From: "Janelle Gordon" <email@example.com>
Review of LAKOTA WOMAN by Mary Crow Dog with Richard Erodes
Reviewed by Janelle L. Gordon
Illinois State University
May 3, 1995
What has been and still is the most forgotten and left-out race in
America? - The American Indian. Yet, when one usually speaks of race and
inequality in the United States the Indians are seldom, if ever mentioned.
It appears as if Blacks and Latinos in America are the only races that have
been done an injustice, the only oppressed races that matter. Even in a
class on Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality with a plethora of books on such
subject matter, there are only two or three books devoted to the plight of
of the American Indian. Also, I frequently hear the complaint , among
educated individuals, that the Native American books are boring or that
these books tell only of the history. My response to that is -- What's wrong
with learning about history? When I think of American Indians what
comes to mind is very little. I know that thousands of years before
Columbus came to the New World, these "people" were already living in North
and South America whom Columbus called "Indians." Yet there was a problem
because this term "Indians," encompassed a variety of peoples which led led
to several misconceptions by the Europeans. some men disputed whether or
not the Indians were human or animal. Others wondered if they were they
were Egyptians or displaced Israelites. Then there were also the settlers
who viewed these Indians as murderous savages. And after they were subdued
they were seen as inherently lazy drunkards, which is the same view people
hold today. Now, there is the possibility that the reason so few American
Indian novels are on a discussion list in a class of Race, Ethnicity, and
Inequality is the fact that there just isn't much literature written on this
topic. And maybe all of the Native American novels really are quite boring.
Nevertheless, I decided to take my chances. In reading LAKOTA WOMAN; an
autobiography by Mary Crow Dog with Richard Erodes, I chose not only to
challenge my limited knowledge of American Indians,but also to disprove the
notion that Native American novels are usually boring.
Mary Crow Dog's autobiography is a story of one woman; however, it
tells the tale of many Indian women who have endured te wrath and pride of
their own men, and the brutality of government control as well as several
other trials and tribulations. Still, these women have emerged strong and
whole in spite of all their wounds and Mrs. Crow Dog tells how. In this
telling narrative Mary Crow Dog provides information about Indian history and
contemporary reality while interweaving her life story with that of her
people. For Indians; land, religion, and family are at the core of their
life. These attributes make up a large part of their heritage and they, men
and women alike, will go to any means necessary to try to preserve these
integral aspects of their society. For Mary Crow Dog, her upbringing and
heritage play a primary role in her life. Yet, it goes much deeper than
being Indian. It is being a half-blood unwanted by her father, it is being
delivered at birth in the "white" American way rather than the traditional
Indian one, and it is being denied the full knowledge of her culture in
hopes tha she will be "whitemanized."
Each chapter begins with either a proverb, song, or some wise saying
which sets the tone for the chapter. I especially liked the proverb of the
"`A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its woman are on the
ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how
strong their weapons.'" (LAKOTA WOMAN, 3). It is this Cheyenne proverb that
exemplifies the theme of the entire book. The first five chapters recount
her years growing up as an Indian girl in South Dakota where everything
Indian was considered evil. Mrs. Crow Dog's story begins with a graphic and
vivid descripton of the seige of Wounded Knee and then she takes the reader
to her adolescent years.
Being an Indian woman is by no means an easy task in America especially
for Mary Crow Dog who is an iyeska, a half-blood, being looked down upon by
whites and full bloods alike. Crow Dog is a Sioux who grew up in poverty on
the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Her father was a trucker," part
Indian and mostly white," who left her mother before Mary was even born.
She saw him twice, but he never even acknowledged her presence. Mrs Crow
Dog faces a great identity problem and she uses strong words and ideas to
convey the disgust she felt at having a mixed heritage. She speaks of
constantly having wished to `purge' the white blood from her body, and
longing for the summer in order to be tan and made "into a real skin." I
find this no different from the attitudes that many mulattos have today. So
many have no sense of who they are and where they fit in, that they
completely disenfranchise themselves from one or both of their races rather
than embracing both of them. Unfortunately society only further helps to
alienate these individuals.
The fact that Crow Dog wasn't born at home on the
reservation, but rather in a hospital delivered by a white doctor appears to
be truly disturbing for her. At this point in her book she tells of the
injustice done to her mother as well as several Indian women at the hands of
white doctors. These doctors routinely sterilized Indian woman without their
permission yet nothing was ever made of it. I know that several people
would make the argument that the sterilization of Indian women was merely
done in order to decrease the number of Indians on welfare. And that this
would benefit them as well as society. Yet, it was also held in the eyes of
many that the fewer Indians there were the better.
Like many reservation children, Crow Dog and her brothers and sisters
were primarily raised by her grandparents. Since her mother was the sole
provider, the only job she could find as a nurse was hundred of miles away.
Being raised by grandparents where there were often several living together
in a one-room hut was unacceptable to a white social worker.
So, you had many kids being taken away from their families and given to
"wasicun (white) strangers to be `acculturated in a sanitary environment'"
(LAKOTA WOMAN,17). Therefore the tiyospaye; the extended family group (
grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousins), which was the center of the
Sioux society was intentionally broken up as a matter of policy. This
close-knit clan was "a stumbling block in the path of the government agent .
. . a barrier to what the white man called `progress' and `civilization'."
(LAKOTA WOMAN, 13). The government forced the Sioux into what is now called
a" nuclear" family - it "forced upon each couple their individually owned
allotment of land, trying to teach them `the benefits of wholesome
selfishness without which higher civilization is impossible'" (LAKOTA
WOMAN,13). This is a prime example of egocentric Euro-America stepping in
to declare what is right from wrong about something they know nothing about.
And nothing has changed to this day.
Not only did Mary Crow Dog face the brainwashing tactics of the
government to "whitemanize" her, but also from her own mothet and
grandmother. Crow Dog's grandmother was a Catholic and she tried to raise
Mary and her sisters and brother as whites. Her mother and grandmother
spoke Sioux fluently and whenever Crow Dog asked to be taught the native
language she was told no because she needed to get an education and live a
good life. "You need a white man's education to live in this world" (LAKOTA
WOMAN,22). This directly related to the Catholic faith since they
(Catholics) were always repeating that one needs to kill the Indian in order
to save the man! According to Crow Dog, if "she wanted to be an Indian
[she'd] have to go elsewhere to learn how to become one" (LAKOTA WOMAN,23).
Crow Dog was further drawn away from her culture when she was sent away
to Indian Catholic boarding school. She compares the process of taking the
Indian children from their families to that of kidnapping, and the children
are 'like victims of Nazi concentration camps" (LAKOTA, 28). It was at the
boarding school that Crow Dog came to hate and distrust all white people on
site. "Racism breeds racism in reverse" (LAKOTA WOMAN, 34). She and other
Indian girls were constantly mistreated and beaten by the nuns for the
slightest of things. It was a constant physical as well as mental abuse.
Mary recounts a time when the girls in the school would huddle in bed
together for comfort and reassurance only to have a nun charge into the
room to tell them they are committing sin and will forever burn in hell.
Then the nun made them get out of bed and pray until morning all the while
the young girls having no idea what they had done. This is another
illustration of how these "Catholics etc." knew nothing of the Indian culture
or way of life. On the reservation people slept three and four in a bed for
warmth and a feeling of security. Even now when the schools have
significantly better teachers who are well-intentioned and well-trained in
child psychology -unfortunately the psychology of white children- the shock
to the child is still tremendous. There still exists an impersonality
and a cold atmosphere as well as the language difference. Mary Crow Dog
finally walked out when she could no longer take it.
In these first few chapters Crow Dog mentions other ways Euro-America
affected Indians, and more specifically Indian men which in turn affected the
women. Thefight for their land was such an integral part of their
culture,it was the core of their existencefor two hundred years. So,once the
land was gone (taken) then the Indians were gone too. The land was leased
to white ranchers, jobs were almost nonexistent on the reservations and of
course whites outside the reservation didn't hire Indians if they could help
it. So there was nothing left for the men to do except to drink the liquor
that the white man provided. These men were "psychologically crippled. . .
[they] had nothing to live for, so they got drunk and drove off at ninety
miles an hour in a car without lights, without brakes, and without
destination, to die a warrior's death" (LAKOTA WOMAN, 15). Then some of
these warriors come home drunk and "beat up on their old ladies in order to
work off their fustration" (LAKOTA WOMAN, 5). Crow Dog says that she can
understand where these men are coming from and she feels sorry for them, but
even sorrier for their women. It is the woman who have to bear all the
weight of the men as well as their own burdens. It doesn't seem as if much
has changed toady because overall people's perception of the Indian is as a
chronic alcoholic. Crow Dog ends this chapter saying,
"People talk about the `Indian drinking problem,' but we say
that it is a white problem. White men invented whiskey and
brought it to America. They manufacture, advertise, and
sell it to us. They make the profit on it an dcause the
conditions that make Indians drink in the first place"
(LAKATA WOMAN, 54).
After Crow Dog left the boarding school she also left home to wander
aimlessly where she engaged mostly in shoplifting with several other Indians.
But their reasons were not only out of need of the things they took, but
alsobecause the store owners provoked it. They expected the Indians to
steal and made no point in trying to hide the fact that they were watching
them.Crow Dog states how the store keepers would stand next to youjust
watching. It got so bad that the owners were basically urging them on to see
if they steal right from under their noses. Yet, most of the Inians were
arrested for who they were and what they represented rather than what they
they did. It got so bad that they were constantly being pulled over by the
police for no particular reason.
Eventually Mary encountered AIM, American Indian Movement formed in
1968, and she stopped her wandering because she'd found a home so to speak.
Leonard Crow Dog; whom Mary later marries, was a great speaker for AIM who
stressed that the time for Indians was now and that they must stop speaking
with their lips and start with their bodies. It was also at this time that
she met and befriended white people who supported the entire Indian Movement
like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando.
Now up to this point I found several similarities that the Blacks and
Indians shared. The busing to schools, the low status among other citizens
and the treatment givento them by the police are just a few. But Crow Dog
makes the point that in Indian language"a black is called a `black white
man.'The blacks want what the whites have, which is understandable. they
want in. We Indians want out!" (LAKOTA WOMAN). This is the main difference
between Blacks and Whites according to Crow Dog. When I first read this I
was shocked an I thought no way Blacks and Indians are going after the same
goal, but then as I pondered this statement a liitle while longer I
realized Crow Dog was right. The Indians want to be left alone to practice
their religion, smoke peyote legally, have their land and no one interfere
with them. But the Blacks want to be equal opportunity co-workers with the
whites, Latinos and Asians and all other races.
A large success of AIM and two of the most significant parts of Crow Dog's
life was the March on Washington and the seige of Wounded Knee. The seige
of Wounded Knee was a direct connection with the events that had occurred
there in 1890 when Indians were massacred at the same site. In 1890 Wounded
Knee marked the culmination of the Ghost Dance. It was the last war between
Indians and whites which symbolized the many injustices and degradations
inflicted upon Indians by the U.S. government. Another big accomplishment
for Crow Dog was the birth of her firsrchild at Wounded Knee during the
firefight. I think that Crow Dog's strong need to have her baby at Wounded
Knee was a direct relationship to the fact that she was born in a hospital
rather than on the reservation as she was supposed to because of
complications in the birth. This was one of the largest turning points in
her life. I believe that this act put the finishing touches on her feeling
of wholeness and she finally knew who she was.
Towards the end Crow Dog discusses how her views were greatly changing,
her time in New York was part of the reason. She no longer felt that wives
should be beaten by their husbands, she was no longer the shy Sioux woman.
After Leonard got out of jail Mary's new ideas and Leonard's old traditional
ones clashed, but eventually it all woked out.
I admit that unfortunately I too have been guilty of ocassionally
leaving out the American Indian when discussing race in America, but after
reading the LAKOTA WOMAN I doubt that I will continue to be a contributor ro
such an injustice. This compelling autobiography has only aroused my
interest to delve further into the story of the American Indian who is as
much a part of American history as any other race and culture, if not more.
Crow Dog continuously illustrated the importance of the women in the Indian
culture as well as in all of society. The experiences Mary Crow Dog had in
her early years directly affected everything she became and everything she
did. As far as I'm concerned LAKOTA WOMAN has succeeded. Both as a book and
as the "Lakota woman" herself.