The Educating Function of Zitkala-Sa’s Sioux Stories

Seminar Paper, 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The Role of Indian Tales in the Education of Native American Children
2.1 Manners of Storytelling
2.2 Didactic Messages of the Stories

3. The Educating Function of Iktomi and his Fellow Characters
3.1 Iktomi, the Spider Fairy
3.2 Iya, the Giant
3.3 Old Double Face
3.4 Manstin, the Rabbit

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

What role does Native American oral literature play in the education of Native American children? What are the moral values and educational messages that can be found in short stories like Zitkala-Sa’s “Iktomi and the Ducks”? Are there significant differences from the lessons that non-Native literature teaches children? This paper approaches these different questions by referring to several characters and plots featured in the narratives by Zitkala-Sa. First of all, the didactic messages involved in the stories demand a categorization of the large number of different narratives as the second chapter of the paper examines. Besides the didactic messages, the traditional manners of storytelling also play an important role for Native American adults and children. Special ceremonial customs related to the act of storytelling need to be analyzed. The third chapter of this paper focuses on the particular characters and actual examples of how proper behavior is conveyed by either serving as good or bad examples. Furthermore, the paper investigates the degree of importance and the need for traditional tales in the context of educating Native children. The character of the Indian trickster plays an essential role in these processes. After having prospected these aspects, one might also be able to evaluate the usefulness of Zitkala-Sa’s Sioux stories for the education of non-Native children.

2. The Role of Indian Tales in the Education of Native American Children

Native American tales play an important role in Native American culture and especially in the education of children. On the one hand, this concerns the parents. On the other hand, it is also reflected in the joy of the children when it comes to listening to stories. As the Lakota Agnes M. Picotte notes down in her foreword to Zitkala-Sa’s Iktomi and the Ducks (2004: xvii, xix), not only she but also Zitkala-Sa herself heard the tales as children. Both Native American women had their own experiences concerning the old Indian legends. Zitkala-Sa chose her favorite stories and translated them into English. They were then published in order to make them also available for the “blue-eyed little patriot” and the “wise grown-ups” (Zitkala-Sa 2004: xvi). Agnes M. Picotte describes it as a “great personal experience” (Zitkala-Sa 2004: xvii) when she read the stories that she only knew from her childhood as being told in her mother tongue, Lakota. Supporting this claim, George Copway talks of children “whose tears would flow most plentifully, and their breasts heave with thoughts too big for utterance“ (Brown Ruoff: 39) after they had heard an Indian tale. These views all underline the strong impact that the stories had on adults who look back into their youth and emphasize the status of old Indian legends in the education of children. As A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff simply points out, “storytelling has been one of the major ways of entertaining and educating Indian children in the beliefs and history of the tribe“ (39).

2.1 Manners of Storytelling

Traditionally, the Native American tales are referred to as “oral literatures”. Approaching the question how unwritten works can be called literature, Andrew Wiget (1994: 3) explains that “for oral literatures without alphabetic ‘letters,’ literature is whatever language is deemed worthy of sufficient repetition to assure it will be remembered and passed along”. Thus, the role of tales and the process of passing on this literal heritage go along with the educational function that the tales and legends have.

Approaching the question of this oral literature became part of the education of Native American children, one has to consider the stories as being part of the family. Agnes M. Picotte expresses that the tales were told during the time when the whole family was about to sleep (Zitkala-Sa 2004: xx). Thus, a calm atmosphere permitted receptivity for the children to listen to the stories.

Furthermore, the tales were traditionally told during the wintertime. The female Yakima Virginia Beavert states that even in the comparatively modern Indian life of the 20th century, the houses were warm and some prepared food accompanied the act of listening to the storyteller. This has a long tradition, as John Lowe has pointed out with reference to gatherings of people in the lodges in the wintertime (1994: 195). One can also easily transfer this to our culture since the winter months traditionally are the time when most of the fairytales are told or nowadays shown on TV.

The storyteller could be any person in the family, but in most cases it was a grandparent, a tribal elder or a generally wise, experienced person (Zitkala-Sa 2004: xx). In addition, Virginia Beavert states that there could be more than one person who told the story. Thus, the tale was made more interesting for its listeners (Brown Ruoff 1990: 39).

The actual act of storytelling was regarded as ceremonial and therefore accompanied by customs and rituals according to the particular tribe (Brown Ruoff 1990: 42). The Chippewa, for instance, had the custom “that requests among the Chippewa for storytelling about the myth age and about their culture hero were accompanied by a gift and the performance itself, by a feast” (Brown Ruoff 1990: 42).

Also, in Chippewa tradition, the title of the tale was not told until the whole story was over, which explains why the character of storytelling was ceremonial. Additionally, ritual formulas served as an opening and closure to the narratives and made a dialog with the audience possible (Brown Ruoff 1990: 42). Beavert (Brown Ruoff 1990: 43) refers to a requirement that is used among the Yakima. In order to get the attention of the children, the storyteller opens his story by saying “Awacha nay! (This is the way it was)”. The children’s reply is a loud “Ii (Yes)”. This way, two things happen. On the one hand, the children feel addressed and, on the other hand, they feel integrated. Both effects support their receptivity. Again, this habit can be transferred to the German culture since we know this from the story-telling clown who asks his listeners a question like “Are you all here?” Similarly, the children in most cases yell out “Yes”.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Educating Function of Zitkala-Sa’s Sioux Stories
Martin Luther University  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Local Color in American Short Stories (1880-1920)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Educating, Function, Zitkala-Sa’s, Sioux, Stories
Quote paper
Nico Reiher (Author), 2008, The Educating Function of Zitkala-Sa’s Sioux Stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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