical persona is a practice and a product of this biculturality in which she formulates...


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