Book Review: Wynema: A Child of the Forest

S. Alice Callahan is regarded as the first novelist of American Indian descent with her book, Wynema: A Child of the Forest. The book was published in 1891 when Callahan was 23; sadly, she died just three years later.

Her only foreword reads as follows:

TO THE INDIAN TRIBES OF NORTH AMERICA

Who have felt the wrongs and oppression of their pale-faced brothers, I lovingly dedicate this work, praying that it may serve to open the eyes and heart of the world to our afflictions, and thus speedily issue into existence an era of good feeling and just dealing toward us and our more oppressed brothers.

THE AUTHOR.

 The story begins with Wynema as a child amidst the peaceful habitations of her tribe. A Methodist missionary opened a school, but most of the Indians did not see the point of it. Wynema, however, was enraptured by the idea of learning. “His was the touch that brought into life the slumbering ambition for knowledge and for a higher life, in the breast of the little Indian girl.” She begged her father for a school in their own village, and he agreed. So the missionary, Gerald Keithly, sent for a woman to come and teach. The call was answered by Genevieve Weir, who believed, “God made the Indians as he made the Caucasian—from the same mold. He loves the work of His hands.”

As Genevieve tries to teach the Native children reading, English, and Christianity, she also learns their ways. When she laments some of the “barbaric” customs, Gerald wisely counsels her that white customs would seem just as barbaric to the Indians if they observed a white doctor or ballroom dance, etc., and that in many ways, they were more civilized than their white compatriots. Wynema and Genevieve become close friends.

But behind these peaceful and informative interactions, the Indians were being cheated out of money and land by the white government. Callahan shares the escalation of events leading up to the battle of Wounded Knee as well as the aftermath.

She has her main characters recognize the distinction between the kind white people who wanted to help and the others who wanted to oppress rather than lumping them all into on category.

I perused a few articles on Callahan and this book. Responses are mixed. Some felt that making Genevieve the main character, or at least equal in importance to Wynema, diminished the Native American influence. But since it was written partly to white people to show that the Native Americans weren’t “savages” and to chronicle the wrongs done to them, it seems natural to show this through a white woman’s eyes being opened as she comes to know and love them.

Another article (which I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find again and have not been able to [Update: it was not an article but the introduction to the book in the Amazon edition]) said that the book rejects the Christianization of the Native American as well as the colonization. But it seemed to me that Callahan presented both. Callahan includes a letter by Hadjo saying that “The Indians have never taken kindly to the Christian religion as preached and practiced by the whites. Do you know why this is the case? Because the Good Father of all has given us a better religion—a religion that is all good and no bad—a religion that is adapted to our wants” and that they have their own Messiah. But Wynema and others accepted the Christian message, and the general tone of the work is Christian.

Perhaps because Callahan had a Native American father and a white mother, her desire seemed to be to bring about reconciliation and understanding rather than further animosity. Part of reconciliation is acknowledging the wrongs done to another.

I’m glad that I discovered this book this year. I am counting it for the Classic by a Person of Color Category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)