By Leah Milne
I was a Midwest transplant, born and raised on the East Coast. Before I left home, friends joked about flatland and cornfields and voiced concerns about my entering what they perceived to be a region of overwhelming whiteness. Culture shock, however, was nothing new to me. As the first in my immigrant family to attend college, I knew what it meant to feel unmoored, to walk into a room where no one resembled you.
My conference visit to Earlham College was an attempt to soften that dislocation. Books have always been my second home, so sitting in the Runyan Center listening to literary presentations, I was already more comfortable. A bonus? Zitkála-Šá went here in the 1890s. Having read her stories about being the only American Indian among over 400 college students, I felt a kinship.
Earlham Residence Hall—where she stayed—was right next door. Bright leaves floated onto the campus quad where I stood before a sweeping red-brick building. Its entrance was framed by white columns, wooden benches, and painted Adirondacks. This was what the child in me imagined all college campuses looked like. Later, I would learn that this tree-lined enclosure was called The Heart.
In “School Days of an Indian Girl,” Zitkála-Šá—known to Earlhamites as Gertrude Simmons—writes about leaving her happy childhood on South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation for White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. Her introduction to education left her homesick; she was forced to cut her hair, adopt a new language and religion, and endure numerous abuses. One wouldn’t blame her for leaving school entirely. And yet she went to college, much to the chagrin of her mother, who feared losing her daughter to “the white man’s ways.” If my visit was a modest attempt at self-encouragement, Zitkála-Šá’s more permanent move to Earlham represented a willful assertion of a new life.
Gertrude’s time at Earlham was lonely. She often isolated herself in her dorm room, and a classmate described her as “pleasant but somewhat distant.” Nevertheless, she flourished, publishing poetry in the school newspaper and performing in recitals. Her speeches, however, were where she found her voice as an activist.
After winning Earlham’s oratory contest, Gertrude was surprised when fellow freshmen celebrated by decorating the student parlor. Maybe, she thought, my classmates aren’t so bad. But then, weeks later in the subsequent state-level competition, students from one university mocked her with racist epithets. Gertrude rallied. In her soft but determined voice, she lambasted America’s prejudices, winning over all the judges save a Southerner offended by her position on slavery. She won second place.
I picture her afterwards in The Heart, staring at Earlham Hall, those columns festooned in cream and yellow drapery in her honor. Like many of Gertrude’s triumphs, this one was bittersweet. The humiliation of the night’s racism lingered, and she rushed to her dorm room, questioning her decision to leave home.
Even as she became a student at the New England Conservatory of Music and a teacher at the infamous Carlisle Indian School, she would remember this night. Maybe she stared at the stars and stripes flying above the Hall’s entrance and thought about how her speech referenced “our nation’s flag” and “our common country,” stubbornly and even hopefully insisting on a shared humanity that she knew was often denied. The image of her standing before Earlham Hall inspires me to contemplate my experiences in education, both alienating and invigorating, and the way that institutions can both fail us and uplift us. If Zitkála-Šá could make such resolute demands for equality after all she had experienced, I figure there’s still hope for me.
Leah Milne writes about and teaches multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. It took her a full year living in the Midwest to learn how to properly pronounce “Louisville.” You can find out more about her publications and courses at LeahMilne.com.
Photo by Rebekah Trollinger, the Plowshares Assistant Professor of Religion at Earlham College.