Monday, December 04, 2006
EdNah New Rider Weber's RATTLESNAKE MESA: STORIES FROM A NATIVE AMERICAN CHILDHOOD
[Note: This review is used by permission of its author. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission.]
New Rider Weber, EdNah (Pawnee), Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories from a Native American Childhood, photographs by Richela Renkun. Lee & Low, 2004, 132 pages, b/w photos; grades 3-up
Rattlesnake Mesa is EdNah New Rider Weber’s recollections of growing up in the early 1900s. After the death of her grandmother, young EdNah is sent to live with her father at Crown Point Indian Agency on the Navajo reservation, and attend the Crown Point Indian School as a day student. Just as she is starting to feel at home, her sense of herself and the world is shattered when she witnesses some children being whipped. “I carried mortal shame, fear, and hurt away with me….I was just eight years old,” she writes. At the end of the school year, EdNah is uprooted once more and sent to the government-run Phoenix Indian School. Here, she finds rigid military discipline and the attempted eradication of everything she is. Despite the loneliness, despite the arbitrary punishment, there is more than a little subversiveness and outright rebellion—mocking the teachers behind their backs, underground games and songs. The children “learned early—laughing was best."
EdNah New Rider Weber is an awesome storyteller; her words will bring young readers into her world.
But several things about Rattlesnake Mesa are very, well, odd. For one thing, the voice shifts throughout the book from Weber’s conversational storytelling cadence to a strange, detached, “objective” outsider rhythm. This happens too often not to be noticed. In a piece about boarding school, Weber recounts how a little girl the students nicknamed “Old Thunder” had an “unbelievable talent—a natural ability to pass her stomach gases as she pleased. Complete control!” And in another section, there is an odd, outsider overemphasis on what people are wearing: “The Zuni women were richly clad in black mantas and white buckskin-wrapped moccasins. Navajo ladies wore velvet shirts, studded with old coins from the 1800s, and exquisite turquoise jewelry.” And there is an—odd—description of a ceremony that wouldn’t have happened quite that way.
Another oddity is the black-and-white photos that illustrate the book. The endnotes say that in 1998 “[Weber and Renkun] set out to revisit the landscape of Weber’s childhood in New Mexico—searching for old memories and creating new images to recapture them….They searched for faces of children and elders who were part of the land, faces that helped Weber remember the people she had known in her youth.” It’s an interesting project for a photographer to visualize an elderly person’s stories. But there seems to be an unstated assumption that Weber had no memories until she saw these “faces of children and elders who were part of the land.” Otherwise, why would Renkun pose unhappy-looking children dressed in ‘50s-style clothing, to represent the boarding school experience? And what relevance is there for a shawl dancer, wearing moccasins, dancing alone, on hard rocky ground?
Questions remain: Why was it seen as necessary for Weber’s evocative recollections of her childhood to be contaminated with Renkun’s new-agey photographs and perhaps someone else’s writing? Why does Renkun, her husband and her son have wannabe-sounding Lakota names? And why does Renkun dedicate the book to her “Uncle Pete Rock (Che Nodin) full-blood Obijwa [sic], naval commander, athlete, and alumnus of the Carlisle Indian School (1918-1990)”? Carlisle was in operation from 1879-1918.
This is a very disquieting book. I would like to have seen EdNah New Rider Weber’s stories as she told them, without the “fixing up.”—Beverly Slapin