- Expanding Interpretations of Native American Women's History
Beginning in the 1980s, and continuing with renewed rigor during the 1990s, much scholarship has focused on the lives and writings of Native intellectuals, with an emphasis on women and gender. This interest has spawned a plethora of articles, dissertations, and book-length studies about Native women from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The earliest approaches came out of ethnohistorical work and literary studies.1 Some of these initial engagements criticized figures like Zitkala-Ša and Susan La Flesche for being either "assimilationists" or sellouts because of their abilities to navigate different cultural and social contexts, whether Native or not. Emerging out of these interpretations was the notion that Native women had to "give up" some part of their Native identity and belonging if they were to become professional writers or doctors like these examples, and as such they were defined as existing in a special "liminal" or bicultural context.2 Today, scholars have built on and critiqued these previous understandings as well as the tremendously useful archival discoveries from this period [End Page 131] to offer more nuanced and complicated analyses. They suggest that a figure like Zitkala-Ša might be interpreted as strategic in her ability to negotiate shifting expectations and representational politics based on both Yankton communal values and American modernity.3 In essence, as Tadeusz Lewandowski puts it in his biography, Zitkala-Ša was able "to form a compelling critique of American society that asserted the validity of her Sioux heritage."4 When considered together, Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša by Tadeusz Lewandowski and A Warrior of the People: The Indomitable Courage of Susan La Flesche—America's First Indian Doctor by journalist Joe Starita, as well as the documentary Medicine Woman directed by Christine Lesiak and Princella RedCorn and the visual history American Indian Women by ethnological filmmaker Patrick Deval contribute to expanding current interpretations of the history of Native women in the United States, with an emphasis on the Great Plains.
Although several literary scholars have examined the writings of Zitkala-Ša, only a small number of historians have engaged with her other work, including The Sun Dance Opera she helped create, her political activism through the Society of American Indians, alliances with white progressive reform groups like the Indian Rights Association, and her service as founder and president of the National Council of American Indians. Lewandowski's biography promises to bring readers of Native American history the first full-scale biography of "the woman whose passionate commitment to improving the lives of her people propelled her to the forefront of Progressive-era reform movements" (rb, front flap). Lewandowski situates his reading of Zitkala-Ša's achievements in the different cultural and political realms that punctuated her life as a literary figure, musician, and pan-tribal political activist. Although Lewandowski refers to a void in Zitkala-Ša's life pertaining to "lost cultural heritage" that other scholars of history and Native American and Indigenous studies might question, he is right to place her in a broader historical context by suggesting that "Zitkala-Ša's achievements distinguish her as a forerunner of the Red Power movement and an important agent of change" (rb, back flap).
Methodologically, Lewandowski's biography draws on a rich and extensive archive of unpublished materials, many of these primary sources having yet to be fully discussed and unpacked by other scholars. The author examined hundreds of handwritten and...