In this piece, I will focus on the corecion and portrayal of traditional gender stereotypes in the text High Horses Courting, that I encountered in a classroom as teaching material for eight graders. In doing so I will use extraxts from the story to make my points (full text can be found at: http://www.elise.com/books/lives/highhorse.htm).
High Horse´s Courting is an 1930’s story as told by a Lakota Souix Indian called Black Elk. The story concerns a young man, High Horse, who is in love with a young girl and wants to marry her. The story discusses High Horse´s struggle to marry the girl and how he plans to overcome certain obstacles and succeed. High Horse initial plan to marry the girl involves offering her father horses in order to gain approval. When the father does not approve High Horse asks the girl to run off with him and when she does not want to, High Horse, together with his cousin, are planning to steal the girl. I do not believe that this story should be used for educational purposes, not as it was used in the classroom that I visited, based on its presentation of traditional gender stereotypes, its expression of “one-way love”, displays of coercion and the main character´s plans of stealing a person, in this case a girl.
The story starts of with High Horse describing his current situation saying that:
”Probably for a long time I have been feeling sick about a certain girl because I love her so much, but she will not even look at me, and her parents keep a good watch over her. But I keep feeling worse all the time; so maybe I sneak up to her tepee in the dark and wait until she comes out”.
High Horse describes his feelings of ”love” of a certain girl as a sickness, but the girl will not even look at him. Here I am assuming that the girl is not interested in being courted by High Horse since she does not even bother looking at him. High Horse then goes on by saying that her parents keep a good watch over her, which is vocalised in the text several times. High Horse describes this as troublesome for himself and it leads to High Horse having to sneak around, also a reocurring theme in the story. Later on, High Horse again contemplates sneaking around and hiding:
”Maybe I hide in the brush by a spring where she sometimes goes to get water, and when she comes by, if nobody is looking, then I jump out and hold her and just make her listen to me. If she likes me too, I can tell that from the way she acts, for she is very bashful and maybe will not say a word or even look at me the first time”.
Here High Horse means that the only way for him to talk to the girl is to hide and then hold her and make her talk to him. Hold her and make her talk is, in my opinion, forceful ways to go about talking to someone and this is one example where I feel that coercion plays a part in the story. Also, High Horse means that if the girl does not even look at him or does not say a word it is because she likes him. To me this is also troublesome because it reminds me of rape cases that I have heard of where the survivor is blamed for not saying no in a manner that is satisfying enough to others. Also, High Horse says that maybe the first time the girl will not even speak to him, assuming that he just might have to hold her and make her talk to him several times. After that Black Elk tells us that High Horse did indeed succeed in talking to the girl, after sneaking around for a while:
”Well, after High Horse had been sneaking around a good while and hiding and waiting for the girl and getting sicker all the time, he finally caught her alone and made her talk to him”.
High Horse mentioned that the girl´s parents kept an eye on her at all times. This is explained further in the story:
The girl was very shy, and her parents thought a great deal of her because they were not young any more and this was the only child they had. So they watched her all day long, and they fixed it so that she would be safe at night too when they were asleep. They thought so much of her that they had made a rawhide bed for her to sleep in, and after they knew that High Horse was sneaking around after her, they took rawhide thongs and tied the girl in bed at night so that nobody could steal her when they were asleep, for they were not sure but that their girl might really want to be stolen.
The girl is of value to her parents because they are no longer young and she is their only child, suggesting that the girl will in the future be married off to financially secure the parents. The parents thought so much of their daughter that they actually tied her to the bed, in order to ensure that no man would steal her but also because they did not trust the girl; “for they were not sure but that their girl might really want to be stolen”. Again this bothers me because it assumes that the nature of women is that they “say no but mean yes” and we often hear about situations in which women are abused or coerced and the perpetrator or the jury and judge mean that it is not possible to rule out that the girl/woman really wanted to, for example, engage in sexual activities with several men. The belief that the girl wants to be stolen is vocalised by her parents, by High Horse and by Red Deer:
“You must steal her and run away with her. Then afterwhile you can come back and the old man cannot do anything because she will be your woman. Probably she wants you to steal her anyway.”
In the text above Red Deer believes that the girl wants to be stolen despite the fact that the girl has indeed said that she does not want to run away or be taken away, which we can read about in the following text:
“So High Horse sneaked around until he could talk to the girl again, and he asked her to run away with him. He told her he thought he would just fall over and die if she did not. But she said she would not do that; she wanted to be bought like a fine woman. You see she thought a great deal of herself too”.
High Horse´s first plan is to offer the girl´s father horses for the girl or simply run off with the girl. High Horse offers the father first two and then four horses but the father just waves his hand, he wants more for his daughter. Therefore, High Horse and his cousin Red Deer are planning to steal the girl away. In attempting to do so Black Elk tells the audience that:
”He had to cut the rawhide thongs first, and then Red Deer, who was pulling up the stakes around that side of the tepee, was going to help drag the girl outside and gag her. After that, High Horse could put her across his pony in front of him and hurry out of there and be happy all the rest of his life”.
Here High Horse and his cousin are planning to drag the girl outside and gag her before putting her across a horse and hurrying away. It also says that High Horse would be happy all the rest of his life. We know that the girl does not want to run off with High Horse and that would not make her happy. But, it makes High Horse happy to gag a girl and steal her away. What is being portrayed here is quite disturbing and these values and gender portrayals are being used, without any critical analysis, in the classroom with boys and girls of a very impressionable age. Other examples of how stereotypical gender behaviour is portrayed can be seen in the following sentences:
“Cousin, if you are man enough, we can steal her this time.” And High Horse said: “I am man enough to do anything anybody can think up, if I can only get that girl.”
”It was not the horses that he wanted. What he wanted was a son who was a real man and good for something”.
In the end High Horse and Red Deer kill a guard watching over another tribe’s horses and they steal the horses, riding into the village and offering all the horses for the girl. The girl´s father is impressed and allows the marriage. The story ends on this note:
“So High Horse got his girl after all, and I think he deserved her”.
According to the text, a real man is not afraid of anything and is able to simply take what he wants, to steal it, even if that means stealing another person against their will and a real man will go to any lengths to secure a girl. Furthermore, other men will only accept a real man, a son, someone that is good for something. These values are problematic since they suggest that real men take what they want, using force and coercion and other men appreciate such behaviours. As I said before, I find this story quite disturbing and I certainly do not believe that it should be used for educational purposes such as listening and reading exercises. High Horse´s Courting is presenting values that are outdated and even dangerous. We have to be careful of what the stories that we use to teach are insinuating and saying in its portrayal of boys/girls, women/men and I do not believe that there is any value or any moral to this story which students can learn from. The story could, however, be of use in the classroom if discussing traditional values, gender stereotypes, coercion and sexual abuse.
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master´s Degree in Women´s Studies from University College Dublin. Elin’s interests include the sexualisation of women and girls, gender stereotypes and stereotypical portrayal of women and men in media. Some of Elin’s previous work can read online at: The F-Word, XY-online, Sex Roles and Metapsychology Online.