American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings | Study Guide


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American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings | Symbols


The Eagle

The eagle is a symbol of the qualities of bravery, honesty, and reverence to the Sioux tribe. In "A Dakota Ode to Washington," the narrator refers to the priests and priestesses as "keepers of the sacred eagle mysteries." The message they send to Washington, D.C. is that they honor President Washington by symbolically bestowing three eagle plumes upon him. In many of Zitkala-Ša's stories, the warriors wear eagle plumes as symbols of their bravery. It is an honor to receive an eagle feather, a mark of greatness of spirit or mind. In fact, the eagle sometimes represents the Great Spirit. Zitkala-Ša and the elders in "A Dakota Ode to Washington" see the use of the eagle as the symbol for the United States as an honor for the Native Americans.

The Crown

To Zitkala-Ša, the crown is symbolic of totalitarian rule, the opposite of democracy and all it stands for. In "The Coronation of Chief Powhatan Retold," Chief Powhatan is suspicious of the crown because of the kind of rulership it represents. As Zitkala-Ša explains, most tribal people live democratically, and the role of the chief or leader is not comparable to that of a king.

Readers may note a sense of situational irony (in which what is expected to happen is the opposite of what does happen) in the symbol of the crown. For the colonists, it represents the kind of despotic rulership they fled. However, in setting up their "democracy," those same colonists perpetuated the very same despotism—and worse—over the already democratic Native Americans.


Iktomi is a traditional trickster character and also an important figure in Dakota legends. Zitkala-Ša's choice to include and even feature his stories in her collection Old Indian Legends, however, has another level of meaning. Iktomi, as a selfish and at times clueless trickster character, also symbolizes the white colonizer. White colonists came to the Native Americans initially presenting a face of benevolence and then retracted their promises and offered violence instead. In this way, they are like Iktomi's trickster character. Zitkala-Ša sees white colonizers as completely self-involved, with no interest in indigenous people except for resources they might use. Perhaps Zitkala-Ša also understands how Iktomi's tales foreshadow the weaknesses of white society as well. Zitkala-Ša comes from a culture that recognizes the interconnected reality of humanity and nature. Therefore, it developed cultural traditions that showed respect for these things. To Zitkala-Ša's eye, white culture, like Iktomi, has no concern for other people or the natural world, simply wanting to take what it can to benefit itself.

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