|Cook-Lynn's fiction is as stark, rolling, and sometimes startling as the northern prairie she describes.
Set on the reservation, these thirteen stories share a set of central historical events: the last battles
against European incursion and therefore the establishment of the reservation itself; the equally
damaging onslaught of Christian missionaries; the Reorganization years of the John Collier
administration in the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and the damming of the Missouri River for a
They are, of course, all related and they mark the ebb and flow of the Dakotah sense of self-
determination, an identity based upon the people's ability to direct their own future. When the battle is
lost, the ceremonial practices outlawed, the ancient, crucial places submerged under a blanket of
muddy water, what is left? To her credit, Cook-Lynn shows us the effects clearly, but does not let us
misconstrue her lesson. The Power of Horses is not a book that perpetuates the stereotypical
“doomed Indian” myth; it is a tribute to survival.
The opening story, “Mahpiyato,” is a good example and an apt introduction to what follows. In it, an
old woman and her granddaughter walk to the river to pick berries, “as they had done all their lives,”
and find a moment of sudden beauty as a cloud passes over the water. The woman emphasizes with
“the sound of her voice that a sober and interesting phenomenon was taking place right before their
very eyes.” And the child, “a steadfast and modest companion of the old woman, knew from long
experience about the moments when the stories came on....”
The woman quizzes the child and we learn that this sudden vision is called Mahpiyato, and it can be
encompassed only in terms of Dakotah language and literature: “To say just `blue' or `sky' or `cloud'
in English, you see, doesn't mean much.” Instead, there must be a comprehension accompanying the
description: “You see, she is blue. And she is gray. Mahpiyato is, you see, one of the Creators. Look!
Look! Look at Mahpiyato!” The next line, the final one of the story, is equally telling: “Her voice was
low and soft and very convincing.”
The story is only one-and-a-half pages long, and it says everything. Cook-Lynn faces the dilemma of
every Native writer who wishes to convey a tribal point of view through the English language and
euramerican written literary conventions. Her characters must speak English so that her non-Native
audience can understand. Like the woman in her story, she must educate by demarcating the
differences in perspective, but also by taking us inside her cultural milieu.
We learn that Mahpiyato is a Creator, that the Creator is feminine, that she exists in a variety of ways
simultaneously (that she may be a being of apparent oppositions and contradictions), that we can
learn about her from stories, and that one can find joy and identity by witnessing her manifestations.
(We also witness a fundamental linking of generations, and therefore an implied continuity of identity
over time.) Finally, we are called to look at her through the stories that follow in the collection, stories
told in a voice that is “low and soft and very convincing.” We have been given the aesthetic of The
Power of Horses.
But Cook-Lynn does not paint a romantic human landscape. Life in this place over the last century
has been hard, traumatic, and always tenuous. Characters face threats and challenges not only to
their individual survival, but to the survival of their cosmos: Young Nephew returns from Vietnam to
the place where explosive violence is easily justifiable and always self-destructive; Gracie faces the
self-limitation—the memories and emotional scars—created by an abusive, Anglo father whose
“rights,” even in death, supersede hers and her siblings'; Anita loses her children in a custody battle
and is powerless to recapture their love; and Magpie is gunned down in jail at a time when his future is
at its brightest.
Throughout the book, one cannot help but feel the pervasive sense of frustration and hopelessness
that continuously threatens the fundamental unity of the Dakotah and therefore their identity as a
people, yet this sense is mitigated by an equally powerful message of endurance and survival.
It is sadly ironic that The Power of Horses was published in a year that also gave us the immensely
popular movie "Dances with Wolves." It is ironic because both deal with tribal groups of the Sioux
nation, but from very different points of view, sad because the wrong one was enjoyed by so many.
Dances uses an Anglo hero to idealize and romanticize Native Americans (although novelist David
Seals has pointed out its inadequacies, including the humor of male Sioux using the feminine form of
the language); "The Power of Horses," on the other hand, paints a compelling, realistic, detailed water
color of life on the Crow Creek Reservation in this century, with all its bleak and beautiful moments, its
history written in terms of human endurance. There are no Lieutenant John Dunbars or Natty
Bumppos in this collection, only characters who struggle and then go on.
From the River's Edge, set against an ever-present history of appropriation, exploitation, and colonial
genocidal purges, likewise records the endurance of traditional life-ways, viewpoints, and values, and
affirms their veracity in modern times.
In the preface to the novel, for example, we witness (from the river's edge) the initial flooding of the
Missouri River by the Oahe Dam, a hydroelectric project the federal government has imposed upon
the Dakota landscape and Dakotah people, but even in the face of such a radical and onerous
change “it is easy to believe that this vast region continues to share its destiny with a people who
have survived hard winters, invasions, migrations, and transformations unthought of and
unpredicted.” It is a destiny, however, that is-as all futures are, inherently-tentative.
Cook-Lynn's years of experience-on the reservation, and as a writer, historian and activist-enliven the
novel. At once, it is the story of John Tatekeya (pronounced Tah-TAY-kee-yah), of a hundred years
of history, of the changing landscape, and of a potentially fundamental shift in the interactions of a
As she tells us very early on, “it takes only a small event in the life of an ordinary man to illuminate the
ambiguities of an entire century.” A court trial over the theft of Tatekeya's cattle provides the small
event that illuminates the century for us, and at the physical and thematic center of the novel we are
given the fundamental question of the work, and of the century for the Sioux: is a life of honor and
community still possible in a modern, changing world?
One wonders, for as the trial progresses attention shifts from the thief and the missing cattle to John
himself, and then something terrible happens: a fellow tribesman testifies against him, for personal
reasons. The foundations of Sioux identity quake as John acknowledges “in his heart the
uncompromising pride and courage inherent in the Dakotah way of life, and the loss of it, momentarily
at least, in the behavior of everyone connected with this miserable trial.”
The unquestionable has been questioned, and this is “the price of the entrenchment of white
civilization in his life and the lives of others.” Of course, questions require answers, and Cook-Lynn
provides them, but they are at once similar to, and subtly different from those of her contemporaries.
The story is set in the mid-1960s, at a time when the first vestiges of the activism that was to become
the American Indian Movement appeared in cities around the country. Within a few years, the
reclamation/occupation of Wounded Knee, southwest of Crow Creek Reservation, would dramatize
both an outspoken idealization of “Indian,” pantribal identity and the debate within and between tribes
about the future of traditional lifeways and sociopolitical structures. In other words, Cook-Lynn takes
us to an historical crux, a moment at which individuals assessed their situations and reacted.
John Tatekeya is the embodiment of the debate. Much of the narrative is devoted to exploring his
internal dilemma as he faces the “ambiguities” inherent in his situation. (The internal monologues of
his lover, Aurelia, late in the novel are equally revealing and perhaps as central to the novel.) While
most of this exploration is well handled, there are moments, however, when the narrator becomes too
intrusive, and this is the one weak point in an otherwise useful narrative device. We are lectured, at
times, on the history of Anglo/Native American relations, and while this may be new territory for some,
the number of readers not sufficiently versed in that history will be minimal.
These historical facts are indeed significant and noteworthy, but intrusions and redundant
nonetheless. Tatekeya's personal reflections are wholly adequate to carry the history of who he is
and how he came to be at this moment that may spell a distinct change in his people's lifeways, and
therefore result in a very different people in the future.
Cook-Lynn's strengths are amply apparent in the novel. She composes short chapters that, like her
short stories, are powerful in themselves. There are moments of truly wonderful insight shared with a
voice clear and resonant. We follow Tatekeya on his associative wanderings through time as he
wrestles with what is happening to him and to his community.
In order to resolve his problems and answer the central question of what will happen to his people in
the future, he must measure his own life in terms of Dakotah values, as Cook-Lynn explicates them
and the ways that they are passed from generation to generation. Appropriately, at moments when he
surveys his own experience (his internal landscape), he also surveys the physical landscape of Crow
Creek, which is inseparable from his identity, and this is where we find the nondramatic revelation.
He lifted his eyes toward the hills which spread out and away from the river, like earthen monuments
of the past, forever, ophidian, resolute.... John Tatekeya of the Dakota prairielands and his people
had forever possessed great confidence in their collective presence in their homelands. More than he
thought about it, John felt it and simply held it in his heart.
Cook-Lynn was born Elizabeth Irving on 17 November 1930 at the government hospital in Fort
Thompson, on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Politics and writing were part of
her family life and heritage: her grandfather Joe Bowed Head Irving and her father, Jerome Irving,
served for many years on the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Council. Her mother, Hulda Alma Peterson
Irving, was a teacher.
Elizabeth was named for her grandmother Eliza Renville Irving, who had written bilingual articles for
Christian newspapers published in the late 1800s by the Dakota Mission at Sisseton, South Dakota;
during Elizabeth Irving's childhood this grandmother lived only four miles away and sometimes stayed
with Irving's family. Another grandfather, Gabriel Renville, who died before Irving was born, had been
a linguist who was instrumental in developing early Dakota-language dictionaries.
Cook-Lynn says in the autobiographical essay that she "read everything: the Sears catalog, Faust,
Dick and Jane, Tarzan of the Apes, The Scarlet Letter, the First Letter to the Corinthians, David
Copperfield, 'The Ancient Mariner', Dick Tracy, 'Very Like a Whale', Paradise Lost, True Confessions,
and much more. . . . But I read nothing about the Dakotapi."
At South Dakota State College (now University) she took a history course titled "The Westward
Movement", in which there was no mention of the Indian nations. As a result, she decided that she
wanted to write and teach. She completed a B.A. in English and journalism in 1952. In 1953 she
married a fellow student, Melvin Traversie Cook of Eagle Butte, South Dakota; the marriage ended in
divorce in 1970.
In 1975 she married Clyde Lynn, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. She worked as a
journalist and taught at the secondary level before receiving a master's degree in educational
psychology and counseling at the University of South Dakota in 1971. That year she began teaching
English and Indian Studies at Eastern Washington University in Cheney while raising her four children
from her first marriage: Mary, Lisa, Margaret, and David. She was a National Endowment for the
Humanities fellow at Stanford University in 1976.
Cook-Lynn first gained a wide audience when excerpts from her first book, Then Badger Said This
(1977), were included in Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Native American
Literature (1979). In a 1987 interview Cook-Lynn told Joseph Bruchac that in Then Badger Said This
she was trying "to write the Sioux version of " N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969).
Her choice of a title was based on the function of the badger in Sioux literature -- to keep the plot
moving. Comparing Cook-Lynn and Momaday, both of whom are profoundly influenced by the oral
tradition, James Ruppert observes in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal (1980) that,
"like Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, her approach to history is not the cold unimaginative
one of literal history, but a highly oral process where the personal and the cultural merge."
This merging is evident in the prose and the poetry of the mixed-genre Then Badger Said This as she
describes the destruction of the Missouri River country that resulted from the damming of the river in
1952. Though she writes from a Dakota worldview, Cook-Lynn's emphases on nature and family give
the book a universal message -- for example, in her description of a father's grief at the loss of his
"middle son, the finest rider anywhere around," who died and was buried in France during World War I
and whose bones "could not mingle with the bones of his grandfathers."
The loss of that young man in a foreign war is deeply ironic, for the U.S. government's policy toward
the Sioux when they lived freely on the plains in the nineteenth century was designed to remove their
spiritual and military leaders so that they would be forced to give up vast land areas and
In her chapbook, Seek the House of Relatives (1983), Cook-Lynn takes the U.S. government and
those who have used it to exploit the native nations to task in poetry and a short story that are more
refined and complex treatments of the themes introduced in her first book. Discussing one of the
poems, "A Poet's Lament: Concerning the Massacre of American Indians at Wounded Knee," she
says in her autobiographical essay that "it is the responsibility of a poet like me to 'consecrate' history
and event, survival and joy and sorrow, the significance of ancestors and the unborn; and I use one
of the most infamous crimes in all of human history, which took place against a people who did not
deserve to be butchered, to make that responsibility concrete."
The identical first and last stanzas of the poem describe the government strategy: "All things
considered, they said, / Crow Dog should be removed. / With Sitting Bull dead / It was easier said." In
another poem in the chapbook, "My Grandmother's Burial Ground," she refers to the buying of Indian
land as the "coins invaders played / which made you play your hand against your will," suggesting that
the land speculators forced the Native American tribes to gamble away their future. The poem ends:
"History, / that counterfeit absurdity / is no match for Buffalo bones / and dried skins of crows."
"Seeking the house of relatives," Cook-Lynn searches for what is real and lasting amid the false
history she exposes.
The Power of Horses and Other Stories (1990) continues this search. Its prologue, a recasting in
verse of the essay that constitutes the second section of Then Badger Said This, contrasts the
reshaping of the landscape caused by the damming of the river and the "steel REA / towers / stalking
up and down / prairie hills" with the enduring reality "that this vast region / continues to share its
destiny / with a people / who have survived hard winters / invasions / migrations / and transformations
/ unthought of / and unpredicted."
The collection includes stories from her first two books. In the American Book Review (December
1992-January 1993) John Purdy compares the book to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
(1919) and William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses and Other Stories (1942): "The Power of Horses is a
collage of individual characters' experiences that draws one into a specific landscape over a long
period of time. We come very close to this place and the people who inhabit it."
Native Americans often point out that one of the most essential elements of cultural survival is one's
native language; thus, in these stories, as in her earlier books, Cook-Lynn supplements English with
Dakota words. In "Mahpiyato," which opens the book, a kunchi (grandmother) teaches her grandchild
to observe and appreciate the rare and sacred quality of the blue-gray sky they are observing.
Perhaps in speaking of the sky as feminine -- which, in Dakota mythology, it is not -- the grandmother
wishes to instill in the child a feeling of reverence for the female as creator. As Paula Gunn Allen says
in "The Sacred Hoop" (1986), "the centrality of the feminine power of universal being is crucial to"
Cook-Lynn's work. Yet what is most apparent in her work is the general respect for the creation that
her culture entails.
In "Bennie," which ends the collection, Cook-Lynn presents an image of responsibility to, and
appreciation for, even the smallest creatures. Other stories in the collection are overtly political. The
narrator of "A Good Chance" is in Chamberlain, South Dakota, searching for Magpie, a young poet
who has been offered a university scholarship. Magpie is on parole, having spent a year in jail for
allegedly participating in the Custer Courthouse protest. With his talent and obvious commitment to
his culture -- he has been singing the traditional songs with his brothers -- Magpie has a "good
chance" to become a leader of his people; but he never gets a real chance. Picked up for breaking
the conditions of his parole because he has not stayed away from his friends and relatives, Magpie is
shot and killed in jail.
Cook-Lynn again exposes and condemns the misuse of the justice system in her novel, From the
"River's Edge" (1991). The novel is set on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation during the 1960s, the
decade following the one in which the Missouri River was dammed for a hydroelectric project and
many native families, including Cook-Lynn's relatives, were forced to relocate. On the surface the
work is the story of John Tatekeya's attempt to use the court system to get back more than forty cattle
that were stolen from him, but of more import is Tatekeya's search for an ethical life as his
environment is destroyed.
Purdy points out that the trial "provides the small event that illuminates the century for us." The
attention shifts during the trial from determining who stole his cattle to probing Tatekeya's personal
life. Tatekeya suffers the indignity of his excessive drinking and secret love affair being exposed, in
the presence of his wife and daughter, by a fellow tribesman who testifies against him. At the end of
the trial Tatekeya has not recovered any of his cattle, and the thief, a white man who has been
released on bail, has probably set the fire that burns down Tatekeya's hay shed and a dozen of his
Yet there is hope: the ordeal makes Tatekeya more conscious of the value of his family and his tribe.
At the end of the novel he is in the sweat lodge with Harvey Big Pipe, whose sons had cooperated with
the rustler, acknowledging the "antiquities of the universe" and "his own triviality." Although Purdy
thinks that "there are moments . . . when the narrator becomes too intrusive," he concludes that the
novel "is compelling and relevant and wonderfully engaging." The Blackfeet critic Woody Kipp says
that Cook-Lynn "writes with that surety of knowing what it is to be a stranger in your homeland. She
knows also that the white man, his laws, his technology, his whole mode of existence, is perilously
close to the river's edge."
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
• Then Badger Said This (New York: Vantage, 1977).
• Seek the House of Relatives (Marvin, S.Dak.: Blue Cloud Quarterly, 1983).
• The Power of Horses and Other Stories (New York: Arcade-Little, Brown, 1990).
• From the River's Edge (New York: Arcade, 1991).
• Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
• " 'You May Consider Speaking about Your Art . . . ,' " in I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by
Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1987), pp. 55-63.
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS--UNCOLLECTED
• "Profile: Asa Primeaux, Sr.," Wicazo Sa Review, 1 (Spring 1985): 2-4.
• "Survival in Hexasyllables," Wicazo Sa Review, 1 (Spring 1985): 49-52.
• "The Rise of the Academic 'Chiefs,' " Wicazo Sa Review, 2 (Spring 1986): 38-40.
• "A Case Study: The Black Hills Issue: A Call for Reform," Wicazo Sa Review, 4 (Spring 1988): 1-2.
• "In the American Imagination, the Land and Its Original Inhabitants: An Indian Viewpoint," Wicazo Sa
Review, 4 (Fall 1990): 42-47.
• "A Monograph of a Peyote Singer: Asa Primeaux, Sr.," Wicazo Sa Review, 7 (Spring 1991): 1-15.
• "The Radical Conscience in Native American Studies," Wicazo Sa Review, 7 (Fall 1991): 9-13.
• "Elan (Poem for the Young Men Who Are the Big Foot Memorial Riders of 1990)," Wicazo Sa
Review, 7 (Fall 1991): 13.
• "Politics and the Native American Novel," Wicazo Sa Review, 7 (Fall 1991): 78-80.
• "Deer at the Keshena Amphitheatre, 1993," Wicazo Sa Review, 9 (Fall 1993): 25.
• "Some Thoughts about Biography," Wicazo Sa Review, 10 (Spring 1994): 73-74.
• "A Few More River Poems: Deluge, The Cove, The Bleak Truth, They Seemed, City Games of Life
and Death, Going Home," Woyake Kinikiya, 1 (Summer 1994): 8-13.
• "A 'Desecration Tour' Now Awaits Travelers Who Visit the Sacred Black Hills," Indian Country Today,
18-25 November 1996, p. A7.
Gruber, E. (2012). Thomas King.
Herman, M. (2009). Politics and Aesthetics in Contemporary Native American Literature: Across Every
Petrillo, L. (2007). Being Lakota: Identity and Tradition on Pine Ridge Reservation.
Crow Creek &