Sadie Ingalls’ origin story is concise, but filled with meaning. Themes of sin invade the text, as does the conflict between the individual and the community in this carefully worded yet ambiguous piece.
Sadie’s crow suffers several faults. First, he forgets his promise to his companions that he will not eat the groups food. There is no hint of malicious intention in this act, just carelessness. The crow is driven by his hunger, a real physical need. Tricksters are often guided by their appetites for food and pleasure, however Sadie imbues this crow with no emotion other than the desire to eat. The crow then goes on to lie to his friends when they ask him whether he has eaten their meat. His friends know he is lying and tell him he will be punished, but they do not tell him for what he is being punished. The readers must speculate as to which is the greater sin, disobeying orders or lying about it. Either way, the crow suffers the consequences of the group, because each action separated him from their expectations and rules. In taking the food and satisfying his individual hunger, the crow disregarded the needs of the group and disrespected their wishes. The crows punishment of dull colored feather isolates him from his friends and makes him markedly different. With the groups understood as the native tribes, this punishment reveals an interesting aspect of the story. Themes take on significant new meanings with knowledge of the Carlisle Indian School.
The Carlisle Indian School specialized in turning Indians into humans capable of assimilating to white culture and society. This process began with the muting of physical differences between whites and indians. Images from the school show lighter skin in pictures taken later in their school careers, either by lighting or the virtue of being inside more at school. Students hair was immediately sheared once they entered the school, cutting them off from a source of pride and identity. The crow’s loss of his brilliant plumage can be understood as an allusion to the author’s forced adoption of muted American clothes and short unadorned hair. This physical difference separated the children at the school from their peers back home. Although, like the crow, they could associate with their tribe after leaving Carlisle, they were forever marked.
The interference of the Great Spirit in the story points to the influence of the Christian values of the Carlisle Indian school. In the story, God or the Great Spirit is not an actual character. Instead the crow’s friends tell him that the Great Spirit is the one punishing him. Read through an oppositional lens, this portion bears similarities to Zit-kala-sa’s relationship with God and the Devil. Zit-kala-sa, a writer who taught at Carlisle Indian, wrote of her fear of punishment and the Devil. In a nightmare about it she describes the Devil as chasing her while ignoring her mother, who cannot see it. For her mother, the Devil was not interested in her, menacing, or real because their culture and religion had no conception of it. Sadie’s larger power in the story similarly exists only through the insistence of others, like the Christian teachers at school. It is unclear as to why the Great Spirit is the figure who punishes the crow, when he has been absent from the story until his friends discover his sins. This larger figure could be an adaptation of the God figure in genesis, or an attempt to highlight how abruptly God entered their lives; an imposition used by Carlisle to keep the children in line.
There is no indication in Sadie’s letters that the story should be read with an oppositional voice however. She had no disciplinary issues and frequently received excellent and good on her evaluations. Sadie appeared to be fully invested and active in her education, and married a white man after school. There survives no letters of Sadie’s to those outside of the school though, and no written opinions on her time at school. Being that there appears to be no actual Sac and Fox tale about the crow, it seems unlikely that Sadie was acting as a tribal educator. The lack of Sadie personal feelings in her records and the ambiguity in her writing suggests her voice is conflicted. How heavily one reads the influence of the historical context affects how rebellious the story’s message is.
Sadie Ingalls’ story of the crow is important historically. Its historical context allows for various interpretations and debate over how a successful student would feel towards her forced assimilation. Its possible interpretations each speak to the conditions of the Carlisle Indian school and themes of sin, punishment, and losing a community. Along with the story’s historical importance is its aesthetic. As a member of the Mercer’s literary club who frequently participated in debates and recitations, Sadie would be aware of rhetorical devices and literary trends. Thus the simplicity of her story belies an intentionality. The switch between passive and active voice leaves the actual responsibility of the crow for his actions up in the air. Why was he obliged to stay while his friends hunted? Yet all his sins occur in the active voice, showing that the crow made a series of decisions all on his own. The sequence of his friends leaving and his eating the meat takes place in one long sentence, moving quickly from the order to the sin. This could reflect the actual timeline, during which the crow would not have been hungry enough to justify disobeying his friends, or it could show how quickly a couple of bad decisions can change ones life. Altogether, Sadie Ingalls writes a deceptively simple story whose ambiguities allow for nuanced critiques of the Carlisle Indian School and notions of assimilation.