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Defining a Life: Zitkala Sa's "Soft Hearted Sioux"

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"The Soft Hearted Sioux": A Commentary on Materialism

In a world dominated by materialism, the physical and metaphoric objects that permeate a person’s life also define that person’s life. These objects are often associated with the values and beliefs that are instilled in members of a culture at a young age. In Zitkala Sa’s The Soft Hearted Sioux, such values and beliefs of a group of Sioux are demonstrated as the lifeline of the community.

The protagonist, a young man, must decide whether the traditional ways of his people are more important to him than the way in which Anglo people live. The young man is faced with the dilemma of choosing between the knife of his people or the Bible of “the soft heart of Christ”(Sa, 670)he learned about at the mission school. The physical and metaphoric objects the young man encounters during his short life illustrate how material objects define a person’s life.

Important Objects and Their Meanings

The natural, homely objects displayed at the beginning of the story, during the discussion about the young man’s future, illustrate the values and beliefs of the young man’s tribe and family.

The Teepee

The family’s tepee, or wigwam, is important to note because tepees were often made from the hides of various game, such as deer, elk, and buffalo, and they were circular in shape. A home made from hides means hunting is an important factor in the lives of the tribe and the young man’s family. Hunting is most likely the lifeline of the tribe.

In addition, the circular shape of the young man’s home means the family is often facing one another. When people sit in a circle it is hard not to see everyone’s face; however, the fact that the grandmother does not say anything to her son-in-law says a great deal about the separation of the sexes in this society. Apparently, it must be taboo for the men to communicate with certain women in the village.This may be the reason the young man’s father passes the time away by carving a stone pipe (Sa, 669).

The Stone Pipe

The pipe is another example of the tribe and family’s close association with the natural world around them. The pipe was not bought or traded from an Anglo person. It is not made of metal. The pipe was carved and polished by the young man’s father (Sa, 669). This subtle gender role distinction may indicate that the men in this tribe, rather than the women, are the ones who carve and make tools.

The Silver Bracelets

The final key object is the mother’s silver bracelets (Sa, 670). The bracelets may serve as a gender distinction because the text does not indicate that men also wear jewelry; therefore, in this tribe, the women may be the only people who wear jewelry. Furthermore, the bracelets are displayed in a moment when the mother is talking about the eligible women in the village (Sa, 670); thus, the bracelets may also be a way for women to promote their desirability to the opposite sex. After the discussion about his future, the young man’s heart is troubled because he is unsure how to react to his family wanting him to strive for greatness (Sa, 670).

Although his heart troubles him at this, the values and beliefs seen in the objects in his home undoubtedly had been taught to the young man throughout his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in the Anglo culture, greatly altering his opinion of the values and beliefs of his family and village.

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The Transformation: Attire and Belief

The young man returns to his people as a new person with new ideas and foreign objects. The first noticeable change is the young man’s clothes; Instead of wearing buckskin, as seen earlier in the story, the young man arrives in his parent’s village wearing “a foreigner’s dress” (Sa, 670). His clothes are no longer those obtained by bravely hunting game. They were most likely given to him while he was at the mission school. Consequently, it may be assumed that he is not the hunter his father wanted him to become when he was younger.

In addition to his new attire, the young man also brings “the white man’s Bible” (Sa, 670). The Bible is a book filled with Christian beliefs about a religion that is unknown to his people; however, while at the mission school, the young man actively hunts for “the soft heart of Christ” (Sa, 670) and, once he had obtained that belief in the Bible, the young man is “sent back to [his] people to preach Christianity to them” (Sa, 670).

At this time, the young man wants to be like Christ. His heart wants to emulate Christ’s soft heart. His heart guides him in learning the ways of the Anglo people and their God and the Bible acts as the object that has changed the young man’s values and beliefs. Unlike the traditions of his people, the Bible tells the young man stories of God’s divine power and how belief in God and Christ will ultimately provide the believer with the things they may need in their life. When the young man tries to tell his village about “the soft heart of Christ” (Sa, 671), the medicine man comes forward and accuses him of being “a fool” (Sa, 672) because the words he speaks from the Bible do not fit in with the teachings of his people.

At this point, the Bible that had brought him enlightenment drove the villagers to desert him and his family. In addition, his “father would not listen” (Sa, 673) while he read the Bible to him. The young man continues to believe in the words and ideas found in the Bible, even when faced with starvation in the cold winter.

Choosing the Knife

However, as the days progress and the family’s food storages diminish, the new beliefs in the Bible no longer provide answers for the young man in the way a knife would; A knife can be used for protection and to provide food. While at the mission school, the young man “learned it was wrong to kill” and he “prayed for the huntsmen who chased the buffalo on the plains” (Sa, 670) but these beliefs were instantly forsaken when the young man’s father says, “your soft heart will let me starve before you bring me meat!” (Sa, 673).

At this point, he realizes his father would die of starvation if he did not find and kill an animal for food. The young man thinks of the knife as a means for his father to live. The knife would provide food and when he finally began cutting away at the flesh of the cattle, his once feeble, unarmed hands were “no more fearful and slow” (Sa, 673) and he had “a strange warmth in [his] heart” (Sa, 673). In this instance, the knife gives the young man the ability to finally become the Sioux hunter his father had wanted him to become. The knife allows the young man the opportunity to provide for his family like a male Sioux is expected to do; however, the knife also gives the young man the opportunity to become the warrior his father wanted him to become.

When the Anglo man attacks the young man for killing his cow, he is faced with the dilemma of having to kill or be killed. Instead of turning to the words of the Bible, the young man, yielding a knife, uses a warrior’s instinct and kills the Anglo man. At this point, the knife acts as a way for the young man to be Sioux again. On the same night, the knife gave him the life his father wanted him to have but it also made him commit crimes that would ultimately take his life.

Zitkala-Sa with her violin

Zitkala-Sa with her violin

A Journey Told Through Objects

Although the young man’s life is cut short by an act of human instinct, his life was nevertheless defined by the objects that littered it—objects like his heart, his family’s tepee, the Bible, and the knife. These items helped shape his life and represented his values and beliefs.

His change of heart showed how his mindset changed from a Sioux to a Christian and back to a Sioux again. His family’s tepee symbolizes his family and village’s values and beliefs. The Bible not only signifies the Anglo religion but also a changing world. The presence of Anglo people is shown in the Bible.

It is obvious in the beginning of the story that his village had not felt the full presence of the Anglo people because they are still free to roam and hunt wild game. The Bible shows how the world around them is changing into an Anglo-dominated society.

And, finally, the knife brings the young man back to his people as a hunter and a warrior. He is defined as a young Sioux man who left the values and beliefs of his people for the Anglo culture and religion but later denies the Christian faith to provide food for his family and defend himself. Defining a person through the objects in that person’s life is crucial to understanding that person and their culture’s values and beliefs; therefore, a culture’s values and beliefs may be the reason materialism is dominant in many of today’s societies.

© 2014 morningstar18

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