Elizabeth Cook-Lynn Essay - Critical Essays

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth


Elizabeth Cook-Lynn 1930–

(Born Elizabeth Bowed Head Irving) American poet, short story writer, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Cook-Lynn's career through 1993.

Cook-Lynn is a Crow Creek Sioux writer whose works explore the tensions between twentieth-century Sioux culture and white American society. While her poetry frequently utilizes Indian myth, religion, and tradition to explore the social and cultural roots of Native Americans, her prose generally focuses on the physical and psychological hardships of contemporary Native American life. Strongly influenced by her familial and tribal past, the northern plains landscape, and the works of Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, Cook-Lynn often blends traditional Native American chants and tales with western poetry and prose.

Biographical Information

Cook-Lynn was born at Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, where she grew up in a traditional extended-family atmosphere. Her father and grandfather served on the Crow Creek Tribal Council for many years, and her grandmother was a bilingual writer for Christian newspapers. In addition to being well-known figures in Sioux history, these family members had a profound influence on Cook-Lynn's writing. Cook-Lynn received a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from South Dakota State College in 1952, and, in 1970, completed a master's degree in education, psychology, and counseling at the University of South Dakota. She has also pursued graduate study at such institutions as New Mexico State University, University of Nebraska, and Stanford University. After working as a journalist and teaching at the high school level, Cook-Lynn become a professor of Native American studies at Eastern Washington University in 1971 and professor emeritus in 1993. Cook-Lynn also founded The Wicazo Sa Review, a journal of Native American studies. She published her first collection of poetry, Then Badger Said This, in 1983. Cook-Lynn has received numerous grants, including the National Endowment for the Humanities grant from Stanford University in 1978 and the Northwest Institute for Advanced Studies grant in 1986.

Major Works

In Then Badger Said This Cook-Lynn blends traditional stories, oral history, and modern poetic techniques to explore the relationship between contemporary Dakotas and their past. For example, in the poem "The Last Remark-able Man," which is introduced by a photograph of a Dakota ancestor, Cook-Lynn examines the importance of knowing one's Native American roots; "The Flute Maker's Story" incorporates traditional Indian song and articulates the link between Indian culture and the land. James Ruppert has observed that "in may ways [this] book is an attempt to confirm and recreate the continuance of song, spirit, and history." The deprivations and challenges of contemporary Sioux life are the focus of the stories in The Power of Horses, and Other Stories (1990), which address such themes as discrimination, the failure of the English language to adequately articulate Indian sensibilities and needs, brutality against Native Americans, dysfunctional Indian family relationships, and the realities of reservation life. John Purdy has noted that "The Power of Horses is a collage of individual characters' experiences that draws into a specific landscape over a long period of time. We come very close to this place and the people who inhabit it." The novella From the River's Edge (1991), which takes place in South Dakota during the mid-1960s, continues to pursue the clash between contemporary Sioux life and white American society. The story concerns the trial of a white man who is accused of rustling cattle from John Tatekeya, a respected Sioux Indian rancher. In a bizarre miscarriage of justice, Tatekeya, the victim, is made to look like the guilty party, thus reinforcing the view that Native Americans and the white man will never be able to live together in trust, harmony, and peace.

Critical Reception

The critical response to Cook-Lynn's works has been mixed. While many critics applaud her poetic style, evocation of place, and exploration of the meaning and interpretation of history, others fault her prose for what they see as stereotypical characterizations and intrusive narrative structures. For example, writing about From the River's Edge, Purdy has noted that "there are moments … when the narrator becomes intrusive [and we] are lectured, at times, on the history of Anglo/Native American relations." Nevertheless, most critics agree that Cook-Lynn's writings are important for their valuable insights into Native American life. Concerning her work, Cook-Lynn has stated that writing is "an act of defiance born of the need to survive. It is the quintessential act of optimism born of frustration. It is an act of courage, I think. And, in the end,… it is an act that defies oppression."

Principal Works

The Badger Said This (poetry) 1977
Seek the House of Relatives (poetry) 1985
The Power of Horses, and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
From the River's Edge (novella) 1991


James Ruppert (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1980, pp. 87-110.

[Ruppert is an American educator and critic who specializes in Native American literatures. In the following essay, he discusses Cook-Lynn's use of oral tradition in the poetry collection Then Badger Said This.]

[Then Badger Said This] contains purely descriptive passages as well as oral history, but like Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, [Cook-Lynn's] approach to history is not the cold, unimaginative one of literal history, but a highly oral process where the personal and the cultural merge. Reflective of this holistic approach to Sioux culture and history, she includes old stories, contemporary poetry, oral history, song, personal narratives and art work.

For Cook-Lynn, the past is not a cold stone tablet; it is a living vital force. As she watches the changes of the present world, it becomes easier for her, and subsequently for us, to understand and believe the changes of history and legend. The personal leads to understanding and confirmation of the mythic, for they are not as separate as some would think. In her description of the flooding behind the Missouri River Project, section II, we are brought to that understanding as we see the people and the land sharing the same fate. They are tied together under the flooding of the dominant culture as they have always been tied together. Section XIII tells of a scene, timeless in location, where a woman, her child and the child's father are fixed in a confluence of the ritual and the personal. The ritual, itself timeless, patterns their perceptions as it does their movements. As the woman contemplates her past, the man and the child, she comes to the painful realization, "The past is always past as it is always present."

This requires a change in perception for those of us who look on history as the rational accumulation of facts. In her preface we are warned to open our minds, ears and eyes to the insight, clear in oral cultures, that history also consists of memory and imagination. To understand history is to imagine, but also it is to hear, to listen…. [Cook Lynn] proposes that literalist history is flawed because it has no sound. However indefinite sound may be, it is essential to identity and survival. Survival may depend on listening to sounds around one and this important process eventually gives one language and history. Cook-Lynn tells a variant of the story of the arrow-maker in his shelter. Swan, the young warrior, is working on his arrows while in enemy country. He hears the hoot of an owl nearby and sees the reflection of an enemy in a bowl of water. He lines his arrows up, pointing them in all directions until he surprises the enemy and slays him. The gathering of sensory detail (and attention to it) allows the warrior to survive. The Sioux would agree that the owl spoke to Swan, and "the gathering of sensory detail available to you gives the process of language." The history of the young warrior requires imagination and the memory of sensual detail on the listener's part. A literal historian would not understand where the Sioux would....

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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: "As a Dakotah Woman: An Interview with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn," in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and The University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 57-72.

[Bruchac is an Abenaki poet, short story writer, novelist, author of children's books, editor, educator, and critic. In the following interview, Cook-Lynn discusses her poem "At Dawn, Sitting in My Father's House," the development of her literary style, and the influence of Kiowa author of N. Scott Momaday on her writings.]

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a writer whose voice has only begun to be heard at a time when most other writers are already well established. As she says of...

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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "You May Consider Speaking about Your Art …," in I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, University of Nebraska Press, 1987, pp. 56-63.

[In the following essay, Cook-Lynn discusses the reasons she became a writer, her poetic themes, and her use of Indian myth and history in her poetry.]

Ever since I learned to read, I have wanted to be a writer.

I was born in the Government Hospital at Fort Thompson, South Dakota, in 1930, and when I was a "child of prairie hawks" (Seek the House of Relatives), I lived out on the Crow Creek (a tributary of the James and the Missouri)...

(The entire section is 2395 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Power of Horses and Other Stories, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LVIII, No. 10, May 15, 1990, pp. 670-71.

[In the following unfavorable review of The Power of Horses, the critic contends that the characters are stereotypical, the prose is flat, and the stories "seem more like lectures."]

This first collection of short fiction by a Native American raised on a South Dakota reservation displays all the faults and none of the strengths of much ethnic literature—it's predictable, preachy, and full of cant phrases. Characters of whatever ethnicity seem mere caricature in Cook-Lynn's flat prose.

A prologue alerts us to the...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Gardner McFall (review date 12 August 1990)

SOURCE: "Great Plains Tragedies," in The New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1990, p. 16.

[In the following review of The Power of Horses, McFall favorably assesses Cook-Lynn's portrayal of the culture-clash between whites and Native Americans.]

The poem that serves as a prologue to Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's first collection of short stories [The Power of Horses] signals a unifying thread of her fiction, which depicts the lives of her fellow Sioux in the Great Plains: "The mythology / and history of all times / remains remote / and / believable." With sympathetic characters and stylistic simplicity, Ms. Cook-Lynn reveals the endurance of a people subjected...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 17 May 1991)

SOURCE: A review of From the River's Edge, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, No. 22, May 17, 1991, pp. 53-4.

[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses From the River's Edge.]

A trial concerning stolen cattle becomes the foil to the tragic relationship between Native Americans and later arrivals in Cook-Lynn's (The Power of Horses) spare, poignant novel. Soon after agreeing to press charges against a young white man for the theft, Sioux John Tatekeya finds himself and his tribe, the Dakotahs, on trial. Along with other South Dakota reservations dwellers, Tatekeya has been forced to relocate in order to make way for a new dam. Accordingly, the...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Robert Houston (review date 8 September 1991)

SOURCE: A review of From the River's Edge, in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1991, p. 35.

[In the following review of From the River's Edge, Houston examines Cook-Lynn's literary style and technique.]

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's From the River's Edge is a short novel both noble in intent and complex in concept. It is so heavily flawed in its execution, however, that ultimately neither intent nor concept can rescue it from its inability to maintain the "vivid and continuous dream" that the novelist John Gardner rightly named as the special reality of fiction. Ms. Cook-Lynn, a respected Native American studies scholar who has previously...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Carol Kino (review date 18 October 1991)

SOURCE: "Old Loyalties," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4620, October 18, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following favorable review, Kino discusses the characterizations, plot, and themes of From the River's Edge.]

From the River's Edge tells the story of John Tatekeya, a Dakota Sioux Indian, who finds forty-two head of cattle missing from his reservation grazing lands. John seeks redress from the United States criminal justice system, only to fall victim to one of the courtroom's most hallowed abuses—discrediting the witness. During the trial, with his family present, the defence exposes his arrest record, his heavy drinking and his affair with a younger woman....

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 3 November 1991)

SOURCE: "The Rhythm of the Sioux," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 3, 1991, p. 13.

[In the following review of From the River's Edge and The Power of Horses, Jones-Davis praises Cook-Lynn's prose style and storytelling abilities.]

John Tatekeya "(Tah-TAY-kee-ya)," the hero of Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's novel From the River's Edge, notes that his lover Aurelia has "the ability to adapt the rhythm of one language to change the sound of another. And so, when she talked in English she often used the sounds of Dakotah, the cadence and tone of Dakotah speech." In this passage, Cook-Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe, has described what is...

(The entire section is 1260 words.)

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn with Jamie Sullivan (interview date November 1992)

SOURCE: "Acts of Survival: An Interview with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, January-February, 1993, pp. 1, 6.

[In the following interview, which was conducted during November 1992, Cook-Lynn discusses the characters, plot and Native American themes in From the River's Edge.]

"Writing is an essential act of survival for contemporary Indians," Elizabeth Cook-Lynn says. As a teacher, essayist, poet, and more recently as a fiction writer, Cook-Lynn has made this survival her life work. A member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, she was born on the reservation at Fort Thompson, South Dakota, in 1930. From 1971 until 1989 she taught English and...

(The entire section is 2455 words.)

John Purdy (review date December 1992–January 1993)

SOURCE: "Bleak and Beautiful Moments," in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, December, 1992–January, 1993, pp. 1, 3.

[An American critic and educator, Purdy has written several essays on such Native American writers as James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. In the following review, he favorably assesses The Power of Horses, and Other Stories and From the River's Edge.]

The Power of Horses includes some of the best stories from the anthologies, and they share the powerful voice of the more recent ones in the volume. Moreover, taken together, they reflect a very clear vision of the life of Crow Creek, as seen by Cook-Lynn. Her...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)

David Kvernes (review date February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of From the River's Edge, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, February, 1993, pp. 385-86.

[In the favorable review of From the River's Edge, Kvernes comments on Cook-Lynn's ability to portray the Native American experience in the "white man's" world.]

The spirit of a place, the Big Bend of the Missouri in central South Dakota, broods over … [From the River's Edge]. The river and its surrounding bluffs and bottomlands are an enduring presence, yet the damming of the river and the flooding of tribal lands epitomize the changes that a greedy and insensitive white society have forced on the Dakotah Indians who live...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Further Reading


Jordan, Robert. Review of From the River's Edge, by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Library Journal 116, No. 9 (15 May 1991): 108.

Favorably assesses From the River's Edge.

Steinberg, Sybil. Review of The Power of Horses, and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Publishers Weekly 237, No. 22 (1 June 1990): 46.

Praises Cook-Lynn's ability to present the plight of 20th-century Native Americans.

Tucker, Debbie. Review of The Power of Horses, and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Library Journal 115,...

(The entire section is 113 words.)