Sunday, December 11, 2011

Themed Reading - Native Americans in The Wind is My Mother, Light on a Distant Hill & Edward Curtis: Coming to Light

I've recently read three books about Native Americans, their lifestyle, beliefs and a man known for his determination to photograph them before it was too late. It seems logical to put them together, but this is accordingly a very, very long post.

The Wind Is My Mother: The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman by Bear Heart is part memoir, part advice, part history -- an excellent book about one Native American's beliefs and how he believes they can be adapted to fit our lives in today's world. It was published in 1996 but the advice is certainly as relevant now as it was then. I bought The Wind Is My Mother during Borders' going-out-of-business sale and I wish I'd just bought everything they had on Native Americans. If I'd known I was going to become slightly obsessed with reading about North America's first people, I certainly would have.

I learned quite a bit from The Wind Is My Mother. For example, the author says, contrary to popular belief, Native Americans are all monotheistic, so the ceremonies white people thought of as pagan were all, in fact, designed to make requests or thank a single Creator, although they symbolically used creatures and objects which appeared to outsiders to be "gods" to whom they were praying. You can understand how the confusion occurred when you read about Native American ceremonies. Bear Heart also disputes the story that Columbus called the natives "Indians" because he thought he was in India. Here's what the author has to say about the naming of natives by Columbus:

I don't always feel comfortable in talking about Indians; even the word Indian itself is very misunderstood. When Columbus found the natives here, they were gentle people who accepted him, so Columbus wrote in his journal, "These are people of God." In his language, he wrote "In Dios." Later, the s was dropped and Indio eventually became Indian, which originated as "people of God." ~~from p. 160 of The Wind Is My Mother

Here's an interesting story that leads to some always-timely advice:

A witch doctor from South Africa told me how they catch monkeys there. They bore a hole in a pumpkin large enough to slip in a banana, then they reach through the hole with a spoon, clean out the inside and drop in the banana. When a monkey comes around, he smells the banana inside the pumpkin, sticks his little forearm in there, feels around, grabs hold of that banana, and then he's stuck. His brain will not tell him that to free his hand he's got to release that banana. He just holds on. ~~pp. 111-2

The advice:

There are many, many ways to let go of our bananas, so to speak. The way my people take care of something that we're not happy with is to honor it and say, "Thank you, you've taught me a lesson." If its anger, if it's hate, if it's a drinking problem: "Boy, you've been with me for a long time. Now I'm going to try something else. But I want to thank you for teaching me something about myself." Never try to just get rid of it. You can't, it's too strong, it's too embedded. Instead, honor it and say, "Thank you." ~~p. 113

I love that. My absolute favorite part of the book, though, is a tale about a time when the author went to Hawaii to fulfill his deceased son's wish that he could see it. His son had written about the beauty of Hawaii when he landed in there on the way to being stationed in the Philippines. You have to read the book to fully understand the story, but as a baby Bear Heart was dedicated to God by his mother, when he was near death. She kept her promise to raise him the way she prayed she would if God would save his life and these many years later, he went up to Pele Point, a place where, "According to Hawaiian legends, the winds of the universe have their beginning." Because his mother was of the Wind Clan, he wanted to go up there at midnight (he doesn't explain what the Wind Clan and midnight have to do with each other) but he was told he couldn't by park rangers.

He told them he needed to go and they said they'd drive him to the chain across the road and he could walk from there. He agreed, stepped over the chain and as he walked he sang his songs "to each of the Four Directions--East, South, West and North." I'll let him tell you the rest.

When I got through, I said, "My mother, when I was very small, dedicated me. At this time I rededicate myself anew to You--from my heart. I will be Your feet, Your hands, Your eyes, Your voice, just as she said. If there's any love that You have, a special love that You want for people, let it flow through me. Let me touch someone and make them a little happier, so that they can be well and walk with good purpose upon this land. Please use me." I dedicated my life again in that way.

When I came back down, the guards asked who was up there with me. I said, "No one." They said they heard lots of voices singing. They heard it, I didn't. ~~p. 146

Well, that sure gave me chills. I absolutely loved The Wind Is My Mother and found myself quoting it aloud quite a bit. I highly recommend it and plan to reread my copy, hopefully many times.

In the midst of reading The Wind Is My Mother, my face-to-face group voted on Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne for our January reading selection, so I'll be reading that very soon. And, then a book I've had on my wish list at Paperback Swap for at least 4 years became available.

Edward C. Curtis: Coming to Light by Anne Makepeace is a National Geographic book, so it's slightly large with pages about the size of letterhead, around 8" x 11" -- large enough that the details of the many photographs included don't require a lot of eyestrain (although I did occasionally use a magnifying glass to look closer at certain images).

Edward Curtis was, of course, the famously obsessed photographer who spent most of his adult years trying to photograph all of the North American Indian Tribes in costume before their customs, traditions and native costumes ceased to exist. It took him 30 years to create 20 extraordinarily expensive volumes of photographs and the process was as costly as it was time-consuming.

Coming to Light is also extremely informative. The author talks about specific tribal ceremonies and people that Edward Curtis photographed, as well as his personal life, his artistic vision and how his divorce led to the loss of a large number of glass negatives. The author went in pursuit of living Native Americans who were present when the photographs were taken or who had some knowledge of what was happening or who was photographed and her discoveries are also both amazing and entertaining. She also mentioned some of the controversy surrounding his photography and gave examples of what he did that made the accuracy of some of his images questionable.

I highly recommend Edward C. Curtis: Coming to Light especially to those who are interested in actually learning about Edward Curtis. Coming to Light is not really a typical coffee-table book as it only contains a selection of his photos (but a nice selection, in my humble opinion). I'm hoping to someday find a larger book that focuses on display of his photographs, but it was really a more accurate look at Curtis' life that I was hoping to find, after reading a fictional account that I found disappointing, and I thought the text was stellar. I learned much more about Native Americans from the book than expected.

Light On a Distant Hill by B. J. Scott is a novel my friend Paula read while I was in the midst of reading about Edward Curtis. It's fiction, but Paula highly recommended it and I looked it up as soon as I finished reading Coming to Light. There's some crossover between all three of these books, as it's only natural that certain characters are frequently mentioned. In Light on a Distant Hill, a young mail-order bride named Ellen leaves her home in Salina, Kansas and heads west to meet the man she intends to marry, a cavalry officer stationed at Fort Walla Walla in Washington Territory.

On the way, Ellen is kidnapped by Shoshone Indians at a massacre in which she is one of only two survivors. She tries repeatedly to escape from the Shoshone but fails and finally accepts her plight. And, then she finds herself slowly becoming one of them as she learns their ways and falls in love.

Meanwhile, her fiance has refused to believe the accounts claiming Ellen died in the attack. But, he is unable to take enough time to track her down and resumes his job, hunting the people his beloved has come to think of as her own. After white soldiers attack the Shoshone, killing women and children and threatening Ellen's husband, she must run for her life. She ends up following Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, the man known for the famous quote "I will fight no more forever," made at the time of surrender, after his people had been chased 1500 miles by the militia.

The wonderful thing about this particular novel is that it is so incredibly sympathetic to Native Americans and the horror they experienced. The author acknowledges that the natives were human and not wholly innocent of their own crimes against whites, but places their experience in a context that makes you feel as if you were there, you understand and . . . honestly? . . . you're really pissed off, by the time you get to the surrender of Chief Joseph.

There are author's notes describing changes the author made. He did take a few liberties, but Light on a Distant Hill's setting is apparently very well-researched. Much of what Scott wrote was also described in Coming to Light and the three books together make a fascinating trio. Since I'd already read a little about Chief Joseph and the plight of the natives in general, the effect was very much like going from reading about the horror of the eradication of natives to experiencing it from their viewpoint. Light on a Distant Hill is told as a memory, when a young reporter goes to interview the elderly Ellen in the 1930s.

A side note: I would probably not normally have purchased Light on a Distant Hill because it is apparently a self-published book: the publisher is AuthorHouse. I only read self-published books by people I know or when they're recommended by readers I know and trust, these days. Obviously, Paula is a trusted friend because I did rush over to Amazon to buy the e-book, almost the moment I finished Coming to Light.

There's a bit of a romance aspect to Light on a Distant Hill and a couple brief, graphic love scenes (which I'm never fond of) but in spite of a bit of mush and sex, I have no complaints. I thought the writing, while not brilliant, was very good. However, it's both the sense of time and place and the author's ability to empathize with Native Americans without glorifying them that make the book shine. Definitely recommended, especially when paired with non-fiction about Native Americans.

I have to add that there are quotes throughout both Coming to Light and Light on a Distant Hill that will doubly horrify readers -- quotes by army officers and famous white Americans of the time, in which they speak of Indians as subhuman. Sound familiar? It struck me as particularly odd that the invading Europeans spoke of the natives as lesser life forms and set about eradicating them whilst stealing the people of another culture they considered lesser life forms, at the time (Africans). Throughout history, people have described opposing cultures in similar ways and enslaved or killed their chosen enemies but it struck me as odd that there were two cultures being destroyed at around the same time by the same people. And, isn't it horrifying how the same thing keeps happening, the world over? The author compared the eradication of Native Americans to the slaughter of Jews by Hitler. The more I read, the more I agree.

At any rate, the plight of the natives in the United States is a sad one but a tale that I think we all need to learn -- the truth, that is. From The Wind Is My Mother I learned why the natives responded with what most of us probably consider weakness when they made agreements with white men but the white men not only didn't keep up their end of the bargain but also eventually killed them off and shuffled the natives around on death marches to camps hundreds of miles across the country. It all has to do with the peace pipe. Bear Heart explained that when his people smoked the peace pipe, they were making a promise before their Creator. And, promises made in the presence of God could not be broken. So, they were not meek little lambs being led around but extremely devoted, spiritual people.

If you made it through all three reviews and the rant at the end, I must offer you a virtual hand-shake. Sorry this post is so long. The reading of the three books was quite an experience and I'm looking forward to learning more, sad as I know it will be. I'll post a photo of the other books I've purchased, some time soon. I think this post is quite long enough!

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  1. I took a Great Plains Lit class at UNL about 15 years ago. We read a variety of books (Willa Cather is one of the only well-known authors I can remember, though.) and did a section on Native Americans. We read N. Scott Momaday's "The Way To Rainy Mountain" and "Medicine River" by Thomas King (a Canadian author). I was so inspired by the new subject matter, I decided to do my oral presentation on the Kiowa Indians and their Sun Dance. I'm sure you're already familiar with the Kiowa, having grown up in OK. I would recommend King's book, but Momaday's is a bit odd. Oh, and "Follow the River" by James Alexander Thom is very good.

    Sorry for the disjointed comment. It's early and I need more coffee, but it's time to get ready for work. :(

  2. Thank you for your review of The Wind Is My Mother. I'm very happy you enjoyed it so much. I enjoyed hearing about the other books, too, and will add them to my reading lists. Did you know that last year a revised Edition of Wind was released? The revision is a new epilogue with additional stories of his life. I'd be happy to send it to you. Sincerely, Molly Larkin, co-author, The Wind Is My Mother


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