Sunday, November 09, 2014

"THE NATIONS" by Tom Sheehan

Massachusetts Indians

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often write reviews and that I wrote about how much I appreciate Tom Sheehan’s cowboy clockwork short stories with their Fifties TV Western context.  Now Tom trustingly sends me his book of “Indian” stories but they are so terrible that they’re not even Indian stories.  Tom is in his eighties and I could simply mock the tales as old man’s stumbling, but if I thought they were, why would I write about them?  So what are they?

Alley Oop, in case you're too young to remember

These strange "Indians" live in caves like Alley Oop.  The children are all either abandoned “papooses” adopted by childless and blameless white people or kidnapped white boys though they never overlap with the kidnapped white women. (He says “braves” and “bucks”, but someone must have warned him not to say “squaw” and he took them seriously.) These cultural hybrids are, I think, tokens of the “broken arrow” complex, the yearning to be embraced by an admired foreign "other" people.  A wish for peace and an escape from guilt.

Sheehan’s life has been an archetypal one in Fifties terms: a decades-long job tenure, a stable marriage, three terrific kids and grandkids, old pals from childhood, a much beloved lifelong hometown, sports and an ability to write clearly and flexibly.  What more could he possibly be trying to reach for?  Let’s look for subtext.

A real cave

The mountains with the sheltering caves he described, mostly have apertures pouring down magical light into the hands of the explorer.   Far too Freudian to just take for granted -- so I asked Tom what caves he had been in.  (They show up in the cowboy tales as well.)  But he only talked about childhood explorations.  No trauma.  No major discoveries.  

Sometimes there are mountain tops.  The story called “Dead Pony Lookout” starts this way:  “Darkly Armitage, astride Bullet, a magnificent stallion he had corralled himself when he was just sixteen years old, sat atop Dead Pony Lookout, a two day ride from the Bar-B ranch where he earned his pay and keep these days.”  Remember the B-Bar-B ranch where Tom Mix lived?  I had a magnetic ring from a cereal box coupon plus a quarter or so.  Mix used his ring to pull important papers by their paper clip up from the table where bad guys had been plotting -- probably how to foreclose the tax lien on some widow -- to his hiding place in the hay loft.  “Bullet” was the name of Roy Rogers’ dog, not the horse, who was “Trigger.”  Mix’s mount was “Tony the Wonder Horse.”

There was rumored to be an entire dead pony on top of this lookout but it was clearly much too steep to get a pony up, in spite of ancient steps chipped into the stone.  “Darkly” (love that name) deduces that someone put a pony leg bone up there and invented the rest.  (A bit of echo here about the buffalo skull or skulls said to have been lugged to the top of Chief Mountain in the Rockies out here by me.)  This is Tom's “Snow Leopard” story in which what’s not there is as significant as what’s there.

At the end, Devon Armstrong, the ranch owner, asks,  “‘What do you believe about that Indian stuff?  Remember they were here long before we got here.’  He had struck a pose between the real and the mythic, about as far as some arguments can get about Indians and about as close.”   That’s what Tom is doing.   He's signifying.

Once I ran across a newspaper story about a 19th century shipment of a hundred black silk umbrellas that had been stolen from a supply train by Indian raiders.  For quite a while I tried to work it into a story that pictured them being put into Medicine Bundles or used as camouflage for an attack on a fort or simply carried proudly by a chief who was rather a dandy.  But it would have been farce and I gave it up.  There are many ways to write Indian stories.  Not all of them are anthropological.  Not all of them are even possible.  Not all of them are Napi stories or old legends with hidden truths or Dogpatch “Stay Away, Joe” slapstick.  Nor are all of them sexy.

The story of Tom's in this anthology that I like the best is the one about the guy who’s trapped in a cave by Indians and escapes by playing a pennywhistle he finds in his pocket, which either charms the Indians or spooks them.  Anyway, they change to helping him.  Years later he comes back with fifty pennywhistles for the whole tribe, a gift of thanks.  It was better than my umbrella idea that was never finished anyway.

Here is a link to an interview with Adrian Jawort and his panel, all real contemporary Indians, who wrote 21st century Montana American Indian stories for a series called “Off the Path.”  I reviewed the first volume back a while and listened to Cherie Newman’s “The Write Question” just two days ago.  or  In the course of the talk, which addresses several controversies, like the FBI’s reluctance to do their job by prosecuting murder on reservations, Luella Brien says that when she speaks to rez students about writing, they are always puzzled about the things she writes about in first person, because they think she’s claiming to tell her own experiences.  They say, “I never heard about that!  When did it happen?”  They think that if a story is not a newspaper report -- autobiography -- it’s unaccountable.  Some kind of lies.

How could anyone just think up stuff?  Imagine other people’s lives?  These kids have no sense of themselves as being able to assume a different identity nor any life apart from their own lives.  Many -- maybe most -- have never been out of their own community, let alone off the reservation.  Out there is a big blur of strangeness that has nothing to do with them.  They ARE living in a cave, Plato’s cave of shadows, the faint impressions of reality.

For whatever reason, Adrian is one who has been around.  This is a “break-out” panel of Indians who face the reality of their lives, even if the Hallmark folks and the missionary workers don’t like it.  St. Labre mission schools have hustled for money by sugar-coating life on the rez for a century.  They have buildings meant to look like lodges AKA tipis (or teepees, if you’re not embarrassed by a word with pee in it.)  But there are no tipis in Tom’s stories.  Not even a stray wickiup.  He uses the names of various tribes, has even cut-and-paste some names, but is a wipe-out when it comes to material culture.

Tom Sheehan at present.

Then what is he doing and why turn from his previous cowboys and military to Indians?  He might not like this idea of mine, but he should remember it’s only a guess.  I think the North Koreans of his military service are the real people he’s talking about.  Darrell Kipp, our much respected local Blackfeet leader, said that when he did his Korean service, he could sometimes “pass” as Korean.  The gene base for American Indians is Asian.  People who live near Lake Baikal often look like Blackfeet.

Z23 Pvt Oduel and Shropshire 31st Infantry .30 Machine Gun 38th Parallel Korea
This was Tom's outfit.

If you look with Tom’s point of view at the concept “Indians,” and think about what it meant after Korean service to be a desk jockey in a private office for many years, and if you know that often in old age people’s memories circle back to their youth -- that opens up a lot of emotional ground about killing, suffering, comrades dead, occasional triumph and questions about what it was all for anyway?  Can we be proud of defending our nation?  Shadows in the cave, longing for illumination from some aperture above to wash over their hands.  In that sense, this is a highly honorable book.  Tom, I salute you on Veteran's Day !

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