Sophia Alice Callahan

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Sophia Alice Callahan
Sophia Alice Callahan.jpg
Born(1868-01-01)January 1, 1868
Sulphur Springs, Texas
DiedJanuary 7, 1894(1894-01-07) (aged 26)
Muskogee, Creek Nation, Indian Territory
NationalityAmerican, Muscogee (Creek)
OccupationTeacher, novelist (one book)
Years active1876-1895
Known forFirst Native American female novelist
Notable work
Wynema, A Child of the Forest

Sophia Alice Callahan (1 January 1868 – 7 January 1894) (Muscogee) was a novelist and teacher. Her novel, Wynema, A Child of the Forest (1891) is thought "to be the first novel written by a Native American woman."[1] Shocked about the Massacre at Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which took place about six months before she published her book, Callahan added an account of this and the 1890 Ghost Dance of the Lakota to her book in the first fictional treatment of these subjects.[2]

This may have been "the first novel written in Oklahoma," which was at the time Indian Territory.[1] Callahan wrote in a romantic novel style but she also clearly intended what has been called a "reform novel," identifying many wrongs suffered by Native Americans in United States society.

After being discovered in the late 20th century, the novel was reprinted in 1997. It has been the subject of scholarly studies.


Sophia Alice Callahan was born in Sulphur Springs, Texas in 1868,[3] to a father who was culturally Muscogee and mixed-race, with Creek and European ancestry; and a white mother, daughter of a Methodist missionary.[4] Her father, Samuel Benton Callahan, was one-eighth Muscogee-Creek and enrolled in the tribe.[5] He lost his own father during Indian Removal of the Creek to Indian Territory in the 1830s, when the elder man died on the journey.[5] Sophia's mother was Sarah Elizabeth Thornberg.[6]

Samuel Callahan was the editor of the Indian Journal.[6] He was elected to represent the Creek (Muscogee) and Seminole in the Confederate Congress from Indian Territory and served as an officer in the Confederate States Army.[7] The family had fled from Indian Territory to Sulphur Springs during the American Civil War. Afterward they returned to their home in Okmulgee, Indian Territory,[8] where Samuel Callahan developed a large farm and cattle ranch.[5]

Sophia Alice Callahan went East for part of her education. After having studied for nearly a year at the Wesleyan Female Institute in Staunton, Virginia, she was qualified in grammar, arithmetic, physics, geography and history. She subsequently taught at several different boarding schools in the Creek Nation of Indian Territory. [9][8] She worked at Wealaka Mission School in 1892-3, where her father was the superintendent.[10] Late in 1893 she moved to the Methodist-sponsored Harrell International Institute in Muskogee.[9] She also published articles in the school journal, Our Brother in Red.[8]

Having become a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Muskogee, Callahan explored this and other social movements in her novel, Wynema, a Child of the Forest (1891).[2]

Callahan last worked for the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. She had returned to Wesleyan Female Institute to get a college degree, in order to open her own school in the Creek Nation.[5] However, several other teachers at Harrell had fallen ill during the winter, and she was summoned to return home. After reaching Muskogee, Callahan also fell ill, She had contracted pleurisy and died in Muskogee at age 26 on January 7, 1894.[9][8][5]


In the late 20th century, Callahan's novel Wynema, a Child of the Forest (1891) was rediscovered; she had published it at the age of 23.[3] It was reprinted in 1997.

She completed the novel and published it six months after the Massacre at Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the year following the Ghost Dance, major events in Native American history. Her novel offered "the first fictional re-creation of both the messianic religious movement that reached the Pine Ridge Reservation in the spring of 1890 and the infamous slaughter of Lakota men, women, and children that occurred on December 29 of that same year."[2]

The novel follows Wynema, a young Muscogee girl, who, like Callahan, becomes educated in English and teaches at a mission school. She is shown marrying the brother of her friend, a white teacher. She has a child with him, but after Wounded Knee, also adopts a Lakota infant girl.[2] Callahan shows how strongly learning to read and write in English is related to assimilation, but she also shows her lead characters reading critically, applying judgment, and "scrutinizing contexts and subtexts."[10]

The book is notable as the first novel by a Native American woman in the United States.[11] Callahan used the novel to dramatize the issue of tribal allotments and breakup of communal lands, and dedicated it to the Native American population, calling for an end to injustices suffered by Indians. Her heroine "Wynema serves as both a reflection of Callahan's Christian ideals and a vehicle through which those ideals can be shown to fail." [2]

According to scholars Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa, the novel is "thin, and sometimes highly improbable, plots are woven through with themes concerning the importance of Christianity and education in English, fraud in Indian administration, allotments, temperance, women's rights, the Ghost Dance movement, and atrocities committed upon the Sioux at Wounded Knee".[9]

The timing of the publication of Callahan's novel in the spring of 1891 shows that she had to decide to incorporate the events of Wounded Knee into her novel, as they took place in December 1890. A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff says this section appears to be tacked on to the novel, which otherwise has a classic romantic structure that was resolved with the marriages of Wynema and her white teacher friend Genevieve.[2]

While Callahan has her characters (often through the white characters) express some of the common ideas about allotment, the Ghost Dance and the massacre, "Old Masse Hadjo," an Indian, explicitly explains how the Ghost Dance religion is better for the Indians than Christianity. His comments "validate the Native religion and emphasizes the threat of white hostility, turning dominant rhetoric on its head and thereby extricating the Ghost Dance from the violence to follow."[2]

When Callahan addresses Wounded Knee, she repeats inaccuracies of the press.[2] But she introduces a radical element by describing Lakota women before and after the battle, which most other accounts ignore. In a contrived ending, Chikena, an elder Lakota woman finds and saves three infants from the battlefield. In this section, the reader learns that Wynema speaks Lakota; she invites the older woman to live with her and adopts the infant girl. "Wynema's charge, named Miscona after her dead mother, becomes ... a "famous musician and wise woman" (Callahan 104), offering at least the possibility of an Indian-identified life."[2] This is in contrast to the two Lakota boys, adopted by Wynema's white friends, who are given Anglo-European names and said to become a doctor and missionary as adults.[2] Lisa Tatonetti says that Callahan wrote from her position as an acculturated Native American but she also sought to imagine the lives of the Plains Indians.[2]


  1. ^ a b Van Dyke, Annette (1992). "An Introduction to Wynema, A Child of the Forest, by Sophia Alice Callahan". Studies in American Indian Literature. Series 2. 4 (2/3): 123–128. JSTOR 20736606.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Behind the Shadows of Wounded Knee: The Slippage of Imagination in 'Wynema: A Child of the Forest'", Lisa Tatonetti, Studies in American Indian Literatures, Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 1-31 | 10.1353/ail.2004.0015
  3. ^ a b Bakken & Farrington 2003, p. 42.
  4. ^ Chapman & Mills 2011, p. 108.
  5. ^ a b c d e Carolyn Stull, "S. Alice Callahan", Encyclopædia Britannica online, 2016; accessed 6 August 2016
  6. ^ a b Wilson, Linda D. (2009). "Callahan, Sophia Alice (1868–1894)". Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  7. ^ Sonneborn 2007, p. 35.
  8. ^ a b c d Cox, Cox & Justice 2014, p. 642.
  9. ^ a b c d Bataille & Lisa 2003, p. 63.
  10. ^ a b Janet Dean, "Reading Lessons: Sentimental Literacy and Assimilation in 'Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home' and 'Wynema: A Child of the Forest'," ESQ: The Journal of the American Renaissance, Volume 57, Number 3, 2011 (Nos. 224 O.S.), pp. 200-240; available at Digital Commons; accessed 6 August 2016
  11. ^ Siobhan Senier, "Allotment Protest and Tribal Discourse: Reading Wynema's Successes and Shortcomings", The American Indian Quarterly, Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2000, pp. 420-440