September 21, 2009

"Mary Whitebird" and Ta-Na-E-Ka

Mary WhitebirdMary Whitebird is the pseudonym of a writer who has long had an interest in the life of the American Indian in the late 20th century. His famous short story "Ta-Na-E-Ka" was published in the early 1970s. In reality, Mary Whitebird is a very private writer and film-maker who was born in Arizona.

Explanation

Why would anyone assume a pen name and write Indian stories? This is the author's explanation:

"Ever since I could remember, I've been interested in the American Indian. nd nude of cours." I went to high school with a number of Seneca and Onondaga Indians, who lived in Rochester, New York. While I was in the army I was stationed in west Texas. I was the editor of the post newspaper, and had more free time than most soldiers- and more access on and off the military base. One of my friends was a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma. With him, we drove to all the neighboring reservations (mostly Apache) and I saw firsthand some of the injustices (this was in the early 50s) accorded the Indians. I wrote some letters about it to the local newspaper. Since the army did not look kindly toward soldiers getting involved in controversial public issues, I signed my letters M. Whitebird. It was just a name that sounded generally Indian to me."

"I met a teenage Navajo girl who was having a hard time balancing her desire to explore the greater world and her allegiance to Navajo customs. From Jenny ( whose Navajo name was Granddaughter-of-he-who-Sings) I got the character of Mary Whitebird."


Ta-Na-E-Ka

"Ta-Na-E-Ka is based on a ceremony of the Kaw Indians. My wife comes from Nebraska. My father-in-law visits the Omaha and Winnebago reservations in Nebraska regularly, and there are few Indians there of Kaw ancestry. Almost no full-blooded Kaw exist; they were a sub-tribe of the Kansas. Tuberculosis and cholera wiped them out about 70 years ago. But I learned of the ceremony from my father-in-law. And, I wrote the story."
Comment:  These notes may be the only clues in existence about Whitebird's true identity. All the typos are in the Wikipedia entry, which presumably is a direct quote of Whitebird's text.

Let's reiterate that Whitebird is a white male pretending to be an Indian woman. His "privacy" conveniently lets him defraud the public about the authenticity of his famous story. Unless readers come across the above notes, they'll think he's a genuine Indian woman writing a genuine Indian story.

Not particularly authentic

Here's educator Debbie Reese's summary of Ta-Na-E-Ka in American Indians in Children's Literature, 9/12/09:Set in the present day, the story is about a soon-to-be eleven year old Kaw girl named Mary and her eleven year old cousin, Roger. Eleven is "a magic word" among the Kaws, because that is the year when children go through a test of endurance and survival called Ta-Na-E-Ka by which they become adults. Mary does not want to go through this ritual. She complains to her mom and her schoolteacher. Her mother tells her she'll be proud she did it, and her teacher tells her not to look down on her heritage.

According to Mary's grandfather, they should spend five days in the wilderness, naked and barefoot, living off the land. Mary's grandfather puts them through one month of training that includes how to eat grasshoppers. Mary and Roger's parents object to the naked part, so, the children get to wear bathing suits. This all takes place somewhere along the Missouri River, in the springtime.
This issue is important because Ta-Na-E-Ka appears in anthologies of multicultural stories used in schools. Many teachers have taught many students about Indians using this story.

Reese summarizes Whitebird's flimsy credentials to write a story about Kaw Indians:

  • He went to high school with Seneca and Onondaga students.
  • One of his friends (while in the army) was Sac and Fox.
  • He and his Sac and Fox friend visited Apache reservations.
  • He met a Navajo girl.
  • His wife is from Nebraska.
  • His father-in-law visits Omaha and Winnebago reservations, where there are a few Kaw Indians.
  • His father-in-law told him about the Ta-Na-E-Ka ceremony.

  • Wow. If those are his credentials, I must be the best "Indian" writer in the world. I'm involved in Indian issues, I've visited a few dozen reservations, and I have hundreds of Indian friends and acquaintances. I don't have to rely on secondhand sources or "friend of a friend" tales.

    Not particularly good

    Here's a link to the actual story:

    Ta-Na-E-Ka

    A couple of observations:

    1) I'd say the story is rather mediocre. I don't think there's anything special about it. You could pick any Indian short story at random and it might well be better.

    2) The story's message is something like "Indians must change with the times." For a white man in the 1970s to say Kaw ceremonies in the 1950 were no longer important or relevant is incredibly paternalistic. A white man who thinks he can "become" an Indian and tell Indians what's best for them is the epitome of white privilege.

    To reiterate, Whitebird's father-in-law met a few Kaw Indians and passed along a smidgen of information about them. And that qualifies Whitebird to judge the usefulness of an age-old Kaw ceremony? I don't think so.

    Sure, the Kaw Indians might agree with the thrust of Ta-Na-E-Ka. I believe Indians began assimilating and adopting Western ways en masse after World War II. But they might not agree with its thrust. It's not for some gender-confused white man to say.

    I allude to one or two Native ceremonies in my PEACE PARTY comics. I wouldn't think of questioning their relevance in the 21st century. Just imagine the controversy if a white writer had an Indian character say, "Now that I think about it, our ceremonies seem kind of silly. Why don't we stop pretending and use our time more productively?" But that's basically what readers take away from Ta-Na-E-Ka.

    For more on the subject, see "Primitive" Indian Religions and The Best Indian Books.

    5 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    I don't know what this whitebird person is talking about, here is the quote "Almost no full-blooded Kaw exist; they were a sub-tribe of the Kansas. Tuberculosis and cholera wiped them out about 70 years ago". Well don't tell the Kaw Tribe that as they are alive and well. Here is their info:

    Kaw Nation [Southern Plains]
    Guy Munroe (Chairman)
    Tel: (580) 269-2552
    Fax: (580) 269-2301 P.O. Box 50
    Kaw City, OK 74641
    Website: www.kawnation.com


    Anonymouse

    Lynette said...

    I remember a white man writing as an Aboriginal woman in Australia in the nineties - have forotten both his name and his non-da-plume. His excuse was it was easier to get published as an Aboriginal woman - not true - established Aboriginal authors sometimes do well but it is very difficult to get established.

    I do remember reading the first page or so. It began something like "Ever since I was very young I have complained to get what I wanted." WTF!!!

    Alyssa Torres said...

    Everything you say in your article about White privilege and cultural bias is correct. I am a teacher who taught this story last week before finding out the truth about the author today.

    I would be hesitant to dismiss this story out of hand. I didn't think that the message was that Kaw traditions are pointless and need to be updated. I saw it as pointing out the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity--a tension that exists in every culture, faced by every succeeding generation. At the end of this story, it is true that the grandfather concedes that the girl's adaptations may be advantageous, the girl also finds herself defending and appreciating the tradition that she previously despised. Is this mutual accommodation between tradition and change not healthy?

    Alyssa Torres said...

    Everything you say in your article about White privilege and cultural bias is correct. I am a teacher who taught this story last week before finding out the truth about the author today. I would be hesitant to dismiss this story out of hand.

    I didn't think that the message was that Kaw traditions are pointless and need to be updated. I saw it as pointing out the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity--a tension that exists in every culture, faced by every succeeding generation. At the end of this story, it is true that the grandfather concedes that the girl's adaptations may be advantageous, the girl also finds herself defending and appreciating the tradition that she previously despised. Is this mutual accommodation between tradition and change not healthy?

    Linguist said...

    A very detailed ethnographic and linguistic study of the Kansa (otherwise known as Kaw) tribe was carried out during the 19th century but this information was not published at the time. It was only in 2012 that a complete dictionary of the Kansa language was made available and this contains no term remotely like Ta.Na.E.Ka.

    The very closely related Osage language (Wazhazhe) has been available for study for a very long time, however, and this language also lacks any such word.

    Osage and Kansa, together with Omaha, Ponca and Quapaw, make up the small Dhegiha sub-group of the Siouan language family; these tribes also share many common ceremonies and cultural features.

    It is significant that no puberty rite such as is described in the story existed among any of the Dhegiha tribes, nor among any other Siouan groups. Among the Crow, for example, no puberty ceremonies of any kind were undergone by boys or girls: at her first and subsequent menstrual cycle a young woman was forced to ride an inferior horse and treated almost as a source of contamination - it was forbidden for such a woman to approach any sacred object or place. But this was more about religious taboo than ceremony.

    The only plausible explanation is that the story is pure fiction.

    Ta.Na.E.Ka does not even look like a Kansa word; there are no specifically Kansa syllables or sounds (glottal stop, nasalised vowels, zh, sk, kh, sh, x). One might just as well claim it to be Japanese, Sanskrit, Polish or Australian Aborigine.

    The Kansa/English dictionary is available here:
    http://www.kawnation.com/WebKanza/LangResources/nglshknzdctnry2012.pdf