Article 9: Reflecting on the Use of Gothic Literature and Changing Western Perspectives in Sophia Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest

Kelly Laybolt

Enduring colonial processes caused an extreme amount of contention between Indigenous people and European colonists in the late 19th as well as 20th centuries. This contention caused several conflicts between both parties and led to many tragic events throughout North America’s history. Like other authors of her time, Sophie Alice Callahan, a Muskogee (Creek Nation) teacher and novelist, used literature as a medium to highlight social issues and conflicts that occurred in the late 1800s. Her only novel, Wynema: A Child of the Forest, is widely considered a romance novel as there are two romantic relationships that develop throughout the story including that of a young Indigenous girl who was assimilated into Western culture and eventually married a European settler (Kong). Although Callahan’s novel was written to appeal to the predominantly Western audience at the time of its publication, I determined that she employed the American Gothic style to contest the ideals and norms of the 19th century as well as recount the events of the Wounded Knee Massacre from an Indigenous perspective. Additionally, several of the European characters experienced significant personal development throughout the story as they became more accepting of Indigenous culture and practices. These findings led me to reflect upon my own personal development as I once held similarly negative views towards minority cultures, my role as a writer and the necessity to change government policies that continue to subvert Indigenous people.

Callahan seemingly appealed to the predominantly European audience as a writing strategy in favour of mainstream readers to sell larger quantities of her novel and prolong her writing career. It can be argued that Callahan had an obligation to speak out about the objectional topics within her novel such as cultural assimilation, Indigenous subjugation as well as conflicts that occurred between Indigenous and Western culture because she was part of the Indigenous minority (Kong). Although she may have had this obligation, it was also necessary to market her novel to the dominant readership in the late 1800s which consisted largely of Caucasian individuals (Kong). Callahan also had to ensure that her own credibility as a writer would not be compromised by the subject matter of colonial consequences within the novel. Amy Gore, the author of “Gothic Silence: S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the Indigenous Unspeakable,” expressed that although the “main plot seemingly adhere[d] to the sentimental storylines of its day, Wynema deviate[d] from the standard fare in several ways” (29). Callahan strategically employed the European school teacher, Genevieve Weir, as one of the main protagonists and incorporated two romantic relationships to serve as the main plot, thus, creating a more desirable story for the mostly European audience. Many authors used writing strategies like Callahan’s to highlight important social issues that could not be discussed openly because of social stigmas or potential consequences during this period. For example, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was about a man named Marlow that traveled down the Congo River to rescue a fellow ivory trader named Kurtz (Puchner et al. 896). Although the story was about a European character’s mission, Conrad also described the abysmal conditions the Congolese people were subjected to under Belgian rule in extreme detail. As an avid reader and writer who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, I often took the privilege to speak freely for granted because I have always lived in a place where people are not punished for voicing their opinions or speaking out against dominant powers like the government. After reading Callahan’s novel, I had an immense amount of respect for her because she had to risk compromising her career in order to include those previously controversial themes within her work. Although I have strived to advocate for minority cultures like Callahan through my own publications, for the future I plan to keep trying to publish my work with greater resolution and ensure I remain appreciative of the opportunities I am given.

In order to ensure her writing strategy functioned as well as possible, Callahan also used the American Gothic style to discuss objectionable social issues. Gore stated that many of the topics in Callahan’s text such as cultural assimilation, subjugation and women’s suffrage were subjects that could be considered part of The Unspeakable (26). She further explained that The Unspeakable consists of matters that are “unnamed, undepicted …, made difficult to come by… [or] buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language” (Gore 25). Throughout history, colonizing agencies framed their methods as efforts that were being made to improve the lives of Indigenous people. These agencies also attempted to whitewash the negative impacts of colonialism, but Callahan strove to show colonialism from an Indigenous perspective and expose the damage it was causing. Although those topics were considered controversial and part of The Unspeakable at the time of publication, I believe that a majority of the contention surrounding them has abated. Many schools in Canada now educate their students about colonialism and the processes that governments employed in the past in order to subjugate Indigenous people. The Truth and Reconciliation process has also held the Canadian government accountable for their involvement in the Residential School system and made related information more obtainable for the general population. Hence, Callahan’s work is still relevant today as stigmas that originally surrounded the aforementioned Indigenous social issues have been largely dispelled and society has begun to make progress to atone for mistakes that were made in the past.

In addition to the Unspeakable, Callahan also incorporated the American Gothic style to describe the events at the Wounded Knee Massacre. There were two instances that invoked feelings of extreme despondency as I was reading the novel: when Carl Peterson, a teacher at Keithly College, tried to convince Wildfire and the other chiefs to abandon their plans of attack on the United States military, as well as when Callahan described the immense loss of life that occurred as the rebels were slaughtered. Peterson tried vehemently to convince Wildfire to surrender and return to the reservation, but Wildfire stated that their living conditions had become so unbearable that he preferred “to die than be so miserable” (Callahan 79). Wildfire further indicated he “shall die, if need be—that my sons may not grow up the oppressed wards of a mighty nation … when the whole country is theirs by right of inheritance.”  Throughout the conversation between Wildfire, the other chiefs and Peterson it became clear that the reservation system had forced the Indigenous people into an extremely dire situation. Furthermore, Wildfire’s continued fortitude and passion for his people despite facing almost certain death was a very heroic, but also extremely tragic moment in the novel. I felt helpless as I read this part of the story because I knew what the ultimate outcome of the Wounded Knee Massacre was, and it felt like you were reading these characters’ final words before death.

Callahan’s depiction of the battle and the aftermath was also extremely unsettling. The author used repetition at the beginning of chapter twenty-one to reinforce the Gothic themes within the novel. She stated that “a dark figure … [crept] stealthily … into the dark night” and was “met by other dark figures … along the dark road in the bitter night” (Callahan 83). Callahan’s repetition of the word “dark” created a hostile and unsettling setting because it seemed like anything or anyone could be out there waiting to attack these figures. This scene, combined with the apprehension that may have developed for the reader throughout the conversation between Wildfire and Peterson could create anxiety because the battle seemed to be imminent. Callahan’s description of the aftermath of the slaughter was especially disturbing as well. She stated that on “the battlefield, with no covering but the open sky lay the bodies of the dying and dead Indians, left there by friends and foes” (Callahan 85). The author continued by stating that “Everywhere is blood, blood! Over Everything, around everything, on everything. Oh! the [sic] awful sight!” According to Leslie Fiedler, an American literary critic, the American Gothic consisted of “darkness and the grotesque” (qtd. in Kong). I believe that Callahan’s account of the Wounded Knee Massacre was a perfect example of the American Gothic style because of the foreboding darkness at the beginning of chapter twenty-one and the dismal description of the battlegrounds after the fighting ceased. Although Callahan’s vivid descriptions were jarring, she only focused two chapters on the incident. I theorized that the author did this intentionally to shock the reader, but she also did not want to disseminate the trauma that the Wounded Knee Massacre caused. As a result, Callahan’s careful employment of this subject matter and her use of the Gothic style may have invoked a myriad of emotions within the readership despite the connotations associated with Indigenous people at the time. As a result, her work has become highly relevant in the 20th and 21st centuries after society began embarking on its path toward decolonization.

Another aspect of the novel that inspired me to reflect on my own experiences was the transition that some of the non-Indigenous characters went through as they became less biased toward Indigenous culture. At the beginning of the story, Gerald Keithly as well as Genevieve Weir believed Indigenous culture and traditions were barbarous. Weir voiced her opinion of Indigenous traditions when she exclaimed that she wished “the Indians would quit these barbaric customs” (Callahan 19). After listening to Weir voice her concerns, Keithly expressed that regardless if Indigenous people remained out in nature or assimilated into Western culture, they would still be less civilized than their European counterparts (Callahan 19). Additionally, Weir and Keithly further expressed their doubts regarding Indigenous traditions after observing a ceremony that the Indigenous people performed after burying a member of their community. The Indigenous members of the group sprinkled themselves with water after leaving the burial site (Callahan 25). After witnessing this procedure, Weir expressed her doubts about the validity of the procedure to which Keithly simply stated “When I am in Rome I strive to do as Rome does” (Callahan 25). Weir’s doubts about Indigenous culture and Keithly’s comment about Rome displayed the high level of ignorance that Western settlers had and suggested that neither of the characters was very open to learning about Indigenous culture. Reading about these characters led me to reflect on my own experiences as an individual who also suffered from bigotry. In the past, I was extremely ignorant about minority cultures and that caused me to be very jaundiced towards people of minority. Unfortunately, after comparing my own experiences with those of Callahan’s characters I realized how extreme prejudice towards minorities has been. Callahan’s novel was published over 100 years before I was born, yet the characters within the novel and I both experienced similar biases towards minority cultures. Therefore, I believe that Callahan created a realistic portrayal of the norms and ideals of Western society in the 19th century, which remains today. Furthermore, I realize that education and maintaining an open mind are extremely important to ensure that all people are treated equally regardless of race. In the future, it will be integral to ensure that biases that have continued to disadvantage minority groups are dispelled and that Truth and Reconciliation efforts ranging from an individual level to a governmental level continue to transpire.

Although several characters belonging to Western culture viewed Indigenous culture as inferior at the beginning of the novel, their opinions changed as they spent time living amongst Indigenous people. In chapter fourteen of Callahan’s novel tensions had begun to build between the United States government and Indigenous people as they were forced out of their territories and relocated to reservation land. During this time, Keithly had sent a letter to Weir that pleaded Weir to “Pray … that God may open the eyes of our oppressors to see the great wrong they are doing, and spare these people” (Callahan 54). Instead of referring to the government as Indigenous oppressors, Keithly used the words “our oppressors,” which insinuated that he viewed Indigenous people in much higher regard at this point than he did at the beginning of the novel (Callahan 54). Peterson also seemed to view Indigenous people as equals. Before Wildfire made his final stand, Peterson attempted to convince the Indigenous chief to stand down in an effort to save his life. Peterson told Wildfire that he “came to cast [his] lot among [Wildfire’s] misguided and mistreated people, to do all I can for them, toward reconciling them to my people and to the Government” (Callahan 78). Peterson’s statement suggested that he was extremely concerned about the well-being of Wildfire and his troops. As I read through the latter part of the book, I ascertained that the opinions of Callahan’s European characters had changed and found their acceptance of Indigenous culture was similar to my own. Characters like Keithly, Weir and Peterson became well-informed about Indigenous social issues like the government’s oppression as well as the struggles associated with living on a reservation (Callahan 71). In a similar fashion, I also had to become better educated about Indigenous social issues in order to fully understand them. Once I comprehended the web of Indigenous social problems, I began to show more compassion for their culture and had the desire to learn more about Indigenous people and their perspectives of the world. Additionally, my previous roommate was a Metis, Two-Spirit man and he was able to share a substantial amount of knowledge about Indigenous culture. As a result, I began to appreciate Indigenous culture and I determined that Callahan’s characters did the same while residing in the Creek Nation. Overall, the transition of the characters that resided with the Indigenous population provided me with the hope that equality between cultures and peoples is possible, but one of the painful historical realities is that racial hierarchy has existed for centuries and will be an extremely difficult system to quell in the future. Hereafter, I would like to continue advocating for Indigenous culture through my writing and contribute to Truth and Reconciliation efforts that advocate for accountability from the Canadian government.

            Callahan utilized several literary techniques in an effort to produce a novel that would be highly publicized despite the negative connotations many European people had regarding her minority status as an Indigenous person during the late 19th century. She employed a romantic plot and the American Gothic style in her writing strategy which allowed her to appeal to a predominantly European audience while also highlighting Indigenous social issues. Additionally, the personal development of some of the European characters mirrored my own experiences as they mitigated their negative views towards Indigenous people and became more accepting of Indigenous culture. As a result, Callahan’s work invoked a myriad of emotions as I read the novel because I respected the courage it may have taken for Callahan to risk her credibility in order to advocate for her culture and I strive to contribute to the decolonization process in both my personal as well as professional life. Therefore, despite contesting many of the ideals and norms of the dominant society in the late 1800s, many of the themes Callahan incorporated into her work have become extremely relevant in today’s society as Canadians slowly work their way toward decolonization.

Works Cited

Callahan, Sophia Alice. Wynema: A Child of the Forest. AmazonClassics, 2022.

Gore, Amy. “S. Alice Callahan’s Wynema, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the Indigenous Unspeakable.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 24–49. JSTOR,

Kong, Ying. “Special Topics: American Gothic Novels ENG 3013.” American Gothic Novels, 13 09 2022, University College of the North, Thompson.

Kong, Ying. “Indigenous Gothic and Sophia Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest (1981).” American Gothic Novels, 20 09 2022, University College of the North, Thompson.

Puchner, Martin, et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature (Shorter 4th Ed.). 4th ed., vol. 2, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Authors Bio:

Kelly Laybolt is a student at the University College of the North that has recently completed his fourth year in the Bachelor of Arts Program. During the 2022 fall semester, he enrolled in American Gothic Novels, an English course that explored cultural, social and political issues in the late 19th and early 20th century through the analysis of several novels that were written in the Gothic style. Kelly took a personal interest in this course throughout the term as he learnt about how authors have employed the Gothic style to highlight “uncanny” and “unspeakable” subjects within their works. Additionally, while working on a reflective essay assignment, Kelly noted several similarities between the European characters in Sophia Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest and himself. This inspired him to evaluate his previous perceptions of other cultures and how they have been viewed by the dominant society within his work. For the future, Kelly plans to continue broadening his understanding of Indigenous culture and traditions as well as provide further contributions to the truth and reconciliation process.

Instructor’s Remarks: American Gothic Novel (ENG 3013) is a third-year course in selected topics. This explores how cultural, social and political issues are reflected in the late 19th and 20th-century literature. Through reading the selected gothic novels by American authors, the students are required to demonstrate how American novelists use the Gothic genre as an expression of the “unspeakable” and the “uncanny” feeling while providing darker counter-narratives to contest or affirm the prevailing norms and ideals.  In his reflective essay, Kelly Laybolt explores how Sophia Alice Callahan feels obligated to speak out about the objectional topics in Sophia Alice Callahan’s Wynema: A Child of the Forest. As early as 1891, as an Indigenous author, Callahan touched the objectional topics such as cultural assimilation, Indigenous subjugation as well as conflicts that occurred between Indigenous and Western cultures. However, the novel inexplicably disappeared from the press for more than half a century. Kelly’s Gothic reading helps the reader understand the “unspeakable” and “uncanny” features of Indigenous Gothic literature. (Dr. Ying Kong)

Posted in