The concept of civilization has almost always involved examples of smaller cultures assimilating to larger cultures not willingly, but forcefully. When there is a large group of people who act as the majority, they typically hold the power and therefore decide that their culture and ideals are the best suited for all. Due to this sense of entitlement, the majority forces others unlike them to assimilate to what they believe to be true or good. In the process of doing so, smaller groups of people must abandon their own culture. In Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”, she uses the assimilation of wolf-like girls to emphasize the power that discouragement and forceful tactics has on people’s urge to change their identity. Through this story Russell critiques the process of forced assimilation for Indigenous peoples to White culture.
This story features a pack of human girls who had grown up their whole lives thinking they were wolves because they were raised by werewolf parents. Their parents, understanding that they were the minority and therefore had a culture that was not adequate enough to be accepted by all, sent their children to a home meant to civilize them. Upon arriving at the home, the girls did everything in their power to remain true to themselves and who they had always been. They were met with the disapproval of the nuns at the home who were tasked with the job of coercing the girls into believing that their culture and identity were inferior in hopes to transform the girls into quaint, pleasant humans. This is emphasized when one of the girls in the pack, Claudette, says, “We puddled up the yellow carpet of old newspapers. But later, when we returned to the bedroom, we were dismayed to find all trace of the pack musk had vanished. Someone was coming in and erasing us. We sprayed and sprayed every morning; and every night, we returned to the same ammonia eradication.” (230). This occurred in the early days of the girls’ time at St. Lucy’s, when they were still grasping their identity with white knuckles despite the nun’s attempts to persuade them to change. Through Russell’s use of “ammonia eradication”, she sets up this idea that it is easy to erase someone’s identity. Her use of wiping someone away with a chemical gives insight into how simple the supposedly superior view the process of assimilation for inferior cultures. Through her language, assimilation can be seen as the act of cleaning up the stain of an inferior culture. In this, she relates the journey of the girls at St. Lucy’s to that of Indigenous peoples’. For example, Native American children were forced to change their names in white schools much like how the girls were given new names upon arriving at St. Lucy’s. Names are a vital part of our identity so when they are forcibly altered, they have a negative impact on one’s view of themself. Russell, being an American Author specifically comments on the assimilation of Native Americans. Years and years of tradition in Native American culture were wiped away once Europeans stepped foot on the soil that we now call American. This mirrors the tradition of living a wolf-like lifestyle that was wiped away each day and night by ammonia. To further the idea that the girls are not civilized and must be fixed, Russell’s description of their living space set the tone for how the girls were perceived. Their rooms had a “carpet of old newspapers”, the same thing you would do for a puppy. Sure, the girls are literal animals who need to be tamed as seen in the eyes of the nuns, but this points to who “uncivilized people” are made out to be, animals; wild animals who need to be controlled. Their primitive culture is seen as animalistic, even savage. Again, this reflects how Native Americans were viewed during the time that European settlers first made it to this land, and how they are continued to be treated on the reserves that the American government has banished them to.
Putting in effort to make yourself known only to be ignored is exhausting. Following the ammonia eradication, Claudette stated, “We couldn’t make our scent stick here; it made us feel invisible. Eventually we gave up.” (230). After trying to prove yourself to someone else without those efforts being recognized and appreciated, naturally, one gives up and, in a way, admits defeat. However, remaining stubborn and stuck in their own wolfy ways is the only thing that kept the girls together. It was the one thing they bonded over. As they progressed along what the nuns called “stages”, they began to dissociate from their pack-like mentality, thus abandoning their identity. Russell clearly defines the relationship between making your identity being seen by others only for them to ignore it, and the effect that this has on how you view yourself and continue to express yourself.
To reflect the diminishing relationships between pack members, as time passed, Claudette’s language changed. She once referred to the pack or addressed them all by saying “we”, “collaborative” and other words to exemplify a team or group. This soon shifted to “I” as she lost touch with who she once was. During the girl’s final stage, they were tested on their ability to interact in a social setting with the opposite sex in addition to mastering the Sausalito, a Spanish dance. All of the girls partook in the party besides Mirabella, she remained muzzled in the corner because she was the only one who failed to adapt. Once put on the spot, Claudette froze on the dance floor after failing to remember the steps. This would negatively affect her assessment of adaptation. When her younger sister Mirabella realized, she quickly ran to her rescue only to be met with betrayal and disgust from her older sister when Claudette said, “I wasn’t talking to you,” I grunted from underneath her. “I didn’t want your help. Now you have ruined the Sausalito! You have ruined the ball!” I said more loudly, hoping the nuns would hear how much my enunciation had improved.” (244) [The adaptation uses slightly different wording]. Prior to this, Russell highlights Claudette’s inner feelings to contrast what she actually said out loud. In her heart, Claudette thanks Mirabella but what falls from her mouth is different. At first, Claudette had a performative shift in identity but eventually her identity really did transform. As we begin to lose our sense of self, our relationship to those who once shared the same identity or culture as us, also diminishes. From this passage, it is clear that Claudette loves her sister Mirabella, but she quickly rejected her in attempt to impress those in power.
Identity is something that is core to how we perceive ourselves and those around us. Assimilation has a strong impact on the acceptance of people and their differences. By the end of their time at the home, the girls talked and acted the same way as one another which contrasted with who they were at the beginning of the story. Although, what is to be expected when it is made clear that who you are and what you love is not accepted and loved by everyone else? Through the journey of the girls abandoning their old selves to accept a new culture, Russell emphasizes the journey that many Native American people were forced to and still are forced to take in the United States. With the messages of this story in mind, Russell challenges her audience to consider the role they may play in the forced assimilation of people of foreign cultures and inspires us to question racial hierarchies.
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