Cultural Imperialism and Native Identity: Contact Zone Dynamics

Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population and to be the seat of civilization?” – Governor William Henry Harrison, of the Indiana Territory (1800-1812).

            The Native-American population is one of the many indigenous groups, throughout the world, to not only suffer mass-murder at the hands of encroaching White settlers, but shouldering near cultural genocide, as well. Everywhere the Native identity lives, there is reaction: sneers, discrimination, and violence; no one is exempt, and no Native person passes through life in White culture without enduring a rampant material, and spiritual, destitution. The autobiographical narratives of Native Zitkala-Sa, attest to this claim: her life, from beginning to end, was one long engagement with racial supremacy brought to life through the machinations of the contact zone.

To understand this narration, then, one must understand what comprises a “contact zone.” Scholar Mary Louise Pratt, defines a contact zone as such in her article, Arts of the Contact Zone: “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths[.] (1)” In other words, a contact zone is an area in which a marginalized people face persecution from a dominant people. It is a place where both cultures meet and, as I will argue, battle for legitimacy.

If culture is a warrior personified, then, what are its armaments? The obvious answer would be the people living in “warrior,” the individuals whom etch out a living on mere scraps or those who bully the poor. In this context, Zitkala-Sa is most definitely a battle master. She has borne the burden of defining her identity through the convoluted process of first embracing, then rejecting, White culture. Her war, not unlike the actual concept, is riddled with the scars of a life not easily won.

Exemplified through what Pratt calls an “autoethnographic” text, otherwise known as a text which allows people to engage with the representations which others have made of them (2), Zitkala-Sa’s narration represents who she was during the days of her childhood and young adulthood; the product of a cultural-dialogue meant to speak to both the subjugated Natives as well as the metropolitan conquerors (2). She constructs her account according to her “transculturation” experience, transculturation, of course, denoting the process of Native persons selecting what of another culture’s concepts and traditions to incorporate into their own; this is the what, and how, of the direction her social identity was built, in relation to her native heritage, as well as the predominant White legacy forcing its values and morals onto the Native communities as part of a cultural genocide.

As with any nefarious plot, the first order of business in assimilating aboriginal persons is to entice them into re-education centers. And so happens to Zitkala-Sa as she recounts the time when missionaries entered her village, attempting to convince the locals to send their children to the specially built Native schools. Sitkala-Sa describes this process in her autobiography when she begs her mother to attend the Indian boarding school (430). She launches a tidal-wave of entreaties at her mother, pleading to giving her consent to board the “Iron Horse” (train) and learn from the White man, filling her with the Red Apple knowledge she so remarks; this Biblical reference acting as an erring rejoinder to readers, signifying the incorrectness of her actions, as well as later tribulations.

The misplaced feelings materialize into horrific realities right from the onset. “We had anticipated much pleasure from a ride on the iron horse, but the throngs of staring palefaces disturbed and troubled us. (433)” It only worsened. If these rude glances defiled Zitkala-Sa’s identity enough to cause her to cry until they arrived at the school (435), then the process of cutting her hair must have been horrendous. In Native culture, hair cutting is done only when a warrior has been defeated in battle- it is a mark of shame. So, for a young girl growing up with pride in her heart, the deflowering of her head would have been an unthinkable act. Her resistance typify the Native response: “I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. (437)” All is in vain, however, for her head is shaved and in anguish she said, “I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me… I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder. (438)” In this one instance the reader gleams Zitkala-Sa references her mother’s tongue (416) in referring to the Whites as herders and her own situation as cattle incarnate.

Nevertheless, when herding cattle, one does not simply strip the animals of their excess fur (hair), you also brand each one to mark them as property. And so was the same for Zitkala-Sa, only instead of branding irons enforcing a company mark, the administrators utilized the English language as their cultural brand; destroying their native tongue to replace it with the signifier of civilization- English.

Zitkala-Sa recounts an experience in the school yard not long after coming by where the contortions of the English language result in brutalization (439). During her stay at this school, Zitkala-Sa would be required to practice the language every day, to use it without question while forgetting her Native language. She remarks that this process was of such intensity that “within a year I was able to express myself in somewhat broken English.” This iron clad routine, it seems, achieved its purpose. Yet this system also claimed victims. Zitkala-Sa mentions how “the hard-working, well-meaning, ignorant woman who was inculcating in our hearts her superstitious ideas (443)” led to the death of a mistreated girl. The routine, as it was called, therefore has both a labor and a religious aspect whose very aspect was to degrade the pupils heritage. In summing up her time at the school, she summarizes that “the melancholy of those black days has left so long a shadow that it darkens the path of years which have since gone by.”  Ergo, for the next four years, Zitkala-Sa’s understanding of the White world would be tampered in the truth of its brutality.

A brutality, which, is subservient to the superstitions of the White man’s culture. If one facet of Zitkala-Sa’s transculturation is clear, it is that her constant confrontation with Christianity defined her troubles.  Such a narrative asserts itself in the section of her autobiography entitled “The Devil” where she struggled with the European concept of the Devil. Regaled with stories of his awesome power, Zitkala-Sa naturally was afraid of this being and dreamed of Satan one night while sleeping. Yet her dream, though encompassing the usual tropes found in Christian doctrine (such as the Devil trying to lure souls to Hell), this dream actually acts as a framing device foreshadowing Zitkala-Sa’s own journey: in the dream she encounters the Devil, just as in the real world she encounter the White Man through the contact zone. The Devil-White Man hybrid attempts to bring her over to European traditions by causing her to both fear Satan and reject her mother and her Native ways. However, this is not what transpires; instead, Zitkala-Sa runs to her mother to protect her from the White man and Devil. She hugs her mother by which the Devil then vanishes into the night (441). This act serves not merely as an affirmation on her part but signifies that Zitkala-Sa will eventually reject Christian dogma, favoring her own upbringing instead.

Indeed, this is precisely what happens. Fast-forwarding some years ahead to young adulthood, Zitkala-Sa sits with her mother discussing the state of the land when her mother suddenly curses the palefaces; Zitkala-Sa accepts her mother’s curse upon White settlers as a much needed relief. A claim such as this is backed up when, later in life, Zitkala-Sa remarks: “I prefer to their dogma my excursions in the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds… and the sweet breathing of flowers. (462)” When combined with her seeming acceptance of her mother’s attacks upon the White encroachment, this statement of support depicts the situation clearly: that the White attempt to deprive the Native people of their heritage, and their subsequent attempt to destroy their culture, has failed.

Such a hope blossoms in Zitkala-Sa: she once more embraces her Native heritage. After a long time away in the White man’s world, she returns to Native lands to feel the warmth of the life she once lived (460). She reminisces, “The racial lines which were once bitterly real, now serve nothing more than marking out a living mosaic of human beings. (461)” She has moved beyond the superficial reactions of the White contact zone perversions, rejected the White enticements, and found her place in her tribe as a Native supporter of her proud history.

Zitkala-Sa with a violin.

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