Wynema; A child of the forest by S. Alice Callahan

In the late 1800s Wynema, a Native American, begs for a school for her tribe. Her parents accept, and white American Genevieve Weir is hired to be teacher in the school. The book is about how Wynema and Genevieve become friends during a time where, to put it nicely, Native Americans weren’t treatedwyne that nicely by the American government. I found this book after a friend of mine talking about how he had a native American for-mother asked the question: “What do you know about Native American culture?”. We are both Norwegian, and our access to Native American culture is mainly through our access of general American culture. Since general American culture doesn’t really feature much about Native American culture, my answer was a short, “very little”. I wanted to rectify that by reading some Native American literature, and I found S. Alice Callahan, one of the first female Native American authors in print.

callahan_s._aliceThe style of writing of Wynema reminded me of Matti Aikio the sami writer. This makes sense in the way that they are both part of an indigenous group, talking about their own culture to readers whom are a part of the majority culture. This is especially true for Matti Aikios book In Reindeer Hide, which I described almost like a travel journal. Wynema, on the other hand, does read like a real book. There is a story there, behind the teachings, about romantic love and trying to fit in a new culture, but mostly about a deep friendship between two women. I don’t mean it in a we-can’t-say-the-word-lesbian sense, but in the sense that not all love stories revolving women must be about romantic love. While both women are morally outstanding (one of my only critics about the book, the two women could have been a bit more flawed and therefore more human,) and hard working in their own right, yet it’s clear how their friendship with one another on a human level, helps them in encountering new cultures. While the text at times might be a bit preachy, you can tell it’s more the author, as a Native American, reaching out her hand to the white reader and begging them to reach their hand back.

You can read the book on a shallow level and think it’s a bit com-ba-ya. On the other hand you can read it as an interesting discussion on what makes a people, and what to people have to have in common for them to be seen as one people. The main characters (and the author herself) is clearly Christian and speaks warmly about Christianity, but there is a section asking why the Indians can’t keep their own religion if they aren’t harming anyone. When two white characters discuss a ritual where the Native Americans wash themselves in the river, one of them states:

The ceremony to-day was simple and innocent; there was no harm done to any one – and if it pleases them to keep such a custom, I say, let them do so. Now, if it were the scalp-dance or war-dance or any others, I should use all my influences in blotting it out; but these Indians have a long laid aside their savage, cruel customs

This discussion is happening in a lot of places today, especially when it comes to immigrants. In what way should immigrants (and their offspring) be allowed to keep traditions and custums from their native country. Barry Troyna says that very often what is allowed is considered the three S-s, Samosa, Steeldrums and Sari, that is to say, food, music and clothing, the exterior of culture. Troyna questions whether this is true cultural diversity and I asked myself while reading this how this fits in in societies so focused on the individual. Very often the discourse is about saving the individual from the minority group, but very rarely do we genuinely talk about individuals right to stray from the majority. By this I’m not talking about the three S-s, but a woman’s right to actively choose a submissive role in her marriage, or how we can live in a democracy when we can’t agree on what is true (like regarding climate change or vaccination). This book doesn’t solve any questions like that, this author was too much of a minority and the discussion wasn’t come far enough, but if you read between the lines you can see the same questions being raised then as now by mere necessity. And that is an interesting take-away.


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