The recent book from Lakota writer Delphine Red Shirt is called Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter. It is a colorful, emotional journey into the lives of four generations of Lakota women living in northern Nebraska and southern South Dakota. The novel begins at pre-contact time around the 1860's, moves to when the Lakota people were forced to live on reservations, and ends in the early 1940's. Turtle Lung Woman's story is told from her granddaughter, Lone Woman's (Delphine Red Shirt's mother) perspective. Then it was translated and written by Red Shirt, in Lone Woman's words. Red Shirt is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and is currently an adjunct professor of American Studies and English at Yale University. She is also a columnist and correspondent for Indian Country Today. Her only other book is an autobiography, Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood (Nebraska 1997) that recounts her childhood living on the reservation.
This book is centered upon cultural traditions, the "old ways" of the Lakota. Turtle Lung Woman's story conveys the importance she placed on remembering the old ways and living them throughout her life, despite the circumstances of change. Keeping to the Native American oral tradition, this text is formed into a narrative from stories being told throughout, by and about generations of Lakota women. It begins with stories of the Lakota people before contact with whites. It moves from the traditions of hand-done beadwork and buffalo hunts, to the "new ways" of life on the reservation: for example, making moccasins out of canvas rather than tanned hides and going to Catholic boarding schools.
Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter is comprised of beautiful descriptions of traditional ceremonies, cultural traditions, and stories passed on through generations. Some of the ceremonies described are the Yuwipi ceremony, traditional dances, childbirth, the Buffalo ceremony, the making of relatives ceremony. The book also discusses contemporary religion and the use of peyote. Family and cultural tradition are integral aspects of Lakota lives that are exemplified through the ceremonies and the day-to-day lives of the people. Gender roles are highly defined; men and women each have their separate roles. Throughout the novel there are numerous stories involving gender roles, the ways in which boys become men and girls become women, and the rites of passage involved:
She [Turtle Lung Woman] sat playing with her dolls, small tipi, and small buffalo bladder pots. She carried the things women carried. For a small girl these things were miniature versions of what the women had. They were in usable shape, and as she played with them, she was practicing skills she would need in her later life as a woman. She even had a miniature work bag in which she kept tools to make moccasins for her dolls. In time, she acquired the skills necessary to make real moccasins (26).
Before the stories begin, there is an Orthographic and Pronunciation Key. This is important because throughout the book Red Shirt uses Lakota words, sentences, and phrases as central to the stories of Lone Woman. It is almost a bi-lingual book in some ways because much of it uses Lakota and English to tell the stories. The Lakota terms used are usually translated once and then the reader is expected to remember the meanings of the words when they are used again. By using the traditional Lakota words, the narrative captures the true spirit of the language.
Many times throughout this story, the Lakota words "lila ehani," translated as "a long time ago" are used when a story is begun about the "old days. " The entire book is an instructive lesson about Lakota culture and traditions told in the solid and calm voice of Turtle Lung Woman. Through the colorful narrative, the voice of Turtle Lung Woman rings clearly, almost as if she is speaking from the pages in spirit.
There are three parts to Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter: "Turtle Lung Woman," "Lone Woman,", and "Death. " To precede the theme of each section, an excerpt from an old Lakota song is quoted. The words from the Lakota songs are printed in Lakota and English. Frances Densmore translated the songs:
"A Stone Nation Is Speaking"
This particular quote is used before introducing Turtle Lung Woman's brief biography of her childhood and brings in some aspects of her life as a medicine woman. It describes the dream she had about the sacred stone she was supposed to keep with a special herb in a pouch with her medicine bag and healing herbs and roots.
Turtle Lung Woman grew up on the Plains learning the traditional ways of the Lakota people. She was born in 1851. She passed on the knowledge and traditions that she knew to her children to keep the Lakota spirit alive. Turtle Lung Woman was known as a medicine woman to her people.
"She learned from the spirits, they spoke to her in a familiar way. She sought knowledge from dreams, how to use the powers that came from them. She knew the mysterious, how to summon help so that she could use things, and sometimes people, to do her bidding. It was thought that she could cure, and sometimes others who thought less of her thought that she could make enemies sick. She knew the roots of the earth and the plants that had their homes in the earth. She knew the blossoms of the flowers that were medicinal. It was said the spirit of the earth was good to her" (43-44).
Turtle Lung Woman was first married to a warrior, Paints His Face With Clay. He had many wives. "He was like other Lakota men who took pride in certain things. They measured their worth in how many horses they stole, how many wives they had, and, always, in killing the enemy," (56). They had two sons, Thathaka Nazi, Standing Buffalo, and Site, Tail. Standing Buffalo is Lone Woman's father. After Paints His Face With Clay died, Turtle Lung Woman married Bear Goes in the Wood. They lived together in a log cabin near her son Standing Buffalo and his family.
Lone Woman, her granddaughter, grew up with the ways of Turtle Lung Woman. However, she grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota under different circumstances, surviving on government food rations and canned milk, not knowing anything else except through the stories of Turtle Lung Woman. As her story begins to unfold she tells about growing up in the mid 1920's on the reservation. There were no jobs on the reservation and no buffalo, so people would have to leave and go find jobs in Nebraska during the summer months to work farming jobs so they could have food and survive. They would camp and stay until winter and travel from job to job working on farms and harvests.
In her section, Lone Woman recalls the ceremonies specifically for women, such as the Buffalo Ceremony, when a girl becomes a woman and is honored by her family. She also tells about becoming a woman, physically. A young woman goes through an "inithi," or purification lodge. "What the wasicu or white people call a 'sweat lodge. ' This is a misnomer since the ceremony does not focus on 'themni' or 'sweat,' but on the word 'ni,' meaning 'spirit,'"(203). The purification ceremony is what the Lakota do to make the spirit stronger and purify their body. This ceremony is the oldest and the most sacred to the Lakota.
"What I remember about my first Inikage, or Purification Ceremony, was the intense heat. Inside the inithi, it was all vapor, like a spirit, I sat in the fog, unable to see. The steam reached into me, deep inside where my most human self lives. 'khowakiphe,' I was afraid. In my fear, I felt like a small infant, cradled by the stem. The old woman told me not to be afraid, that at any time she would open the flaps to the inithi, if I let her know. I was determined not to be afraid, as young as I was, I knew it was not right to fear it"(205).
Lone Woman is the last direct link to Turtle Lung Woman after she died. The book closes when Lone Woman is about 18 and married, at a part where she decided to stop telling her stories to her daughter, Delphine Red Shirt. It ends almost abruptly with many questions left to answer about Lone Woman and the rest of her life. It shows the bitter beginnings of the rough life on the reservation for Lone Woman with her struggles between traditional and Christian religion, disease, and the birth of her first child. Delphine Red Shirt wrote an Epilogue tying the end of the generational saga together with the death of Lone Woman in 1999 to bring closure to the life of her mother through thoughts on death and her mother's spirit in accordance with Lakota customs.
This book is a journey. It travels through Lakota lives, embracing the culture and lives of Turtle Lung Woman and her family. The journey is beautiful and scenic, landscaping their lives and the sacredness of their Lakota heritage. Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter captures the life of the stories and the "old ways" of the Lakota people. These cultural stories from Turtle Lung Woman are not necessarily unique in the context of Native American history. It is the intimacy and sacredness of the way these individualized stories have been preserved and retold that gives this story an uncommonly poignant spiritual glimpse into the historical perspective of these Lakota women.