Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-Blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path

by Nancy M. Peterson, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho, 2006, $16.95.

At his First Annual Message in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant said, “No matter what ought to be the relations between [white] settlements and the aborigines, the fact is they do not harmonize well, and one or the other has to give way in the end.” No persons understood this discord between Indian and European cultures in America better than women belonging to both races. These women strove valiantly to maintain a harmony in their personal lives that Grant admitted, on a national level, was impossible to achieve. Their stories are the focus of Nancy M. Peterson’s book Walking in Two Worlds:Mixed-Blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path—a survey of 11 different women, ranging from Chippewa-Irish Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, born in 1800, to Cheyenne–French-Canadian Mary Little Bear Inkanish, who died in 1965.

Peterson began to research the lives of mixed-blood Indian women while working on her Platte River history, People of the Moonshell. Her fascination with their struggles started when she discovered a manuscript by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, daughter of a Brulé Sioux mother and French-American fur trader father. Bettelyoun wrote of many painful childhood experiences, including one when the U.S. Army forced her family east from its North Platte River home to a new reservation.

Much of Peterson’s best material comes directly from the firsthand sources she has diligently uncovered. Most of her subjects wrote eloquently in the English language, serving as conduits between the two cultures through their ability to articulate facets of native life to English-speaking peoples. Often they recorded the native oral traditions “just as they were spoken” by village elders. Josephine Waggoner transcribed Bettelyoun’s memories in this way when the storyteller became too arthritic to write.

The blend of a Western higher education with knowledge of the communal bonds of tribal life made these women invaluable for more than just their literacy. They returned to their Indian communities as doctors administering tuberculosis vaccinations, as political activists working for Indian welfare, and as radio spokespeople disseminating Indian songs and stories over the airwaves. To the author’s credit, she is able to relate their lives in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here