A Warrior of the People (2016) St Martin’s Press New York.
Although a dedicated kindle reader, I picked up this biography and immediately felt the pleasure of holding a well published book. This one is comfortable to hold, the print is easy to read and although it feels physically light it is a substantial creation. The content met the expectations I formed on reading the back-cover blurb, information about the detailed recognition of the collaborative nature of the work and the dedication: ‘For all the women warriors —-past, present, and future.
A Warrior of the People is the story of Susan La Flesche , ‘America’s first Indian doctor’ a woman of ‘indomitable courage’.
The ten chapter headings are revealing so that while reading as a narrative to fully understand the ‘emotional and human complexity’ of La Fleshe’s story, each also lends itself to an easy dipping in and out of the work for the background to her work and the cultural setting. ‘The Arrow’ begins with one of La Fleshe’s journeys to save a patient, then provides a background to her life – her family, the place of American Indians in their country, the Omaha people and a brief look at La Fleshe’s future and acknowledgement of her death in 1915. ‘The Village of the Make -Believe White Men’ is a detailed account of La Flesche’s life in the context of broader American history: the Civil War, mission school, lobbying for civil and political rights for American Indian people, her sister’s education and fight to become a teacher on the reservation, the death of Custer and La Fleshe’s train trip towards an education. ‘An Indian Schoolgirl and the Harvard Scholar’ describes what La Flesche’s education was to be after she and her sister arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In ‘Can Black Children and Red Children Become White Citizen’s’ Starita pursues the question through the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which was ‘a new concept in American education, [where] Hampton’s goal was to help transform [former slaves, free blacks, and their children] …into teachers, farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, seamstresses, and home makers’ – (and in the late 1870s, American Indians) in exchange for their manual labour. ‘The Sisterhood of Second Mothers’ describes the difficulties La Flesche encountered in gaining her medical degree and ‘Dr Sue’ continues that theme, to her graduation, second in her class. ‘Going Home’, ‘The Light in the Window’ and ‘A Warrior of the People’ follow La Flesche’s career, marriage, commitment to her heritage and political activities. ‘A Beginning and an End’ completes the story to her death from cancer in 1915.
As an Australian, bearing in mind our conduct towards Indigenous Australians, and the initial character and purpose of assimilation,[i] Starita’s description of indigenous assimilation in America is of particular interest . Assimilation, how to maintain indigenous culture, how to survive? Questions that Starita poses and illuminates, are questions that are universal, whether the concerns of indigenous people or immigrants. These are an essential part of the debate reflected in Joseph La Flesche’s work with his community and family. The 1850’s divisions in the Omaha are defined through La Flesche’s behaviour. His concerns with assimilating focussed predominantly on education. However, he chose to live in a white American square home. Sarita’s description of Susan La Fleche’s family moving between the round of the tipi and the square of the white board house just one of the graphic images that intensify the impact of this work. Susan, in particular, was to benefit from her father’s preoccupation with education. Her story and her fathers are intricate stories of the conflicts and questions that are difficult to simplify. Starita’s work faces the complexity head on. However, at no time does he lose the capacity to involve the reader.
The writing style is not only fluid, but the way in which present and past are linked creates a novel approach to biography and history. Rather than a linear progression or even an obvious thematic approach, these links provide space for the reader’s interpretation, understanding and development of ideas while consuming the text. This sensitive approach to the intricate ideas and behaviour is essential to drawing the reader into understanding La Flesche’s life, the ideas and principles that guided her and the larger story of the indigenous people of America and their relationships with the land, immigrants, and white culture.
The bibliography shows that La Flesche’s letters, speeches and essays provided much of the material, together with a comprehensive range of secondary sources. Notes are provided for each chapter.
[i] See Stan Grant ‘The Australian Dream Blood, History and Becoming’ in Quarterly Essay Issue 64, Black Inc., an Imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty. Ltd., Victoria, for a more positive perspective on assimilation in Australia.