[A book with four interlocking 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.]
[Saturday, February 25, 2006]
All right, Joseph, it’s 8:40 a.m., let’s begin.
Joseph, I have resisted going back and re-reading your earlier messages, but even as we were talking yesterday I felt there was a big discrepancy between stories. Let me get straight in my mind what concerns me, then I’ll give you a crack at them. (Also I am very much aware I don’t have your life story during and after the war. I feel like you did survive it, but – well, that’s for you to tell. Curious situation, waiting.)
When did you marry Pretty Flower [sic]
When did she die?
When did you live with her family?
I remember you saying you stayed in town long enough to hear that Abraham Lincoln had been elected, then went up to your family. I haven’t looked but I had the impression your wife was still alive.
Yes you had the impression but she wasn’t.
Let me say just a word about this process. In the past, this is where you would have quit, when it got hard to know. But that is just the time to push on, and ask, don’t evade or shirk the question. Remember, we said you was going to treat it like a story, giving “me” room to make mistakes and not know stuff I ought to know, or say things that contradicted each other. This is important. Think of it as you trying to get a story from a witness. If your witness is basically honest his inaccuracies will smooth themselves out in the over all, or if they don’t, they’ll stand out as exceptions. If he ain’t basically honest, sooner or later he’ll trip himself, ‘cause as Mr. Lincoln famously said, nobody has got a good enough memory to be a good liar. Well, if anybody is keeping track, that’s right. So – keep track.
You got to think of yourself as a scientist, here. You are looking for truth. If your theory can’t be falsified – if there ain’t any way to show that it is different than you thought, that it just don’t work – why then, your theory is either just theory – because it can’t be applied – or it is just fantasy.
It’s always better to know the truth.
The two errors – you have always got to try to stay way from each one of ‘em – are, on the one hand to say, “I got this idea, it must be true” – what you call psychic’s disease – and never really test it any; and saying the same thing on the other side – “I know that idea can’t be true, so I don’t need to test it.” The true believers and the professional skeptics, I believe you call ‘em.
Now if you look close enough at yourself – you, Frank, but also anybody else reading this – I think you’re going to find that in different parts of your life you are all three.
In some things, you believe and that’s the end of it. In others, you disbelieve and that’s the end of it. (They are really the same thing of course, but they look different from issue to issue.) And in some things you keep probing and probing, trying to find out what is really true.
You told your friend – you have said it lots, over the years – that you think everybody is probably the same percentage open and closed minded, just in different areas. Well, I don’t quite sign off on that. Some people come in determined to be hard-headed and others come in bound to be open to every new idea however crazy – and true most people are in between and as you say it depends on what you are talking about, how they react – but mostly I’d say you got big differences in where they set their attitude, plus most people have got a hard time shifting gears, as you say. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just the way it is.
All right, let me get my story straight and I’ll let you judge. And if you decide I’m made up, well, you still got some pretty good stories out of me, if I do say it.
I came back from Oregon after the war was over – the Mexican War, of course – and I moved up to Iowa pretty quick to get away from slave territory. I had to make a living, and trading with Indians is what I knew and liked, so I went up north doing that. I found the tribes I’d been with, easy enough – it had only been, what, four years, about, since I’d been there.
(Now, it is good you haven’t looked up what I said before. Don’t! You can’t test without testing.)
Of course, there’s no real knowing Pretty Flower’s [sic] age except to a year or two, but I don’t suppose she was more than 10 or 12 – somewhere in there – the first time I saw her, because like I say she was still a kid. Now, Indian kids mature fast, but they aren’t young women at 10! Nor usually at 12.
So when I came back I suppose she was anywhere from 14 to 16, which sounds awfully young to you – but remember your own grandmother was married at 16, and that was half a century later! Nor we didn’t get married the first day I showed up! But it was clear enough, soon enough, and when I came back the second year and she still had eyes for me, it was okay with me and I talked to her father, and it was okay with him.
Now, I might as well answer some of the suspicions you’re too polite to mention – although if you think that on this side you can have a thought and not have everybody know it that’s dealing with you, well, you’re in for a surprise. You’ll find it restful, actually, after the initial shock. Where do you think your frustration about people not telling the truth comes from, but a live memory of a state of affairs where we can’t tell anything but the truth, or anyway, truth as it appears to us.
Side-trail. You’re wondering if I meant to really marry her or only use her while I was there, as a sort of doorway into the tribe, and as a servant and a sex partner. I don’t take offense because you can’t help what you wonder, and I know how it looks, but that ain’t it. I talked to her father – he wasn’t a chief, but he was a respected man, and I liked him, he was about my age, a good man with horses. Anyway, Big Thunder – that was his name – he knew the lay of the land. Don’t you imagine his daughter had been preparing the way, by way of her mother? He told me he knew that I could not stay in only one world, that I was a – they had a name for us, by then, people who went back and forth between the white world and the red world – it would translate out to something like Shuttler, but that ain’t very close. More like you would say Commuter, in the sense of some time here, then travel, then some time there, then back again. I could say something like “stitcher of the worlds” or something, which is in there too, only it wasn’t anything poetic or high-flying, it was just as flat as Commuter; it just described what is.
So – he knew, and I didn’t pretend, and he knew my heart was good. You don’t fool people too easy if you live with ‘em close, as I did even when I was still a visitor. He knew what I was, and I wasn’t trying to fool him anyway.
Now in a way his daughter had put us in a pretty pickle, because you know and I know that when a young woman sets her heart on something either she keeps on wearing you down like water on a stone, or she gets crushed and maybe broken. So it was really a matter of him seeing if we could work it out. There’s a lot of people have foolish ideas about a male culture and all that, but it don’t matter how much the tribe might need and value sons, I never saw a father that didn’t love his daughter just as much. It’s just, the roles people played were different, and the way people fit in were very defined, so to you it looks harsh and to us it was secure. But of course a part of me was looking at it with white eyes, so I could always see it double, you might say. That is how I never quite fit in, you understand – I never whole-heartedly saw things only one way.
All Big Thunder wanted to know was, did I intend to treat her right? He didn’t care that I was older as long as I was healthy and strong. He didn’t care that I was white as long as my heart was good. He could see the advantage to the whole tribe to have a trader who had been on both sides – information is power, you would say. He did want me to not have a white wife too, as that never seemed to work out well, and that was fine with me. So we got married the second year I was up there, which would make it I think 1850.
Then I had a few years that were very happy and like I say, the white world was sort of fading away on me. I’d still visit, have some drinks with the boys, keep my contacts up, and of course just the trading was a certain amount of time. We’d bring down some ponies – did you know Indians used to trade horses for things? Bet you didn’t. (I have the advantage that I have a better idea of your forgotten memories, like things you’ve read, than you do!)
I had an established place in things on both sides. Some of the boys called me Joe Indian (no, not Injun Joe like in Huck Finn!) and sometimes they’d call me Paleface, but just in fun you know, like a nickname. It ain’t like I was the only one living like that – your history books sort of soft peddle [sic] around it, but Indian life was powerfully attractive to lots of young white boys on the frontier. If reasonable people ran things, the whites and the reds could have got along just fine, with people like me – Shuttler, call me – stitching it together. But of course that didn’t happen and couldn’t happen while greed was in the saddle which it looks likely to stay there a while yet.
So there went the years 1850 and ’51 and ’52 and ’53 and ’54, and by now I was 32. and it was just that year that Abraham Lincoln got himself involved in politics again because of Kansas-Nebraska. In my case it wasn’t that – I was disgusted a long time, by that time, with what was going on. No, I got a jolt that year, when Pretty Slipper died. She wasn’t very old.
You maybe have the idea that Indians didn’t have contraceptives because they didn’t have a drug store! The whole world was their drug store, there for the picking if you knew what you were looking at – and they did. I suppose if we’d kept on postponing children you [sic] might have lived – certainly she would have lived longer. The thing is, there wasn’t any reason to think she couldn’t carry a child. She was young, healthy. We thought we’d bring a little half-breed into the world.
That didn’t turn out so good. A breech birth, and we lost them both. You might say, if she had a white doctor’s care, but you don’t know that, and their record wasn’t all that great at the time. Anyway, she died, and the baby was born dead, and that was that.
Joseph, I have sensed before that your story touches on John Cotten’s, emotionally.
Yeah it does, but he had children to tie him in to the world. It’s like we tried variations on the theme.
Well, what was I to do? Go howling off into the sunset? Go crazy and lash out in all directions? I knew not to give up on life, the way John [Cotten] did. No, I didn’t know him consciously, but something stopped me from giving up on life, put it that way. When I was tempted there came something that said, “no, that ain’t the way, you can’t just give up.” That old German taught him well, you see.
Yes. I’ll insert the story for others, maybe.
[At another time, perhaps]
After Pretty Slipper
It’s more like I was sort of stunned. I mean, what was I to do? So – I just kept on doing what I was doing. I kept living with my family part of the year, living with the whites part of the year – yes, that does sound strange, don’t it? I guess that’s how I thought when I was with the Indians, and when I was with the whites I thought of Indians as “them” and whites as “us.” It sounds like it had ought to tear you in half, but it ain’t that different I suppose from commuting to work and being a different person at work than you are at home, just maybe a little more extreme.
You been at this a good while now. Watch your energy.
It’s 10 but I feel okay so far, and I don’t want you to quit, though these days it is easy enough to resume. Go ahead.
Only a little more. You know the next bit. The years moved on, and I slid a little away from my family and a little closer to white society because like I say I got more and more worried about slavery going national.
Now you know, once something didn’t happen, it’s pretty easy to fool yourself into thinking it wasn’t ever going to happen, that is, never could have happened. But that just ain’t true. If Andrew Jackson hadn’t beat the British at New Orleans, maybe – since the peace treaty had already been signed – maybe it wouldn’t have mattered except to his career later. But if we’d captured Quebec in 1775, and Montreal, you think nothing would have been different? And if we hadn’t been bamboozled into the Mexican War, nothing would have changed?
All through the ‘50s the southern politicians and their northern pawns were working to make slavery legal across the board. You don’t believe it, you just go back and read that speech by Mr. Lincoln that laid it all out, the whole plot piece by piece. And it looked like succeeding! Year after year things that had been inconceivable the year before got passed as law, or ruled by the damned Supreme Court of Slaveholders, as we took to calling it. And year after year we lost more ground till it looked like there wasn’t any place to stand. That is what made the Republican Party! Desperation. All the free-soilers and the anti-slavery Democrats and anti-slavery Whigs and all the bobtail pieces of this and that realized they had to come together, and right now or we was going to lose our country. And because it didn’t happen you think it never was going to happen. But you are flat wrong, and maybe you had to see it to understand it, I don’t know. But when we did finally put a stop to it by electing Mr. Lincoln – because we knew, everybody knew, he wasn’t going to let it continue – why, the same traitors that had been trying for ten years and more to make slavery national said “then we’re leaving.” And, like I said, at first we said good riddance, and then we said “you are, like hell” because we realized that even though there wasn’t another slavery issue around, you once let one part secede there’s no end to it, and we’d wind up just like Europe, with kings (whatever we might still call ‘em) and pint-size squabbles, and England meddling in our affairs playing one off the other.
I didn’t mean to go into it, but just to say, as the 50s went on and the situation got more serious I got more involved in the white world again and by the time all was said and done there I was in the army and by my own doing.
Yes, sometime we can talk more about why slavery got me so hot under the collar; it wasn’t just sympathy for the slaves. But you ought to quit now.
Okay. Thanks. (10:10)