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Zitkála-Šá Remembers Her Mother's Curse (1921)

Zitkála-Šá was born on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota in 1876. When she was 8, she left her Dakota community to attend a Quaker missionary-run boarding school in Indiana. She also attended Earlham College, a Quaker school in Indiana, and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Later, she was hired to teach music at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. From 1879 until 1918, it was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States, and used as a model for many others that were established as part of a U.S. government policy to forcibly assimilate Native American youth with the philosophy: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”  In this excerpt from her 1921 book, American Indian Stories, Zitkála-Šá recalled a 1900 trip back to her family’s home in South Dakota. During her visit, she was outraged by the poor conditions and poverty on the reservation and realized that land granted to Yankton Dakota people by the federal government was now occupied by white settlers. 

One black night mother and I sat alone in the dim starlight, in front of our wigwam. We were facing the river, as we talked about the shrinking limits of the village. She told me about the poverty-stricken white settlers, who lived in caves dug in the long ravines of the high hills across the river.

A whole tribe of broad-footed white beggars had rushed hither to make claims on those wild lands. Even as she was telling this I spied a small glimmering light in the bluffs.

"That is a white man's lodge where you see the burning fire," she said. Then, a short distance from it, only a little lower than the first, was another light. As I became accustomed to the night, I saw more and more twinkling lights, here and there, scattered all along the wide black margin of the river.

Still looking toward the distant firelight, my mother continued: "My daughter, beware of the paleface. It was the cruel paleface who caused the death of your sister and your uncle, my brave brother. It is this same paleface who offers in one palm the holy papers, and with the other gives a holy baptism of firewater. He is the hypocrite who reads with one eye, 'Thou shalt not kill,' and with the other gloats upon the sufferings of the Indian race." Then suddenly discovering a new fire in the bluffs, she exclaimed, "Well, well, my daughter, there is the light of another white rascal!"

She sprang to her feet, and, standing firm beside her wigwam, she sent a curse upon those who sat around the hated white man's light. Raising her right arm forcibly into line with her eye, she threw her whole might into her doubled fist as she shot it vehemently at the strangers. Long she held her outstretched fingers toward the settler's lodge, as if an invisible power passed from them to the evil at which she aimed.

Source | Zitkála-Šá, "An Indian Teacher Among Indians," in American Indian Stories. Washington: Hayworth Publishing House, 1921. Republished by Univeristy of Pennsylvania Digital Library,
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | “Zitkála-Šá Remembers Her Mother's Curse (1921) ,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2023,

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