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