- George Sword’s Warrior Narratives: Compositional Processes in Lakota Oral Tradition by Delphine Red Shirt
By Delphine Red Shirt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. vii + 214 pp. Appendixes, notes, references, index. $65.00 cloth.
Delphine Red Shirt provides a valuable, culturally informed analysis of a selection of texts authored by George Sword, one of the most noteworthy of historical Lakota figures spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Serving as army scout, translator, captain of the Lakota military police, liaison between Crazy Horse and the United States government, and then later as a medicine [End Page 240] man, Sword has left behind a cultural treasure trove with his vast archive of published and unpublished texts. Between 1896 and 1910, Sword utilized the English syllabary to write in the Lakota language, though, to date, not all his work has been translated into English.
Focusing on a description of the Sun Dance ceremony, along with three brief warrior narratives, Red Shirt deploys critical methodologies devised by early twentieth-century scholars Milman Parry and his assistant Albert B. Lord, both scholars of oral tradition compositional practices in Homeric epics and Yugoslavian oral traditional poetry, respectively. Red Shirt sets out to examine recurring grammatical units of Sword’s warrior narratives, as well as thematic and narrative motifs in her effort to argue that Sword’s written work reveals a compositional practice rooted in traditional Lakota oral tradition. Sword’s compositions, as it were, are characterized by principles of order and coherence that likewise signify their genealogy in Lakota oral tradition.
Her book, originally her doctoral dissertation, is composed of seven chapters and four appendixes that provide Sword’s original Lakota texts and Red Shirt’s English translations, along with copious notes and references. Moreover, the structure of the book conforms to that of a dissertation manuscript, as the first and final chapters recapitulate the study’s aims and methodology. Her examination appears labored at times and her observations obscure and frequently laconic. Red Shirt reminds us of the limited scope of her study, as well as its purpose: to tease out the process of composition that Sword might have followed and to suggest this methodology’s application to other Lakota traditional texts. For readers unfamiliar with granular-level linguistic analyses or with complex Lakota verb forms, the scantily developed commentary may prove to be frustrating, leaving readers with more questions than answers. One might also wish that Red Shirt not default in deference to her sources, Milman Parry or John Foley, for instance, to speak for her or articulate important summary conclusions.
Red Shirt’s study is highly significant, nevertheless, as it revives critical interest in George Sword’s work and invites future scholars to explore the literary value of Sword’s narratives and transcribed songs. American Indian studies stands as an inherently interdisciplinary field wherein scholars have already explored the anthropological and historical value of Sword’s writings. Delphine Red Shirt, as a fluent Lakota speaker conversant with linguistic protocols that govern Lakota discourse in a variety of arenas, has reminded us of a host of research questions and opportunities for future Lakota scholars. Red Shirt successfully reopens the conversation to remind Indigenous studies scholars that linguistic recovery and maintenance are imperative to the cultural continuance of the Lakota Nation.
University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire