Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction - Sean Teuton 2018
From artifact to intellectual
In Washington, DC, in the 1830s, Native American diplomats in suits and ties bustled about town. Seneca leader Red Jacket was on a lecture tour and Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross negotiated Indian removal policies. Yet around this same time a Native American man arrived in buckskin, beads, and feathers to stand on balconies and stare menacingly at the capital’s crowds. He was not to be feared, however, for in April and May 1833 he traveled as a federal prisoner on a forced tour throughout the East.
His name was Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kaik or Black Sparrow Hawk, more commonly called Black Hawk. He had lost the Black Hawk War and President Andrew Jackson ordered him to Washington, but he apparently served as such an image of the frontier that the writer Washington Irving and painters George Catlin and Robert Sully also visited him after his capture and delayed his departure. Together with seven other members of his nation, Black Hawk traveled under military escort by steamship up the Ohio River to Wheeling, in what was then Virginia, where his entourage took the Cumberland Road to the capital of the United States.
Two days after arriving, Black Hawk stood before the president, who asked why he dared defy the United States. Black Hawk replied at length but Jackson appeared uninterested. Next the president ordered the Sauk prisoners to Fort Monroe in Virginia, where they languished for another five weeks. Then the men toured eastern cities, where they saw plays and visited the Philadelphia waterworks, the U.S. Mint, a local prison, the New York arsenal, a fireworks display, and even a hot air balloon from which the ballooner declared Black Hawk a hero in the image of those of the American Revolution. The Sauk war leader obliged his public by sporting a buffalo headdress at a formal dance in Philadelphia and, above all, by announcing his defeat and subsequent wish to befriend the whites.
6. In April and May 1833, Black Hawk was shackled and summoned to Washington to stand before President Jackson. After imprisonment and during a tour of eastern cities, he sat for a portrait by Charles Bird King, which joined the gallery of famous chiefs housed in the Department of War.
In an ironic example of the era’s complicated ethnic sentiments, in Baltimore the president and Black Hawk attended the same performance of a play called Jim Crow, probably a minstrel show in which white actors in black face makeup performed the antics of foolish but happy slaves. Citizens arrived to see Black Hawk as much as they did to see the commander in chief, or perhaps as much as to view the image of happy slaves. In fact, Jackson became frustrated in finding Black Hawk a celebrity whose presence created not support for removal policy but rather sympathy for Native Americans, and so Jackson cut the tour short and sent the Sauk villains home.
The Black Hawk War of 1832 was the last U.S. attack on Native people east of the Mississippi River. In that war future government leaders Abraham Lincoln, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and Jefferson Davis proved themselves as “Indian fighters” worthy of federal office. Most of all, the war enabled Andrew Jackson to demonstrate Indian removal as a workable policy. As in many removal-era conflicts, a dishonorable treaty lay behind this allied Sauk and Fox battle with local militia in Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1804 General William Henry Harrison arranged with an unauthorized group of Sauks to buy their ancestral lands between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Sauks remained on the land until about 1830 when the United States finally surveyed and began to sell the land. While most Sauks found resistance futile and agreed to resettle west of the Mississippi, Black Hawk and his followers vowed to remain in their homes as they had for more than a century, returning in April 1832. After a series of skirmishes, the U.S. militia cornered Black Hawk’s band along the Mississippi River near Bad Axe, Wisconsin, where they killed or captured most of the group. In what was not actually a war but a massacre, the United States lost five men.
On his surrender Black Hawk hoped to set the record straight. Indian agency interpreter Antoine LeClaire and newspaperman John B. Patterson helped publish the Life of Black Hawk (1833) in an effort to relate “the causes that had impelled him to act as he had done, and the principles by which he is governed.” Though some question its authenticity, statements throughout Black Hawk’s Life suggest strongly that the three men communicated his life narrative as clearly as possible. Indeed, in an era when North America justified its cupidity for indigenous lands with views of irredeemable Indian savagery, Patterson’s advertisement for the book describes Black Hawk as “a Hero who has lately taken such high rank among the distinguished individuals of America.” Throughout his narrative the Sauk “hero” insists on the truth of his presence as an eyewitness to the multiple injustices and atrocities committed against his nation, and he refuses to narrate events that he himself did not experience.
The autobiography includes Sauk origin stories and customs, and it delivers a powerful counternarrative of U.S. entitlement to indigenous lands during the clamor for Indian removal. Black Hawk is still traumatized by the memory of the appalling theft of his ancestral place: “to be driven from our village and hunting grounds, and not even permitted to visit the graves of our forefathers, our relations, and friends! This hardship is not known to the whites.” He reveals a deep sense of history, recorded in and sanctified by the homeland itself. Such ties to irreplaceable indigenous lands render Indian removal not only unworkable but also unethical, he affirms.
Black Hawk next presents his vision of reason in challenging western notions of property. “My reason,” he argues, “teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon, and cultivate as far as is necessary for their subsistence; and so long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have the right to the soil—but if they voluntarily leave it, then any other people have the right to settle upon it. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.” In relying on reason to present his claim, Black Hawk contradicts common conclusions about the incapacity of Indians to think or govern; indeed, he couples reason with governance in his narrative. Moreover, in providing his critique of western views on property, Black Hawk invites North American readers to acknowledge the invention of their purportedly God-sanctioned expansion. Despite the success of Life of Black Hawk, almost all Native American autobiographies do not appear until the twentieth century.
Other histories, other travels
The Black Hawk campaign of 1832 refined an already centuries-old pattern for European dispossession of indigenous lands. North American leaders often sought the most pliable Native community members, appointed them “chiefs,” and through alcohol, bribery, intimidation, or deception compelled them to sign treaties ceding millions of acres for smaller lands with limited resources farther west. Colonial officials also did little to keep white settlers from entering these new indigenous territories or assaulting Native Americans there despite pleas from Native leaders, but they often retaliated violently when Native Americans defended their new lands. Similar histories echo throughout the so-called Indian Wars of the nineteenth century.
Meanwhile Native people continued to write. Ojibwe families who had built wealth in the fur trade often sent their children to eastern schools, from which they returned to write and lead. The Schoolcrafts were one such family. Agent to the Sault Saint Marie community, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft married into the prominent Ojibwe Johnston family. As a self-styled “Indian expert,” territorial governor Lewis Cass sent an exhaustive questionnaire on Indian life to all Indian agents, and Schoolcraft asked his wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, to consult elders and assemble her own “polite literature of the Chippewa.” Schoolcraft drew on this collection for his own work. Unfortunately, in Algic Researches (1839), the first volume of Native American literature, Schoolcraft suggests that Ojibwe stories provide evidence that the Indian mind is childlike and incapable of self-government. Partially on Schoolcraft’s evidence Cass argued in print and before Congress the inherent racial inferiority and inevitable demise of Native Americans.
By the middle nineteenth century American ethnology had scant interest in indigenous oral literatures, finding them often nonsensical and warranting attention merely as entertainment. Many North Americans believed that without literacy, Native Americans were without history, and without history they were without civilization. Living in these times and potentially encumbered by theories of inherent Indian difference, Ojibwe writers such as Peter Jones, George Copway, and William Warren sought to place themselves and Ojibwes in time, as conscious agents adapting to a changing world. Each man thus authored a history presenting Ojibwe people not as a vanishing race, but as a people cultivating indigenous knowledge in new circumstances. All these writers showcased the aesthetic power of Ojibwe thought and literature.
Peter Jones converted to his white father’s Methodism in 1823. While fervently establishing missions he wrote History of the Ojibway Indians (1860). Jones openly confronts white assumptions of racial supremacy, arguing that he “cannot suppose for a moment that the Supreme Disposer has decreed …the doom of the red man.” Though Jones cites its persistence as evidence of the vitality of traditional knowledge, he predicts an increasingly Christian path for Native Americans. Even though some have perceived Jones to present Native people as not “inherently different” but rather as “morally depraved,” he writes at length about the value of such Ojibwe religious experiences as dreams, a fact suggesting his ambivalence about eclipsing Ojibwe ways. More importantly, throughout his History Jones fights for indigenous rights to self-government, albeit on Christian terms.
In 1830 Jones converted a “pious” Ojibwe student named George Copway. By 1834, as a missionary at the Saugeen mission on Lake Huron, Copway was indicted for embezzlement, sent to prison in Toronto, and expelled from the church. He overlooked this checkered past in The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway), a Young Indian Chief of the Ojibwa Nation, A Convert to the Christian Faith, and a Missionary to His People for Twelve Years (1847).
Copway became a supreme self-promoter, touring to lecture and befriending Francis Parkman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow among other ranking members of society only to become indebted and again jailed in New York. Afterward Copway travelled as an “Indian doctor,” changed his name, and became a Catholic healer on Grand Island reserve in Ontario. Throughout what he calls his “crooked travels” Copway undermines the exact role of the Noble Savage that he has been asked to perform. Like Jones, in his History Copway argues for the advancement of Ojibwes through Christian conversion. Though Copway refers often to the Ojibwe Grand Medicine Lodge, he promotes both Christianity and literacy; like a handful of Cherokees he advocates removal to a specifically Christian Ojibwe reservation, even as he argues for the beauty and value of Ojibwe oral literature.
William Warren learned Ojibwe ceremony and language as a child, then attended boarding school in his white father’s native New York. Upon return, Warren became a government interpreter in Michigan and later a territorial legislator in Minnesota. He began collecting oral literature from his elders and published them in the Minnesota Democrat, then wrote his History of the Ojibway Nation, Based upon Traditions and Oral Statements. Through its anchor in oral literatures, Warren’s history challenges the era’s dominant modes of writing Native American history. Some argue that Warren offered this challenge precisely because, unlike Jones and Copway, he bore no ties to Christian missions. Warren felt no obligation to narrate his conversion to Christianity; instead, he delivers a scholarly study of Ojibwe stories of migrations and settlements, medicine societies and ceremonies. Throughout, Warren allows Ojibwe knowledge to correct western misrepresentations, and he proclaims Ojibwe autonomy to write their own history.
In arguments likely pointed at Henry Schoolcraft, he writes to confront the work of “transient sojourners,” who “not having a full knowledge of their character and language, have obtained information through mere temporary observation—through the medium of careless and imperfect interpreters, or have taken the account of unreliable persons.” In writing what he calls “the first work written from purely Indian sources,” Warren finally crosses a color line in the study of Native Americans and their literatures. In 1852 he set off for New York to find a publisher and a doctor for his growing illness. Not surprisingly Warren could not find a publisher for his self-possessed work, and he died a year later at the age of twenty-eight.
George Copway toured Europe and in 1851 wrote the first full-length Native American travelogue, Running Sketches of Men and Places. Around this time Peter Jones’s half-brother Maungwudaus undertook a similar mission, and wrote An Account of the Chippewa Indians: Who Have Been Travelling among the Whites (1848). Having left the church, Maungwudaus organized a touring Ojibwe dance troupe. A talented entrepreneur in the thriving Indian business, Maungwudaus toured with western painter George Catlin, though Maungwudaus’s writings challenge Catlin’s frequently romantic vision of the noble yet doomed Indian. Maungwudaus’s narrative introduces a clever reversal: for once indigenous people “discover” Europeans and struggle to understand their strange customs.
From Indian Territory and throughout the East Native American intellectuals such as Odawa historian Andrew Blackbird, Wyandot intellectual Peter Clarke, and Cherokee journalist E. C. Boudinot wrote as Native North America moved toward the U.S. Civil War. After the war, with Congress declaring in 1871 that the United States would no longer make treaties with indigenous nations, and after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, Native Americans found that they had reached the depth of national autonomy. In their final conquest of indigenous land and people, North Americans took the show on the road. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, actual Native people were displayed in dioramas as relics of the frontier past, living proof that the frontier had closed, as historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced at the fair. Some Native Americans at the exposition actively contested Turner’s narrative, when, for example, Potawatomie intellectual Simon Pokagon publicly pronounced: “In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you.” This was the bitter world of Native people at the turn of the twentieth century.
By the early twentieth century ethnographers and Indian enthusiasts sought out those Native Americans who survived the Indian Wars but still had a clear memory of pre-contact life on the plains. Many Native autobiographies from this era are translated into English from indigenous languages. Readers often question the authenticity of such narratives, mediated as they are by amanuenses, translators, and editors. In some texts the European voice is minimal, in others dominant, and researchers often study archives of a particular work to disclose that intervention or collaboration. Despite these complexities readers remain fascinated with Native American autobiographies, which number in the hundreds, and Native people as well plumb these sources to hear an ancestor speak or to revive a ceremony.
In perhaps the best known Native American autobiography, Black Elk Speaks (1932), an aged Sioux man describes his childhood vision and lifelong failure to honor it: “But now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.” From the opening page of this life story readers empathize with this man’s tragic inability to fulfill his divine gift, and the story’s recorder, poet John Neihardt, no doubt employed his art to create this autobiography of one gifted man’s failure to save the world. At the same time, however, by inviting such romantic readings Neihardt potentially also leads readers to believe that Sioux losses occurred as much from the failures of individuals as from military atrocity.
Within this familiar narrative frame, however, the stalwart voice of Black Elk nonetheless emerges. As a youth he travelled through Europe while performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Like Maungwudaus, Black Elk escaped confinement on a reservation by internationalizing Native culture in ways only recently recognized in Native American studies. The autobiography also delivers Black Elk’s eyewitness account of the massacre at Wounded Knee: the U.S. Seventh Cavalry had surrounded a group of Sioux performing a religious rite and demanded surrender. A single shot was fired, and the soldiers swooped in among the families with Hotchkiss guns, killing their own soldiers and as many as 300 Sioux. Like Black Hawk’s narrative, Black Elk’s testimony counters mainstream narratives and demands justice for the dead.
Such alternative colonial histories from the other side of the frontier appear from unlikely autobiographical sources. In Pretty Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows (1932), Frank Linderman records Pretty Shield’s account of life on the northern plains before and after the arrival of Europeans. The Crow matriarch details the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn in which the Seventh Cavalry was defeated, killed to a man, by assembled Native American groups. Relating the account of her husband, Goes-ahead, who scouted for Custer, Pretty Shield argues that Custer never made a “last stand” but was shot at the battle’s beginning. Elsewhere her stories challenge western views of knowledge, as when dreams determine reality and knowledge increases from discussions with animals: “Did any of the animal-people ever talk to you … ?” Pretty Shield then tells of a time when a mouse told her entire band to move to avoid danger, and so they did. The “ ’woman-mouse’ gave this warning: “My friend! My friend! In four days you will be attacked by the Lacota.” Though Linderman often listens in disbelief to stories about ancient giants, wolf men, talking antelope, and healing miracles, he probably transcribed Pretty Shield’s words with precision, for the two conversed in the sign language that had acted as a translingual trade language across the plains for centuries. Pretty Shield’s life narrative and that written by her relative, Plenty Coup: Chief of the Crows (1930), remain rare specimens of Indian sign-talk autobiography.
Other Native women’s autobiographies such as that of Sarah Winnemucca’s Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims (1883) remind the North American public that Native women bear a strong history of leadership. Educated in western schools and having served as a U.S. military guide, Winnemucca toured the United States and spoke defiantly against dishonored treaties and land thefts. Her autobiography helped to establish a school and homeland for the Paiutes. Other narratives are more whimsical: in Mountain Wolf Woman (1961) the author describes the Winnebago traditions of selecting a husband, which involved receiving new clothes from his sisters and gathering lily roots—in waist deep water with one’s feet.
In 1879 the U.S. federal government intensified its efforts to westernize Native Americans with the opening of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. For more than a century some North Americans believed that Native people could be “civilized”—or later, “assimilated” into the workforce—if only their cultures were destroyed and their children forcibly removed from their homes and reprogrammed. Former army captain Richard Pratt, who offered his infamous motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” led the Carlisle school. Workers in a network of Indian boarding and residential schools throughout North America beat Native American children for speaking their languages, sexually abused them, exposed them to diseases, and placed them behind bars. Thousands died and were buried in school cemeteries, their parents sometimes never knowing their children’s fate.
In My People the Sioux (1928) Luther Standing Bear, a member of Carlisle’s first class, describes how he received his name: “[O]ur interpreter came into the room and said, ’Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man’s name. They are going to give each one of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known.’ None of the names were read or explained to us, so of course we did not know the sound or meaning of any of them.” This random act of renaming Native children as white men and women comes to stand for the boarding school mission, which demanded the utter destruction of indigenous culture and the remaking of Native Americans into farm and factory laborers.
Elsewhere in works such as in Francis La Flesche’s Middle Five (1900) the boarding school is also recalled with tender humor. Yet the undercurrent of pain resurfaces, as in Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933). Here Standing Bear declares the uselessness of divesting Native people of culture on reservations “where the young are unfitted for tribal life and untrained for the world of white man’s affairs except to hold an occasional job!” Instead, Standing Bear pleas for colonial governments to “give back to Indian youth all, everything in their heritage that belongs to them and augment it with the best in the modern schools.” Finally he returns to his Sioux roots, arguing that the refusal of Native Americans to relinquish “the Indian blanket” and other traditions will ultimately save them from the rapacity of North American settler colonialism. In From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), Charles Eastman charts his youth hunting far from European settlements, his entrance into western schools, and his eventual practice as a physician at the Pine Ridge Agency, where he ministered to victims of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. That experience galvanized his conclusion that there was more savagery in western civilization than in Native communities, and that capitalism was ultimately opposed to Christianity. After writing a dozen books, Eastman “went back to the blanket” and returned to his Dakota woods. In multiple later autobiographies and memoirs, Native Americans finally give full voice to the deplorable injustice of the residential and boarding schools.
Native autobiographies sometimes surprise readers with their social subversions. In Crashing Thunder (1926), the Winnebago author tells how in his youth he sought desperately for a vision to guide his life. As instructed by his father he fasted for four days. On the fifth morning, he writes: “I told my elder brother that I had been blessed by the spirits and that I was going home to eat. I was not speaking the truth. I was hungry.” Throughout his life Crashing Thunder lies, cheats, and tricks women into favors. Anthropologist Paul Radin lauds this story of a true “rake’s progress,” but evidence shows that the recorder took great license in creating that character, going as far as changing the author’s name. In these and seemingly countless Native American autobiographies we gain at least a glimpse into indigenous patterns of living, ways of knowing, and verbal art. The genre fueled the revitalization of indigenous nations in the 1960s and 1970s, when, after decades of silence, authors recorded colonial oppression and resistance. In Halfbreed (1978), Maria Campbell recalls poverty in a Metis family, while later, in Interior Landscapes (1990), Gerald Vizenor recounts the place of Anishinaabe story in his urban tale of abandonment and community belonging.
In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which divided communally held Indian lands into individually owned and taxable parcels, with the largest lots given to usually male “heads of families.” After this redistribution, all “surplus” lands were made available to non-Native settlers. By 1932 allotment had led to the loss of 26 million acres, or two-thirds of all indigenous lands. Many Native American writers were aware of allotment’s insidious theft of lands as well as its “mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it.
Especially in Indian Territory newspapers served as the locus of resistance. In 1902 a young Creek man named Alexander Posey began satirizing claims by white legislators that they knew what was best for Native Americans, including allotment, railroads, and Oklahoma statehood. Posey invented a “red English” dialect that became a nationally syndicated sensation. Here for instance his persona “Stootee” plays the Injun fool: “One man come my house lass week en tell me: ’Stoo-tee, I want make it town site you places….’ I ask him, that man, what it is he call it ton sites. I got it ’fo sites’ en ’hine sites’ on my guns, but I dont know what tis, ’ton sites.’ ” Stootee suggests here that guns serve Native people better than a clear understanding of colonial language or property division. Cherokee intellectuals DeWitt Clinton Duncan and William Eubanks employed the newspapers to express disagreement on allotment, but by 1922 Native American journalism discovered one of the most famous Native people in the world—Will Rogers. His humor asserted Native presence and disclosed settler colonialism: “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower—they met the boat.”
In an era of reform, from around 1890 to 1934, Native and non-Native activists sought legislation to “uplift” the Indian, though the goals of reformers often conflicted, especially once Native Americans represented themselves in the movement. Natives and whites actively collaborated through the Society of American Indians (SAI) to influence federal Indian policy. The Society’s Native people made their primary cause United States citizenship, which they belatedly received with the 1924 birthright citizenship act for Native Americans. SAI sociologist Fayette McKenzie urged Native people to enter previously exclusionary public discussions on the future of the Indian.
In his letter of invitation, he explained the SAI’s challenge: “The chief reason we continue to have an Indian problem is because the public generally does not believe that the Indian is capable of education, culture, or high morality.” McKenzie wished to seize the moment when the United States had finally detribalized and educated its first classes of Native Americans to western standards. Members of the SAI, such as Seneca archaeologist Arthur C. Parker, Apache physician Carlos Montezuma, Sioux musicologist Zitkala-Ša, Sioux physician Charles Eastman, Arapahoe minister Sherman Coolidge, Cherokee novelist John Oskison, and Omaha anthropologist Francis LaFlesche, were thus handpicked for inclusion among the western-educated Native Americans of the early twentieth century. With non-Native members they convened annually to plan the “adjustment” of Native Americans to new realities and to press for the grant of U.S. citizenship to Native Americans. The society’s journal, which included essays, fiction, and poetry, became the conduit for dispensing their message to the mainstream public.
The SAI labored to negotiate tangled views of race. While many reformers, such as Charles Harvey, flatly declared the inevitable, natural demise of Native Americans, others, such as Fayette McKenzie, Richard Pratt, Lyman Abbot, and James McLaughlin, viewed the so-called Indian problem as “sink or swim”: to survive Native people must jettison their cultures and assimilate fully into North American society. Of course in either case indigenous cultures would vanish. Of the many philanthropic organizations working with the SAI to save the Indian, such as the Lake Mohonk Friends of the Indian, most agreed on enforced assimilation of Native Americans.
Members of the SAI devised a compromise to this demand for the destruction of tribal tradition and rapid assumption of European ways. Anthropologist Frank Speck suggested that Native people should maintain their customs to contribute to the art and culture of the United States. So Arthur Parker presented his “sane middle ground” to the sink or swim policy wherein “the Indian of America may wear his own style of swimming suit and use his own special swimming stroke. He will progress faster and keep afloat by doing so.” Parker consistently presented his “adjustment policy” as a process in which Native Americans pursue a parallel yet distinct path toward the goals of universal humanity to “adjust himself to modern conditions.” Oskison, on the other hand, describes a “new Indian” who lives off the reservation and contributes to the U.S. economy, a “modern Indian” who has left behind the “dirty beggar” created by the reservation system. Oskison celebrates this “new man” as being “Indian only in blood and traditions.”
This reality characterized the troubling case of Native political activity in the early twentieth century. While Arthur Parker, as editor of the SAI journal from 1913 to 1918, clearly is representative of the most pervasive, accommodating voice in the society, others such as Carlos Montezuma were not content to accept the SAI’s often idealistic, moderate appeals to government officials for citizenship. Orphaned, adopted by North Americans, and living in urban Chicago, Montezuma abhorred the reservation as a “demoralizing prison” and called for its destruction, as well that of the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs. Increasingly strident in his views, Montezuma became a threat to the affiliation of the SAI with other organizations, and Parker and Zitkala-Ša worked to calm him down. Zitkala-Ša lists other differences within the SAI. Unlike Montezuma, who was mentored by and admired Pratt, Zitkala-Ša disliked Pratt, for whom she had taught at Carlisle, and rails against reform in her short story “The Soft-Hearted Sioux.” Though involved in the SAI, Charles Eastman shied away from direct political discussions; instead, he produced idealized accounts of pre-reservation life in which the Indian body and religion were harmoniously related. With his more aesthetic interests Eastman nonetheless balanced the movement.
Most hostile to the spirit of reform was Luther Standing Bear, who announced that the Indian could survive only by refusing assimilation. Writing after the disbandment of the SAI, Standing Bear declared the reform era a disaster, one that left young Native Americans robbed of their lands, languages, and customs, unable to speak with elders, and poor imitators of North Americans. Like Zitkala-Ša, Standing Bear in the 1930s looked to his reservation community and saw no improvements on the part of the SAI programs, but only greater poverty consequent to empty idealism. While the SAI facilitated public discussion, it derived from a closely guarded forum of Native elites, as Parker himself had wished. The Society of American Indians envisioned itself a “Mohonk by Indians,” and the Mohonk Conference’s pet project was the allotment of indigenous lands. Members of the SAI also supported the outlawing of indigenous religions such as the peyotist Native American Church, and the SAI generally supported the boarding school system. Even if it was a failure or served as a force of destruction, the Society of American Indians nonetheless helped to save Native American writers for the twentieth century, scattering the cultural seeds for later Native literary flourishing.