One Indian and Two Chiefs

Aug 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-2: Spirituality, Media Reviews

Navajo Community College Press. Tsaile, Arizona. 1992.

Review by Jennifer Gray Reddish 

Lives of Confusion and Conflict

Ralph Salisbury shares his vision of Indian life in a white-dominated society through a seemingly unrelated col­lection of short stories, One Indian and Two Chiefs. The stories shift from brief, two-page works to longer pieces, pulling the reader from reservation to war, and back again.

However, Salisbury has pieced together a book that reflects the confusion and conflicts of modern Indian life. The stories focus on denying, defining and re-discovering Indian identity against the back-drop of civil conflict—whether it be in war-torn Southeast Asia or Europe, or the rural spaces of one’s reservation home.

He does not waste time yanking heart strings. The work possesses a gritty feel; the voice is at times broken in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. And he has no qualms about telling the story from an animal’s point of view—giving the collection’s strange mix of realism and fantasy.

Like much of native American literature, these stories not only reflect American Indian life in general, but the writer’s personal experience. As Salisbury writes in his autobiographical essay, “Between Lightning and Thunder” in I Tell You Now:

“There was always violence and danger where I grew up and that’s why I’ve written so much about terror and battle, even though I’m a dedicated pacifist and refused to return to active duty in the Korean War after having been a volunteer in World War II. I believe that an overwhelming movement against killing one’s own kind is the only possible salvation for humanity, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t see the world as it really is.”

These are stores by, and at times, about Salisbury.

Throughout the collec­tion, he explores the dark reality of racism. In “Two Women, Two Men,” the protagonist laments that his records were changed from “White” to “Colored,” and describes himself as “often fallen apart, drunk” about his loss of rank and pay. At the same time, the narra­tor admires Joe, a full-blood, dark-skinned Indian, with the all-American name, who has become a war hero.

It is his heroics that make his heritage accept­able to the whites, because as the main char­acter explains: “Joe had been—not White—but something like White as long as his battle success­es kept on making the Whites happy.”

Joe, the veteran of over fifty commando raids, loses his composure only when his potential date screams, “I’m not sleeping with a nigger!” in his face, and rips-off his shirt in order to retrieve her address. In turn, Joe strips the woman of her dress, and proceeds to fist-fight her.

The scene possesses a stark, almost poetic, bru­tality. Salisbury experi­enced such racist remarks himself while teaching in Texas. A Molotov cocktail was lofted at his house for being an Indian—there was little love for indige­nous people in that area. “I read about a mixed-blood who was sentenced to a long term in prison for miscegenation and realized that, I, too was subject to imprisonment for being married to a white woman,” he recalls.

Along with racism, Salisbury delves into the murky topic of loyalty. In “the Sonofabitch and the Dog,” perhaps the most finely crafted story in the collection, the narrator is a seventeen-year-old sol­dier in an unspecified war who begins training as a commando after he strangles a man in a bar brawl.

He describes the train­ing, and the initial mur­der itself, with the naivete of a back-road farm boy off the reserva­tion. “They said we wouldn’t let the enemy call us anything, we would kill them, but when we insulted each other, we were only prac­ticing like we did with our weapons.”

The narrator soon realizes that the practice has become all too real when he returns from a mission during which three of his buddies are killed. When he returns from leave that I night, he meets the base dog, Commando, who has learned to find his way home using the public bus system.

At the bus stop, Commando says, “You’re an Indian. You understand the earth, you understand nature. You understand animals. You understand what I’m saying, and you under­stand that I’m not bull-shitting you.”

He continues, asking the narrator if he wants to live to be eighteen. When the protagonists answers, “Hell, yes,” Commando then finishes the conversation: “So what do you want to be, proud and stupid and dead or humble and freaked-out and alive?”

The narrator then makes the decision to be true to himself and his Indian heritage—rather than to killing. He goes on a seven-day fast, and eventually is assigned to work as a clergyman’s assistant—and is eigh­teen at the end of the story.

The idea of loyalty is addressed again in “A Cherokee Volunteer.” In this story, the narrator, Seek, also questions alle­giance to his duty as a sol­dier for his people’s his­toric oppressor. Rather than shoot on sight, he watches with admiration a Korean woman as she retrieves her husband’s body. He refers to her as his “cousin” rather than his “enemy.” As he notes, “these women were warriors, just as Cherokee women had been; but from the sobs jolted by running over rough ground, he knew he had nothing to fear from her.”

In this instance, the Indian soldier feels greater alliance with the “enemy’—whose land is also being invaded by the U.S. government in much the same manner his own people’ territory was overrun.

Despite the violence of this novel that shows the “world as it really is”—there is an element of hope in Salisbury’s work. Whereas the narrator in the first story, “The Soldier Who Would Ask,” intimates that the only answer to domination is suicide, each successive story builds to the final epilogue, “Lightening of All Time and a Good Steady Fire.”

In this he summarizes the message of his collection: “Because of the simple, steady words of one of us, we were becoming people of flame; … we were no longer only a few timid people wanting to do the right thing, … [but] the strong thunder music of many voices become voice.”

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