Publications and Research

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-2-2024


Zitkala-Ša (Lakota: Zitkála-Šá, meaning Red Bird) was among the first to write about the experiences of Native American children in the U.S. Indian boarding school program to an English-speaking audience. As a writer and political activist, Zitkala-Ša uses emotional appeals and cultural ideas she learned through her white education to expose the very boarding school institutions that taught her. In American Indian Studies (1921), Zitkala-Ša critiques the violence that the Indian boarding school system inflicts on young Native Americans. She presents these critiques through emotional appeals that take two forms: one, a more traditional sentimental appeal associated with middle-class white women’s writing and centering the sanctity of the domestic sphere, and another that engages humor and draws on some of the traditions of Native American culture. The scholarship has hinted at the importance of reckoning with sentiment as a way of understanding how Zitkala-Ša’s writing functions. However, they do not attend to the full range of emotions the narrator experiences such as rage, humor, and sadness that are not often associated with typical sentimentality. Therefore, if we attend only to Zitkala-Ša’s sentimental appeals, we miss how she mixes this with appeals to other feelings and how these other feelings point to a different set of cultural referents. I will turn toward a range of feelings that literary sentimentality does not always account for by drawing on both Western and Native forms of writing. I will first explore the sentimental lens to examine the fractured relationship between the young narrator and her mother, then I will use the concept of the broken mother-daughter relationship to open the conversation about the narrator’s severance from her native culture. Ultimately, Zitkala-Ša synthesizes sentimentality and other emotional appeals to convey her complex criticism of boarding school pedagogies through her personal narrative.



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