Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.3. I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Peter Horn (Pretoria)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Understanding 'The Other': Representations of Native Americans in Mari Sandoz's The Story Catcher

Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey) (*) [BIO]


Born on Mirage Flats, south of Hay Springs, Nebraska, in 1896, as the daughter of Swiss immigrants, and then settled in Greenwich Village, New York in 1943 as a writer, Mari Sandoz had a sense of double-consciousness between the white and the Indian cultures. However, she used such a hybrid experience to reconcile the dominant WASP ideology with the marginalized Native American culture, through story-telling, in her social novels, Indian biographies and dramatized histories about the pioneering days of the American frontier. In Sandoz's writing, the people of the Great Plains, Indians, farmers, ranchers, hunters and trappers found voice. As Helen W. Stauffer states, "[she] drew her sources [from] the trans-Missouri region, the Nebraska frontier, the sandhills in which she grew up, and Lincoln, where she moved in her early twenties" (765). Sandoz's observations and memories about the Native Americans were fictionalized in her novel The Story Catcher (1963) as an accurate depiction of the Indian culture which challenged the stereotypical representations of Amerindians as 'savages' or 'noble savages'. Thus, in the light of some postcolonial concepts like otherness, hybridity and cultural representation, this paper aims to discuss how Mari Sandoz, by using literature as a medium, tried to transgress the borders between the white and the Indian cultures, and paved the way for a multi-cultural America.

Dani Cavallaro, in Critical and Cultural Theory, asserts, "in Western culture, dominant ideologies have time and again defined themselves in relation to a subordinated Other... [since] Self and Other are inextricably connected" (122). The Other is "the factor that enables the subject to build up a self-image... by either helping it or forcing it to adopt a particular world view and to define its position therein" (Cavallaro, 121). As Cavallaro further states, "Many assumptions and prejudices surrounding others stem precisely from an inability to grasp how they function,...[and result in] repress[ing] the Other by striving to give it a definite place" (122). Throughout the US history, different marginal groups like women, African-Americans, and Native Americans have "recurringly been seen to deviate from the norms of patriarchal, heterosexual and white society" (Cavallaro, 122).

Cavallaro also claims that the discourse of alterity "manifests itself... in the context of debates on colonialism and postcolonialism,... [the terms] historically associated with the politics of imperialism which is a state's forceful extension of its powers through the conquest and exploitation of other territories... justifying its oppressive practices by dressing them up as civilizing agents" (124). On the other hand, nationalism as a discourse is based on the notion that

... certain groups of people are bound together by shared racial, historical and linguistic connections... in a particular territory... [which] does not refer merely to a geographical area but also... to a political and cultural organization: a nation state... whose boundaries must be guarded against alien intrusions. (Cavallaro, 125)

In Edward Said's terms, such a sense of otherness is constructed textually as cliché images and stereotypical representations. In Orientalism, Said asserts that the Orient is the Other of the Occident, and "Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, [and] imagery" (2). Orientalism's imaginary Other first comes into being "when a human being confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant" (Cavallaro, 126-127). Thus, for the advancement of the dominant US ideology, Native Americans, as the exotic Other, have also been subjected to acculturation, assimilation or misrepresentation, and they have been forced to live in Indian reservations by leaving their ancestral lands.

Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, in The Post-colonial Studies Reader, define representation and resistance as "broad arenas within which much of the drama of colonialist relations and post-colonial examination and subversion of those relations has taken place" (85). Emphasizing the significance of texts and textuality, they further state that European texts like anthropologies, histories, and fiction, "captured the non-European subject within European frameworks which read his or her alterity as terror or lack... [and] these representations were [either] reprojected to the colonised... as authoritative pictures of themselves" or shaped prejudices and a sense of antagonism in the white audience ( Ashcroft et al., 85).

Kathleen Mullen Sands, in "American Indian Autobiography," claims that, the image of the American Indian is "slightly exotic, sometimes fearsome, and highly fragmentary" (55). Therefore, our comprehension of Indians "remains superficial, because our image is a composite of diverse and sometimes contradictory traits and stereotypes, selected from various cultures and isolated from the traditions, values, and life of those cultures... [Such an image] can be neither harmonious nor complete, for it is anonymous" (Sands, 55). Until we know Indians "individually and intimately, they will remain merely another ethnic type - interesting, mysterious, romantic, but unknowable except as distant figures" (Sands, 55). Like the Amerindian Autobiography which offers the white man "an insightful, complete, and varied means of entrance into the private and public worlds of the American Indian," fiction by white authors is also a medium to know and understand them (Sands, 55).

Paul Lauter in Canons and Contexts states that "The United States is a heterogeneous society whose cultures... differ in critical ways" (48). Lauter further argues that "a normative model presents those [marginalized] variations from the mainstream as abnormal, deviant, lesser, perhaps ultimately unimportant" (48). Although the United States "in its origins specifically rejected the idea of privilege rooted in birth, race, national origin, gender, and class, these factors have, nevertheless, come to play fundamental roles in how marginality has been constructed and maintained" (Lauter, 49). Thus, the canon with its stereotypical representations of the "marginalized" constituents of Americanness tries to protect the hypothetical homogeneity of its national self against the different Other.

The study of "representation... [which is] a mental image... [or] a presentation of a view of facts or arguments... must take into account a wide variety of cultural phenomena, philosophical perspectives and ideological programmes" (Cavallaro, 38). One should also raise such questions as: "What do different forms of representation tell us about the societies, communities and individuals that produce them?" or "Who are representations addressed to or aimed at?" (Cavallaro, 38). Words, sentences, thoughts and pictures are all "representations suggesting a relation between two things... [Y]et, the existence of a relation does not automatically entail the existence of the thing represented. It would therefore be misleading to conceive of representations as reflections of a pre-existing reality" (Cavallaro, 39). Cavallaro further stresses that representation is reinforced through "repetition" when certain words, sentences, pictures or thoughts are "used again in different contexts" (39). Thus, the representations of the Native Americans by the mainstream ideology "through the mediation of texts, images and stories", are biased constructions in accordance with "the codes and conventions" of a WASP society (Cavallaro, 40).

"The Little Ree" is the opening story of Mary Sandoz's The Story Catcher which introduces the white audience into the Indian life of the plains through a realistic description of the setting. Like a painter, she gradually constructs her story with each brush strike on the canvas by adding new elements into the scenery. Through the eyes of Young Lance of the Sioux, Sandoz narrates about the present and the past events of the plains:

Young Lance first noticed the small track in the fan of earth below a washout... There, on the wide creek bottoms below him, the eagle's shadow moved slowly over the yellowed grass, over the trampled place where the fight had been, with buzzards now quarreling at the dead horses, torn and dragged apart. Off to the side a big gray wolf was feeding at another carcass, alone and watchful, alert. (9-10)

Sandoz's storytelling is not static, but rich in dramatization. She also acts like a bridge between the white and the Indian cultures by juxtaposing the elements of both cultures like time expressions. For instance, as Mary Sandoz states, "Half a moon ago" is "two weeks by white man time" (10). Sandoz provides the western reader with the details of Indian life. "Approaching the enemy against the wind" (9), and "making good arrows with sharp iron points and fastened feathers balancing the flight" (10) are some of the examples of Sandoz's realistic narration.

In The Story Catcher, Sandoz underlines the difference or uniqueness of Amerindians in naming things or themselves; for example, the scout leader is called "Jumping Moose" (13), and Lance's little blood brother's name is "Laughing Cub" (14). Indian customs are also represented to be different from those of the white culture. For example, Lance is expected to have killed the young Ree as his first enemy to "bring honor to [his] mother and [his] sisters in the ceremonial dancing" (15). Thus, killing a member of the Ree tribe that killed Arrow Man, Lance's second uncle, is considered to be a heroic deed for the Sioux. Public punishment is also a retribution for crime in Indian society. Being caught by the Sioux guards, while "slip[ing] away... to get the little Ree to his people", Lance is publicly humiliated and whipped twice across the shoulders by each of the two guards, "for the number of foolish acts" (17-18). Through Sandoz's narration, the reader learns about the social structure and architectural design of a Sioux village with its council lodge, warrior lodge, home lodges and "wickiups" (19). Sandoz also informs the reader that the captives should be kept in warrior lodges, and after a boy's seventh year, any word between a mother and her blood son must be through "a third person" (19).

Sandoz also represents superstition as an indispensable part of the Indian belief system. The Indians believe that "the buffalo [come] in plenty only when everything is well done, the women pure, the men honorable and brave" (21). Hunting is emphasized in the novel as a prerequisite for Indian survival. Buffaloes provide them with the meat, new robes, and blankets for harsh winters. Hunting eagles, however, is considered a symbolic act of heroism for the Sioux tribe. Thus, Young Lance's initiation to manhood as a brave warrior is accomplished through his recognition as an eagle catcher.

Mari Sandoz underlines that the Indians are very much part of the nature surrounding them. From the cradle to the grave, they depend on what nature offers them. Either for nourishment, burial, or even for weather broadcast, the Indians benefit from her. For example, they carry Arrow Man's dead body to the "burial tree", or "great white owls... in the treetops" are regarded as warning for "a deep-snow winter, coming very soon" (30-31). The wind, on the other hand, plays an important role in buffalo hunt, since weak-sighted buffaloes "move into the wind to detect any danger ahead" (40). Or, once the early snow vanishes, the Sioux women could only then prepare the cherished pemmican, the washna; carried on "hunt and scout and warpath" (39).

In Native American Autobiography, Arnold Krupat underlines the absence of alphabetic writing in Native American cultures, and asserts,

Tribal people were oral people who represented personal experience performatively and dramatically to an audience, [or] presented... [their] personal exploits... pictographically [as] in tipi decorations or other types of drawing, but never in alphabetic writing. (3)

Mari Sandoz emphasizes the significance of story-telling in Indians' lives. For example, the French trader, his Oglala wife, their children, and the Chief Fast Bear, are attacked by the Crows on the way to the village of his wife's Brule relatives, and tell the story to the council and war chiefs. Drawing pictures is also another way of communication among the Native Americans. Lance draws a "map of the Crow hunting place,... [and] a picture of Frenchy's night camp as the trader describe[s] it" (50). Thus, Young Lance is initiated into the process of becoming 'the Story Catcher, recorder of the history of the Sioux'. Through stories, or heroic tales, the Sioux convey the useful experience of the past to the following generations.

In The Story Catcher, Mari Sandoz also elaborates on the subject of religion. Contrary to their misrepresentation as sinful savages by the Puritans, who tried to Christianize them in missionary schools, Native Americans have their own belief systems. For example, while hiding in a hole wounded by a Ree arrow, Lance kills a cayote to feed himself and stop his thirst; he offers "the first bite... to the sky, the earth, and the four directions, in thankfulness to the Great Powers in which all things - the rock, the cloud, the tree, the buffalo, and the man - were brothers, all things of the earth and the sky and everything between, a great One together" (65). With all their rituals and ceremonies, the Indians are represented as a shamanistic community believing in the Powers either supplying them with the buffaloes, or making them victorious in wars against their enemies.

In The Story Catcher, Sandoz also questions the relativity of the concept of 'enemy'. The Other is always perceived as 'enemy' by the opposite party that creates stories about the savagery of their rivals. For example, it is believed among the Sioux that "if important Crows were killed in [a] fighting, the dead Sioux might [also] be hacked to pieces by the bereaved women" (102). However, Little Raven, "the Crow who lived among the Sioux [as a captive] laughed at these stories, [saying], 'It is always the enemy who does these things. When I was a boy I heard it was the Sioux who chopped up the bodies of the dead left behind" (102-103).

In The Story Catcher, Mari Sandoz also elaborates on the relationship between the white traders and the Indians. They exchange "tobacco, coffee, sugar, hoop iron for arrow and spear points, lead and powder" with furs (47). Like the trader Frenchy, some of them even marry the Sioux women. However, Sandoz is also critical about some traders' initiation of the Indians to drinking. Good Axe remembers how a young Oglala warrior gets drunk and shoots down the chief of the tribe while Lance's father is visiting Bull Bear's village. Sandoz also criticizes the whites' expansionist policies and the dismissal of the Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Traders and soldiers are the two groups of people that represent the white interests in Indian lands. With presents like whisky, they established good relations with Indian chiefs and "convinced them [to] take their people far away, out upon the plains" (85). Sandoz also displays the vices of intoxication for the Native Americans. Drunkenness paves the way for moral corruption and acculturation. Because of the white man's "firewater, crime rates also increase among the unconscious Amerindians, and they start killing each other.

In Native American Legends, George E. Lankford asserts that the white and Indian cultures have always been in conflict since the early days of the European settlement in Americas. This conflict, either as "frontier atrocities", or "congressional debate", transformed "friendly coexistence into violence":

On every frontier in the New World, in South America, Mexico, Florida, Virginia, New England, and Canada... the outcome was the same - subjugation of the Native Americans. In the encounter the Native Americans lost high percentages of their population to virulent plagues, lost almost all control over their occupied lands, lost the ability to determine their ecological niche, lost the cultural momentum that was theirs in 1500, and in many cases, lost their heritage. An appalling number of Native American societies simply ceased to exist. (Lankford, 30)

Mari Sandoz also describes the whites in her novel as one of the menaces for the Indian survival on the plains. The whites, with their "far-shooting" guns kill and scare the game, or their horses or bulls consume the grass necessary for the buffalo; and even they pollute the streams (114). In between the lines, Sandoz even reveals her anger for the mischief done towards the Indians. When the white soldier chief comes to tell them to keep away from the trail which is part of the Indian territory, Sandoz's narrator critically states that "It was the white man who should keep away from the Indian river" (115).

Mari Sandoz in her novel also states that the whites brought to the Indians their own diseases like the measles and the smallpox which killed many Native Americans, and kept them from holding the great annual council of the Teton Sioux. In the big council lodge, all the headmen of the Tetons come together and smoke the great Sioux pipe. Lance illustrates this annual meeting at the council lodge as a sunflower with colored petals of the Indians "marching in long ceremonial lines from all the divisions and bands to the council lodge... [and its] brown center where the seeds of the future generations of the Sioux nation, Oglalas, Hunkpapas, the Brules, the Sans Ares and the No Bows, were made" (130-131). Through Lance's eyes, Mari Sandoz describes Sun Shield, the chief of the Oglala Sioux, in a ceremony at the top of the Bear Butte, with "his arms stretched toward [the] south and west,... [meditating] how to keep... not only... in buffaloes for their meat but keep free of the white man and his trails, his whisky and his sicknesses" (132). For example, the Indians call measles "the little spotted disease", burning and killing everyone in the Sioux village of Sun Shield despite the medicine man's efforts, and the smallpox is called "the big-spotted disease" (139). Mari Sandoz also illustrates the Indians' original healing methods mainly based on a great variety of herbs. For example, they use "the leafless plant the white man called mare's-tail" to cure bleeding by "mak[ing] a tea, or chew[ing] the plant, swallow[ing] the juice and spit[ting] out the strings" (139-140).

Just like Lance, "the story catcher" of the Sioux tribe, Mari Sandoz also realistically portrays the customs and manners of the plains Indians. Her narration is identical with the pictures of old times, showing "the early hunters going out to the buffalo country afoot, dressed in skins, the men ready for game or defense with their bows and stone-pointed arrows in their hands, the women carrying bundles or babies..." (158). As the old Paint Maker of the Sioux tribe states, "To be such a historian, such a recorder, [one] must learn to see all things, know how they look, and how they are done" (157). Thus, Mari Sandoz, raised among the Indians, has learned to see life like a Sioux; yet she has also learned to illustrate it through her narration like a white man who ends his novel in a traditional manner with a happy-end: the little Ree chooses to stay with Lance; Blue Dawn's family accepts Lance as a suitor; he is asked to fulfill his vow in the sun-dance ceremony; and finally, he is named as "the Story Catcher" by the Paint Maker (174-175).

As Hegel points out, "Human consciousness is incapable of perceiving itself without recognition by others... [Hence, the Master and the Slave are] mutually defining figures" (qtd. in Cavallaro, 120-121). Since we live in "a world of intersubjectivity,... any one individual's interpretations of reality always interact with those of countless other people and are always, as a result, open to redefinition" (Cavallaro, 121). Thus, Mari Sandoz helps the Western readers understand the Other, and avoid the prejudices against them, by informing them of the Native Americans' thoughts and feelings, their traditions and customs, their physical, cultural and linguistic behaviors, and to what extent, they differ from or resemble the whites.

© Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

*) Atilla Silkü: is an associate professor of American Literature at Ege University, Izmir, Turkey, where he received his doctorate in 1991 for his dissertation on a comparative study of Edgar Allen Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. His research areas are the 19th Century Studies, Anglo-American Poetry, Postcolonial Studies, Women's Writing and Slave Narratives. Dr. Silkü has taught American Poetry, Modern English Poetry, US Government and Politics. He has published articles on Emerson, Poe, Louise Erdrich, Robert Lowell, Gertrude Bonnin, and a book on William Carlos Williams. He is also a member of ASAT (The American Studies Association of Turkey), EAAS (The European Association of American Studies) and PALA (The Poetics and Linguistics Association).


Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen. Eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.

Cavallaro, Dani. Critical and Cultural Theory: Thematic Variations. London and New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone Press, 2001.

Krupat, Arnold. Native American Autobiography: An Anthology. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Lankford, George E. Native American Legends. Little Rock, Arkansas: August House, 1987.

Lauter, Paul. Canons and Contexts. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Sandoz, Mari. The Story Catcher. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Sands, Kathleen Mullen. "American Indian Autobiography." Studies in American Indian Literature: Critical Essays and Course Designs. Ed. Paula Gunn Allen. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1983. 55-65.

Stauffer, Helen W. Mari Sandoz: Story Catcher of the Plains. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.

5.3. I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country

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