The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1985, Volume 31, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. By Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands. Lincoln: university of Nebraska Press, 1984. Bibliography. Index. 209 Pages. $18.95.

Reviewed by Frances Smith Foster, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, San Diego State University, author of Witnessing Slavery: The Development of the Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives (1979).

Students of Native American history will find American Indian Women helpful in understanding the cultural context of American Indian autobiographies. Although this book focuses upon the written narratives of women, none of whom are from the San Diego area, it is not restricted by gender or geography. Professors Bataille and Sands’ concern is with the relationship of American Indian autobiographies to the literary tradition of the United States. They find that these works are quite often corroborative efforts that draw from both the oral, communal heritage of American Indians and the written, individualistic tradition of other Americans. They contend that this bicultural composite authorship is the distinguishing principle of American Indian autobiographies. Their thesis is that American Indian autobiography is “a problematical form that may best be addressed and analyzed in terms of the process of its creation rather than as an established genre.”

Examining that process with special emphasis upon authorial intent, editorial involvement, cultural context and linguistic integrity, they discern three categories. Ethnographic autobiographies were usually collected by anthropologists who were interested in personal documents to support social data. The as-told-to narratives offer more comprehensive life stories and demonstrate more attention to literary form and audience. Third are the literary autobiographies which were written by the subject and over which that person maintained significant editorial control. Of secondary concern to the authors is a rough thematic parallel of “tradition and cultural contact, acculturation, and return to tradition.”

The first chapter places these life histories within the multifarious American autobiographical tradition which includes westerns, slave narratives, captivity tales, and spiritual autobiographies. The next six chapters discuss selected autobiographies in terms of the methods and types that they represent. The final chapter tries to predict the shape of future autobiographies based upon what the authors see as a growing sophistication in methodology and literary expression.

American Indian Women is a study in the tradition of literary historicism. The work does concern itself with problems of literary form and technique, quality of dialogue and narrative structure; however, the emphasis is clearly upon the cultural interactions and the personal dynamics inherent in the creation of these life histories. In fact, my major objection to this study is that the literary analysis is too generalized and subordinated to questions of historical validity. For example, the authors mention that Anna Shaw makes use of fictional techniques but their discussion concentrates more upon whether her historical perspective is “naive” or her descriptions of Pima life are too idealistic than upon aesthetic intentions.

American Indian Women comes with a full complement of scholarly apparatus. One of the most valuable aspects of this book is its extensive bibliographical section. Approximately one-third of the volume is devoted to selected annotated bibliographies about the culture, literature and personal lives of American Indian women. Yet this book is clearly intended to be accessible to general readers. The authors supplement their very competent review of the American autobiographical tradition with the necessary cultural research. In several instances they have interviewed the subjects, translators, writers and editors of the narratives. The scope and usefulness of the study is impressive. In considering these life histories from the perspective of literary process, Bataille and Sands offer a valid and innovative approach to understanding and appreciating these works. Their volume makes a genuine contribution to the study of life histories.