January 22, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Zitkala Sa, "The School Days of an Indian Girl"
"I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward's! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder." (Zitkala Sa, The School Days of an Indian Girl)
In this quote, Zitkala describes how she struggled against having her hair cut as she does not want to be seen as a coward. She submits to the haircut in the end, and began what proved to be a long and lonely education in a predominantly white environment. She dreamt of "big, red apples" and the "iron horse" before she left her family to go to study in the East; what she got eventually is somewhat different from the things that she envisioned.
The first thing that came to mind when reading this passage was the relation to sheep and the shearing of fleece with Zitkala's first few incidents at school, i.e., her being tossed in the air and the cutting of her hair against her will. The parallels are remarkably similar. Although I'm not particularly familiar with the Native Americans, through reading both the autobiograph of Winnemucca and Zitkala, I came to observe that they were peaceful people of great innocence. It is impossible to imagine the pain and suffering that Zitkala had gone through; the disappointment and fright she experienced during her school days.
I must say that I felt a degree of sadness that that is different from what I had felt before when reading autobiographies. "Then I lost my spirit." This sentence struck me on the head like a hammer. It's one thing to hear about removal and the killings of the Native Americans on their home soil, which is already terrible enough, but it's another thing to witness, in writing, the innocence of a little girl being literally destroyed and with reality slapping her across the face. This is partly why I think that her message is so powerful; she manages to capture the essence of her emotions and, as Tim O'Brien once said, make readers "feel what she felt".
Children were not supposed to be involved in racial discrimination or conflicts. Yes, Americans were trying to get as much land as possible from the Native Americans, and they were willing to go to the same measures with the African Americans in order to do so. But still, at least offer an acceptable environment for the Native American children to study and learn; at least respect their customs, culture and religion; at least refrain from shoving Christianity down their throats and attempt to set their minds in cast iron. The lamb will one day be the sheep and will have to face the shears, but to shear the lamb before it's wool is fully grown and ready is simply irresponsible and cruel.