- The Old Lady Trill, The Victory Yell: The Power of Women in Native American Literature
Discussions of scholarship on gender in Native American studies bring to mind the work of academics such as Paula Gunn Allen, Beatrice Medicine, Clara Sue Kidwell, Patricia Albers, A. LaVonne Ruoff and Rayna Green, women who began, during the 1960s and 1970s, to explore topics about Native American women's lives, their literary, political, cultural, and historical legacies. In the 1980s, Wesley Thomas and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, among others, extended the discussion considerably with their focus on sexualities and gender formation—their recognition of the multiple genders within tribal societies and the lives today of people who have come to be called two-spirits.
Patrice E. M. Hollrah's book The Old Lady Trill, The Victory Yell, fits well into the scholarly conversations of the past three or so decades on Native American gender issues but more in the strand that re-envisions the roles of women in tribal roles as mothers, partners, and community activists than in the strand that examines sexuality. Hollrah focuses her study on depictions of Native American women as characters in contemporary Native American literature with the assertion that "the political ramifications of gender complementarity [End Page 154] in Native American literature result in strong female characters" (1). In relation to the concept of complementarity, Hollrah offers readings of the works of four major canonical figures in the field: Zitkala-Ša (Lakota), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene).
Hollrah's phrase, "the political ramifications of gender complementarity," carries tremendous weight as an assertion of the importance of Native women's lives and work within their own communities—especially if we accept that gender complementarity "exists regardless of whether the tribe is matriarchal, patriarchal or both" (172). The full picture of what that may mean has to be fleshed out in scholarship beyond literary criticism; nonetheless, this book contributes to that process despite the fact that it does not take up ideas about traditional tribal societies that socially construct(ed) multiple gender roles—beyond the two implied in complementarity. The broad stroke of gender studies (without reference to alternative sexualities) offered by this text fills a gap in scholarship and offers close readings of important works in the canon of Native American literature.
Extensive evidence in ethnographic, folkloric, historical, and other materials on Indigenous thought and worldview(s) does exist to change popular conceptions of Indigenous women as flat, single-dimensional figures. Unfortunately, American popular culture perpetually spins out the old stereotypes. Hollrah's effort to move away from the tired clich's is refreshing and lends help to teachers, in particular, who want to focus on the roles of Native women in their classes. Quoting Erdrich, "Women are strong, strong, terribly strong" (The Blue Jay's Dance 12), Hollrah unites the ideas of Native survival and individual women's ability to act to hold families and communities together.
Touting the strength of Native American women, however, begs the question: strong as opposed to whom? In other words, are Native American women strong in relation to white women or men, in relation to non-Native women, or in relation to Native men? Or is the strength Hollrah explicates a strength that stands in opposition to the American popular culture portrayals of Native women—as princesses, [End Page 155] drudges, concubines, or guides through the wilderness? At times, we get clues in all directions to these questions, but Hollrah could be more explicit in addressing her purpose. For example, she writes, "Expectations of women who subscribed to the Victorian model contrast to those of Yankton women. [In addition to the taking on domestic duties . . .] Zitkala-Ša maintains political power typical for a Yankton woman" (40). A Victorian white woman, she argues, would be subjugated to her husband. While Hollrah's observation seems valid in many ways, ethnographic or historical evidence would strengthen her argument. Moreover, not all Victorian women lived...