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Behind the Shadows of Wounded Knee
The Slippage of Imagination in Wynema: A Child of the Forest
What did it mean to be the first generation to hear the stories of the past, bear the horrors of the moment, and write to the future? What were tribal identities at the turn of the last century?
Muskogee Creek author Sophia Alice Callahan's novel, Wynema: A Child of the Forest, the first known novel by an American Indian woman, is remarkable on a number of levels.1 Of particular interest is her attention to the 1890 Lakota Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre that took place less than six months before the novel's spring 1891 publication.2 Callahan's text offers the first fictional re-creation of both the messianic religious movement that reached the Pine Ridge Reservation in the spring of 1890 and the infamous slaughter of Lakota men, women, and children that occurred on December 29 of that same year.3 Historically, these two events have been melded together in innumerable tragic retellings that have transformed two separate historical moments into a singular symbol of loss in which allusion to Ghost Dancing and/or to the massacre always equals a mythic "end" of Native cultures.4 With an investigation of Callahan's as-yet-unexamined representation of the massacre, I juxtapose such a limited and limiting version of such dominant histories with one of the earliest Native responses. This essay will show that Wynema presents a multivalent, though conflicted, series of messages about the 1890 Lakota Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre: while Callahan at times represents [End Page 1] Wounded Knee as a signifier of loss, thus participating in the creation of a Wounded Knee trope, she also represents the Ghost Dance in ways that challenge the single cause-and-effect narrative that continues to dominate stories of the massacre. Ultimately, I contend that despite the novel's undeniable narrative failures, Wynema's depiction of the 1890 Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre has the potential to expand our understanding of both the tensions and possibilities that underlie Native visions of American Indian identities in the late nineteenth century.
Callahan's Wynema spans approximately twenty years, from the 1870s to the early 1890s, as it follows the title character, Wynema, a young Muskogee girl, from early childhood to the first years of her marriage. In many ways Wynema presents a case study in assimilation. When readers first encounter her, she lives in an unnamed Native community, "an obscure place, miles from the nearest trading point" and sixteen miles from the nearest mission while, by the time the novel closes, she has become a teacher at Hope Seminary, a Christian mission school. During this time Wynema, as Dakota author Charles Eastman might have said, moves "from the deep woods to civilization," becoming fluent in English, embracing dominant dress and attitudes, adopting Christianity, and, ultimately, marrying a white husband. She is, in the end, a Native heroine made in Callahan's own image, since Callahan herself was a teacher in Muskogee, Oklahoma, at the Harrell International Institute, a private Methodist high school for both Indian and white children, where she taught classes and edited Harrell's journal, Our Brother in Red (Ruoff xvi).5
Though Wynema's story serves as the text's title and narrative frame, she is arguably not the novel's central character, an honor that goes instead to Genevieve Weir, a young, white Methodist teacher who sets up a school on Wynema's reservation. Genevieve, who Oklahoma Creek-Cherokee scholar Craig Womack dryly calls "civilization made flesh," arrives in Indian Territory at some point in the 1870s (112). The narrator explains that following Wynema's petition for a school: "[T]he cry rang out in the great Methodist assembly; 'A woman to teach among the Indians in the territory. Who will go?' " (Callahan 4). This call...