Education as Cultural Violence: Opportunity, Mastery, and Cultural Erasure in Sherman Alexie and Zitkala Ša

Zitkala Sa pic 1  


Drawing upon the auto-biographical work of Zitaka Ša (1876-1938) and Sherman Alexie, something I wrote back in the day...


Zitkala Ša’s autobiographical stories (“Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “The School Days of an Indian Girl”) and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian both show how American [Christian] education—as an acculturating process that exceeds but does not exclude the agency of those who experience it—has been a source of cultural violence and erase for Native American students. The nature of acculturation manifests itself in the formation/deformation that takes place in education for the main characters of both stories. For Zitkala and Junior, opportunities exist beyond their community with the education of the white missionaries or the majority-white Reardan high school. Both characters come to learn and, to a certain extent, master the rules and customs of their new setting. However, this cultural mastery is tragically accompanied by a certain loss of their “Indian” identities.

In Zitkala Ša’s autographical stories, a pivotal shift takes place in her childhood when she encounters the white Christian missionaries who enter her village. Up until that point, she was only familiar with her mother’s culture and only spoke “but one language” (Zitkala Ša, 1090). The missionaries come to symbolize a world beyond filled with more opportunities. They offer to provide native children an education in the east. First, Zitkala begins to hear “wonderful stories” about them from her playfellows (1091). These stories describe “a more beautiful country,” a “Wonderland” where “we could reach out our hands and pick all the red apples we could eat” (ibid). Then, despite her hesitations and her distrust of “palefaced” people, Zitkala’s mother acknowledges the opportunities these missionaries can provide: “She will need an education when she is grown…this tearing her away, so young, from her mother is necessary, if I would have her an educated woman” (1092). The “palefaced” people can provide Zitkala tools she can’t acquire at home: namely, a mainstream American education. Yet, as the Missionaries’ apples symbolically suggest, this education is a temptation fraught with dangers.

Zitkala accepts the offer and rides the train, or the “iron horse” as she describes it, to her new school (ibid). Upon arriving, she immediately confronts an environment with customs and expectations that are foreign to her. Her teachers force her to adapt. Zitkala learns to name things like “stairwell” (1094); she learns when to sit up, sit down, and start eating according to the timing of a bell. In the change of dress, dining, language, hair, and in the days that proceed to the rhythm of new “bells,” Zitkala is acquiring mastery over the ways of ‘civilized’ culture. This will eventually open doors for her. Nevertheless, she describes this education and its rhythm as an “iron routine” and “civilizing machine” (1096). Education, here, is intimately linked with acculturation. Education is also presented as a fundamentally violent thing being done to her. This is best illustrated by the painful scene where Zitkala describes the cutting of her hair.

A specific kind of cultural mastery is something being done to Zitkala. Nevertheless, in some ways, Zitkala also possesses agency in the process. She did, after all, originally decide to leave her mother—in spite of the warnings—and accept the missionaries’ offer. Additionally, after getting her diploma for the school in the east, Zitkala decides to go to college against her mother’s will. Describing her mother’s displeasure, Zitkala writes: “Her few words hinted that I had better give up my slow attempt to learn the white man’s ways…I silenced her by deliberate disobedience” (1099). There was a fear that Zitkala had already become too immersed in the “white man’s ways,” but that did not stop her from continuing her education with the white man.

Zitkala’s education with the missionaries allows her to attend college where she becomes a gifted orator. She has advanced farther than she ever could if she wouldn’t have left her mother. By this time, however, Zitkala already senses that something tragic has also happened to her in the process: “Even nature seemed to have no place for me. I was neither a wee girl nor a tall one; neither a wild Indian nor a tame one. This deplorable situation was the effect of my brief course in the East” (1097). In mastering the tools of the “Palefaces,” she has lost a part of herself. This is something that Zitkala witnesses not only in herself, but also in her mother who has exchanged her Buffalo-covered wigwam for clumsy logs (1091), and in her brother and his friends who now wear ‘civilized’ attire (1098).

With her top placements in oratorical contests, it would seem that Zitkala—in some sense—has ‘made it’. She has capitalized on the opportunities her education has afforded her. Yet, this progress is accompanied by a deep sense of loss. The height of her new triumph, which includes the silencing of a prejudiced group in front of a statewide audience, contains a wound, a “hunger” (1100). Zitkala, in her mind, sees her mom “holding a charge” against her (ibid). It appears that Zitkala has let her mom down. Nevertheless, it’s not clear to what degree Zitkala is responsible for what has happened to her own cultural identity. On the one hand, acculturation—here, in the form of education—is something that has been violently done to her. On the other hand, it seems as though Zitkala believes she can control, or gain the upper hand, in her education/acculturation. Perhaps that is why after her dreadful experiences in the east, she still decides to continue her studies with the ‘white man’ in college. But Zitkala seems to realize, at the end of the statewide oratorical competition, that she cannot control what is happening to her cultural identity. She has picked up the white man’s tools to use them, but the tools themselves have worked on her. She has acquired a cultural mastery that has opened up new vistas, but at the price of a violent (imposed and self-imposed?) erasure of her Indian identity.

Similar themes of opportunity, mastery, and cultural erasure appear in Sherman Alexie’s novel. In this story, the protagonist, Arnold Spirit Jr. (Junior), is a teenager living on the Spokane Reservation. Mr. P, one of Junior’s teachers on the ‘Rez’, tells him that he’s going to find, “more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, reservation” (Alexie, 43). When Junior asks his parents who has the most hope, their answer is “White people” (45). There is also a vivid carton depicting the “bright future” of the White and the “vanishing past” of the Indian (57). The positive aspects of white identity, “positive roles models” and “hope,” are juxtaposed with the negative features—“History of Diabetes” and “Bone-Crushing Reality”—of Indian identity (ibid). What is communicated through all of this is the fact that opportunities, for Junior, lie outside of the Reservation. Ultimately, the tools and opportunities that Junior needs reside in the education at the majority-white Rearden high school, which is located in the town outside of the Reservation. Reardan’s kids are “magnificent,” “beautiful,” and know “everything” (5). Junior, despite the reservations and warnings from his community, decides to go to Reardan.

When Junior transitions into his new school, he has to master the new cultural rules. His knowledge of the “unofficial and unwritten Spokane Indian rules of fisticuffs” no longer apply here (61). Instead of fighting people, Junior has to learn the different expectations for interactions and conflicts that exist in Reardan. Additionally, he has to learn how to hide his poverty: “Yeah, so I pretended to have a little money. I pretended to be middle class. I pretended I belonged” (119). The carton of the juxtaposed White/Indian identity, described above, also proves helpful in illustrating the cultural learning, or mastery, taking place for Junior. The “Ralph Lauren Shirt,” “Timex wristwatch,” and “the latest Air Jordans” indicate the middle class social markers that allow one to fit in. Junior, in spite of his circumstances, is able to adjust to Reardan—even if it involves some lying. He makes a nerdy friend, attracts a pretty girl, plays well for the basketball team, and becomes somewhat popular at school.

Junior’s success does come at a cost. He confesses: “Zitty and lonely, I woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than India. And once I arrived in Reardan, I became something less than less than Indian” (83). Junior’s transition and adjustment to Reardan has resulted in some kind of loss in his Indian identity. It is important to note that this is something that has happened “somewhere on the road” (ibid). In other words, Junior can’t pinpoint when and where exactly this change happened. Also, Junior’s feeling of being “half Indian in one place and half white in the other” is exacerbated by his home community’s criticism (118). Most of the Indians on the Spokane Reservation interpreted Junior’s move to Reardan as an act of betrayal (e.g. His best friend, Rowdy, stops talking to him; the crowd turns their back on Junior during the basketball game). Consequently, there exists this external pressure that makes Junior feel less Indian. Once again, the question of the agency of the character experiencing acculturation is a complicated matter. Junior wanted an education at Reardan and he wanted to fit in. Yet, his sense of loss and in-between-ness is something he did not control, and something that was as equally thrust upon him by external pressure.

In Zitkala Ša and Sherman Alexie, the main characters show that educational opportunities can elicit a cultural mastery that results in cultural erasure. The acculturation process is not neutral; it involves the negotiation of one’s own identity. The culture that is attached to the dominant educational “tools” inflicts significant violence on non-dominant cultural identities that attempt to appropriate those tools. This process of acculturation, this violence, is something that exceeds but does not exclude the agency of those who experience it.



Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001. 

Zitkala Sâ. Impressions of an Indian Childhood. Atlantic Monthly, 1900. 

Zitkala Sâ. The School Days of an Indian Girl. Atlantic Monthly, 1900.