After finishing my last blog about Natalie Curtis, I sat down to read her book. What an experience.
Here are collected materials from 18 different Native American tribes in the United States with illustrations by their own artists and some historic photographs. That brings up a question. How many tribes are there altogether? I was stunned to discover the number, which is the tip of the pyramid of my ignorance about these people.
According to the National Congress of Native Americans, there are 562 federally recognized Indian Nations. About 229 are located in Alaska; the rest in 33 states. According to the 2010 census, the most recent, 2.9 million people self-identified as Native American and Alaska Native. By comparison, the total population of the US was 309.3 million at the time.
How interesting to discover that the foundation of this country is so diverse. Each tribe has its own language, history, traditions, and spirituality anchored in a “reverence for the world of nature,” as Natalie puts it. Their dress, art, song, chants, and ceremonies help define each tribe, and they take great pride in who they are, as revealed in her interviews.
The music in this book was transcribed by hand in both the native tongue and English. Natalie must have “sounded out” many of the Indian words because they were not in writing at the time.
GIVING INDIANS A NEW VOICE
In fact, Sequoyah of the Cherokee in Tennessee was the first Indian to put his native tongue into a “syllabary” in 1821. This meant creating a symbol for each syllable. Often there is no combination of letters to signify a particular sound in a tribal language, and Natalie notes many of these instances in her transcription.
A handwritten endorsement by Theodore Roosevelt appears in the front of the book: “These songs cast a wholly new light–on the depth and dignity of Indian thoughts, the simple beauty and strange charm–the charm of a vanished elder world–of Indian poetry.” I felt that “strange charm” from the beginning, and every time I sat down to read, I found myself moving into an unusual, peaceful state.
The music accompanies certain stories cherished by each tribe along with descriptions of the ceremonies that bound their communities together. Much of every day, especially among the Hopi in Arizona, was accompanied by singing. The music and chants are so simple, so repetitive, that the mere reading of the words becomes soporific.
And the opportunity to do so is a gift. When I finished, I reread Natalie’s introduction, and saw in one sentence the impact of what she described as the “consecrated work” of compiling this material: “It was impossible to live near to Indian life without being heart-wrung by the pathos of its tragedy–impossible to be among Indians without crying, ‘Is there a people more deeply misunderstood?'” I experienced the bloom of a new order of respect and compassion.
THE VALUE OF COMMUNITY
A recent and complementary experience amplified that effect. Just a few weeks earlier, I had read a fine novel by Paulette Jiles called News of the World. It was about the effort in 1870 by an elderly Texas captain to return to her family a child named Johanna who had been kidnapped by the Kiowa after they killed her parents. Times on the warpath are, of course, part of Indian history, and Natalie describes the Kiowa as “among the fiercest of the plains warriors.”
Ironically, the plot of the story revolves around the fact that the child, now around age ten, does not want to go “home.” At every opportunity, she tries to escape and get back with her people, who are now the Kiowa. At the end of the book, the author, who lives on a ranch near San Antonio, includes a note about how Johanna’s behavior was not at all uncommon. She refers to The Captured, a book by Scott Zesch, that documents this behavior among all kinds of children–Anglo, German-Anglo, and Mexican–who had become captives.
It’s too late now to study this psychology, but Jiles writes that “They apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families for less than a year.” This statement gives one pause, doesn’t it? However, by the time I had finished reading The Indians’ Book, I could see how this might be.
There have been losses on the road to what currently passes for civilization. Thanks to Natalie Curtis, I now have a new perspective on what some of them are.