Academic journal article MELUS

Dis/engagement. Zitkala-Sa's Letters to Carlos Montezuma, 1901-1902

Academic journal article MELUS

Dis/engagement. Zitkala-Sa's Letters to Carlos Montezuma, 1901-1902

Article excerpt

During the period when Zitkala-Sa wrote and published OM Indian Legends and several stories in popular magazines such as Harper's Monthly, she also corresponded regularly with Carlos Montezuma, a physician in private practice in Chicago to whom she was secretly engaged. This study is an attempt to provide a biographical, historical, and sociocultural context for their correspondence. The collection of their letters, stored at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, is incomplete, primarily because almost none of Montezuma's survive. Nevertheless, it is often easy to guess what Montezuma said, for Zitkala-Sa frequently repeated his ideas before responding to them. On one level, the letters simply reveal the personal relationship between these two future leaders of the early twentieth-century Native rights movement. But they also furnish clues to the reasons why Zitkala-Sa published controversial writings and provide insight into a pivotal time when Zitkala-Sa's life's focus turned from the arts to activism.

While an occasional letter contains merely a description of Zitkala-Sa's daily routine, the majority are filled with deep-felt statements on marriage, patriarchy, writing, culture, education, and the power structure of the United States at the turn into the twentieth century. As Zitkala-Sa reflects on her relationship with Montezuma, she acknowledges the importance of her mission as a writer, her feminist ideology, and her determination to devote her life to helping Native people. Furthermore, she strengthens her philosophical and political stance on issues that pertain to Native/European American relations. The letters capture the moment when Zitkala-Sa gives up the idea of pursuing a literary career, but they leave no doubt that Zitkala-Sa has taken ownership of the English language and that she intends to use it to challenge the assumptions of European American ways of knowing.

Life Before Montezuma

In 1884, at the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa (nee Gertrude Simmons) left the Yankton Agency in Dakota Territory to attend White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker-mn institution. The institute's relation to American Indian education began in 1882, when its Board of Trustees voted to redress the school's financial difficulties by accepting federal funding to educate Native students ("White's Institute," 1883, 19). White's Institute had been founded twenty-two years earlier as a school for poor children by the Society of Friends, with funds donated by a wealthy Quaker entrepreneur, on land purchased from Meshingomesia, chief of the Miami (Winger 6). Now, ironically, it was time to fill the space formerly occupied by indigenous people with indigenous people. To achieve that aim, the Quakers followed the pattern of other schools in sending representatives directly to the reservations to recruit students. Gertie Simmons, as she was then known, was eager to go east with the missionaries. As she would later write in "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," the Quakers were viewed on the reservation as "that class of white men who ... carried large hearts" (45).

The Quakers' compassion was limited, however, at least from the perspective of Native parents. Zitkala-Sa apparently went to White's Institute voluntarily, with her mother's permission (her French-American father had abandoned the family before her birth). Nevertheless, files from the school indicate that most parents were unaware that the agreement on which they had "put their mark" gave the school the right to keep the children for three years, with no vacation (Parker and Parker 36). In this arrangement, White's Institute was typical of boarding schools in the late nineteenth century whose underlying assumption was that it would take that long for Native students to absorb mainstream culture and to learn to speak English. But, against the wishes of most parents, this process was subtractive rather than additive, to borrow the terms of linguist Wallace Lambert. …

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