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The Indians’ Own Story


Among the nine hundred Indians, mainly Oglala Sioux, who surrendered to the US Army at Camp Robinson in Nebraska in early May 1877 was an eighty-four-year-old man who served as a tribal historian. His name is lost but his existence is preserved in a letter written by the post commander, Colonel Luther P. Bradley, to his wife. A few weeks after the surrender, Bradley reported, the historian rode over to Camp Robinson on his pony to visit. “I went outside the gate to shake hands with him,” Bradley wrote.

He was very chatty and thanked me for coming out to see him, saying he was an old man and couldn’t walk very well. He carried a stick about six feet long covered with notches, thousands of them. I asked him what it was and he said it was the history of the world from the beginning, handed down by his fathers. Some day he is coming in to tell me the story and I’ll write you about it.

I have tried to puzzle out the historian’s name but without success. The surrendering Indians had all come in with Crazy Horse and the following day, on May 7, 1877, they were counted and many of their names—probably including the historian’s—were recorded in an Army ledger book. Sometime after the end of the Indian wars this register disappeared into private hands but it resurfaced in the late 1980s and was published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1994.1 With the reappearance of the book all those people, many of them unknown for a century, suddenly re-entered the historical record. Unfortunately, no ages had been recorded along with the 217 names of heads of families in the Crazy Horse band, and Bradley offers no other fact to help identify their historian.

Things written down are the evidence of choice for historians in the classic tradition of Western Europeans. Francis Parkman, writing in the year Crazy Horse surrendered, dismissed “Indian traditions of historical events [as] almost worthless.” But paper records, too, are a sometime thing—gone today, here tomorrow, like a letter from Bradley to his mother which sold at auction a year ago. The letter, written on September 8, 1877, only three days after Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers under Bradley’s command, includes several details about the killing recorded nowhere else. The historian’s stick, like Bradley’s letter to his mother, may also be awaiting discovery—on a collector’s wall, or stored away in the basement of a museum, or conceivably still in the possession of some old traditional living on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, where most of the people who surrendered with Crazy Horse ended up, and their descendants still live.

The Oglala history stick described by Colonel Bradley was not unique. Several similar sticks maintained by other Indian peoples are cited by the scholar Peter Nabokov in his recent study, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. Nabokov, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is the author of many books on Indian subjects, including Indian Running, Native American Architecture (with Robert Easton), and Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, based on notes and interviews recorded by the ethnographer William Wildschutt in the 1920s. A Forest of Time is a virtual compendium of the “Indian traditions” Parkman distrusted most—stories and songs of the long ago filled with spirits, talking animals, changelings, shamans, voices in the sky, rocks and trees, old women with knowledge of the use of magical herbs, trickster coyotes, sacred mountains, trees, rivers, springs, and holes in the ground. It wasn’t just Parkman who despaired of making historical sense out of all this stuff; one of the first and greatest of the plains anthropologists, Robert Lowie, felt the same way, declaring in 1915, “I cannot attach to oral traditions any historical value whatsoever under any conditions whatsoever.”

Nabokov refuses to join in this grudging refusal to let Indians participate in telling their own history. Skirting argument about what qualifies as a “true” statement about the past, A Forest of Time sticks to more accessible questions—what do Indians think about the past, how do they record what they believe about the past, and what solace or insight do they derive from having a past? In exploring these matters Nabokov cites hundreds of academic papers about scores of American Indian cultures from just about every region of the United States and Canada. Among them are the Iroquois of New York, who kept a record of their chiefs carved into canes which could still be “read” by Iroquois in the nineteenth century. The Pima Indians of Arizona kept calendar sticks, closer in nature, I believe, to the stick of Colonel Bradley’s Oglala historian. The Arikara of the upper Missouri preserved into the early decades of the twentieth century a bundle of thirty-four sticks which the anthropologist Melvin R. Gilmore described as “The Arikara Book of Genesis.” Arranged into six piles around a fire, an Arikara spiritual leader named Four Rings used them to explain the origins of his people—an Arikara “history of the world from the beginning.”

The Iroquois canes and the Arikara “book” represent two fundamental but very different kinds of Indian history-keeping. The first is a record of people and events of the kind literate peoples consign to paper, things like the landing of the Mayflower or the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the killing of seven Oglala Wagluhe warriors who had gone out to steal horses from the Crows in 1875. The second is a record, in spirit similar to the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis, of stories reaching into the deep past about first things which can be imagined but not proved. Indeed, the very notion of evidence and proof is alien to the spirit of origin stories.

Nabokov tells of an encounter in the early 1970s between an old Navajo and anthropologists who wanted to know what he thought about current theories that human beings first crossed into the Western Hemisphere from Siberia. The Navajo brushed that notion aside. “Maybe some other guys came over like that, but us Navajos came a different way.” Oh? How was that? As described by Nabokov the old Navajo’s answer came in fits and starts. Mysterious insects “won this world for us, won this land here, the reservation” by making their way to the surface of the world from below. More particularly the Nav-ajo themselves were born from white corn kernels af-ter conversation with the sun. Further details were not revealed.

It was evident to Nabokov, reading a transcript of the interview, that the old Navajo considered these matters barely appropriate for discussion with a white man—they were likely to be misunderstood, undervalued, or even somehow “lost.” So he quit talking.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to know how men “really” first made their way from the Old World to the New—over the Beringia land bridge, or on rafts from Polynesia, all at once or in succeeding waves, or in some manner at some time still unimagined. And of course it would be nice to know what “really” happened to the Anasazi of the Southwest—did a severe drought overwhelm the irrigation system, or did warlike raiders find a way to climb the cliffs and walls? Why did the mound-builders build their mounds and why did they stop? What happened to the original horses and mammoths of North America; were they hunted to extinction? And if so by whom, how, when? In the 1930s the Naskapi of Labrador told the anthropologist William D. Strong that the trickster hero of their stories was a great hunter who killed huge beasts with trunks and tusks.

These stories may represent a cultural memory of killing mammoths ten thousand or more years ago. The Delaware Walum Olum, a bundle of red sticks like the Arikara Book of Genesis, was read in the 1820s as describing an ancient journey of arrival crossing the ice. Did the Delaware mean to record a passage from Siberia? Who knows? Nabokov suggests that we stick with what we do or can know, which is simultaneously much and little. He cites an anthropologist who interviewed remnants of the New England tribes and discovered that despite loss of language and the intervening centuries, the stories they told him were eerily similar to accounts first put down on paper in the 1600s and 1700s. Such anecdotes prove nothing but suggest much—the strange persistence of cultural memory rooted in an actual past, but twisted and colored by time. Nabokov dislikes conceiving the Indian stories as a kind of Rosetta Stone, holding the secret of what really happened if we could only identify the key. What interests him instead is the vast body of Indian myth, story, and legend casting flashes backward but rooted now in the present, and telling us most importantly how these storytelling peoples think of themselves as actors in events still unfolding.

Identity and its shifting facets are the chief subject of A Forest of Time. Once scholars push back even a few years beyond first contact with Westerners the Indian world is suddenly depeopled. Actual chiefs, prophets, and orators, about whom recognizably real stories can be told, are replaced by figures hazy in time and outline—once there was a wise man, a brave man, a wily hunter…. These stories taken as a whole embody the effort of a people to define, explain, amuse, and encourage themselves. It is a little like reading Italo Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales, with its endless variations on the eternal theme: once there was a rich prince who lived on the hill, and a peasant girl, beautiful but poor, who was lost in the forest…. Was there really such a prince, or a hundred of them? Maybe, maybe not. But it is certain that Italian peasants, laboring in the shadow of a castle on a hill, dreamed of being recognized, lifted up, freed from poverty.

What the old stories tell us is that Indian peoples lived on the edge, were dependent on animals and weather, respected cunning as much as courage, and at night around the fire invented a literature half about coping and half about mysteries, with lots of jokes. None of it quite explains why the Siouan-speaking peoples migrated from the Carolinas to the Great Lakes but it handsomely demonstrates the resilience of people who have experienced every kind of hardship, tragedy, and narrow escape known to man in his primitive state. “What can a nation that has not letters tell us of its origins?” asked Samuel Johnson, quoted by Nabokov. According to Nabokov, they tell us their virtues, and how they won them. It’s a good answer and in my opinion Johnson would have grumbled but accepted it.

But something still nags: Who were these people really? What happened to them really? To what extent do Indians tell stories about the past because they prefer stories? To what extent because they lack letters? When Nabokov set out with the anthropologist Lawrence Loendorf to write a history of the Indian peoples who once lived on what is known as the Yellowstone plateau, he discovered that there was no exclusively “Indian history” of the place or the things that happened there. Some of the Indian peoples who hunted or traveled there had left an oral literature, but it wasn’t about Yellowstone in particular, and the one Indian group that had really lived there had practically disappeared following their expulsion when the park was created in 1872.

  1. 1

    The Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger, edited by Thomas R. Buecker and R. Eli Paul.

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