- Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša by Tadeeusz Lewandowski
A forefinger she presses to her lip. The young man arouses himself from his stupor. His senses belie him. Before his wide-open eyes the old bent figure straightens into its youthful stature. Tusee herself is beside him. With a stroke upward and downward she severs the cruel cords with her sharp blade. Dropping her blanket from her shoulders, so that it hangs from her girdled waist like a skirt, she shakes the large bundle into a light shawl for her lover. Quickly she spreads it over his bare back.
"Come!" she whispers, and turns to go; but the young man, numb and helpless, staggers nigh to falling.
The sight of his weakness makes her strong. A mighty power thrills her body. Stooping beneath his outstretched arms grasping at the air for support, Tusee lifts him upon her broad shoulders. With half-running, triumphant steps she carries him away into the open night.
Zitkala-Ša, "A Warrior's Daughter"
The significance of the finale of this scene becomes more apparent when seen through the lens that Tadeusz Lewandowski offers in the book Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša, the first biography of this important early American Indian author and activist. "A Warrior's Daughter" was written during a key period of Zitkala-Ša's [End Page 121] relationship with Carlos Montezuma, her one-time fiancé and eventual colleague in the Society of American Indians. As Lewandowski writes, "The two had sparred over her overt refusal to adopt a submissive position within their proposed marriage. They stumbled on another philosophical disagreement over what role women should play in a future Indian rights organization that both wished to establish" (60). When the scene is placed in this context, it is easy to liken Tusee to Zitkala-Ša, the warrior who takes an active role as leader.
This is the kind of material I wish I'd had when doing earlier work on Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Bonnin). There is much to admire here. First, the structure of this genre gives space for historically situating her in ways not done before. Lewandowski starts with a lengthy discussion of Bonnin's position as a Yankton citizen and what that meant vis-à-vis the complex history of Sioux tribes in the nineteenth century: the land dispossession, the prevalence of the Ghost Dance, and the legacy of Indian boarding schools. With those details, we are better prepared to understand aspects of her life that are otherwise perplexing: for example, her conversion to Catholicism while working beside a priest on the Uintah Reservation. This shift helps explain not her antipeyote campaign, which was conducted on moral rather than religious grounds, but her other activist motivations: her work, for example, with homeless and abused Utes. It also helps explain her renewed willingness to work with whites of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, which was so key to her later efforts. The Sun Dance Opera is also given detailed attention: as Lewandowski notes, while contemporary critics have read it as "inauthentic," a problematic representation geared toward a predominantly white audience, it in fact reflects a Sun Dance performed on the Uintah Reservation in the early 1900s in defiance of the US government's attempts to end tribal religious ceremonies and dances.
I was surprised, however, to see little incorporation of Jane Hafen's interpretation of the opera; her publications are included in the footnotes, but frankly I see Hafen as the premiere expert on Bonnin who deserves more voice here. Similarly, as vain as it may seem, I was surprised to see a lack of mention of my article on Bonnin in the 1920s, when she and others initiated an investigation into whether a woman who went by the name Princess Chinquilla was indeed an American Indian. Given Lewandowski's extended discussion of the historical context of...