“No, no, my friend. You are kind, and you mean well, but you can never understand these things as I do. You’ve never been oppressed.” – Wildfire, a fictitious 19th century Native American leader, in S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema

Wynema - UN cover
The face of author Sophia Alice Callahan on this cover. At 26 years old, and just three years after Wynema was published, Callahan died of pleurisy.

I always try to read books set in, or about, places I plan to visit. Sometimes it’s fiction, sometimes non-fiction. So as a way to begin to understand the history and people of the Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota I’ll visit later this week, I decided to read the 1891 novel Wynema: A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan.

It took no more than a page or two to understand why the book starts with a disclaimer from publisher H.J. Smith & Co. about “what literary critics may term the crudeness or the incompleteness of the work.”

A coming of age story about the life and educational pursuits of a Muscogee Creek Indian named Wynema Harjo, Wynema is a poorly written, predictable romance set primarily on indigenous land that is now Oklahoma.

Supported by parents as concerned about the future of their tribe as the future of their daughter, Wynema is taught and befriended by affluent Methodist missionary Genevieve Weir, who helps Wynema rise to the top of her class, experience life in an white community, find love, and eventually become a teacher herself.

Just 120 pages, it’s a quick though often frustrating read. The plot is shallow, writing sloppy and sentences awkward. Words are missing. Punctuation is wrong. And author Callahan is unfortunately no better at foreshadowing than she is writing dialogue.

But as the publishers note, it’s not the writing that makes Wynema required reading:

The fact that an Indian, one of the oppressed, desires to plead her cause at a tribunal where judge and jury are chosen from among the oppressors is our warrant for publishing this little volume.

Honest opinions which come from careful thought and deep study are worthy of respectful consideration even though they be the opinions of an Indian … Never before have our Red brothers had their story told by the pen of one of their own people. …

Wynema newspaper articleA teacher like her character Genevive, and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation like protagonist Wynema, author Sophia Alice Callahan made history with Wynema, earning small but significant headlines as the first Native American woman in the U.S. to write a published novel.

Educated at a boarding school in Virginia before coming back to Oklahoma to teach, Callahan was just 23 when she wrote Wynema. And as she makes clear in the book’s dedication, she wrote it not just to educate or entertain, but with the hope that it could affect real change:

Available as a free, downloadable PDF online (thank you Illinois State University English Department!) and in softcover from the University of Nebraska Press, Wynema illustrates several of the shameful injustices inflicted on American Indians during Callahan’s life, including the 1887 Dawes Act that forced tribe members to live away from their nations; how federal lawmakers cheated Creek Indians out of promised payments for their land; and, most tragically, the massacre of hundreds of indigenous men, women and children at the Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

During a conversation between Wynema and Genevive’s brother Robin, Callahan also makes the case for women’s suffrage. Notably, it’s Robin who makes these statements:

There is no man who is enterprising and keeps well up with the times but confesses that the women of to-day are in every respect, except political liberty, equal to the men. … I believe that, one day, the ‘inferior of man,’ the ‘weaker vessel’ shall stand grandly by the side of that ‘noble lord of creation,’ his equal in every respect.

While for some these might seem like shockingly progressive (if not totally unrealistic or naive) opinions to be expressed by a 19th century Indian woman — an individual oppressed by her gender AND race, PLUS witness to a bloody slaughter of her people — Callahan could have actually believed these were real possibilities.

The Muscogee were a matrilineal culture. Inheritances were made through maternal lines; children were born into their mother’s clan; and women were equally involved in tribal decision making. Also, even though suffrage was not legal elsewhere in the U.S., the Wyoming territory–just a state away from where Callahan lived–had granted women the right to vote roughly 20 years earlier, in 1869.

What cannot be questioned, however, is her horror at how white America demeaned, vilified, enslaved, and abused Native Americans and then, in 1890, slaughtered hundreds at Wounded Knee. It’s this–despite bad writing, poor plotting and weak story development–that makes Wynema a must read.

Battle of wounded knee - bodies

Giving Wynema must-read status was confirmed after I read “Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people” in The Guardian. Reading it at the same time as I was finishing Wynema, the article made me realize that during activist work related to ending racism I’d done–something I truly couldn’t feel more strongly about–never once had I thought about Native people. Written by So You Want to Talk About Race author Ijeoma Oluo, the article also calls on whites to do some self-analysis: to consider whether our work to end racial oppression is motivated by white guilt or an honest desire to see how we might have been complicit, how we might have benefited, and how we can take real steps to help end white supremacy.

Pretty sure that I’m motivated by all of these reasons, including white guilt, I decided to talk with Cheryl Wapes’a-Mayes, an Assiniboine and Sioux Indian from Washington State who sits on the national board of the National Organization for Women. Like me, she was at the national NOW conference in Minneapolis that ended earlier today.

Me and Cheryl
Me and Cheryl Wapes’a-Mayes at the national NOW conference. If you’re wondering what my T-shirt says, it’s “Ask me about my feminist agenda” (which you are welcome to do at any time!).

Since I was chastising my allegedly woke self for never before giving thoughtful, conscious attention to Native American oppression, I expected Cheryl to chastise me too. But she didn’t.

“For so long, we’ve been the invisible Americans. Those who live on reservations are isolated and not seen. Those like me who grew up in cities often tried to blend in as Hispanics, or members of other cultures,” Cheryl said. “What’s most important today is that you see us now, and you want to understand what Native people have experienced, and what we still experience.”

Stopping to chat in the hotel lobby as I wrote this post, NOW sister Sue Gibson from Missouri reminded me: “My guess is that there will continue to be lots of times we realize we’re not as woke as we thought.”

She’s right. And each one of those realizations is a step forward.

In her New York Times bestseller So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo instructs that if you want to truly understand how people of a certain race experience racism, you have to ask them:

“It’s about race if a person of color thinks it is about race. … Almost anything can fall under [this]. Why? Because race impacts almost every aspect of our lives.”

Although I’m primarily going to the Badlands of South Dakota to visit the Pine Ridge Indian reservation for a writing assignment, reading Wynema has made me want to visit the Wounded Knee Memorial and massacre site. I’m not exactly sure what I hope to accomplish by going there. I just know I want to go.

Cheryl suggested that I first stop at the nearby trading post: “Talk to the Native people. Tell them why you’re there and what you told me.”

Then, said both Cheryl and Olu, listen.


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