Oral Tradition and the Healing Power of Words:
Reflections on Author Frances Washburn

by Gina Stuart-Richard and Matthew Tafoya

Stories, especially those that originate in the oral tradition, can fulfill many different purposes.  They can be curative, ceremonial, historical, or just plain gossip.   Stories can be very powerful creations designed to invoke ritual, ceremony, and communal healing.  The power of a good story should not be underestimated.  As it is for many Native people, for the Lakota, sometimes the most powerful stories of all originate in the collective consciousness of a people and can encompass their worldviews, the character traits which they hold sacred, and the community values that denote respect and wisdom.  Stories, which originated as oral tradition in ancient times, can be just as powerful today as these stories can heal a single person or sometimes an entire community.  Lakota author Frances Washburn reveals that the power of a good story can even be derived from the creative process itself.  “The power is in the process.  Not so much what you say, but how you say it” reveals Washburn in a discussion with students from the Poetics and Politics Seminar in 2011. 

Washburn was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and is of Lakota and Anishinaabe descent.  She is a careful storyteller who uses her craft to combine tragic stories with lessons of community, pairing the difficult aspects of Native mixed identity with the commitment of a loving family, always giving us the bad news but always helping us to land in a balanced spot.  Her first novel, Elsie’s Business, was published in 2006 amid outstanding reviews.  It was the second place winner in the “first novel” category awarded by the Western Writers of America.  Gerald Vizenor proclaimed Elsie’s Business as “an outstanding, original, engaging narrative of a Native community and survivance.” 

In the world of fiction, providing a bridge between Native oral tradition and the novel is a difficult task at best.  It becomes even more difficult when the subject matter is no longer the stereotypical historical fiction about full-blooded Native people, but instead relies on a main character that is of mixed blood, more so when the mix is Native and African American blood.  Louis Owens says that “To begin to write about something called ‘the American Indian novel’ is to enter a slippery and uncertain terrain” (Owens 1994: 3).  Owens believes that these issues of identity and mixed blood are combined with romantic ideas of what American Indians should be and makes for a very confusing situation (Owens 1994: 3-4).  Frances Washburn uses the story Elsie’s Business to challenge ideas, notions, and assumptions that her readers might have about these Native stereotypes.  Washburn (Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion) commented that she wanted to use the character of Elsie to portray the idea of “mixed blood” as something other than the typical Native and white mix.  She says that she deliberately wanted to portray a more realistic representation in this book that expands on our ideas of “mixed blood” and racism.

One challenge that Washburn faced in the creation of the story of Elsie’s Business was how to remain true to the power of the oral tradition of the Lakota while creating a story that would appeal to readers of fiction.  Washburn (Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion) states that “One of the challenges is to serve the integrity of oral stories by adapting them into the written form.”  Washburn successfully does both by creating the character of Elsie and invoking the traditional Lakota Deer Woman stories.  The traditional Deer Woman, usually known as the temptress in the Lakota tradition, becomes the protector in this novel, avenging the rape of Elsie.  Washburn (Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion) says that she wanted to put a twist on the traditional Deer Woman stories and invoke a sort of modern protector to those the community had thrown away.  Likewise, near the beginning of the story, Washburn relates the story of the Anukite, or Double-Faced Woman as a way for her readers to understand the various characters throughout the book.  In this way, Washburn also provides a commentary on identity, personal actions, and societal norms in Lakota culture.  Author Louis Owens (Owens 1994: 14) calls techniques such as this “subversive” and states that this is one way that Native authors can use Native-centered knowledge to explain stories to non Native readers. 

Washburn read the Wiping the Tears Ceremony in Elsie’s Business during the Poetics and Politics reading March 2, 2011 at the Poetry Center.  In this story Washburn remains true to her Lakota readers by privileging Lakota language and ceremony and does not provide direct or explicit translations for her non Lakota audience.  Washburn tells us that these untranslated words are her commentary on the boarding school era when Native children were forbidden to speak their Native language or perform traditional ceremonies or even say traditional prayers.  Washburn says that this allows the non Lakota reader to experience what it is like to be excluded or to not know what is being said, or to even have the privilege of understanding a ceremony. 

Washburn herself is a warm and friendly person, and, as she reads her stories, her audience may get the sense that these stories aren’t just constructed from some fictitious place or time.  Her characters seem all too real and complex for that.  In fact, Washburn (Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion) confesses that many of her characters and their situations are based on real people and real events – some even being her own relatives.  So real are the characters in her work, that it is hard to believe that the ones that she says are fictitious characters are not real people themselves.  There is an immediate sense of honesty in her stories, her characters, and the events that unfold.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the character of Elsie in Elsie’s Business was in fact based on a very real person.  The novel is based on the real life of Elsie Flood, a mixed blood woman of Lakota and African American heritage who was murdered.  On one occasion, Washburn was approached at a reading by one of Elsie’s relatives and was thanked for remembering a person that the relative was sure everyone else had forgotten.  Washburn uses her gift for storytelling to advance her politics and raise awareness about the staggering problem of domestic violence and abuse in Native communities.  In the novel, Washburn (Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion) says that by not naming Elsie’s killer she was able to demonstrate that all too often, when Native women are raped or murdered, the killers are rarely caught.  As in the book, in real life Elsie Flood’s killer was never brought to justice.  But more than that, Washburn commented that by ignoring this violence and perpetuating racism and unfounded gossip, it was Elsie’s community that was ultimately responsible for her death.  Washburn continued that Elsie’s murder was the result of a broken community.  This novel ultimately reflects her views about community responsibility. 

Within Elsie’s Business, Washburn portrays incredible honesty and depth of emotion, tragedy and redemption, and speaks to people of all races, communities in all places.  She promotes forgiveness and understanding.  By employing a rather unconventional style of the second-person narrative, Washburn guides her readers through the story using her gentle and reassuring, yet disembodied voice to help her readers through a story filled with tragedy and heartache.  Throughout her work, Washburn remains sensitive to the incredible power that lies within the oral tradition and successfully transitions these stories into print while at the same time realizing that both the written and spoken words have the power to transform people as well as to heal communities.  Washburn’s work does all of this and still demonstrates what Native people have known since time immemorial – the power of stories to teach, to remember, and to heal. 

Works Cited

Owens, Louis.  Other Destinies.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.  Print.

Washburn, Frances.  Elsie’s Business.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.  Print.

---.  Poetics and Politics Seminar Discussion.  Tucson: University of Arizona.  3 March 2011.

May 11, 2011