Native American History: The Lakota
As writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac reminds readers in his 2003 book Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling, ‘‘Native America is made up of many cultures, hundreds of them. There is not just one history of the American Indian but countless histories.’’ Thus, attempting to provide a coherent history of Native Americans and First Nations people in territory that is now the United States and Canada is nearly impossible.
It is possible, however, to examine the one group of Native Americans, the Sioux (also known as the Dakota), highlighted by Sneve in ‘‘The Medicine Bag.’’ There are three major divisions among the Sioux: the Santee, or Eastern Dakota; the Yankton, or Western Dakota; and the Tetonwan, also known as the Lakota. The three groups share a similar language as well as common traditions and beliefs.
The Lakota form the largest group within the Sioux nation, comprising seven main bands. Each band has an associated reservation. The Sicangu Lakota, the band to which Sneve and the characters of ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ belong, are associated with the Rosebud Indian Reservation. In English, the Sicangu Lakota are called the Rosebud Sioux tribe. The Rosebud Reservation is located in the south central part of South Dakota.
A tragic but important historical event involving the Lakota took place on December 29, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek, now located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the home of the Oglala Lakota, located just to the west of the Rosebud Reservation. The year 1890 is significant to ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ because it is likely that Grandpa, one of the main characters, was born around that year. He lived, therefore, in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, sometimes known as the Battle of Wounded Knee. U.S. soldiers, attempting to disarm a group of Lakota seeking protection, opened fire on the group at close range, and supported by machine guns, killed anywhere from 144 to 350 Lakota, including women and children. Some reports suggest that a gun went off accidentally, and this sparked the incident. In any event, the day is one memorialized by the Lakota with great sorrow. In addition, Wounded Knee was the final battle, if it can be called such, between the Native Americans and the U.S. government. The resistance to American incursion on Native American territory ended here.
Indian Boarding Schools
In ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ Grandpa tells the story of his father, Iron Shell, who was sent to a boarding school far away from his home and family, against his will. This event is based on historical fact. In the 1870s, in response to ongoing conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans, the U.S. government began setting up the boarding schools, reasoning that the best way to fix the ‘‘Indian problem’’ was to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. Students at the boarding schools were not permitted to speak their own languages, nor were they allowed to follow their own traditions. Instead, they were trained in manual skills and forced to cut their hair, according to many sources such as Indian Country Diaries, posted on the Public Broadcasting System Website in 2006. A contributor to Indian Country Diaries quoted a boarding school student: ‘‘[Long hair] was the pride of all Indians. The boys, one by one would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor.’’
Just as Sneve writes in ‘‘The Medicine Bag,’’ students such as Iron Shell were very homesick for their families and culture. For many, it was a terrible and traumatic experience. Noted legal scholar Matthew L. M. Fletcher writes in his 2008 book American Indian Education: Counternarratives in Racism, Struggle, and the Law, ‘‘Indian boarding school experiences are some of the most horrific examples of the attempt to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of American society.’’ Likewise, in Our Stories Remember, Bruchac comments, ‘‘It is hard to exaggerate how important, how traumatic, and how significant the Indian boarding school experiment was.’’ The Indian boarding school system, according to Fletcher, did not completely come under Native American control until the mid-1970s, about the same time that Sneve composed ‘‘The Medicine Bag.’’ Charla Bear, also discussing Indian boarding schools in a series of reports for National Public Radio in May 2008, suggests that the new model of boarding schools is now strengthening Native American culture and languages by including such subjects in their curricula.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.