In the early 19th century, Native Americans began to author works in English. Although a number of Native men had works actually published (e.g., George Copway, Elias Boudinot), the works during that era authored by Native American women (e.g., Jane Johnston Schoolcraft) went unpublished. Often the genre of choice for Native authors was autobiography, in order to show the world what their lives had been like as they were forced to move back and forth between cultures.
While mentioning the injustices committed against tribal people, these early works usually promoted Christianity and assimilation as the route to survival for native people. Often Native American authors had been schooled in English and raised in white culture; they had survived at a time when many of their families and tribes had been killed or “removed” to distant lands. What they wrote reflected their opinions that the only way for their people to survive in an increasingly-white society was to adopt white culture and customs. However, their writings show that they did not abandon their culture; they assumed a dual identity in order to survive in both worlds.
As the 19th century moved forward, other Native American writers moved beyond autobiography and began to write about their culture and history, as well as producing works of fiction. Christianity and temperance were still strong themes in their work, as both had taken a heavy toll on the native people. Europeans had lived with alcohol and various diseases for thousands of years and built up tolerances and immunities against them. However, native tribes had no such physiological tolerances or immunities, and disease and addiction helped to decimate the tribes of the New World.
Wynema, A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan is the first published American novel written by a Native American woman (1891). She wrote it when she was 23 years old, one year after hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children had been killed in the Wounded Knee massacre at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Callahan was only twenty-six years old when she died, and in her short life, she was known as an exceptionally intelligent young women who was consumed by literature and writing.
Born in Texas, Callahan lived most of her life in Oklahoma. Her father, Samuel Callahan, was of Creek descent in addition to Scotch and Irish; her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Thornberg Callahan, was the daughter of a Methodist minister. Samuel had a large cattle ranch and was very active in Creek politics, serving at one point as the Creek delegate to Washington.
Due to the Indian Removal Act signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1930, Samuel’s parents, along with other members of the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and other tribes, were forced to relocate. They walked from their ancestral lands in Alabama to unsettled lands in Oklahoma, a distance of almost 1,000 miles, in an event now widely known as the “Trail of Tears”.
Alice Callahan attended a women’s school in Virginia. In 1892, one year after she wrote Wynema, she took the examination for a teacher’s certificate. After that she taught at the Wealaka Mission School, and then at a high school in Muskogee. She eventually returned to Virginia to complete her education, but she was called back to Muskogee when several teachers at the school became ill. Upon arriving back in Muskogee, she contracted pleurisy and died two weeks later.
Callahan dedicates Wynema, A Child of the Forest “To the Indian Tribes of North America… praying that it may serve to open the eyes and heart of the world to our afflictions ”. Although the title indicates that this will be Wynema’s story, the story is actually told by Genevieve Weir, and is a chronicle of her awakening awareness of the injustices committed against Native tribes.
Some critics have been disappointed that the novel is told from primarily a white viewpoint, and that there is little in it that is directly about Creek life per se. However, Callahan does include discussion of the related political issues of the time affecting Native Americans, such as the Dawes Act (allotment), the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, temperance, and women’s rights.
In Chapters 21 and 22, Callahan focuses on the views of the Native American characters instead of on the white characters’ perceptions of the Native Americans. A specific tribe is never mentioned in the novel, and it has been speculated that Callahan wanted this book to be reflective and representative not just of the Creek, but of all Native tribes. In Chapter 22, Wynema’s husband, Robin, brings a Sioux woman back with him after negotiations with a band of rebellious tribesman falls through. The woman has survived the Wounded Knee massacre, and in a moving passage, she relates her experiences.
As a first attempt by an emerging writer, Wynema, A Child of the Forest is not a perfect novel; however, it is nonetheless important. It is the first attempt by a woman of Native American heritage, using the reformist and romantic literary styles of the time, to address the injustices committed against her people and to enlighten and educate those unfamiliar with them.
Wynema, A Child of the Forest, 1891 (Chapters 21 and 22) [missing]
“An Introduction To Wynema, A Child Of The Forest, By Sophia Alice Callahan”.
Henderson, Desirée. “Native American Literature.” American History Through Literature 1820-1870, edited by Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer, vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006, pp. 782-788. Gale Virtual Reference Library, . Accessed 22 July 2017.
Szanto, Laura Furlan. “Fiction: Native American Fiction and Religion.” Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., vol. 5, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 3089-3094. Gale Virtual Reference Library, . Accessed 22 July 2017.