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Passion Play’: An Exchange

In response to:

Passion Play from the March 18, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Although Thomas Powers’s “Passion Play” [NYR, March 18], reviewing several books about Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other nineteenth-century Plains Indians, cries out for a point-by-point response, we will here do no more than register our great disappointment that the NYRB chose someone with little or no detailed knowledge of Native American scholarship to write this essay. Had some such person been asked to review these books, we think it likely that at least the more obvious stereotypes would have been avoided.

Only someone very distant from scholarship on Native America could find it amusing to write (clearly with reference to Huck Finn; the words, however, are not Huck’s but Mr. Powers’s) of “the root-digging Indians of the Utah desert, or the sheep-herding Indians of the Southwest,” in contrast to “the gorgeous, horse-riding, buffalo-killing, war-whooping Indians in feathers of the Great Plains…,” or, in a bizarre and gratuitous comparison, to insult three people in a single sentence (“Sitting Bull and Red Cloud were tough negotiators and natural politicians, with a gift for harassing white authorities a little like that of the Reverend Al Sharpton”)! In much the same way, it shocks and saddens those of us who work seriously in the field of Native scholarship to find folk heroes of Manifest Destiny like General Custer so glibly and uncritically characterized.

Surely the books under review and the subjects they engage deserve critical and scholarly attention from someone who knows the terrain better than Mr. Powers. We are quite certain that no one of us would be asked to review books in Mr. Powers’s fields (e.g., Germany and the bomb, the war in Viet Nam at home, Richard Helms and the CIA). We find it unfortunate and insulting that he has been asked to review books in our fields. We urge you, in the strongest terms possible, to take Native American subjects and books about them seriously and to offer future reviews to persons actually qualified to comment on them.

Patricia Hilden
University of California-Berkeley

Arnold Krupat
Sarah Lawrence College

The following persons have endorsed this letter and wish to have their names attached to it:

Ellen Lester Arnold, Emory University; Eric Cheyfitz, University of Pennsylvania; Rosalind Cutforth, New York, New York; Michael Elliott, Emory University; Dr. Lee Francis, National Director, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers (on behalf of the National Caucus Board, and the 300+ members of Wordcraft Circle representing more than 150 sovereign Native Nations); Susan Gardner, University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Harald Gaski, University of Tromso, Norway; Shari Huhndorf, University of Oregon; Paul Jay, Loyola University of Chicago; Karl Kroeber, Columbia University; Janet McAdams, Emory University; Devon Mihesuah, Northern Arizona State University/Editor, American Indian Quarterly; David L. Moore, Cornell University; Robert E. Moore, New York University; Carla Mulford, Penn State University-University Park; Barry O’Connell, Amherst College; Jeffrey Ostler, University of Oregon; Louis Owens, University of New Mexico; Alice Nash, Sarah Lawrence College; W.S. Penn, Michigan State University; Dr. Julian Rice, Boca Raton, Florida; James Riding In, Arizona State University; A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff, Emerita, University of Illinois-Chicago; Neal Salisbury, Smith College; Ralph Salisbury, Emeritus, University of Oregon; Katherine Shanley, Cornell University; Brian Swann, The Cooper Union; Clifford Trafzer, University of California-Riverside; Ingrid Wendt, University of Oregon; Peter Whiteley, Sarah Lawrence College

Thomas Powers replies:

Whenever I undertake to write something I try to find some way to address and arouse the reader’s passions because it seems to me that real discussion requires in some degree an excited state of mind. But I confess I had not anticipated from my piece about Crazy Horse anything like the alarm expressed by Patricia Hilden, Arnold Krupat, and their thirty endorsers in the letter printed above. It seems clear that they have issued a warrant for my arrest but such drastic action hardly seems justified by the crimes cited in their bill of particulars.

The words I have used to describe the image of Indians held by Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are quoted correctly by Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers, but is it possible that they have failed to see what I was up to? I framed this essay with two examples of efforts to describe Indians at what I take to be opposite ends of the spectrum—Mark Twain’s wonderfully funny rendering of the romantic excitements of Indian life as imagined in the 1840s by Huck and Tom, conspicuously placed in plain sight at the opening of the essay; and, in the final paragraphs, a discussion of the almost incandescent drawing, probably done by the young Arapaho artist Frank Henderson, in the 1880s, which (for me, at any rate) conveys some sense of the magical power with which the artist believed God might speak to man through a vision.

I imagine that Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers are sometimes called upon to interpret a literary text. I suppose some of them may do it every working day of the year. I won’t claim any special merit for devising my literary strategem, although I did think it a useful way of making a point. But I will claim against all comers that it was obvious. Can Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers, on reflection, honestly tell me they doubt I placed these two ways of describing Indians at the beginning and the end of my essay on purpose? Will they claim to doubt that the exaggerations of the first are intended to contrast with the beauty and the power I see in Henderson’s drawing? Will they insist they aren’t sure which I think more truly describes Indians as they really were?

The second charge in the indictment accuses me of insulting Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and the Reverend Al Sharpton by claiming they share a talent for dealing with the white authorities from a position of relative powerlessness. You cannot libel the dead and I do not see how you can insult the dead, either; it is in the nature of an insult that it should aggrieve the target. Nor do I readily see how all three can be insulted. But Sharpton is alive to take offense and I would like to know if Hilden, Krupat, or any other of their thirty endorsers actually called him to check that he really did feel insulted. Or did they appoint themselves to feel the insult and protest in his name?

As for my remark itself, I stand by it. It seems to me that the later chapters of Robert Utley’s biography of Sitting Bull and Robert Larson’s biography of Red Cloud offer ample example of the tenacity and intelligence with which both men fought for the survival of the Sioux people and culture with few assets beyond speech and the support of their followers. I urge Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers to consider the controversy over the police killing of Amadou Diallo in New York City, where Sharpton, among others, is hard-pressing the mayor to take this crime seriously. Like Sitting Bull and Red Cloud after they gave up the gun, Sharpton is armed principally with speech and the support of his followers. Like Sitting Bull and Red Cloud he is operating from the margins of white-dominated society, and his first order of business is to ensure that he and his followers do not become invisible. Sharpton makes himself heard, and so did Sitting Bull and Red Cloud—how else would we explain biographies of both a hundred years later? I don’t think my comparison is bizarre or insulting; I intended to be suggestive, and if Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers disagree, they should put themselves to the trouble of explaining why.

With the third charge I suspect we are cutting closer to the quick. I believe I am accused of some combination of straying beyond the proper confines of “my field,” of poaching, or of reviewing without a license. Where does one apply for this license? Must forms be filled out in triplicate? Is photo ID required? Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers believe no one of them would be asked to review books in “my fields”—the history of antiwar activism in the 1960s, of nuclear weapons, and of intelligence organizations. Do Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers believe these are appointive positions? Do they feel they must wait till they are asked? What have I ever said or written to make them feel unwelcome? I assure them I wish they had all pushed their way into discussion of the German bomb, where I felt especially lonely.

The whole point of writing, in my view, is to get people worked up about something—to pull them out of the place where they are simultaneously most comfortable and most confined. In my experience editors feel much the same—all writers need in order to address any subject under the sun is a willingness to do the homework, an ability to share their passions on the page, a reverence for deadlines, and a lively interest in the matter at hand. Of these the last is what comes first. If Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers harbor secret desires to write about spies and bombs they should speak up forthrightly and make their desires as public as possible. They might catch a little hell from critics willing to go to the trouble of spelling out dumb errors, if any, but they won’t die of it.

Because this letter was conceived, written, and endorsed by thirty-two Native American scholars, or scholars in Native American fields, possibly I have written a response thirty-two times longer than is really appropriate. But I don’t want to close without making two final points, if I may. The first is to admonish Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers for having written a letter which, stripped to its core, amounts to an attempt to intimidate—it cannot fairly be called an attempt to persuade—me from writing about “their field,” and the editors of this paper from printing what I might write. I dislike to think that no scholar contacted in what must have been days of frantic faxing and e-mailing had thought for anything but barring the door. Did all rush to sign? Did no one of the thirty-two experience, and perhaps even express, some small reservation that this letter, or any such letter, could be entirely consistent with traditional American respect for the freedom of intellectual inquiry? It is dismal to think so, and worse to imagine how they might explain the principle to their students.

I’ve been holding myself back up to this point, but now I want to say what I really think. I think this is a damned poor way to conduct a discussion of anything that matters, and if Hilden, Krupat, and their thirty endorsers really think my essay “cries out for a point-by-point response,” then I invite them collectively or individually to go to the trouble of writing me personally citing chapter and verse in the normal way of people who care the more when they disagree.

The Editors reply:

It is hard to take seriously academics who condemn an independent scholar without making a single substantive criticism of his work. For our part, we knew that Mr. Powers had for years been making a study of the subjects of his review and we look forward to publishing more of his writing about them.

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