viernes, 18 de febrero de 2011

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas

Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (University of Nebraska Press, 2008)
by Mari Sandoz
USA, 1942

Although I've been dipping into and out of a number of interesting Native American-themed works of late (part of a longstanding but until recently rather hazily defined plan to read up on and explore American Indian history in all its geographic and temporal vastness), I'm not sure I could have found a much more compelling first read for my project than Mari Sandoz's so-called "difficult," "mystical" and "classic" biography of the iconic Sioux leader Crazy Horse--even if that last description is the only one of the three that makes any sense to me.  What a fantastic book.  I should start by pointing out that there's no shortage of page-turning entertainment here, the narrative being rich in jaw-dropping and novelistic anecdotes like the one in which a Cheyenne war party, emboldened by a traditional bullet-proofing ceremony, bravely goes out unarmed to confront a white cavalry contingent only to have the horse soldiers lower their weapons to apply bayonets for a bullet-less charge instead (97).  Other moments, while much less surrealistic in their depiction of the clash of cultures which Crazy Horse lived through and was in a sense a martyr to, are almost equally striking in their evocation of a Sioux society in transition from the pre-white man freedom of the hunting and roaming days to the post-white man bondage of "civilized" reservation life.  Interestingly, one of the things that made this tick as a reading experience for me wasn't just what Sandoz shared or the memorable life story of the person she was writing about but an unusual choice she made about how to present her narrative.  In a work seemingly lacking in all proper distance between the biographer and her subject, the white Sandoz notes that she intentionally went out of her way to write her story "us[ing] the simplest words possible, hoping by idiom and figures and the underlying rhythm pattern to say some of the things of the Indians for which there are no white-man words" (xxii).  Sound like a bad idea to you?  Well, that's what I thought at first until I settled into Sandoz's rhythm and discovered that the end result of her linguistic gambit wasn't the patronizing attitude toward Indians that I'd feared but rather a novel way for non-natives to appreciate the Oglalas from something approximating an insider's perspective.  In point of fact, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas is so consistently "Oglala" in its POV that it neither glosses over what some might view as its hero's faults (e.g. shooting a woman in the back as his first war kill) nor bothers to justify the Oglalas' seemingly petty but murderous warfare with historic enemies the Crows and the Snakes (the author seems to accept this bloodsport as a fact of life not worthy of further explanation).  In any event, I really enjoyed my time with this intimate, surprisingly affecting portrait--and, ugly New Age cover aside, I was sorry to put it down when I got to the end.  (

Mari Sandoz (1896-1966)

9 comentarios:

  1. Oh, this sounds fascinating! (And the cover note on the preface reminds me that I've been meaning to read some Vine Deloria Jr. as well.) It's always great when a technique or idea that seems questionable on the surface actually ends up being effective - and that's especially impressive given the original 1942 publication date.

  2. Very very interesting about the linguistic "gambit." Actually I just finished reading "Madre" about the 8 gazillion different meanings and usages for madre in Spanish culture, many of which are not translatable. (And the woman anthropological linguist who wrote the book had a heck of a time even getting men to talk to her about them.) So I'm very curious to see what's up in this book. And the fact that you put a woman in the header, well, that in itself is enough to floor me, and send me off to find the book!

  3. This sounds so great. I am also very interested in the linguistic aspect. I started to learn a little bit of Lakota Sioux last year. It's fascinating to learn a language used by people who see the world in such a different way from us. Maybe that is what others found difficult. I had never heard of Mari Sandoz before but saw her mentioned twice in one day.

  4. Hello.

    I congratulate you on an outstanding first sentence. A syntactical marvel. Proust would be pleased, maybe even jealous.

    Can you say more about your interest in American Indian history, especially as it pertains to landscape?

    If you suspect that I'm trying to learn more about you, you're right.

    Have a good weekend.


  5. *Emily: I don't think I would have ever considered doing what Sandoz decided to do in terms of the language thing, but it really was effective in making you identify with her chosen point of view. A happy surprise for sure! By the way, Vine Deloria's intro was quite interesting re: his appreciation of Sandoz's work--am hoping to follow it up with books by both him and his son before the end of the year if my working "syllabus" holds up!

    *Jill: As I mentioned to Emily, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw as a questionable tactic at the outset (and not to take anything away from Sandoz, but I'm sure a part of her success was informed by the many storytelling sessions and interviews with Crazy Horse-era Native Americans she was party to growing up in Nebraska--this is something mentioned about her in almost all the biographical snippets I've seen). P.S. Madre is a very "flexible" word in Spanish, so I look forward to hearing all about that book from you when you get a chance!

    *Caroline: I'm not sure whether the reviewer thought the book was difficult because of the tragedy that was unfolding or because of Sandoz's style, but I think Sandoz' choice underscores the fact that the Oglalas and the whites were essentially different people even on something as basic a level as language. "There was an uneasiness among the Lakotas around him, an uneasiness like that in a new-foaled mare at the smell of a mountain lion" (p. 346) is a good example of how Sandoz's "simple" imagery plays out in the text, but she also sprinkles in native words throughout to what I think is good effect. Anyway, am sort of jealous that you know some Lakota Sioux--how cool!

    *Kevin: Ha ha, thanks for the compliment/good laugh--mocking flattery will get you everywhere! As far as my interest in American Indian history goes, I'm happy to share. The short version is that I want to make sure my reading is broad in terms of time and space and genre. It's such a vast subject, so I don't want to make the mistake of focusing on conflict (i.e. "the Indian wars") or the traditional U.S. history timeline which tends to focus on Native American-white interactions between the Lewis and Clark expedition and Wounded Knee. That's the time part. Landscape-wise, I realize that the little I've read to date has had to do with the Plains Indians for the most part. Am interested in seeing what was going on (and is still going on) throughout both America and the Americas, pre- and post-Columbus, going back to the great migrations. Genre, I guess that speaks for itself. I have more enthusiasm than good sense, but I think this will have to be something like a lifetime reading project to learn what I want to learn. Hope this makes sense or at least helps answer your question!

  6. Hello

    Thanks for this, it sounds fascinating and I know someone who'd love to read it. (keep on giving me birthday gifts ideas...)

  7. *Bookaroundthecorner: You're welcome! Naturally, I think it would make a fine birthday gift for the right person...

  8. My mother loves this book as Native American history/lore is an intense interest of hers. She said something interesting to me when I shared your post. She loved the way you immediately identified the "linguistic gambit," but said that many years back that same styling was occasionally misidentified as a reflection of the Native Americans inability to express themselves properly, i.e. speak like white men. Amazing how interpretations of writing can shift with time.

  9. *Frances: I can definitely relate to what your mother mentions; I was very concerned about just that point at first, but Sandoz ended up winning me over by establishing an "Indian POV" as distinct from a "white POV" somehow (ironically, or perhaps not, the work's also full of examples of how failure to communicate in a shared language [i.e. without translation difficulties] repeatedly led to misunderstandings for all concerned). By the way, it tickles me to no end that you would bother to share this post with your mother--please send my regards to her and thank you for sharing her expert feedback!