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  • Deflected MissivesZitkala-Ša's Resistance and Its (Un)Containment
  • Barbara Chiarello (bio)

When Zitkala-Ša ascended the stage of the Indianapolis opera house to compete in the 1896 statewide oratorical contest, she may still have been questioning the good fortune that would soon allow her to argue for Indian rights in front of a large audience. The twenty-year-old Yankton Sioux might also have been exhausted from rewriting the speech that had unexpectedly won first place in Earlham College's oratorical contest about a month before. This first speech, entitled "Side by Side," supported women's suffrage, but Zitkala-Ša "re-wrote her entire oration because she wished to talk upon the Indian question in the State Contest, and she had not expected to win in the College Contest her first year" (Dennis). According to American Indian scholar Deborah Welch, it was the second version of "Side by Side" that represented the start of Zitkala-Ša's political career. The "seeds of Zitkala-Ša, the fighter for Indian rights, are to be found in this early address on the essential humanity of Indian peoples" (Welch 11). Zitkala-Ša's career as an outspoken advocate may have begun in Indianapolis, but it was also here that her words were hobbled, first by an antagonistic crowd, then by an offended judge, and, still later, by biased reporting in the mainstream press.

As Zitkala-Ša spoke, alternately praising and condemning Anglo-American civilization, several college students in attendance mocked her request for equality. She may have been too focused on her text, which reestablished the merit of her culture, to notice the banner raised by a rival university until after she delivered her speech. Perhaps it was when she lifted her eyes, about to let out a sigh of relief, [End Page 1] that she noticed "a large white flag, with a drawing of a most forlorn Indian girl [above] bold black letters [comprising] words that ridiculed . . . [her] college which was represented by a 'squaw'" (American Indian Stories 79). Earlham's newspaper records that the banner actually appeared before the contest began, suspended from a wire above an upper tier of boxes. While the students had prominently scrawled "conceit" across their depiction of frequent winner DePauw University, "Earlham was represented by an overdrawn caricature and 'Humility' [was] painted in large letters" ("Oratorical" 183).

Her withdrawal from an audience she had sensed as hostile may have caused Zitkala-Ša not to see the disparaging caricature: "The slurs against the Indian that stained the lips of our opponents were already burning like a dry fever within my breast" (AIS 79). Now both visually and verbally assaulted, Zitkala-Ša reacted viscerally: "Such worse than barbarian rudeness embittered me. While we waited for the verdict of the judges, I gleamed fiercely upon the throngs of palefaces. My teeth were hard set, as I saw the white flag still floating insolently in the air" (AIS 79). Only after her name was read as the second-place winner did "the white flag . . . [drop] out of sight, and the hands which hurled it . . . [hang] limp in defeat" (AIS 80). But this defeat was short-lived; her tormentors, since they let the flag drop, could raise it again. Just as not a single contest official legitimized Zitkala-Ša's presence and words by demanding that the students remove the banner that falsely defined her, so, too, would a complicit mainstream press soon allow Butler's assault to remain unchallenged. Although The Earlhamite chastised Butler for "devot[ing] her energy and ingenuity . . . in attempting to belittle visitors to her city and the contestants, especially when a lady was among the latter" ("Oratorical" 183), Zitkala-Ša's college paper not only trivialized the incident by gendering it, but this potentially powerful advocate never addressed the obvious insult to American Indians. Similarly, while a crowd of students greeted Zitkala-Ša, returning in a carriage festooned with the college's colors and bearing mounted attendants, at the reception that followed, one student described "the part the word 'Humility' played at Indianapolis and how it became a watchword of [End Page 2] the Earlham delegation" without mentioning that this word was intimately connected to...


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