Saturday, September 18, 2010


Glancing over a list of "district approved novels" for a school district in Utah, I saw several that give me pause. Cheyenne Autumn is one example. It's one of those novels that's been around a long time that I don't recall reading in high school or since. Because of its staying power, it is in that too-high pile of books that I need to read.

Curious, I pulled it up using Google Books and read the first paragraph where she introduces the characters. To start, Sandoz tells us about Little Wolf, a fifty-seven year old Cheyenne man who, she says, has the "highest responsibility for the preservation of the people." The last sentence is:
His reputation as a bold warrior started back around the 1830s, in the intertribal conflicts of the time, given up temporarily in 1851 when the Cheyennes signed away their rights to the Overland Trail and to the joys of the warpath for annuities and an Indian agency to administer their tribal business with the government. 
Lots of things to look closely at in that sentence! What caught your eye? Was it "joys of the warpath" that you noticed? According to that phrase, the Cheyennes took joy in being on the warpath. Who would do that? Really. What people, in all of humanity, would take joy in being on the warpath?

Shall I continue reading?


Anonymous said...

Hunh. I think lots of cultures took and still take joy in the warpath. I think the reason we still make war is because it IS such a high for those engaged in it. And that doesn't mean that they are remorseless, evil, killing machines. Just that they are human. They can admit that they never feel more alive than when they are in firefight and still cry for their dead enemies afterwards. Then they go home and live out their lives as peaceful men, who would not, under any provocation punch someone in the nose, even if that guy IS a jerk.

People are complicated.

jpm said...

I can't speak to Debbie's question of whether or not to keep reading Cheyenne Autumn, but do find Anonymous' comments to be curious indeed. For one thing, it's a mistake to confuse an adrenaline high (or any other kind) with "joy". And in these times (and often throughout history), those who MAKE war -- as in "make a nation or a people go to war" are almost never those who are in the actual line of fire.

But be that as it may -- a statement like the one Debbie quotes about giving up the joys of the warpath suggests that this book will be in the business of glossing over the true reason for the Comanches to be fighting in the first place. A much larger, relentless force that did not consider them to be human was in the process of taking over their homes. Not only was personal survival at stake; the survival of the homeland, of their children and grandchildren, was under attack. Comanche leaders were among the fighters, not sitting in a faraway camp or city. Their wars were taking place not in some distant land but right there on home ground. How would they "go home and live their lives as peaceful men" if home was overtaken? This was not about the joy of fighting, and to attempt to "make it so" is to trivialize the roots of the conflict. Maybe the book gets smarter later on but that seems unlikely.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you find my comment curious, jpm. I certainly think the book will go in the direction you suggest.

I just am growing tired of the idea that we have to insist that these people meet every one of the dominant culture's ideal for the human, or it's as if we are admitting they were less than human after all.

Does anyone else get held to these impossible standards before we think they should be treated humanely?

I'm sorry if I am putting this badly. I'm finding it very difficult to put into words.

Why do we need to bicker about whether an adrenaline rush is the same thing as "joy?"

If the Cheyenne --did --enjoy their time on the warpath, would that mean it was OKAY that they lost their lives, their homes, their land? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

First, I apologize for misnaming the people in question in my initial response. Cheyenne, not Comanche. I was reading something else about Comanches and then tried to think too fast.

Anonymous, I get that you are trying to raise a difficult question and that words are difficult to find and I can empathize. But choice of words matters a great deal! I'm sure you will acknowledge that "joy" truly can be something much different from "high". If we are to be effective critical readers, we must attend to denotation, connotation, and precise meaning -- as I am sure that Mari Sandoz did when choosing the phrase "joys of the warpath."

Sandoz presumes/pretends to know how Comanches felt about being at war, and presents that assumption as central to what is meant to be the reader's basic understanding of Comanches. And it's a relatively nuance-free idea about the Cheyenne psychology of war: "Joy", not "joy and pain" or "highs and lows" or "stresses and rewards" etc.

No matter how little direct knowledge I have of a group of humans, it is difficult for me to buy into a one-dimensional representation of their attitudes about something as complex as warfare.

Maybe some Cheyennes loved the purported highs of combat and felt joyful about it. Maybe some saw it as a necessity in order to defend Home, but found neither high nor joy in it. Maybe some doubted its usefulness but went along with it anyway with only the faintest hope that it could somehow make a difference for their peoples' future.

An important question to ask regarding Sandoz' assumptions about Cheyenne psychology would be "How is this person in a position to make any knowledge claim about what Cheyenne people felt about war?"

No one is saying that writers must always make Native people look good. Rather -- at least for me -- the point is that writers ought to take the time to make them look complex, especially if a group of Native people are important enough to the story that the writer puts the name of that group in the title of a book.

Anonymous said...

I think what she meant was the state of being free, and the warpath mainly involved stealing horses and protecting their hunting territory from other tribes. The Cheyennes may have found joy in this kind of intermittent and largely bloodless form of warfare, and out of this developed a warrior culture. I am sure they took little joy from the relentless and total war visited upon them by whites. To answer your question, yes, you should keep reading. There are attitudes in the book that are dated or easily misconstrued, particularly when viewed with modern attitudes of political correctness. "Once we moved like the wind." That was the essence of the joys of the warpath.