A Book Review of Lakota Woman
My novel, Little Alice Brings Solace to a Ghost Town, is about two little Indian girls: Little Alice and her sister, Harriet. They are mixed race: half white and half Native American. And their native half is also mixed: Navajo and Hopi. One theme of my story is the dilemma faced by these two sisters: whether to assimilate into the white culture of their beloved Aunt Julia, who has adopted them, or to remain true to their Indian cultures. Little Alice opts to become Christian, learn English and Spanish, and assimilate into the white culture of her aunt. Harriet opts to keep her native religion and language, and remain part of the Hopi culture of her mother. They are fortunate, in that their aunt does not try to force them to go one way or the other—assimilate or not.
A book I have just read is about a Native American—a Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota—who was not so fortunate. The book, Lakota Woman, is the autobiographic story that Mary Crow Dog told to Richard Erdoes. It was awarded the American Book Award in 1990 and was a national bestseller. As a small girl, in the late 1950s, Mary Crow Dog was forced into the St. Francis Boarding School, “where the Catholic sisters would take a buggy whip to us for what they called ‘disobedience.’” That is, “just for being Indian, trying to hang on to our way of life, language, and values.”
I liked this book mostly because it’s a love story—a coming-of-age and falling-in-love romance. Unlike my novels, it’s a true story, but it reads like a novel. In fact, you couldn’t make up a story that would rival what Mary Crow Dog really went through as a child and young mother. In 1973, at age seventeen, unmarried and very pregnant, she ends up almost by accident in the Wounded Knee Siege, where 200 Oglala Lakota Sioux and followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) for seventy-one days occupied the town of Wounded Knee, Sioux Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. U.S. Marshals, FBI agents and other enforcement agencies surrounded and literally laid siege military style.
During the siege, Mary gave birth to her child, while bullets literally came whizzing though the walls of the cabin where she was in labor. Fortunately, also during the siege, Mary fell in love with the leader of the AIM occupiers, Leonard Crow Dog, and she married him afterwards. Love changed her life. She stopped drinking and leading a wild life. She slowly re-learned her Sioux language and gradually returned to her native religion and culture. She went on a “vision quest” to find her true self.
Finally, in 1977, she completed the transition back to her original self, which had at one point had almost been driven out of her. By then, she had children by Leonard, was deeply in love with him, once again spoke her people’s language, and was ready to become who she wanted to be: a Lakota Sioux Woman. During a celebration of the traditional Sun Dance, she had a mystical experience: “I could hear the spirits speaking to me. … I heard no sound but the shrill cry of the eagle bones [part of the Sun Dance]. I felt nothing and, at the same time, everything. It was at that moment that I, a white-educated half blood, became wholly Indian. I experienced a great rush of happiness.”
As I said above, I liked this book mostly because it’s a love story. Mary Crow Dog in the end was able to choose to be who she wanted to be, because she fell in love. Despite the buggy whips of the nuns and the bullets of the FBI, her love for Leonard Crow Dog enabled her to choose.
Unfortunately, as oftentimes is the case in real life, Mary Crow Dog’s love story did not have a fairy-tale ending. Not long after the publication of her book, she and Leonard were divorced. She soon remarried, but only weeks after the marriage, her new husband was killed in a car accident.
Which is why I write novels, instead of autobiographies or history books: I can give my own stories happy endings. For example, in my story about Little Alice, she lives “happily ever after.” I like—I prefer and invent—happy endings.