The experience of reading Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog, is an enlightening journey through the life of a Sioux woman living in a world which has her suspended between her Native American heritage and the white man’s America. Through her struggles, desperation, and challenges, the reader ingests Crow Dog’s tell-all account of what it’s like for a woman living on the fringes of society. Being pulled in opposite directions, one in which she is inherently born into, and the other in which she is being forced to succumb into, Crow Dog finds her voice. Among the racism, she shows us just how important heritage is for Indian children and their reliance on these traditions in order for Sioux girls to survive in white man’s America. A woman not only struggling within her own culture, but also battling an oppressive white culture trying to assimilate her and wipe out both her Indian self and her embodiment of womanhood.
Being confined to reservation life has tormented Native Americans for many years. Along with hopelessness of life on the reservation comes inter-tribal violence, particularly towards the women, “Some men think that all a woman is good for is to crawl into the sack with them and mind the children… Warriors come home drunk and beat up their old ladies in order to work off their frustration” (Crow Dog 5). Indian heritage had provided an outlet for men to become famous warriors and hunters, being looked up to by their tribe and providing for their families. Take that away and men are left with close to nothing in order to make a name for themselves. Couple that recipe with “Sioux male machismo” and there is a large consequence for violence. It is inevitable when the destruction of heritage and tradition of tribal life are wrenched away. The interest was in “keeping tribes divided, the people dispirited, and forever lost in alcohol.” This ultimately trickles down to the women who attain the burden of keeping family and sanity together, all at once, “After father left, mother became our sole financial support… there was nobody there to take care of us while she worked… we would see her only rarely” (Crow Dog 16). If an Indian man couldn’t provide for his family, oftentimes they would leave; abandon the whole community, even his own children, out of fear, helplessness, and anger. Not only are the Indian women providing for their families, but they are also the ones who become the target of their men’s misdirected anger.
Part of Sioux tradition is the tiyospaye, the extended family group, which is a custom in itself that allows tribal growth and progress within a close-knit clan. This was how the Sioux peoples lived until missionaries and the government stepped in and tore it apart in order to stimulate “progress”. Families were ripped apart and scattered, leaving the children to flounder in sub-par schools and the men, who had nothing else to do, to hit the bar and drink the days away. For Indian men, jobs were mostly unavailable and most of their hunting land had been taken away, “The men had nothing to live for, so they got drunk and drove off at ninety miles an hour in a car without lights, without brakes, and without destination, to die a warrior’s death” (Crow Dog 15). Either the men were killing each other, killing themselves, or abusing their women. Leaving the women alone at home, they regularly became the sole provider and support, and family life ultimately suffered.
The girls who were extricated from their home and their own traditions were sent to boarding school, if they were still of school age. Instead of being brought up on “toy tipis and dolls,” they were punished and humiliated by the nuns, forced to abandon their own beliefs and culture, “I learned quickly that I would be beaten if I failed in my devotions or, God forbid, prayed the wrong way, especially prayed in Indian to Wakan Tanka, the Indian Creator” (Crow Dog 32). Children were being formulated into Christianity and adult Indians were told “not to go to Indian dances or to the medicine man.” This oppressive image of white America only ended up serving a disastrous purpose, “It [beating] had such a bad effect upon me that I hated and mistrusted every white person on sight, because I met only one kind… Racism breeds racism in reverse” (Crow Dog 34). As Crow Dog mentions in her autobiography, it can take years to reverse this process; the damage done by raising children surrounded by racism and mistrust. When you can no longer find comfort in your own values and beliefs, and the new traditions being offered you are hostile, where else is there to turn but to isolation?
Being an Indian woman also means being able to enjoy Indian womanhood and beauty. As a long revered trait, Indian women grew their hair thick and long. In order to be “tamed,” women’s hair was also subject to scrutiny, “Little girls with pretty braids, and the first thing the nuns did was chop their hair off and tie up what was left behind their ears” (Crow Dog 34). This idea is eerily similar to Ruth Whitman’s poem Cutting The Jewish Bride’s Hair, in which the woman’s hair is a symbolism for freedom, wildness, ad independence. By having their hair cut, the women are being forced into passivity and become the product of their “masters.” Women’s sexuality was taken over and taken from them as well. Along with the physical abuse came sexual abuse. Enduring embarrassment and belittlement, Indian women, particularly those which were still in school, lived through the unjustness of the men around them. The school priests were not exempt from this type of behavior either, “All he [the priest] does is watch young women and girls with that funny smile on his face… So there was this too to contend with – sexual harassment” (Crow Dog 39). The religious supremes themselves were dishing out child rape, sexual perversions, beatings, and racism of their own doing and covering it up, “We complained to the student body. The nuns said we just had a dirty mind” (Crow Dog 40). All of these things are just other examples of dominating a young Indian girl by putting her “in her place,” which is what they were being broken down into. Hardship of this kind lasts for years. A young Indian girl’s struggle for her own rights is also a struggle to find herself.
The Cheyenne proverb states, and that which Crow Dog included in the very beginning of her novel, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.” As we’ve witnessed from Crow Dog’s biographical account, her nation has not given up, the Indian women’s strength has carried them on, and her voice will continue to be heard. The women’s hearts have not yet fallen to the ground.