[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:
- how to communicate with the dead;
- the life of a 19th-century American;
- the massive task facing us today, and
- the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]
.4. Learning Indian
[December 20, 2005] An odd thing is that Marching Through Georgia is insisting on mutating into a refrain of “..marching through – Boston.” What the hell? No reason I can think of, and certainly nothing I consciously intended. While we were marching through – Boston??
8 a.m. All right Joseph – Mr. Smallwood? – you’ve begun something of interest to a lot of people. I sure hope you’re there to continue!
Still on belief/doubt, eh? Well perhaps it isn’t so strange. Think of that long life as [doubting psychic investigator] David Poynter. And by the way it may profit you to ask yourselves what happens when there is a slight overlap – when a new personality is being formed while chronologically the previous one is still in the building, so to speak. Thus one might die in 1871 but another be born in 1864 – same essence. That isn’t any conundrum or paradox, just an easy multiple insertion no different – seen from this end – than any others.
All right. I’ve found seven possible regiments that list a Joseph Smallwood. Which is the right one?
The right one isn’t listed, because you are on the wrong track. But don’t you want to hear about following Lewis and Clark?
Indeed I do! And I’m worried lest your account won’t match what I think I know, or won’t match known historical facts. I’m trying not to worry about it.
That’s right, treat it as semi-fiction – you dredging your feelings and coming up with a story. Don’t forget what you tell newcomers to the work who fret – “say you are making it up. Why are you making this up instead of something else?”
All right. I’m ready if you’re ready.
I am – and I can be so without the coffee!
So much the worse for being on the other side. Okay, shoot.
There I was in St. Louis in the early summer of 1843. I had decided impulsively – no, a better way to put it is that I followed my instinct, not to accompany those who were leaving via Saint Joe, at the far end of the state. I thought I’d try the rivers and see what a small party could do.
I was a teacher, remember. I thought maybe I could communicate. Yes, you just heard it – but we’ll spell it out, you and I, so people can read it. And now you see that one reason for you going to the A.R.E. conference [in October, 2005] was to hear the Mandan Indians in a different context, though it rang no bells in your mind until now. Yes I did. But we’ll tell it in order.
I joined a party of traders for a boat ride upriver for as far as we cared to stay together. We supported each other with our presence – I made the fifth man – in our two boats. You’re trying to make them into canoes, but they were long boats, flat bottomed, pointed prow but wider stern, sort of like this [drawing] only larger in proportion to the width. We went up in two, not only so they would have space for trading goods but for redundancy’s sake. Two boats is a lot better than one if you lose one! Two minus one makes better arithmetic and a chance of not walking all the way home.
Now, you’re thinking that the next thing I’m putting into your mind doesn’t make sense – that a party of horsemen would accompany a party of boatmen. But that is just your ignorance of conditions, and no reason you should know. Boats were our trucks, horses were our cars. Each had its function and helped the other. Men could ride a horse and pull a pack horse, just as men could paddle a long-boat – johnny-boat, some called them; don’t know why. So when we started out there were five of us in the boats and another three on horseback with two pack animals. Once in a while the two parties would lose sight of each other but we always camped together at night except one night we had trouble. I’ll tell you about that another time. Anyway, that’s how we went upriver.
If you’ll get out a map of the country, I’ll save you a lot of anxiety, as you will be able to hear where I’m telling you and see that it makes geographic sense. Or, if you prefer, it will help you to make it up.
[I take out an atlas.]
You see how the map of physiology seems more natural in this context than the political map you’re used to? There weren’t the cities and political divisions there then. It was lovely. All right, now – trace a line upriver – up the Mississippi, not the Missouri – northward. The Missouri would have run us up against the Sioux. We headed pretty much north up the big river, days and weeks up to the Mandan country, nearly.
One of our company was an Indian who spoke white (as he put it) and he helped us interpret words, gestures, intentions, dangers. He and I got pretty thick. I was the youngest and the only one much interested in his world. I know you read about an Indian in a book called Charlie but I can’t help that, we called him – he called himself – Charlie. Charlie Two Ponies, though he didn’t have a horse to his name.
Notice your own conflict when the name Charlie came clear to you – your suspicion of it, your fear that this proved it all fantasy, your thinking of what your friend who also read the book would say. But the name wouldn’t change for you, would it? That ought to reassure you – though I doubt it will!
This Charlie was not a tamanawis man like the one in the book you read. [Trask, by Don Berry.] He was just a man with his own reasons for hanging around working with the white man. He drank some, for one thing, but he was not a drunk. And he liked some things that only money could buy – rifle, ammunition (for once you had a rifle you had to buy ammunition) saddle, finery. He was like an immigrant who goes away to accumulate a stake, intending to return, and sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.
Another aside on the process: Notice how you panicked, nearly, and went to cross out “rifle” and put in something like “musket” because you were pretty sure you’d caught me – caught yourself, more like it – in a chronological impossibility. If you hadn’t “happened to” remember Morgan’s Kentucky riflemen in the Revolutionary War seventy years earlier, nearly – you might have done so. And it is this very tendency that people have to try to “pretty up” things that don’t seem to fit that makes it hard or impossible for them to stay on the line. Take the information first, then criticize it. That’s a valid method. (Another is to criticize first – to first find possibilities and intuit afterward – which is done more commonly than the way you’re doing it.)
Well, Charlie and I would be working the boat, paddling or poling as the case might be, and I’d ask him what this was called, what that was called, in his language. And he would work along with me for long times at a stretch. As I say, I was a white man taking an interest in him, and in his world. And I was a kid, don’t forget that, Mr. Privileged Lunatic. Nobody gets as many entries into other worlds late in life as early.
Of course, sometimes he wouldn’t want to play at all. He could go many hours paddling, poling, eating, and all, and he might have been on the planet by himself for all the notice he would take of the rest of us. But we weren’t all that much different, when you come to it, and anyway he was an Indian and we knew they had their own rules, their way, and it wasn’t any use trying to change them.
Well, you know, it was working with Charlie that I learned my first Indian language, and that’s why I could pick up the others. And I was a scholar, remember! I was a teacher. That was the far genesis of my book, “Etymological Dictionary of the Plant and Animal Names of the North West Indians.” You will notice that you and David are not the only ones to choose best-selling titles and topics!
Getting tired now and we haven’t reached the Mandan Indians, where I now know you wintered over.
Plenty of time. I’m ready when you are.