"The School Days of an Indian Girl"
In Zitkala-Sa's short memoir "The School Days of an Indian Girl," she recounts how she was taken by missionaries to a manual training school run by Quakers, and her experiences while being forced to attend. The story is an interesting take on the colonization of America, and the changing social attitudes that the indigenous peoples were being forced to adopt. In attempting to 'tame' the wild Indian girl, the Quakers themselves prove to be barbaric and controlling, as they suppress the Native American's culture in order to further their own ideas. Zitkala-Sa, in rebelling against these changes, tries to stay true to her own culture, making her an extremely brave and courageous soul.
In the first part of the story, she describes the expectations of her future, which are much more positive than the reality she gets - "Under a sky of rose apples we dreamt of roaming as freely and happily as we had chased the cloud shadows on the Dakota plains." Instead, she gets a group of humorless "palefaces" who were troubling to be around, making her extremely uncomfortable. It is here that we first see the horrible white environment that she is entirely unaccustomed to, and that she must endure for the rest of the stay at the school.
One of the clearest symbols for white subjugation of Indian culture comes at the cutting off of her hair, which was a requirement at the school. According to Zitkala-Sa, “only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!” As a result, this gesture was extremely humiliating for her, and she hid in order to try and avoid getting her braids cut off. This action was another big indicator of just how much the Quakers wanted to strip the Native Americans of their identity; they sought to get her in her proper place, and 'civilize' her. This gesture was extremely dehumanizing to her; she "heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”
The main difference between the two cultures that are at war in the school - Indian and Quaker - is their religion, which Zitkala-Sa notes often. There were significant racial and religious differences, which set them apart dramatically and caused the Indian children to be punished more than the other children. “I blamed the hard-working, well-meaning, ignorant woman who was inculcating in our hearts her superstitious ideas The melancholy of those black days has left so long a shadow that it darkens the path of years that have since gone by.” The overwhelming force and aggressiveness by which the Quaker teachers tried to instill in her Christian values and different modes of behavior was indicative of the slow takeover of the "palefaces" in America. She, like so many others of her kind, were being subjugated and indoctrinated into a different way of living, which took them away from their close relationship with nature in favor of putting them closer to the Christian God.
Zitkala-Sa often felt as though her freedom was being taken away - and it was. The independence and freedom she so enjoyed in her tribe was being crushed under the weight of ritual, ceremony and etiquette, and she found that to be completely stifling to her own sense of identity. “I was again actively testing the chains which tightly bound my individuality like a mummy for burial.” The Quaker attitude was, in fact, literally killing many of the girls, who still talked disconnectedly of Jesus the Christ and the paleface who was cooling her swollen hands and feet" even as they started to pass on. The stifling and unfortunate nature of the relationship between the teachers and Indian students caused even greater rifts in communication between the two cultures, as Zitkala-Sa continually resisted this powerful and oppressive force trying to change who they all were.
In conclusion, Zitkala-Sa's story "The School Days of an Indian Girl" shows the systematic and oppressive attitudes of the Quakers who tried to "civilize" Indians, and how that harmed them emotionally and spiritually. Instead of allowing each other to live and let live, the Quakers forced their own religious beliefs on the Indian girls at the school, to the detriment of all. The Indian girls rebelled, and the Quakers made enemies of them instead of converts.
Zitkala-Sa. "The School Days of an Indian Girl."