Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee

In 1883, D. Lothrop & Company published a book called Wide Awake Pleasure Book consisting of several volumes of a children's magazine called Wide Awake.  There are several items in it that I'll want to write about sometime, but today (Halloween), I've chosen to share "Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee.

"Benny's Wigwam" was first published in Volume 17, No. 6 of Wide Awake, dated November 1883, but Google Books shows me that D. Lothrop & Company also published it in 1886 in The Little Gold Miners of the Sierras and Other Stories. You can read the story in its entirety by clicking on that link. Here's the illustration that goes with the story:

In "Benny's Wigwam," it is the first day of vacation. Benny Briggs sets out to "see the old Witch" (p. 334) that has moved into an abandoned woodcutter's hut near their home. His little sister goes (called Pettikins or Fanny) with him. When they get to the hut, Fanny exclaims over the broomstick and black cat they see at the hut. They're startled to hear her voice behind them, telling them there aren't any laws against her having a cat or a broomstick. She asks the children "What are you skeered of?" (p. 335).

With that question, they enter a conversation in which the children ask her why she's so queer. She tells them (p. 335):
"I'm exterminated. You don't know what that is, I s'pose?"
Benny stammers that it means to drive out, to put an end to, to destroy utterly. The woman tells Benny she learned what it meant back when she was the age of Fanny (p. 335):
"That's when the colonel said we must move west'ard,"said the witch, laying her pipe down on the log, leaning her elbows on her knees, and resting her bony jaws in the palms of her hands. "Injuns, before they're exterminated, stick to their homes like other folks."
Debbie's comments: The author/old woman are referring to removal. The use of the word "exterminated" can be traced to Thomas Jefferson's use of that word in 1807, when he said that "if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi." Would a Native woman have used the word "Injun" to describe herself? I kind of doubt it. That said, the author is sympathetic and her "like other folks" is an attempt to depict Native people as same-as-everyone-else. I'm curious, though, about the period. Is this old woman talking about Jefferson and the removal known as the Trail of Tears? What tribe is this old woman? Is she a Cherokee? What is she doing in the northeast?

Benny doesn't believe she's an "Injun" because she doesn't look like the pictures he's seen, and she doesn't look like the (p. 335-336)
"magnificent figures he had seen in front of the cigar stores in New Haven. Where were all her feathers and things--her red and yellow tunic, her gorgeous moccasins, her earrings and noserings and bracelets and armlets and beads? Why, she was just ragged and dirty!"
Debbie's comments: It is interesting to read about what he expected, and what formed those expectations. I wonder what pictures he'd seen? "Benny's Wigwam" came out in 1883.  Earlier in the book, there's this drawing:

The drawing is just there--no story goes with it. The artist is listed (in the table of contents) as George Foster Barnes. Benny may also be thinking of Indians he saw in Peter Parley's Tales about America, published in 1830.

As for cigar store Indians... well, there's plenty of examples of them! Do an image search and you'll find them.  

Benny asks the old woman if she really is an "Injun" and she says:
"Well, I was. I ain't nothing at all now. I ain't even a squaw, and they said they was going to make a Christian on me. I was a Chetonquin."
Debbie's comments: With that passage, we are given a tribe. Chetonquin. As far as I know, there is no tribe called Chetonquin. I'll keep reading Benny's Wigwam and see if I learn more about that. Regarding making her into a Christian, that was certainly going on! 

The old woman tells Benny that her people did not want to go west. They fought the colonel. She was a little girl at the time and hid behind a tree to watch the fight. She saw her father get shot and ran to him. She got shot, too, and shows Benny and Fanny the scar, saying (p. 336):
"A bullet grazed me hard and I was stunned and blinded with the blood, and couldn't run, but my people had to."
The old woman says Colonel Hammerton (this is the first time she names him)...
"took a notion to pick me up when he rode over the ground he had soaked with the blood of my people--ground that belonged to my people," shrieked the woman, straightening herself up and shaking her fists in the air. 
Debbie's comments: I'm glad to see that the woman's command of English is pretty good. The author didn't give the woman that stilted speech pattern in which almost every word ends in "-um" and I'm also glad to see the woman speak the truth about the land itself and who it belonged to. I don't know what battle the old woman saw as a child. The only "Colonel Hammerton" that I've come up with is the one in this story. 

The old woman says that Colonel Hammerton took her to Washington where she had to stay in houses, which she didn't like. She ran away several times and they finally gave up and let her go. And since then, she's been searching for her people. She was told:
they was exterminated, every one on 'em. Yes, I've been a-going ever since, but I can't go any more.
And so, she's stopped moving and hopes she can stay in this forest. She doesn't want to be in a house because the Great Spirit won't be able to find her. She wants to be found, soon, and pleads with Benny to carry her wish to his people. He tells her not to worry, because the woods they're in belong to his relations, and he'll look after her.

Debbie's comments: White people saving or rescuing Indians is a common trope. Not a good one, I should add!

The old woman is very grateful to Benny. She looks around her, saying that when she came into this wood, she felt she was in the right place, and she almost expected to see wigwams.  She wishes she could sleep in one. Benny tells her sleeping in wigwams is something he and his friends had done when playing Indian. They know how to make them. He offers to make one for her.

Debbie's comments: Hmmm... I think is may be the oldest reference I've seen to playing Indian.  

Benny goes home to gather his friends so they can build the wigwam. He tells his parents, too, about the old woman. They're very sympathetic (p. 337):
[T]heir excellent hearts were at once filled with compassion for so forlorn a creature. Mr. Briggs had very radical theories about equal mercy and justice for each member of the human race.
Debbie's comments: There were, in fact, people like Mr. and Mrs. Briggs. During the period when removal of the Cherokee's was being discussed, there were active letter-writing campaigns in which white women objected to removal. This is referenced in the Trail of Tears episode of the PBS Series, We Shall Remain. 

Mr. and Mrs. Briggs tried to get her into more comfortable quarters than the forest, but she wanted to be there, so they left her alone, making sure she had whatever she needed to be comfortable. Over the summer, she lost touch with reality. People came to "understand and respect the sorrows of the poor creature they had talked of as a witch" (p. 338).

As winter drew near, Benny was intent on making her a wigwam. He got a person named 'Bijah to help him. 'Bijah had been to Dakota and saw "life-size" wigwams. In a chest, he's got buffalo and other kids of robes. He gets to work on them and they make one. Exhausted, Benny goes to bed and (p. 338):
dreamed he was the chief of a powerful tribe, and that he found old Winneenis, not old any longer, but a little girl like Fanny, crying in the forest because she couldn't find her way to her people, and that he took her by the hand and led her home.
Debbie's comments: Here, near the end, we learn the woman's name: Winneenis. 

In the morning, he and his friends head to the wigwam and are surprised to find the old woman asleep inside. The boys peek at her but decide to let her sleep. Hours pass and she doesn't wake. 'Bijah goes inside and comes out to report that Winneenis is dead. The final paragraph is this (p. 339):
Wandering, as was her wont at night, she had come upon Benny's wigwam, standing in the clear moonlight, and to her longing, bewildered mind, it had probably seemed the wigwam of her father. Who can ever know the joy, the feeling of peace, and rest, and relief, with which she laid her tired bones down in it, and fell asleep, a care-free child once more, and thus passed from its door into the happy hunting-grounds? And Benny always felt glad the wigwam had been built.
Debbie's comments: An interesting story... I think it is much like other writings of that time period that were sentimental pleas for tolerance, equality, and reform. It also reflects, however, the author's lack of knowledge about a specific tribal nation. Mrs. Lee (the author) uses a good many stereotypical words and ideas (like happy hunting ground). As for the opening, where the old woman is thought to be a witch... I'll have to do some reading to make sense of that! For now, I'll hit the upload button and greet the trick or treater's at my door this evening. (This is going live without a close read for typos, etc. Let me know if you see some! Or bad writing! And let me know, too, what you think of the story.)


Jean Mendoza said...

Searched on Mary Catherine Lee-- looks like she may have written A Quaker Girl of Nantucket (1890) but not much else is coming up about her.

Jean Mendoza said...

About people believing that this lone woman was a witch -- isn't that one of the misogynistic Things That Happened until not too long ago, that a female who lived on her own (say, in an old house, or especially in the woods) must be a witch? (Hansel and Gretel, and a number of other tales come to mind.) In this case, if she was known to be indigenous and didn't attend church, maybe that would "confirm" to the community that she was a "heathen" and a likely practitioner of witchcraft.

Debbie Reese said...

I read an article at Indian Country Today about witches.

Debbie Reese said...

Link isn't working in previous comment... trying again: