As a biographical work, American Indian Women fulfills a larger purpose than simply to recount the significant details of these women’s lives. The book also enlarges young readers’ knowledge about Native American culture and values, provides young women with positive examples of women’s self-determination in making personal and professional choices, and communicates the value of working to enrich one’s own community.
With its attention to the personal details of these women’s upbringing, children, and marriages, the book presents these figures on a human level, enabling readers to identify with them and thus transcend immediate cultural or temporal barriers. Many young people can empathize with Gertrude Simmons Bonnin’s girlhood experience of feeling alienated from fellow classmates, for example, or can understand Maria Tallchief’s childhood dream to become a dancer.
In her narratives, Gridley seizes numerous opportunities to underscore the personal courage and perseverance of her subjects. For example, during an early poetry recitation, E. Pauline Johnson forgot a line of poetry but saved the moment by improvising a new one; Gridley says that “she was never defeated in time of trouble after that.” At the age of fifteen, the girl Winema drew upon her courage to guide a boat through rough waters and later rallied a discouraged Modoc band into a victorious counteroffensive against enemy attackers. Drawing upon her strength of character, Bonnin overcame both the ostracism of her own people because of her white education and the racist slurs cast by white...
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In the preface, Gridley explains her reasons for writing the book, stating that the perceived lack of power and status of Native American women in their own cultures called for refutation. She begins the book by describing the historical roles that women have played within their tribes. Among many tribes, for example, women were the property holders, and the lines of family descent were traced through the mother, rather than through the father. Reversing commonly held stereotypes regarding the limited roles women could play within the tribal structure, Gridley explains that women could choose to become guides, medicine women, and peace negotiators. Furthermore, within the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes, women were consulted in an advisory capacity when decisions regarding the welfare of the group needed to be made.
A work such as Gridley’s offers role models not only for young Native American readers but also for all young women who might benefit from the survey of professional and artistic choices that these women have made. Gridley’s book also under-scores the sense of personal achievement that these women realized by conducting their lives with pride and self-determinism. Another important value of American Indian Women for white readers is the heightening of their cultural awareness. For a Euro-American audience, the values that the biographical subjects represent, such as respect for heritage and community service, stress the positive similarities between Native American and white culture, bridging social and cultural gaps. For Native American readers or readers of Native American descent, the book helps to promote a sense of pride and belonging to a culture rich in values and tradition.
While not all the women Gridley discusses have achieved the mythic status in American culture of Pocahontas and Sacajawea, they nevertheless deserve recognition for their indefatigable efforts to transcend barriers of gender and race and to garner the rewards of personal and professional achievement.