Friday, November 27, 2020

Native American Women NPIT Interpreters


Sacagawea is a well-known heroine in United States history. She was the Shoshone woman who accompanied her French-Canadian husband on the Lewis and Clark journey of exploration to the West in 1804-1806, interpreted for them with the tribes they met and saved their lives. There are memorials to her and she has been celebrated on this blog; to retrieve the post, enter sacagawea in the Search box on the right. It turns out though, with a little digging, that she only represents the tip of the iceberg of interpretation between the native peoples and the Europeans, and that in many instances the communication passed through women. Luckily there is a magnificent storehouse of research about these women. It’s North American Women: A Biographical Dictionary by Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa (see Source below). There isn’t room here to give more than a small sample of the riches to be found in it. Perhaps some enterprising graduate student can make a thesis topic of it. The order below is chronological and the entries have been edited.

We may notice the varied roles that these outstanding women played on behalf of their peoples, their chiefs and their cultures as well as of their languages. As well as for their own people, they interpreted for the American military, the Congress, health and medical services, schools, anthropologists and ethnologists. It is often overlooked how important NPIT interpreters have been throughout the world for these last two clienteles. In spite of the racial and anti-feminine prejudices of their age, these women succeeded in getting a good education with the encouragement of their parents, who understood where the future lay.

—Sarah Laura Winnemucca Coltelli HOPKINS [Thocmetony, Tos-me-to-ne, Shell Flower, Sono meta, Somitone, Sa-mit-tau-nee, White Shell] (c. 1844–1891), was a major figure in the history of the Paiute tribe and a spokeswoman for the plight of her tribe and of Indian peoples in the later part of the nineteenth century. Granddaughter of Chief Truckee, who had guided whites across the Great Basin, and daughter of Chief Winnemucca, an antelope shaman and leader, she became a legendary and controversial figure during her lifetime. Because Sarah’s first encounter with whites had terrified her, she did not want to travel from Humboldt Sink, in Nevada, to California with her family in 1847, but encounters with generous settlers along the way dissolved her fear. In California she attended a convent school, where she learned to write and speak English. She also learned Spanish and knew three Indian dialects. By adolescence her skill as a translator and her position in a prominent family brought Sarah the role of interpreter at Camp McDermitt in northern Nevada, and later at the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. She also became the personal interpreter and guide for General Oliver O. Howard during the Bannock War in 1878. Sarah’s skills rapidly gained her recognition as spokeswoman for her people and led to lectures in major western cities on behalf of justice for Indians. Winnemucca’s autobiography is not only a record of her own life but also a history of her tribe and a strong plea for redress, as the title indicates: Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. The intent of her autobiography was to bring her crusade for justice to a wider audience and to convince white society that the Paiutes were decent people willing to coexist with whites. Her narrative ends with a plea to Congress to restore land and rights to her people. Winnemucca’s crusade… for justice and an end to corruption in administration of reservations met with limited success… Before her death, she returned to her people to open a school for Paiute children

Susan LAFLESCHE PICOTTE (1865–1915) see photo above, was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska on June 17, 1865.. [Her father,] a chief of the Omaha, was half white and half Ponca; his wife was white and Omaha. The influential LaFlesche family supported bringing white education to the reservation and made certain that each of their children received a good education. Susan LaFlesche attended school on the reservation, then accompanied her elder sister Marguerite to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. Three years later, in 1882, she returned home to teach at the mission school. In 1884 LaFlesche began her studies at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school for blacks and Indians, graduating with honors in the spring of 1886. In October of that year, she entered the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She graduated at the head of her class in 1889, becoming the first American Indian female doctor of medicine. LaFlesche returned to the Omaha Reservation upon completing a four-month internship in Philadelphia and worked as a physician at the local school. A few months later, she was appointed physician for the Omaha Agency... The work was difficult, and her duties extended beyond the purely medical; she also served as adviser, teacher, interpreter, and nurse... Despite her ill health and against the advice of family and friends, LaFlesche announced her intention to marry Henry Picotte in 1894.. a Yankton Sioux... Susan and Henry settled in Bancroft, Nebraska, where she practiced medicine and he farmed… Picotte continued to serve her people during this period. She acted as interpreter and helped many families and individuals during the transition Omaha society was experiencing. After Henry’s death in 1905, Picotte was appointed missionary to the Omahas by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions… She was politically active as well, and in 1910 headed a tribal delegation to the nation’s capital, where she addressed the secretary of the Interior on the issues of Omaha citizenship and competency. But it was in the area of health care that Picotte made her biggest contribution. She insisted that the Omaha adopt modern hygienic practices… She also represented the Omahas in white society, serving, from time to time, as their representative to the government. But more often, Picotte was the one who spoke for the Omahas in an unofficial but nonetheless clearly recognized capacity. She represented them to groups from the East and from Nebraska, ranging from women’s clubs to missionary, educational, and medical organizations. Until her death in 1915, she was an effective role model for hundreds of young Omahas.

—Flora Jay Ann Cox ZUNI (1897–1983), was born into the Badger clan of the Zuni, who live in a New Mexico pueblo. Her father was a member of the Bear clan and an accomplished artist, and her mother was an accomplished potter. The Zuni are famous for their jewelry. They speak a language which is unrelated to the languages of the other pueblo peoples and continue to practice their traditional shamanistic religion with its regular ceremonies, dances and mythology. Flora received her education at the boarding school at Black Rock and became one of the few Zuni of her time who could speak English. Later, this skill allowed her to become an interpreter for several different groups, including anthropologists, Bureau of Indian Affairs employees, Public Health Service employees, missionaries, and teachers. Noted as an interpreter and storyteller of great skill, Zuni worked with the anthropologists Alfred L.Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel, and Elsie Clews Parsons in collecting Zuni folk tales, prayers, and linguistic material. Bunzel said of Zuni, “Flora had excellent command of English and translated her own texts and interpreted for her father, mother, and sisters and helped with the revision and analysis of all texts.” She also became an entrepreneur and saleswoman who took in boarders and sold turquoise on commission to help support her family. Zuni remained a traditional Zuni throughout her lifetime; she strongly believed in the importance of passing traditions from one generation to the next.

The range of these biographies, which extend to the present day, emphasizes once again the universality of NPIT interpreting.


Laura M.  Bataille and Laurie Lisa. Native American Women: A Biographical dictionary. or click [HERE]. There’s a wealth of other references in this work.


Susan Picotte

Source: Nebraska Studios


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