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FEATURE

TWIN THEMES OF LOSS AND LONGING: ENGLISH PROFESSOR DAVID BRUMBLE STUDIES THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF NATIVE AMERICANS.

THE WAY
BACK HOME

WRITTEN BY MIKE SAJNA
The Crow warrior Two Leggings was a hero. For days after the Crow's last raid on the Sioux there was feasting and dancing, and Two Leggings was invited everywhere in the village to tell the story of the raid. That was in 1888. Two Leggings' raid was almost certainly the last Crow war party to ride the Plains. Soon after, the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced his tribe onto a reservation. "Nothing happened after that," Two Leggings says, bringing his life story to an abrupt ending even though he had lived three decades beyond that moment. "We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing horses from the Piegans and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell."

From 1919 until his death in l923, Two Leggings recounted his life to William Wildschut, a Dutch businessman and ethnologist. Eventually Wildschut compiled Two Leggings' narrative in a 480-page manuscript. He could not find a publisher, however, and the book languished on the shelf until 1962 when Peter Nabokov, nephew of novelist Vladimir Nabokov found it and re-edited it, cutting out most of Wildschut's overblown, florid prose.

"It's a wonderful book," says Pitt professor of English David Brumble, author of American Indian Autobiography. Although Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior is twice removed from its original source, Brumble believes it still conveys what it was like to be a Plains warrior and the pain that came at the end of that free life. "You have this warrior who wants to be a success in his tribe's terms. He is ferociously determined to become a success. That means leading bigger and bigger war parties and being involved in bigger and bigger raids and winning more and more honors. What he wants is respect and glory, very much in the way that Achilles wanted those things."

In the history of how human beings have told stories about their lives, the autobiographies of Native Americans occupy an unusual place. From narratives told to anthropologists by members of preliterate tribes to the contemporary and sophisticated work by Native American writers in the twentieth century, there is a stretch of a little over 200 years. (One of the earliest autobiographies is the Mohegan Samson Occom's 1762 tale of his conversion to Christianity.)

"The history of Western autobiography spans some 4,500 years, but with Indian autobiography there is a marvelous compression of time," writes Brumble. ''[Pulitzer-Prize winning Kiowan novelist] N. Scott Momaday is just two generations removed from nonliterate storytellers. Two Leggings died just a few years before Momaday was born. Momaday was 16 when Black Elk died. Several of the autobiographers grew up in traditional, tribal ways but were abruptly transplanted into the white world. And so we have autobiographies written by men like Charles Eastman, Luther Standing Bear, and Joseph Griffis, men who were trained for war and for the hunt, but who were snatched away to white man's schools, where they learned to write, and so came to write autobiographies. We have an autobiography by Sarah Winnemucca, who was born in a brush nobee, who was taught to gather roots and pine nuts in season. She managed to learn to read and to write at a time when this was something of a miracle among the Paiutes. And then there is White Bull, who drew entirely traditional pictographs of his coups and then wrote down those same coups in the Sioux syllabary that he had learned the year after his surrender. As we study American Indian autobiography, then, we see again and again taking place in single lifetimes developments that took millennia in the history of Western autobiography.

Themes of loss and longing for the past dominate the literature of Native Americans. Regardless of the time in which they are writing or recounting their lives, what Brumble has found running throughout these life stories is a desire to return to the world as it was before the arrival of the white man. He has seen it in the preliterate recollections of nineteenth-century warriors, for instance in Two Leggings and in Joseph White Bull's The Warrior Who Killed Custer. He also has found it in Charles Eastman's early twentieth-century acculturation work, From the Deep Woods to Civilization, and in the contemporary writings of N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and Leslie Silko, Storyteller.

"Blacks in America often think of themselves in terms of the entrance into the Promised Land," says Brumble. "They see themselves as being in bondage in the way that the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt. The story of the abolition movement, the story of the civil rights movement, is the journey to the Promised Land. Getting out of the South and into the North, crossing the Ohio River, is the journey to the Promised Land, the crossing over the River Jordan. It appears in their traditional religious songs and is very much a part of the way they think about their history. But for American Indians, it is return. Their tradition is that of return to a time when there were no white people."

The earlier autobiographers, Brumble says, make their return by recalling a personal existence prior to the arrival of the white man. So White Bull recounts his many coups, or heroic accomplishments in battle, while Two Leggings relates the stories he heard old warriors tell when he was a child and tells his own about his vision quest. "For three days and nights I lay in that [prairie] dog town, without eating or drinking. In the dark-face time of the fourth night I heard a voice calling from somewhere. Lying very still, I heard it again, but could not locate it. The next time I heard the words of my first medicine song and never forgot them: 'Anywhere you go, anywhere you go, you will be pleased."'

Later Native American autobiographers, Brumble believes, attempt their return to earlier times by writing in a way that mirrors traditional oral storytelling methods, weaving personal reminiscence, tribal history, and family history.

In The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), for instance, Momaday tells of the mythic grandmother spider and how she took care of the sun's child. Juxtaposed with that tale is a fragment of history about the Kiowas being driven out of their homeland by the army in 1874. The people were "bone weary and afraid" until they saw a sign of promise and welcome: "The earth was suddenly crawling with spiders, great black tarantulas." That, in turn, stirs Momaday's own recollection of spiders. "I know of spiders," he writes. "Now and then there comes a tarantula, at evening, always larger than you imagine."

Brumble has found Native American autobiographies to be one of the best tools for his study of the oral storytelling tradition. He also believes they provide a wonderful insight into the Native American concept of self. "That is one of the things that has fascinated me about American Indian autobiography," he says. "There is a very, very different sense of the self."

When Geronimo decides to tell his life story, he begins with a mythic history of his people. He follows that with a history of his tribe and his family. Only after those elements are in place does he tell about himself--and always in relationship to tribe and family. White Bull does the same. He places the self in proper order by announcing at the start: "I, Chief White Bull, say this.... My father was Makes Room, a Miniconjou chief. Sitting Bull was my uncle. Good Feather Woman is my mother. One Bull is my younger brother. It is so, my friend." For Native Americans, the self is inextricably interwoven with family, clan, and tribe.

In contrast, Brumble points to the results of an experiment he sometimes conducts in class in which he asks his students to describe themselves in one or two sentences. Except for the occasional individual who mentions his or her religious affiliation, he says almost invariably the students define themselves as individuals, usually mentioning occupation or occupational aspirations. "They'll write, 'I am a business major,' or 'I am a nursing major,'" says Brumble. "It's not surprising, but it is very different from what White Bull or Two Leggings would do."

It was innocently enough that Brumble first picked up Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain in the mid-1970s. The autobiography's staccato-like narrative left him puzzled. To understand, he found himself reaching for other American Indian autobiographies, embarking on a mission and a journey that would eventually wind its way around some 600 narratives and shape his professional work.

By the time Brumble read Don Talayesva's Sun Chief, he was startled more than puzzled.

Talayesva, a Hopi born in 1890, matter-of-factly begins his 1942 autobiography in the womb. His mother is experiencing pain and goes to see a medicine man. He tells her that she is going to have twins, but she wants only one child. "'Then I will put them together,' replied the doctor. He took some cornmeal outside the door and sprinkled it to the sun. Then he spun some black and white threads into a string, and tied it around my mother's left wrist. It is a powerful way to unite babies. We twins began, likewise, to twist ourselves into one child."

The passage continues to be a powerful one for Brumble. He finds it wonderful that Talayesva is so confident of the world as the Hopi know it. Talayesva is sure even of the fact that he was once a twin. "It shakes my sense that the world is as I know it to be," Brumble notes. "Indian autobiographies are full of such moments."

Besides the individual stories told in the autobiographies and the different sense of self they reveal, Brumble has become particularly interested in the relationship between the Indians and the people who wrote down and edited their stories.

Many of those relationships proved quite complicated. Brumble has found an "awkward ambivalence" among Native Americans toward the whites who have studied them and preserved a record of their ways. On the one hand, there is resistance and annoyance with their prying. But, on the other hand, the interest of individual whites at different times in history has saved a great deal of material important to Native Americans trying to understand and recreate a past the United States government once tried to wipe from the face of the earth.

As soon as Western tribes were confined to reservations in the late nineteenth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with other public, private, and religious agencies, embarked upon a plan to turn Native Americans into "Americans." The program centered around special "Indian schools" where Native American children were often forbidden to speak their language or practice their customs and were constantly drilled in the ways of the white man. Consequently, for two generations, going well beyond the middle of the twentieth century, many Native Americans had little interest in the traditions of their people.

Pretty-shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows contains a touching passage in which the subject is talking to Frank Linderman, her white translator and editor, in the early 1930s. Linderman is intently listening to what she has to say when her grandson walks in dressed like a "drugstore cowboy." He wants money and cares absolutely nothing about the stories of his grandmother.

"Here is this woman who is painfully aware that her own grandson is not interested in this stuff at all," says Brumble. "In fact, she recognizes him as a kind of parody of white ways. She is hoping what she is telling this white man, though, will eventually get back to a generation of Indians that is going to be interested in the old ways. That is a continuing strain among the people who cooperated with whites. They were hoping that by telling an eager white man about the old ways they might preserve them for future generations of Indians who will learn to prize them."

The situation continues somewhat today, according to Brumble. Beverly Hungry Wolf of the Blood Indians was a young woman in her early twenties when she attended a powwow where she noticed a young white man talking with the elderly Indians in camp. At the time, the early 1970s, few young Indians bothered with the elders of their tribes, dismissing them simply as relics of the past. When she spoke to the white man, she found he knew far more about her people than she did, and suddenly she saw her destiny. She was to preserve her people's culture. "I had been searching around for something worthwhile to do with my life," she recalls in her book, Shadow of the Buffalo, "not realizing I would find it right in my own tribal homeland."

Beverly Hungry Wolf was led back to the ways of her people by this young Swiss man, Adolph Gutohrlein, whom she would marry. Her book, The Ways of My Grandmothers, contains information on tanning hides, making dresses, doing beadwork, and other Indian technologies and crafts.

Like many Germans, Swiss, and French, Gutohrlein was fascinated by Indians. In the late 1960s, he moved to the western United States and began living in the manner of the nineteenth-century Plains tribes. Like Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, he was eventually adopted by the Indians and given the name Hungry Wolf. With her husband, Beverly Hungry Wolf attempts to live like her ancestors.

While the natural tendency is to think of people like White Bull, Two Leggings and Pretty-shield when Indian autobiographies are mentioned, Brumble says that Native Americans today are producing autobiographies at an accelerated rate. Some of the new ones are actually old works that people are finding in dusty drawers; others are the products of contemporary Indian novelists and poets. Of his own love of the autobiographies, he says:

"For me, the main interest of literature is that it allows me to see the world through the eyes of others, and American Indian literature allows you to do that very powerfully. All of a sudden, you are transported to preliterate, tribal cultures of many different kinds. The autobiographies put you right in the middle of those cultures. I find that just a wonderful experience."


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