Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability and Native North American Boarding School Narratives: Madonna Swan and Sioux Sanitorium

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability and Native North American Boarding School Narratives: Madonna Swan and Sioux Sanitorium

Article excerpt

The article analyzes the only known book-length narrative of a Native American tuberculosis survivor, Madonna Swan. Swan's disability memoir can be read as the lived embodiment of the decolonization movement within the Lakota Nation and across the Americas. This reading provides new insight into the overcoming narrative, as currently conceived in disability studies, insofar as Swan's autobiography resists forced acculturation and reclaims Lakota identities within this genre.

Efforts to educate Native North Americans after the European style began nearly as early as first contact: initial attempts to convert and "civilize" indigenes date from the 1600s. Invariably, the subjects of these experiments often did not have the opportunity to resist or reject these intellectual offerings due to raw economics and the embattled situations of their home communities, a trend that would continue from the 1600s well into the 1900s. Not just the mind, but also the body was a contested site in the colonization process. This article explores the interrelationship between bodies of knowledge, indigenous bodies, and the decolonization of one boarding school survivor's struggle with tuberculosis as conveyed in Mark St. Pierre's Madonna Swan: A Lakota Woman's Story. Daniel Heath Justice writes that "the heart of the decolonization imperative" is

the storied expression of continuity that encompasses resistance while moving beyond it to an active expression of the living relationship between the People and the world [...]. The decolonization imperative in our literature both reflects indigenous continuity of the past and present and projects that continuity into the future. (150)

Thus, decolonization emphasizes continuity of embodied kinship in the past, present, and future.

Beginning with Sander Gilman's assertion that models of disease "are ordering principles, nothing more or less [... and] the structures generated by the mythopoesis of disease" (8), I argue that the Cheyenne River reservation community's initial rejection and later inclusion of Madonna Swan, a tuberculosis survivor, signifies that community's progressive decolonization of its care of the ill and disabled.1 Madonna Swan herself, through her struggle with tuberculosis, is an exemplar of individual Lakota decolonization, and her community's shifting reaction to her illness indicates the community's progressive decolonization in its treatment of illness, that is, its reclamation and revivification of traditional values around kinship and illness in the present and future. Swan's narrative, which was recorded, edited, and transcribed by Mark St. Pierre, however, is a mediated text. My claims about Swan's community's responses to her tuberculosis infection are based primarily on Swan's autobiography and I do not make specific claims about the truth value of St. Pierre's narrative per se. In Swan's narrative, she situates her family and herself in a Lakota community where illness is normative and does not disrupt the integrity of her family:

I, Madonna Mary Swan Abdalla, was born to the union of James Hart Swan and Lucy Josephine High Pine-Swan, September 12, 1928. I was the fifth child of the ten children born to this family. Only five of the ten children survived until adulthood [...]. From the children that died, it might seem that we had it very bad, but we didn't. We were born to a very strong mother whose love and patience more than made up for everything we went without. (3)

Thus, illness and death are regular occurrences in Swan's childhood, but they do not fundamentally change the web of community within which she is raised. Her narrative, as Justice's definition suggests, moves her community from acts of resistance into the future, presenting a viable model for community and kinship.

One of the primary points of departure in my arguments about Madonna Swan: A Lakota Woman's Story is Anna Mollow's groundbreaking essay, "When Black Women Start Going on Prozac," which argues for a reframing of disability studies with regard to the intersectionality of disability and race in its analysis of Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's Willow Weep for Me. …

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