Gender balance and cultural renewal in Oyate/Sioux Literature

Cecilia Ragaini
English Department, University of South Dakota
July, 2005


This dissertation focuses in depth on six Oyate authors, three men and three women, to observe to what extent their literary works reflect traditional gender roles and values of Oyate culture. The authors are paired together, a man and a woman for each historical period: Charles Eastman and Zitkala-Sa, Luther Standing Bear and Ella C. Deloria, Joseph Marshall III and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Comparing a man and a woman better illustrates how Oyate
female and male values changed simultaneously over a century of history. This dissertation places the six authors within their broader historical context and considers more briefly the works of other significant authors, such as Black Elk, Lame Deer, Dallas Chief Eagle, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Mary Crow Dog, and Delphine Red Shirt. Each author's perspective is unique, resulting from a singular combination of several factors, such as gender, age, upbringing, education, religion, and tribal history. This dissertation demonstrates that gender, a primary criterion in the organization of Oyate society, deeply affects Oyate writers, leading them to focus on values that are specifically related to their genders. Yet the authors under discussion also show that gender differences are of secondary importance. Adopting the complementary roles of men and women in their traditional culture, Oyate female and male writers collaborate to achieve a common goal: the preservation of the culture. This dissertation illustrates how Oyate authors have preserved their culture by employing an alien tool and adapting it to their specific needs. By appropriating written English, they have acquired literary agency and constructed a viable cultural identity as sovereign people. Literary agency has enabled them to establish an Oyate literary tradition that is flexible enough to
reflect the subjective experiences of a diversity of Oyate writers. Each author renews Oyate culture with his or her own unique contribution, infusing it with new life and enhancing its power.