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Festival Presenter Feature: Reclaiming a Literary Tradition

September 16, 2023

NOTE: A version of this story appears in our 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books guide, produced by South Dakota Magazine.

For centuries, women were the culture keepers in indigenous societies. Sarah Hernandez (Sicangu Lakota) believes that changed with the arrival of missionaries and their printing presses. Her new book, We Are the Stars: Colonizing and Decolonizing the Oceti Sakowin Literary Tradition, argues that “missionary translations of the Dakota language set a dangerous precedent that denigrated Oceti Sakowin star knowledge and supplanted our tribal land narratives with new settler-colonial land narratives that ensured that many of our people converted to Christianity and assimilated to the American nation.”

            She says that became clear while conducting research at the Minnesota Historical Society. “Any time I looked up information about the Dakota oral tradition, immediately these missionaries’ names would come up in the databases,” says Hernandez, an assistant professor of Native American literature at the University of New Mexico and the director of the Institute for American Indian Research. “At first, I ignored it because I wasn’t looking for missionaries. I was looking for the voices of Dakota people. But the missionaries kept coming up. That was the first time I realized what a huge impact they had on our literary tradition.”

            The first section of her book, which she calls “a literary recovery project,” traces the missionaries’ movements and actions around the Plains. The second honors and celebrates indigenous women — such as Ella Deloria and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn — who have reclaimed their roles by keeping traditional narratives alive. “Ella Deloria really is the lynchpin that helped transform the oral tradition to print form,” Hernandez says. “She did so much research for Franz Boaz and on her own. She really reclaimed and revitalized these stories, so you could credit her with preserving the print version of our oral tradition. The oral tradition has always been there, it just hadn’t been written down by Dakota women until Ella Deloria.”

            Hernandez grew up in Denver, but her family is rooted on the Rosebud Reservation. “I was fortunate to be raised by very strong Lakota women, beginning with my mother,” Hernandez says. “My grandmother was a huge influence on my life, and I was close to my aunties. I saw that influence very early. I don’t think I was fully aware of that until I started writing the book, but it was always there. When I started researching the book, it just made so much sense when I realized what a profound role women have played in our culture.”             Hernandez is also a member of the Oceti Sakowin Writers Society (formerly the Oak Lake Writers Society), a tribal writing group for Dakota, Nakota and Lakota writers. “We’ve made a lot of great strides,” she says. “Elizabeth Cook-Lynn helped co-found the society, and because she did so many more voices are now being published. I think the reason that I was able to publish my book is because she fought so hard so that Oceti Sakowin voices could be heard.”

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