Cannibalism, torture, scalping, mutilation, adultery, incest, sodomy, rape, idolatry, unspeakable rituals, duplicity, filth, drunkenness—such a catalogue of accusations against a people is an indication not so much of their depravity as that their land is up for grabs. The accusations were true of only some American Indians, and even then only at certain times and places and under particular conditions. Yet, throughout the history of the white conquest of red America, this list of savage traits was contrasted with a similar list—piety, continence, cleanliness, charity, and so on—stated to be characteristic of civilization.
For the red men, the tragedy of the relations between reds and whites lay in the loss of their land and the destruction of their cultures and their lives—justified, in the whites’ eyes, by their “savagery.” For the whites, the tragedy was that the men sent out to make the frontier safe for civilization became themselves the savages they were commissioned to destroy. In truth, the savage traits of the Indians were not widespread before the coming of the white man; the savage the whites conquered was a being of their own manufacture.
The Indians not only lacked the armaments and technology to defeat the whites in battle, but they also lacked a written language and printing; in the contest over which side would present its history, they were overwhelmed. Indeed, the history of the shameful transactions between the Indians and the white man has been entirely written by whites: the story of the winning of a continent told by the conquerors about the conquered. As Yellow Wolf of the Nez Perce Indians is said to have complained, “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indian has the white man told.”
The history of Indian-white relations, of course, is multi-colored—white, but equally red, as well as black, for blacks participated on both sides (many warriors of the Seminoles, for example, were of black ancestry). All of the books under review are attempts to recover this history. Their common problem is that the red man has not been able to take part in the modern business of writing, editing, and publishing his own history (in spite of a few recent exceptions, such as N. Scott Momaday, Vine Deloria, Jr., and several tribal newspapers). In all these books whites serve at least as collaborators, and seem to have trouble in describing precisely their functions—“compiled by,” “with an Introduction by,” “as told to,” “edited by,” and simply “by.” In their by-lines, and sometimes also in disclaimers in their texts, the whites recognize that they are intruding upon the very history they are attempting to recover.
Once a white becomes the collaborator or author of Indian history, he has the responsibility of judging the validity of his source materials. This can be very burdensome. Almost all of the Indian speeches and narratives that have been preserved were delivered in native languages and transcribed by whites who had no linguistic training. Peter Nabokov, in his Appendix to Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior, notes that Crow narrative technique can escape even the most conscientious linguist, and that the white who originally recorded Two Legging’s story through an interpreter “could not have been aware of the close attention the Crows paid to antithesis, parallelism, repetition, hyperbole, soliloquy, rhetorical queries, and symbolic expression.” We are thus presented with a problem: the Indian whose story is most valuable because least contaminated by white culture must tell it in his own mode (poetic, repetitious, symbolic, nonsequential, and so on), which makes it unacceptable or incomprehensible to whites.
The probability of making honest errors, both large and small, in transcribing red history is thus very high. The difficulty is further compounded by literary officers who served on the staffs of the frontier Army. For example, Lt. Charles E. S. Wood, a minor essayist and poet, who was sympathetic toward the Indians, translated the most quoted of all red speeches, the eloquent surrender oration of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:
Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
But no one can be certain whether Wood, however noble his motives, tampered with Chief Joseph’s speech.
A problem also exists in the dishonesty of whites. Hack writers, in search of Indians whose stories they could peddle, traveled throughout the country; their standards of accuracy were no greater than Ned Buntline’s in his manufactured tales of Buffalo Bill. Whether the authors wished to earn a buck off the reds or to put them in a sympathetic light may be a question for moral judgment, but a more benign motive does not make the history any more true.
Finally, the Indian source himself presents a problem. How authentic is his story? Every anthropologist knows that an informant may be unable to express himself with the clarity that Western culture demands: his memory may have failed him, he may tell lies to enhance his role in the events he is narrating, or he may have already told his story so many times that he has polished his delivery to please the whites. Turner, in his thoughtful and eloquent introductory essay to Geronimo: His Own Story, recognizes the problem of reliability: “As to the accuracy of the whole, let us say to begin with that Geronimo, for reasons of his own, did not choose to tell…everything. He was, after all, still a prisoner of war, and he was a bitter man…. At any rate, there are numerous gaps and omissions in his narrative.”
Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is also cautionary:
…enterprising newspaper reporters frequently interviewed warriors and chiefs and gave them an opportunity to express their opinions on what was happening in the West. The quality of these interviews varied greatly, depending upon the abilities of the interpreters, or upon the inclination of the Indians to speak freely Some feared reprisals for telling the truth, while others delighted in hoaxing reporters with tall tales and shaggy-dog stories. Contemporary newspaper statements by Indians must therefore be read with skepticism, although some of them are masterpieces of irony and others burn with outbursts of poetic fury.
These problems do not seem to have troubled Virginia Irving Armstrong very deeply in I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians, a selection of brief speeches and narrative excerpts from Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, to present-day Indians. Miss Armstrong prefaces her selections with only the skimpiest of disclaimers:
We must accept a kind of second-or third-handedness about the speeches, since most of them are available to us only in translation, the quality of which surely varied considerably….
Many of her sources are above reproach, but too many others were probably questionable even in their own times. However, if we are willing to suspend our disbelief, the excerpts are readable, eloquent, impassioned. The speeches are, in fact, the sort of things the Indians should have said: they are what whites wanted them to express as they nobly vanished. Of course, if the red warrior could be shown to be cunning in words as well as deeds, a man who could utter strophes before the curtain finally dropped, then so much the greater and more dramatic was the white victory. At least that is the way whites have written the script for the vanishing Indian.
The full-blown Indian memoir, recorded by a sympathetic white, often an Indian buff, began to flourish as a genre when it was apparent that the red man was vanishing. Most such memoirs follow a pattern: an unlettered, and thereby somehow uncorrupted, Indian, preferably one who has grown old and wise, a man nurtured by Mother Nature and therefore privy to secrets denied whites, brings to light hitherto hidden truths about his society, and by implication about our own. Philip Freneau, the poet of the American Revolution and one of the makers of the myth of the Noble Savage, made early use of the formula when he “translated” fourteen essays by Tomo-Cheeki, a Creek Indian chief he invented, about the failings of white civilization. Freneau’s “translations” were quickly exposed, but we will never know how many other white writers have used the red man as the mouthpiece for their own social criticism.
The Indian memoir in general has been an unsuccessful form, partly because so many were of poor literary quality, partly because a great number were of doubtful authenticity or composed by Indians not typical of their native cultures. The distinguished anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir once said that these memoirs “have a disappointing way of dying in the meshes of the tapestry which they are commanded to enliven.” I recently read or reread several of the more enlivening memoirs easily available to curious readers.* and I think two points can be made about the form. First, their readability varies with the literary talents of the white editor, not with the story the Indian has to tell. Second, apparent validity varies inversely with the literary talents of the white editor. In other words, the less literary the white collaborator is, the less readable the book is, but the more authentic it appears. There may, though, be a hidden reason why this seems to be so. We expect the Indian to be primitive and inarticulate; so a crude narrative might appear to be a more honest one. If this is so, it reveals more about white prejudices than about red men.
Questions about authenticity are easily answered in the case of a clearly slick product like The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox. Mr. Asher, a former teacher of creative writing, is altogether modest in listing himself only as the author of the Introduction, although in that brief statement he acknowledges that he used “whatever talent I possessed to bring the text into focus under the harsh lights of the twentieth century.” Unfortunately for Mr. Asher, one of the harsher lights of our century is television and Chief Red Fox has appeared on several talk shows, attired in regalia apparently from a Hollywood wardrobe room, and behaving with the authenticity of an Indian on call from Central Casting.
The Chief’s memoirs are a compendium of oversimplifications and inaccuracies, such as his curious theories to account for the red man’s peopling of the Americas or his assertion that the Sioux lacked horses until after 1840 (whereas they certainly had them by 1742, and possibly earlier). We are also offered aphorisms which the Chief, who claims to have seen some 1300 moons, has plucked from the bosom of Mother Nature (“The tobacco plant is full of vitamins”). He also tells hokum nature myths, including one attributed to his mother about parrots, cockatoos, and peacocks—three birds that live, respectively, in tropical and subtropical America, Australia, and South-east Asia. The Chief sees himself as privy to great events in both the red and white worlds, and he professes total recall, even about the dreams of Indian maidens before the massacre at Wounded Knee, some eighty years ago.
Another Indian celebrating his centennial birthday, or thereabouts, is the Apache Niño Cochise, grandson of the great Cochise and nephew of Geronimo. In contrast to Chief Red Fox’s total recall, Niño Cochise confesses that “I find it impossible to pinpoint the time and place where myths and realities merge and where legends die and life goes on regardless.” The reliability of the book is naturally reduced because of that disclaimer. Most of the events Niño Cochise describes concern the Apaches who escaped into Mexico while being moved to a reservation and who the US Army would not admit ever existed; therefore, it is virtually impossible to check in detail the authenticity of the events related. However, the book is written with restraint, attention to detail, and modesty, and it is at least a very good story.
In his later years Niño Cochise became a sideshow Indian, as did his uncle Geronimo who hawked Indian trinkets and photographs of himself at various expositions. Neither of these Apaches could have long remained ignorant of what the whites wanted to hear about red men. So we are right, I think, to raise questions about the extent to which Niño Cochise’s and Geronimo’s stories were altered by their acculturation into a white world.
Geronimo: His Own Story nevertheless is valuable for two reasons. It has been subjected to two white editings: in 1905-6 by S. M. Barrett, a superintendent of education in a town near Geronimo’s reservation, who took down the story from an interpreter; and again in 1970 by Turner. I found the contrast between Barrett’s and Turner’s footnotes, which reveal the white attitudes of their respective generations, considerably more interesting than Geronimo’s cursory and often self-serving story. For example, when Geronimo rants against the Army and its treatment of him, Barrett is obliged to insert a footnote that “the Editor disclaims any responsibility.” In 1970 Turner found it necessary to add to one of Barrett’s footnotes describing the Army’s murder of an Apache chief, ostensibly while attempting escape, the comment that Barrett’s is “a reasonably accurate summary of the affair except that the murder appears to have taken place in the open around a camp fire and to have been preceded by extended torture of the prisoner.”
The Geronimo story also contains a perceptive Introduction by Turner, which challenges us to accept all the realities of Indian history:
For apologists for the Indians, lovers of things Indian in general, and antiquarians with a sentimental bent, a study of the Chiricahua [Apaches] and their history and the career of Geronimo represents a real touchstone. Many such individuals will choose to concentrate upon the history and lore of other tribes like the Cheyenne, the Navaho, or the Sioux, none of which was ever as aggressive as the Chiricahua. But it is precisely for this reason that this latter tribe is so interesting. If we are to understand the true meaning of the cultural clash that resulted in the destruction of the Indian, we must try to confront the realities of the situation—all of them.
Among these realities is Apache culture, which glorified raids and wars of vengeance, exalted the warrior, and was full of hatred toward its nontribal Indian neighbors. Indeed, the Apaches can be said to have approached the frontiersman’s picture of the blood thirsty savage. Turner bluntly asks whether liberal whites are sincerely interested in knowing about all of red history, or only about the good Indians, such noble savages as the Cherokee and the Nez Perce. I suspect that some readers will find themselves hesitating before they answer.
In view of the problems of reconstructing red history, I respect the courage of Dee Brown in undertaking Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” it is an account of one horror after another endured by the reds at the hands of whites between 1860, the beginning of the Navaho wars, and 1890, the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, of mostly Indian women, children, and old men. Brown dispels any illusions that may still exist that the Indian wars were civilization’s mission or manifest destiny; the Indian wars are shown to be the dirty murders they were, wars in which an Army general could justify infanticide of red children by the statement, “Nits grow into lice.” Bury My Heart is an extremely ambitious and readable attempt to write a different kind of history of white conquest of the West: from the point of view of the victims, using their words wherever possible.
The long recitation of violence perpetrated upon reds by whites is repeated from tribe to tribe with maddening persistence and with variations only in tribal names and places. Unlike the other books reviewed, which have white editors or collaborators, Bury My Heart has been written entirely by a white man. In view of his sole authorship, Brown had an obligation to question his sources, maintain scholarly objectivity toward his subject, and suggest through his material larger historical motives and cultural forces—as, for example, Winthrop Jordan did in his work on black history, White Over Black. That in this moving book Brown does none of these is disturbing.
Yet Brown’s idea that whites have for long had the exclusive use of history and that it is now time to present, with sympathy rather than critically, the red side of the story, is the interest of his book, and, indeed, of the others reviewed here. It is not what they tell us about Indians that is valuable but what they tell us about changing white attitudes.
December 16, 1971
Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior by Peter Nabokov (Crowell, $2.25, paper); Black Elk Speaks as told through John G. Neihardt (University of Nebraska Press, $1.50, paper); Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian, edited by Leo W. Simmons (Yale University Press, $3.75, paper); Cheyenne Memories by John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty (Yale University Press, $10.00); The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian by Paul Radin (Dover, $1.25, paper); Son of Old Hat: A Navaho Autobiography by Left Handed and Walter Dyk (University of Nebraska Press, $1.95, paper). ↩