Impressions of an Indian Childhood
by Zitkala-Sa [aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin] (1876-1938)
from American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa. Washington: Hayworth Publishing House, 1921
A WIGWAM of weather-stained canvas stood at the base of some irregularly ascending hills. A
footpath wound its way gently down the sloping land till it reached the broad river bottom;
creeping through the long swamp grasses that bent over it on either side, it came out on the edge
of the Missouri.
Here, morning, noon, and evening, my mother came to draw water from the muddy stream for
our household use. Always, when my mother started for the river, I stopped my play to run along
with her. She was only of medium height. Often she was sad and silent, at which times her full
arched lips were compressed into hard and bitter lines, and shadows fell under her black eyes.
Then I clung to her hand and begged to know what made the tears fall.
“Hush; my little daughter must never talk about my tears”; and smiling through them, she patted
my head and said, “Now let me see how fast you can run today.” Whereupon I tore away at my
highest possible speed, with my long black hair blowing in the breeze.
I was a wild little girl of seven. Loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a
pair of soft moccasins on my feet, I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less
spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, – my wild freedom and
overflowing spirits. She taught me no fear save that of intruding myself upon others.
Having gone many paces ahead I stopped, panting for breath, and laughing with glee as my
mother watched my every movement. I was not wholly conscious of myself, but was more
keenly alive to the fire within. It was as if I were the activity, and my hands and feet were only
experiments for my spirit to work upon.
Returning from the river, I tugged beside my mother, with my hand upon the bucket I believed I
was carrying. One time, on such a return, I remember a bit of conversation we had. My grown-up
cousin, Warca-Ziwin (Sunflower), who was then seventeen, always went to the river alone for
water for her mother. Their wigwam was not far from ours; and I saw her daily going to and
from the river. I admired my cousin greatly. So I said: “Mother, when I am tall as my cousin
Warca-Ziwin, you shall not have to come for water. I will do it for you.”
With a strange tremor in her voice which I could not understand, she answered, “If the paleface
does not take away from us the river we drink.”
“Mother, who is this bad paleface?” I asked.
“My little daughter, he is a sham, – a sickly sham! The bronzed Dakota is the only real man.”
I looked up into my mother’s face while she spoke; and seeing her bite her lips, I knew she was
unhappy. This aroused revenge in my small soul. Stamping my foot on the earth, I cried aloud, “I
hate the paleface that makes my mother cry!”
Setting the pail of water on the ground, my mother stooped, and stretching her left hand out on
the level with my eyes, she placed her other arm about me; she pointed to the hill where my
uncle and my only sister lay buried.
“There is what the paleface has done! Since then your father too has been buried in a hill nearer
the rising sun. We were once very happy. But the paleface has stolen our lands and driven us
hither. Having defrauded us of our land, the paleface forced us away.
“Well, it happened on the day we moved camp that your sister and uncle were both very sick.
Many others were ailing, but there seemed to be no help. We traveled many days and nights; not
in the grand, happy way that we moved camp when I was a little girl, but we were driven, my
child, driven like a herd of buffalo. With every step, your sister, who was not as large as you are
now, shrieked with the painful jar until she was hoarse with crying. She grew more and more
feverish. Her little hands and cheeks were burning hot. Her little lips were parched and dry, but
she would not drink the water I gave her. Then I discovered that her throat was swollen and red.
My poor child, how I cried with her because the Great Spirit had forgotten us!
“At last, when we reached this western country, on the first weary night your sister died. And
soon your uncle died also, leaving a widow and an orphan daughter, your cousin Warca-Ziwin.
Both your sister and uncle might have been happy with us today, had it not been for the heartless
My mother was silent the rest of the way to our wigwam. Though I saw no tears in her eyes, I
knew that was because I was with her. She seldom wept before me.
During the summer days my mother built her fire in the shadow of our wigwam.
In the early morning our simple breakfast was spread upon the grass west of our tepee. At the
farthest point of the shade my mother sat beside her fire, toasting a savory piece of dried meat.
Near her, I sat upon my feet, eating my dried meat with unleavened bread, and drinking strong
The morning meal was our quiet hour, when we two were entirely alone. At noon, several who
chanced to be passing by stopped to rest, and to share our luncheon with us, for they were sure of
My uncle, whose death my mother ever lamented, was one of our nation’s bravest warriors. His
name was on the lips of old men when talking of the proud feats of valor; and it was mentioned
by younger men, too, in connection with deeds of gallantry. Old women praised him for his
kindness toward them; young women held him up as an ideal to their sweethearts. Every one
loved him, and my mother worshiped his memory. Thus it happened that even strangers were
sure of welcome in our lodge, if they but asked a favor in my uncle’s name.
Though I heard many strange experiences related by these wayfarers, I loved best the evening
meal, for that was the time old legends were told. I was always glad when the sun hung low in
the west, for then my mother sent me to invite the neighboring old men and women to eat supper
with us. Running all the way to the wigwams, I halted shyly at the entrances. Sometimes I stood
long moments without saying a word. It was not any fear that made me so dumb when out upon
such a happy errand; nor was it that I wished to withhold the invitation, for it was all I could do
to observe this very proper silence. But it was a sensing of the atmosphere, to assure myself that I
should not hinder other plans. My mother used to say to me, as I was almost bounding away for
the old people: “Wait a moment before you invite any one. If other plans are being discussed, do
not interfere, but go elsewhere.”
The old folks knew the meaning of my pauses; and often they coaxed my confidence by asking,
“What do you seek, little granddaughter?”
“My mother says you are to come to our tepee this evening,” I instantly exploded, and breathed
the freer afterwards.
“Yes, yes, gladly, gladly I shall come!” each replied. Rising at once and carrying their blankets
across one shoulder, they flocked leisurely from their various wigwams toward our dwelling.
My mission done, I ran back, skipping and jumping with delight. All out of breath, I told my
mother almost the exact words of the answers to my invitation. Frequently she asked, “What
were they doing when you entered their tepee?” This taught me to remember all I saw at a single
glance. Often I told my mother my impressions without being questioned.
While in the neighboring wigwams sometimes an old Indian woman asked me, “What is your
mother doing?” Unless my mother had cautioned me not to tell, I generally answered her
questions without reserve.
At the arrival of our guests I sat close to my mother, and did not leave her side without first
asking her consent. I ate my supper in quiet, listening patiently to the talk of the old people,
wishing all the time that they would begin the stories I loved best. At last, when I could not wait
any longer, I whispered in my mother’s ear, “Ask them to tell an Iktomi story, mother.”
Soothing my impatience, my mother said aloud, “My little daughter is anxious to hear your
legends.” By this time all were through eating, and the evening was fast deepening into twilight.
As each in turn began to tell a legend, I pillowed my head in my mother’s lap; and lying flat upon
my back, I watched the stars as they peeped down upon me, one by one. The increasing interest
of the tale aroused me, and I sat up eagerly listening for every word. The old women made funny
remarks, and laughed so heartily that I could not help joining them.
The distant howling of a pack of wolves or the hooting of an owl in the river bottom frightened
me, and I nestled into my mother’s lap. She added some dry sticks to the open fire, and the bright
flames leaped up into the faces of the old folks as they sat around in a great circle.
On such an evening, I remember the glare of the fire shone on a tattooed star upon the brow of
the old warrior who was telling a story. I watched him curiously as he made his unconscious
gestures. The blue star upon his bronzed forehead was a puzzle to me. Looking about, I saw two
parallel lines on the chin of one of the old women. The rest had none. I examined my mother’s
face, but found no sign there.
After the warrior’s story was finished, I asked the old woman the meaning of the blue lines on
her chin, looking all the while out of the corners of my eyes at the warrior with the star on his
forehead. I was a little afraid that he would rebuke me for my boldness.
Here the old woman began: “Why, my grandchild, they are signs, – secret signs I dare not tell
you. I shall, however, tell you a wonderful story about a woman who had a cross tattooed upon
each of her cheeks.”
It was a long story of a woman whose magic power lay hidden behind the marks upon her face. I
fell asleep before the story was completed.
Ever after that night I felt suspicious of tattooed people. Whenever I saw one I glanced furtively
at the mark and round about it, wondering what terrible magic power was covered there.
It was rarely that such a fearful story as this one was told by the camp fire. Its impression was so
acute that the picture still remains vividly clear and pronounced.
THE BIG RED APPLES.
The first turning away from the easy, natural flow of my life occurred in an early spring. It was
in my eighth year; in the month of March, I afterward learned. At this age I knew but one
language, and that was my mother’s native tongue.
From some of my playmates I heard that two paleface missionaries were in our village. They
were from that class of white men who wore big hats and carried large hearts, they said. Running
direct to my mother, I began to question her why these two strangers were among us. She told
me, after I had teased much, that they had come to take away Indian boys and girls to the East.
My mother did not seem to want me to talk about them. But in a day or two, I gleaned many
wonderful stories from my playfellows concerning the strangers.
“Mother, my friend Judéwin is going home with the missionaries. She is going to a more
beautiful country than ours; the palefaces told her so!” I said wistfully, wishing in my heart that I
too might go.
Mother sat in a chair, and I was hanging on her knee. Within the last two seasons my big brother
Dawée had returned from a three years’ education in the East, and his coming back influenced
my mother to take a farther step from her native way of living. First it was a change from the
buffalo skin to the white man’s canvas that covered our wigwam. Now she had given up her
wigwam of slender poles, to live, a foreigner, in a home of clumsy logs.
“Yes, my child, several others besides Judéwin are going away with the palefaces. Your brother
said the missionaries had inquired about his little sister,” she said, watching my face very
My heart thumped so hard against my breast, I wondered if she could hear it.
“Did he tell them to take me, mother?” I asked, fearing lest Dawée had forbidden the palefaces to
see me, and that my hope of going to the Wonderland would be entirely blighted.
With a sad, slow smile, she answered: “There! I knew you were wishing to go, because Judéwin
has filled your ears with the white men’s lies. Don’t believe a word they say! Their words are
sweet, but, my child, their deeds are bitter. You will cry for me, but they will not even soothe
you. Stay with me, my little one! Your brother Dawée says that going East, away from your
mother, is too hard an experience for his baby sister.”
Thus my mother discouraged my curiosity about the lands beyond our eastern horizon; for it was
not yet an ambition for Letters that was stirring me. But on the following day the missionaries
did come to our very house. I spied them coming up the footpath leading to our cottage. A third
man was with them, but he was not my brother Dawée. It was another, a young interpreter, a
paleface who had a smattering of the Indian language. I was ready to run out to meet them, but I
did not dare to displease my mother. With great glee, I jumped up and down on our ground floor.
I begged my mother to open the door, that they would be sure to come to us. Alas! They came,
they saw, and they conquered!
Judéwin had told me of the great tree where grew red, red apples; and how we could reach out
our hands and pick all the red apples we could eat. I had never seen apple trees. I had never
tasted more than a dozen red apples in my life; and when I heard of the orchards of the East, I
was eager to roam among them. The missionaries smiled into my eyes, and patted my head. I
wondered how mother could say such hard words against him.
“Mother, ask them if little girls may have all the red apples they want, when they go East,” I
whispered aloud, in my excitement.
The interpreter heard me, and answered: “Yes, little girl, the nice red apples are for those who
pick them; and you will have a ride on the iron horse if you go with these good people.”
I had never seen a train, and he knew it.
“Mother, I am going East! I like big red apples, and I want to ride on the iron horse! Mother, say
yes!” I pleaded.
My mother said nothing. The missionaries waited in silence; and my eyes began to blur with
tears, though I struggled to choke them back. The corners of my mouth twitched, and my mother
“I am not ready to give you any word,” she said to them. “Tomorrow I shall send you my answer
by my son.”
With this they left us. Alone with my mother, I yielded to my tears, and cried aloud, shaking my
head so as not to hear what she was saying to me. This was the first time I had ever been so
unwilling to give up my own desire that I refused to hearken to my mother’s voice.
There was a solemn silence in our home that night. Before I went to bed I begged the Great Spirit
to make my mother willing I should go with the missionaries.
The next morning came, and my mother called me to her side. “My daughter, do you still persist
in wishing to leave your mother?” she asked.
“Oh, mother, it is not that I wish to leave you, but I want to see the wonderful Eastern land,” I
My dear old aunt came to our house that morning, and I heard her say, “Let her try it.”
I hoped that, as usual, my aunt was pleading on my side. My brother Dawée came for mother’s
decision. I dropped my play, and crept close to my aunt.
“Yes, Dawée, my daughter, though she does not understand what it all means, is anxious to go.
She will need an education when she is grown, for then there will be fewer real Dakotas, and
many more palefaces. This tearing her away, so young, from her mother is necessary, if I would
have her an educated woman. The palefaces, who owe us a large debt for stolen lands, have
begun to pay a tardy justice in offering some education to our children. But I know my daughter
must suffer keenly in this experiment. For her sake, I dread to tell you my reply to the
missionaries. Go, tell them that they may take my little daughter, and that the Great Spirit shall
not fail to reward them according to their hearts.”
Wrapped in my heavy blanket, I walked with my mother to the carriage that was soon to take us
to the iron horse. I was happy. I met my playmates, who were also wearing their best thick
blankets. We showed one another our new beaded moccasins, and the width of the belts that
girdled our new dresses. Soon we were being drawn rapidly away by the white man’s horses.
When I saw the lonely figure of my mother vanish in the distance, a sense of regret settled
heavily upon me. I felt suddenly weak, as if I might fall limp to the ground. I was in the hands of
strangers whom my mother did not fully trust. I no longer felt free to be myself, or to voice my
own feelings. The tears trickled down my cheeks, and I buried my face in the folds of my
blanket. Now the first step, parting me from my mother, was taken, and all my belated tears
Having driven thirty miles to the ferryboat, we crossed the Missouri in the evening. Then riding
again a few miles eastward, we stopped before a massive brick building. I looked at it in
amazement and with a vague misgiving, for in our village I had never seen so large a house.
Trembling with fear and distrust of the palefaces, my teeth chattering from the chilly ride, I crept
noiselessly in my soft moccasins along the narrow hall, keeping very close to the bare wall. I was
as frightened and bewildered as the captured young of a wild creature.
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