April 11

From the desk of Emily Levine

WaggonerEmily Levine is an independent scholar and the editor of Witness: A Húŋkpapȟa Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas.

I am privileged and honored to be the editor of Josephine Waggoner’s monumental life’s work. What historian would say no to editing one of the few new Native manuscripts to come to light in recent decades? What historian would say no to bringing to publication the voluminous work of a Hunkpapa historian long unrecognized? What historian would say no to taking on this work when asked to do so by members of the woman’s family? Looking back, I am chagrined to say, this one. While I was pleased with my work on Waggoner’s collaboration with Susan Bettelyoun, published as With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), I was not ready to undertake another long-term project and had work of my own that I was interested in pursuing. I think I actually said no twice before I gave in and agreed to compile and edit this new manuscript material.

Would I have agreed if I’d known it would be a thirteen-year-long labor of love, consuming time and resources I often didn’t have? That it would take over my life and become a single-minded pursuit? I believe there is truth in what members of Josephine’s family have told me: that I was the one meant to do this work and that I cared enough to do it justice. Perhaps it helped that I am not an academic, that I could work without deadlines, that no promotion or tenure considerations were involved, and that I did not suffer the scrutiny of colleagues. My loyalty lay only with Josephine Waggoner, her family, and the Lakota people.

When one is obsessive and a compulsive perfectionist, editing work can turn what would have been a big, somewhat-complicated job into a monster. If I was going to undertake this project, I knew I was going to do everything I could to make it the best book possible. That meant I would search out every manuscript, every scrap of writing that Waggoner ever did; it meant I would translate all of the Lakota and transcribe it in the currently accepted orthography; it meant I would carefully research every thread so that the annotative endnotes would give real context to Waggoner’s work, provide necessary information, and utilize previously untapped sources. It also meant that I would gather hundreds of images—some collected by Waggoner herself—to illustrate the manuscript; many of these would be Lakota-generated drawings to accompany this Lakota-generated text.

If I was going to agree to do this project, I would need to do it that way, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to take it on. But Josephine Waggoner’s work is singular; there is nothing else like it. It is rich and deep, based on long-passed-down stories, eyewitness accounts, and her personal experiences. She lived this history. Every year for decades, white historians have published books on the Lakota. As a Lakota elder once told me, “people are hungry” for this stuff. But these historians have mostly been rehashing the same information over and over. As I discuss in the introduction and afterword of the book, the amount of new material is one of the reasons I believe that Waggoner’s work is of great importance. I also think she was a historian and writer of considerable talent. I believe that without her, much would be lost. And I was given the opportunity to bring her work to publication, something she was never able to do in her lifetime and something others who tried were unable to do. So many attempts were made but failed.

Why did I decide to do this book? I think it was decided for me. Seven decades went by before these manuscripts found their way to me, before family members approached and pushed me and trusted me to take it on. I thought I could do it. And once I realized that I could, and that the family wanted me to, and that saying no wasn’t going to be accepted, I really had no choice. Was it “meant to be”? I don’t know. But I do know that I am so fortunate to have been able to spend the past thirteen years of my life working with Waggoner’s manuscripts. I am honored to be able to present her work to the public.

-Emily Levine