Published on March 23, 2012 by Amy
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn 1930 (Born Elizabeth Bowed Head Irving) American poet, short story writer, and novelist. The following entry provides an overview of Cook-Lynn’s career through 1993.
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Cook-Lynn is a Crow Creek Sioux writer whose works explore the tensions between twentieth-century Sioux culture and white American society. While her poetry frequently utilizes Indian myth, religion, and tradition to explore the social and cultural roots of Native Americans, her prose generally focuses on the physical and psychological hardships of contemporary Native American life. Strongly influenced by her familial and tribal past, the northern plains landscape, and the works of Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, Cook-Lynn often blends traditional Native American chants and tales with western poetry and prose.
Cook-Lynn was born at Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, where she grew up in a traditional extended-family atmosphere. Her father and grandfather served on the Crow Creek Tribal Council for many years, and her grandmother was a bilingual writer for Christian newspapers. In addition to being well-known figures in Sioux history, these family members had a profound influence on Cook-Lynn’s writing. Cook-Lynn received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from South Dakota State College in 1952, and, in 1970, completed a master’s degree in education, psychology, and counseling at the University of South Dakota. She has also pursued graduate study at such institutions as New Mexico State University, University of Nebraska, and Stanford University. After working as a journalist and teaching at the high school level, Cook-Lynn become a professor of Native American studies at Eastern Washington University in 1971 and professor emeritus in 1993. Cook-Lynn also founded The Wicazo Sa Review, a journal of Native American studies. She published her first collection of poetry, Then Badger Said This, in 1983. Cook-Lynn has received numerous grants, including the National Endowment for the Humanities grant from Stanford University in 1978 and the Northwest Institute for Advanced Studies grant in 1986.
In Then Badger Said This Cook-Lynn blends traditional stories, oral history, and modern poetic techniques to explore the relationship between contemporary Dakotas and their past. For example, in the poem “The Last Remark-able Man,” which is introduced by a photograph of a Dakota ancestor, Cook-Lynn examines the importance of knowing one’s Native American roots; “The Flute Maker’s Story” incorporates traditional Indian song and articulates the link between Indian culture and the land. James Ruppert has observed that “in may ways book is an attempt to confirm and recreate the continuance of song, spirit, and history.” The deprivations and challenges of contemporary Sioux life are the focus of the stories in The Power of Horses, and Other Stories (1990), which address such themes as discrimination, the failure of the English language to adequately articulate Indian sensibilities and needs, brutality against Native Americans, dysfunctional Indian family relationships, and the realities of reservation life. John Purdy has noted that “The Power of Horses is a collage of individual characters’ experiences that draws into a specific landscape over a long period of time. We come very close to this place and the people who inhabit it.” The novella From the River’s Edge (1991), which takes place in South Dakota during the mid-1960s, continues to pursue the clash between contemporary Sioux life and white American society. The story concerns the trial of a white man who is accused of rustling cattle from John Tatekeya, a respected Sioux Indian rancher. In a bizarre miscarriage of justice, Tatekeya, the victim, is made to look like the guilty party, thus reinforcing the view that Native Americans and the white man will never be able to live together in trust, harmony, and peace.
The critical response to Cook-Lynn’s works has been mixed. While many critics applaud her poetic style, evocation of place, and exploration of the meaning and interpretation of history, others fault her prose for what they see as stereotypical characterizations and intrusive narrative structures. For example, writing about From the River’s Edge, Purdy has noted that “there are moments … when the narrator becomes intrusive [and we] are lectured, at times, on the history of Anglo/Native American relations.” Nevertheless, most critics agree that Cook-Lynn’s writings are important for their valuable insights into Native American life. Concerning her work, Cook-Lynn has stated that writing is “an act of defiance born of the need to survive. It is the quintessential act of optimism born of frustration. It is an act of courage, I think. And, in the end,… it is an act that defies oppression.”