Friday, May 25, 2012

"The Outlaw’s Secret Bride" and 19th Century Native American Education

L.G.C. Smith

This week marks the re-release of my first historical romance, originally published by Avon Books in 1990. Now titled The Outlaw’s Secret Bride, it’s available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Smashwords. TOSB, a classic western romance set in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory in 1880, is the story of an eastern schoolteacher who meets an outlaw she can’t resist. She tries hard, but he doesn’t give up. I chose the setting because my family is from South Dakota, and I made the heroine a teacher because both sides of the family are chock full of South Dakota teachers. I had just started my doctoral studies when I began writing The Outlaw's Secret Bride (originally titled Spellbound, and published under my pen name, Allison Hayes), so I wanted to be practical. I figured writing about a place I knew fairly well would help me manage the writing, the research it required, and a heavy course load.

Writing historical romance ended up shaping my academic work in language education more than I anticipated. The tensions between the Lakota people and the US government played out in many aspects of South Dakota history. Education was a particularly fraught endeavor, illustrated in The Outlaw’s Secret Bride when the hero, Drew, introduces Emily, the heroine, to Red Cloud, the famous Lakota leader. Red Cloud astutely identified how disastrous the wrong sort of education could be for his people. Thanks to the research for the novel, I began studying early attempts to educate Lakota children. Red Cloud was right: the education brought by white Americans relied heavily on coercion and the adamant rejection of Lakota language, culture and values.

Occasionally educators, usually missionaries, developed bilingual primers to help teach reading and writing to Native American children. I discovered some of these buried in the University of California library stacks and analyzed them for a research paper in the same year that TOSB was first published. This is from a section looking at a little primer called Model First Reader. Wayawa Tokaheya. Prepared in English-Dakota by S.R. Riggs, an Episcopal missionary to the Minnesota Sioux throughout most of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1873 for use in western Minnesota. My interest lay in exploring what Dakota and Lakota children might have been taught in schools using this book. It serves as a back drop for understanding the kinds of conflicts my teacher heroine encounters when she arrives in Dakota Territory and falls in love with a man who has embraced the Lakota people.

 “The content of the more advanced lessons introduces domestic animals (dogs, cats, geese, sheep, lambs, horses, and pigs) and several wild animals, including zebras, parrots, bears, and deer. The animals are often pictured as pets in cages, houses, or playing with children. These are not contexts in which Indian children would normally have interacted with animals. Page 64 has a drawing of three children, Howard, Della, and Gertrude riding in a miniature wagon drawn by two prancing goats. On the previous page the goats were pictured in a mountain scene with tall pine trees behind them. The message that even children can tame the wilds is not subtly conveyed in the sentences that tell us that these goats will not run away or hurt the children, that they are very gentle, and that they like Howard. Howard, of course, is equally fond of the goats.

 This sort of image may have struck the fancy of American middle-class children, but it must have seemed strange to Dakota children who very likely hadn’t ever seen goats, much less miniature wagons for children to play in. More significantly, animals are portrayed as playmates, means of entertainment, or as badges of membership in a stable, well-ordered agricultural society. There is little of the sense of respect for animals or an understanding of the roles they play in supporting human life and sharing an environment that is more characteristic of Dakota relationships with animals. It would not have been difficult to cast the relationships of people to farm animals in this sort of light (and in fact, many white farmers and ranchers probably held more Indian-like attitudes toward their animals than one would guess from Victorian school texts). If the images and values presented in this text were not directly related to the experience of Dakota children, it must also be kept in mind that they would have found little better match in the minds of large numbers of urban school children in the rest of the country. The Model First Reader taught an ideal, archetypical view of American culture based in rural gentility.

     An image of even more cultural dissonance for Indian children than Howard and his sisters with their pet goats appears a few pages later. On page 67 there is a drawing of a black bear chained to a tall pole. The sentences are as follows:

1. This is a black bear. De wahanksica heca.  (The normal gloss for bear is 'mato')
            2. It is not a lamb. He tahinca cinca heca.
            3. It looks ugly. He owanyang sica. ('Sica'  means bad, not ugly per se.)
            4. He is chained to the pole.   He can kin en iyakaskapi.
            5. Can he climb the pole? Can kin he adi okihi he.
            6. Yes, he can climb to the top. Han, oinkpa hehanyan adi okihi.
            7. I will not go near the bear. Wahanksica kin ikiyedan mde   kte sni.

Aside from the alien visual image of the chained bear, the words make it clear that the bear is to be regarded as wild, potentially dangerous, and to be avoided by children. The Dakota translation emphasizes that the bear is inherently bad and should be handled accordingly. If it cannot be completely controlled, it must be avoided.

This is in marked contrast to traditional Dakota perceptions of bears as the second member (the other being humans) of the two-legged category of animals. Bears were thought of as potential healers, teachers, and generally wise creatures. Dakota children would have had to have been foolish not to have known that bears could be dangerous (especially if unreasonably provoked by chaining them to a pole), but they were taught a respect for animals, rooted in knowledge about their behaviors, that is clearly lacking in this text. The image and the sentences about the chained bear were very likely confusing for Dakota children because they represented direct contradictions to traditional Dakota values.”

I have two nieces almost finished with Kindergarten this year. Both are making great strides as fledgling readers. It’s pretty easy for one of them, but not so much for the other. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to learn to read from books that had so little to do with their lives. A great teacher can work wonders with almost any materials, but I wonder what the students who used these books thought of them.

Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures for many of us. What were some of the first books you read yourself? Were you one of the lucky people who just figured it out easily? (I wasn’t.) Did you have a special teacher who helped you learn to read? Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of The Outlaw’s Secret Bride. I’ll draw a winner on Saturday, June 2nd and post it here. Open to US and Canadian residents.

P.S. If you post a review of The Outlaw’s Secret Bride to any of the ebook retailers, email me the link at, and I’ll send you a free copy of one of my other books. 


  1. The McGuffy Readers are fantastic books that kids used to learn to read in the pioneer days. I have a set and think that they are probably the best way to teach reading. But to help learn Englishfrom the sophisticated language of the Native American that would be a tough one. Outlaw Secret Bride looks like a great read tyoo

    1. I remember the McGuffey Readers. There were a couple of them tucked up in my grandparents' bookshelves. Thanks for reminding me of those. :)

  2. I grew up with Tom, Betty & Susan and the Ginn Basic Readers. I still have "The Little White House" and read some of the stories to my grandchildren when they were little. This is an interesting post! Your book cover is beautiful and the story sounds like a good one with an unusual storyline. Congrats on the re-release!

    1. Thanks, Karen. I remember reading the Dick and Jane books in first grade. "See Spot run." I didn't learn to read easily, as words like 'come' and 'came' didn't look any different to me until, every time, the teacher pointed out that one different letter. And those dratted 'r's! They moved around constantly. Bah. Turns out I have mild dyslexia. If, like so many Indian kids in the past, I'd have had to learn to read in a language I didn't know I'd have been sunk.

  3. Karen, you're the winner of the copy of "The Outlaw's Secret Bride!" Thanks for entering!

  4. Hey, Karen, email me at so I can get your free copy to you.

  5. Hi lgc smith, on your book The Outlaws Secret Bride, how did you come about the names of the characters and the story line? My daughter's grandmother read it and loved it. Thanks!