No one knows for certain who first uttered the notorious statement that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” General Philip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Army on the Western Frontier, often gets the dubious honor for a remark he reputedly made to a Comanche chief in 1869.
“It seems to have been universal throughout North America. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, abductions by Indians were common along the eastern seaboard, especially in colonial Massachusetts and Virginia. A large number of those children also came to prefer the natives’ way of life.”
The course of Curtis’ campaign to document the lives and life style of the Native American peoples is related by Egan with considerable detail and page-turning élan. There were plenty of incidents of physical ordeal and, in some cases, real danger. An Apache medicine man who divulged secrets of his tribe’s religious practices died under suspicious circumstances shortly after Curtis left the reservation. That fate might well have befallen Curtis…
Navajo “eyedazzler” rugs of the nineteenth century, in which brilliantly colored wools form intricate diamonds, are grouped together to emphasize the subtle formal variations introduced by individual weavers; the vivid reds, yellows, and greens which made the designs possible were the product of new chemical dyes.
The first piece you see upon entering is Shapeshifter (2000), an enormous, abstracted whale skeleton built entirely out of white plastic chairs. Jungen’s leviathan is hung in front of a simple black wall and the contrast of colors intensifies its extraordinary power. Shapeshifter has the pristine, flawless texture of a mass produced object, yet somehow feels organic. You can easily imagine the enormous tale with its graceful, individually-carved vertebrae swinging to life.
It was brutal stuff. Massacres, scalpings, crops burned, winters with only salted meat to eat – and this on both sides. Again Boone survived this melee, but it took a great deal of guile to do it. When his daughter Jemima was kidnapped by a Cherokee and Shawnee war party, for instance, he needed his backwoods know-how to track them down quickly and shoot the offenders.
Had Sitting Bull and his war chiefs reacted in the customary skirmishing style of Plains Indian warfare, the outcome would have been very different. But the Sioux and Cheyennes, fighting with their backs to the wall against the encroaching tide of white civilization, opted for a pitched battle and almost from the outset, Custer’s tactical plan went terribly wrong.
Gold, jewels – that was what the new world promised and that was what the Spanish demanded. It is the same paradox that had English settlers starving on the shore while lobsters scuttled underfoot. If it wasn’t what they had imagined, it didn’t exist.
The inhumane acts committed by both sides in this war equal the most heinous crimes of history. The hate was uncontrollable. The Indians sought revenge and a return to their way of life before colonization, and the New Englanders felt they had God on their side. The renowned Puritan preacher and scholar Cotton Mather asserted that “. . . the Evident Hand of Heaven appearing on the Side of a people whose Hope and Help was alone in the Almighty Lord of Hosts, Extinguished whole Nations of Savages.”
“But at that point most of the expeditionaries perished as a result of Indian attacks, illness, and starvation. In fact, several expedition members resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Eventually, out of three hundred men comprising the original land contingent, only four survived. These four castaways remained as slaves of the coastal Indians of Texas for six years until they finally made their escape into what is now northeast Mexico.”
The novel’s postmodernism is not its strongest or even its most salient feature; and comparing the book to Calvino, Borges, and Saramago does it a great disservice.
Dixon’s approach is both refreshing and accurate. He eschews the required kowtowing associated with ethnic minorities.