Monday, August 22, 2005

"Viet Cong at Wounded Knee" -- a review

"Viet Cong at Wounded Knee, The Trail of a Blackfeet Activist" by
Woody Kipp, U of Nebraska Press, 2004

Disclaimers: This really can't be a book review since the review is so much
about things I know about from other contexts.

When I asked someone about Woody, they said, "Well... I don't know
what to tell you, but there sure are a lot of women mad at him."
Clearly, reading the dance card presented here, he hasn't forgotten
many or maybe ANY of them, including a woman in Vietnam and his
Blackfeet daughters who are babies in this book.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Woody is six years younger than I am, and if he hadn't gone to school
in Cut Bank instead of Browning, I'd have been his English teacher.
Most of the other Blackfeet "Viet Cong" his age were in my classes.
I knew most of the older drinkers he mentions because of being the
informal bailiff when they were tried "the morning after" by Bob
Scriver, who was City Magistrate and JP in the Fifties and Sixties in
Browning, and I knew both Louis Plenty Treaty and Joe Eagle Child
because of sitting in their Thunder Pipe Bundle Circle. But remember
I'm a Napi-yah-kee -- white woman. And pretty much a non-drinker. I
knew all those Browning bars, but only from the outside. They're
gone now. Alcohol is easy compared to meth. That "Viet" generation
was easy compared to their children and grandchildren.

All that out of the way, this book is not what I expected at all.
It's not really a book -- more of a long essay that is a down payment
on a book to come. It's free of theory and lecturing, quite simple
and straightforward, one story after another, the way information is
transmitted in the old Blackfeet world. Sure 'nuff, it begins with
his birth and ends with Wounded Knee II, but without chest-pounding
or even TOO much rolling around in the pathos and deprivation of it
all. The stories I liked best, of course, were about being out on
the ranch with his older brother, Big John.

When I taught at Blackfeet Community College back a while, I repeated
the story of how Big John, serving in the South Pacific, was helping
to clear out the last vestiges of Japanese from the islands. The
soldiers found one down in a cove with a cliff around it, so weak
from starvation that he couldn't climb out. Indeed, the soldiers
themselves could barely climb out. Some wanted to just leave him to
finish starving and others thought it would be kinder to shoot him.
But Big John put the man on his back and climbed out with him, saving
the man's life. I'd found this story while reading the old Browning
newspapers. One of the young men in the class was astonished. "How
did you know that?" he demanded. "That was my uncle!!" He had
thought of the story as some secret family knowledge that whites
would disrespect.

So the stories that Woody tells, and that are like this story, are on
the lean side (like Woody), but if you know the times and the characters, they are
pretty eloquent. For me, anyway, they mark a clear set of stepping
stones for a baby born to a Blackfeet woman named "Shanghai Monroe"
but raised by Joe and Isabell Kipp, then in their fifties, in Cut
Bank, the white corner of the county. It's pretty clear how he ended
up being shot at by the same kind of artillery he had been taught to operate in
Vietnam. What's less clear is why he went on back to Missoula to
finish up college. But that's the next book maybe.

The great usefulness of this book, I think, is that it is clear,
short, and accessible enough for a high school kid or an older person
not used to reading. No need to be a fancy literati. Maybe there's
a little too much about booze and women (after a while it sounds like
boasting) but that would kind of keep those sorts of readers coming
along. It has no tricky humor like Sherman Alexie nor is there
anything kinky.

Strangely, there's a kind of "Kipp-ness" to it.
Since the second-to-the-original Kipp adopted a lot of survivors of
Heavy Runner's band after the Baker Massacre, a lot of Kipps are
really Heavy Runners. What everyone forgets is that Heavy Runner was
a PEACE chief. It was Mountain Chief who was brilliant and
resistant. (And married off his sisters and daughters to important whites).
Heavy Runner was thoughtful and conciliatory. It's a
kind of sweetness.

But part of Kipp-ness is getting out there and participating in
whatever comes along. (The "culture" of Jim and Joe Kipp.) This is
different from the writing done by Jim Welch, who grew up on a
different reservation anyway. (Fort Belknap) Jim Welch also
learned to write in Missoula, but he learned as an academic and a
poet. Woody learned as a journalist. He is not full of "post-"
anything either. He was there, Charlie.

The dust jacket does one of my favorite tricks -- Sherman did it
earlier. On the front is Woody in his dance costume with his face
painted. On the back cover is Woody in a three piece suit. What you
learn from reading the book is that when he's in costume, without his
glasses, he can't see beyond his formerly broken nose. In his suit,
with his glasses, he can see you very well and he's smiling. I've
always smiled and wiggled my eyebrows when Woody's name came up. I
think I'll give my eyebrows a rest.

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