Memories of Childhood – Zitkala Sa, Bama

Memories of Childhood by Zitkala Sa and Bama is a biographical collection of two people who lived in two continents and became victims of social discrimination. The story of Zitkala Sa and Bama portray the evil face of society that fails to treat everyone equal. They had to suffer social discrimination because one was a Red Indian and the other an untouchable Indian. A new student of Carlisle Indian School, Zitkala Sa cannot adapt to the European manners while Bama cannot agree with the landlords who considered her people as untouchables. Both rebelled.

Zitkala Sa, the Red Indian

Zitkala Sa was a new student of the Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania. She felt like she had lost her freedom on the first day. She had to speak a new language, wear short skirts, shoes and short hair.

  • She was never used to these modern rules and etiquette.
  • When the children were taken to the dining room, she made a mistake.
  • There was a bell for prayer before breakfast. When the bell rang, Zitkala thought it was time to sit and eat.
  • She sat down and began to eat but soon realized that all the children were still standing. This embarrassed her.
  • Later she was informed by her friend Judewin that the school authorities were going to cut the hair of girls who hadn’t got their hair shingled/cut.
  • In her culture, short/shingled hair was worn by the three kinds of people:
    • Unskilled warriors caught by the enemy,
    • Mourners and
    • Cowards

But Zitkala could not agree with all those rules. She could not think of allowing her long hair to be cut. She didn’t like to wear the short skirts, stiff shoes, uniforms… But she had to. When the authorities attempted to cut her hair short, Zitkala ran away and hid under a bed. But she had to submit. They tied her to a chair and cut her hair. Another custom that she didn’t agree to was the ceremonial eating which she calls ‘eating by formula.’ The basic human way of eating doesn’t involve any rules. Eat when you are hungry is the natural way. But the school superiority wanted the people here to dance to their senseless tunes. There were bells to take the chair out, sit on the chair, pray to God, take a spoon, take a fork… Zitkala did not know of these rules. When the first bell sounded she thought it was time to eat. She sat down and initiated eating to her great shame.

  • She went into the living room and disappeared under a cot/bed.
  • She was searched for, found and was tied to a chair. They cut her hair.
  • She cried, felt lost and weak.

Questions & Answers

  1. What do you know about Carlisle Indian School?
    Carlisle Indian School was a school to educate the Red Indians and the European students. It had strict rules and regulations for all students. The students had to wear uniforms, girls had to wear short hair and skirts and tight shoes. The eating style also was different there. There were bells before eating. There was a prayer before eating.
  2. How was Zitkala Sa different from the other native American students?
    Zitkala Sa was a native American girl. She had great love for her tradition and culture. She was proud of her beliefs. She held closer to her heart these beliefs and felt hurt when the rest of the girls followed the foreign culture without any hesitation. For example, when she saw that the other girls like her had put on closely clinging skirts, she felt ridiculed. She herself felt embarrassed for having worn immodest dresses that closely contrasted her culture and traditions.
  3. What does Zitkala Sa mean by, ‘this eating by formula?
    When Zitkala Sa was admitted in the Carlisle Indian School, she faced a number of rules the students had to follow. One of them was the manner of eating. There were three bells to be tapped before the students were allowed to start eating. Being a natural being, Zitkala Sa could not digest the meaning of these polished manners which were alien/unknown to her culture.
  4. There was something that the school authorities had failed to recognize in Zitkala Sa. What was that?
    The school authorities of the Carlisle Indian School were colonists and therefore could not understand the feelings of the people they ruled over. They believed that it was their duty to impart their civilization to the uncivilized native Americans but failed to understand their attachment to their own culture and traditions. When they passed their civilized manners like wearing shoes, uniforms, moccasins, short skirts and speaking English, they failed to think of the impact of these upon the natives. Instead of trying to understand why the little child was protesting the rules, they blindly forced her to follow them.
  5. Why was Zitkala Sa against the idea of cutting her long hair?
    Zitkala Sa’s mother had taught her that shingled hair was worn by mourners, cowards, and unskilled warriors caught in war. She had a great deal of love for her traditions and her hair. For her the hair meant much closer to her culture. To save her identity, to uphold her civilization and pride Zitkala Sa fought against the attempts of the authorities to cut her hair.
  6. In spite of all, the school authorities too had their own justifications. What were they?
    Although the school authorities appear to be dictatorial and unfeeling, we can see the validity of their rules in the modern world. Wearing uniform dresses has been proved practical in all the schools in the world. Under a uniform dress code, the poor hardly feel inferior to the rich. Putting on shoes was novel to Gertrude (Zitkala) but the safety and hygiene that shoes provide to the feet is undisputed. There is no denying that English language has brought the world much closer more than anything so we cannot entirely blame the school authorities for imposing English as the only medium of communication in the school. It goes without saying how good cutting of tangled hair can be. Besides keeping one’s hair and head clean and safe from lice-like insects, it saves time in washing and drying. Praying before a meal or thanksgiving before a meal is one of the greatest prayers, no doubt, because we need to remember the farmers who have made our meal possible. Thus, the rules imposed by the school authorities did more good than bad. If they hadn’t been rude in the way of imposition, there was no harm meant.

Next – Bama, the untouchable




What do you think?

Data Interpretation

Geography Lesson – Zulfikar Ghose