Elizabeth Cook-Lynn Criticism - Essay

James Ruppert (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 theme of these 15 pieces—the importance and power of the past and its myths for the Dakotapi of the Upper Plains. Unfortunately, Cook-Lynn spends more time throughout telling us this than suggesting it in her narratives. Many of these anecdotal stories, in fact, seem more like lectures on the customs of the Sioux: "Mahpiyato" distinguishes the various English words for describing a blue sky from the single tribal term, with its presence of the Creator. In the title story, a young girl's father, out of respect for the mythic power of his horses, decides to set them free rather than sell them to an insensitive white man. Meanwhile, Cook-Lynn, justifiably but with a fictional heavy-handedness, demonstrates little sympathy for the various Christian missionaries who proselytize her people. "A Visit from Reverend Tileston" reveals the buffoonish ways of evangelicals in the Thirties; "The Clearest Day" proves that even a black missionary can't appreciate the transcendental ways of tribal dancing. Many of the other stories rehearse a litany of woe: Families are torn by alcoholism; returning soldiers from various wars are brutalized by fighting the white man's battles; a family is destroyed by their "Squaw Man" (i. e., their white father); and some are just victimized by disease. In "A Good Chance," a young radical poet, back on the reservation after a year in jail, is shot dead for no apparent reason before he can consider a scholarship to the University of California.

Not quite agitprop, Cook-Lynn's fictional martyrology is of anthropological interest, but its general artlessness makes it a weak addition to the literature of outrage.

Gardner McFall (review date 12 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 to centuries of "violent diaspora and displacement." The inadequacies of white culture and the damage it has caused within the Native American ethos are glaringly apparent here. In the first story, for example, we see how the English language fails to express Dakota experience and perception. And in the penultimate story, the police tragically shoot a talented Indian youth before he can take advantage of a university scholarship. The Smithsonian Institution's archeological "find" of a lost Indian village near the young man's home would seem an ironic, concluding detail to the cruelty and dispossession Ms. Cook-Lynn's volume generally records. But, in fact, the final story, about a handicapped boy, ends with hopeful expectancy. However misguided and deleterious the effects of the white man, the Sioux emerge with their identity intact: their remembrance of ritual song, dance and legend, their connection to the land, contribute to the beauty, meaning and continuity of their lives as they try to bridge two disparate societies. While individually some of these 15 stories offer the merest glimpse of the Sioux heritage as it informs the present, together they amply illuminate its strengths. By turns humorous, poetic and poignant, The Power of Horses is a welcome addition to the growing body of Native American literature—for what it tells us about America today and about this country's past.

Publishers Weekly (review date 17 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 trial seems a sad continuation of the Dakotahs' troubled history. But when a relative testifies against him, Tatekeya feels that a line has been crossed: colonialism has finally cost his people their essential value, responsibility to family. Woven throughout the courtroom proceedings are the mournful recollections of Tatekeya and his lover, Aurelia. Beautifully fusing the Northern Plains setting with her plot [in From The River's Edge], Cook-Lynn establishes a larger significance for the trial and, despite occasional lapses in narrative momentum—telling rather than showing salient developments—places the sorrows and frustrations of Native Americans in stark relief.

Robert Houston (review date 8 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carol Kino (review date 18 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 3 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Purdy (review date December 1992–January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Kvernes (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)