Talking Indian: Reflections on Survival and Writing

Aug 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-2: Leadership, Media Reviews

Firebrand Books. Ithaca, New York. $10.95

Review by Cheryl Crazy Bull

Spoken Words on the Printed Page

Che. Buffalo.

I read this story of a young man and a young woman searching for their ancestors’ buffalo hunting ground while sitting in the court­yard of a hotel in Albuquerque. The story brought tears to my eyes. I felt a familiar pain over the many losses experienced by tribal peoples throughout this land.

These two individuals, Jim and Stella, walk through the prairies looking for the traditional killing grounds, the run of the Grandfather, the buffalo. They find the buffalo bones, the place where the holy man sang the buffalo to their death, the stones marking the warriors’ places along the run. They also rec­ognize, in the end, the importance of keeping the buffalo jump location a secret, along with the many other secrets of tribal people which pro­tect us and herald our survival. I recognize the necessity for secret keeping. It is this quality of recogni­tion, the acknowledgement of our vulnerability, that gives so much power to Anna Lee Walters’ book Talking Indian.

Talking Indian is written in a man­ner that makes you feel like you are sitting in your kitchen visiting with a relative or a woman friend. It is reminiscent of stories told about your family, your relatives or your tribal history. Hers is a story familiar to many native Americans today, a story of passage, conflict and remembrance.

Walters combines her autobiography, her family history, with storytelling from her Otoe and Pawnee heritage. She is most powerful in her description of her early learning about tribal ways and family relationships. It is gentle telling filled both with loving and painful memories. Clearly, she has sought the memo­ries of her earliest teachings, the first words which prompted her path as a writer and which have led her to the telling of her personal story for all who are interested.

The author traces her literary skill to the oral tradition of her ancestors, pointing out the power of the Otoe and Pawnee oratory tradi­tions in her reminiscing about sto­ries she has heard in her lifetime. The oral tradition endures, she asserts, “because its teachings recon­cile and connect different periods and generations in a very cohesive way by focusing on larger tribal vision and experience. It included cosmology and worship.”

This statement provides one of the most precise definitions in contempo­rary native American literature. It provides a framework by which an oral tradition can make the transition to a written form. Her discussion of oral tradition eloquently explains its power, with words having their own “vitality and force.” This makes oral tradition differ­ent from the indi­vidual voice, allowing the oral to survive longer than an individual human being.

Her autobio­graphical chapters are followed by tribal sto­ries, including the chapter for which the book is named, “Talking Indian”. In this chapter, a woman is searching for herself by spending time with a 100-year-old man who is able to speak the language of the universe, who has heard the teaching of the creatures and beings of the universe, who knows that they are talking Indian.

He tells her that to know the uni­verse is the best way to learn to talk Indian. They share grief over the loss of the old stories and songs because talking Indian was forbid­den. Dogs speak to the woman, Maxine, who appears in this story and who is finding her Indian voice. Walters recalls that as a child she thought the whole world was Indian, a recollection many of us must share. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the world is not all Indian, when we found out that there are many ways of living and many colors of skin.

The strength and beauty of our tribal ways are overshadowed as Walters writes of being forced off traditional homelands to Indian ter­ritory in Oklahoma, of people divided and dying, of names distorted and of fears permeating the people’s lives. But she also shows in her stories, “Buffalo Wallow Woman” and “Che,” that we can keep our tribal ways and protect our culture and traditions even in the midst of our contemporary lives.

She shows how the things we take for granted—spir­its, the sound of buffalo in the earth, songs of the wind, the talking of animals—are things which others believe mark us, as Indians, as crazy. Yet these are the very things which assure our survival as Indian people.

We have a special privilege in this book of seeing pic­tures of the author’s family. Once again, I felt like I knew these people. The faces are those of all our relatives. They are beautiful, handsome people even in the midst of their painful journey, a journey which shows in their faces.

The final portion of this book is devoted to tribal his­tories of the Otoe and Pawnee and of the Navajos, the people of Walters’ husband. She describes her family ancestry, identifying bloodlines and relationships. This part of the book requires the reader to pay attention in order to clearly understand the family lines and their importance to the author’s identity and writing.

Our tribal histories are the individual histories of families told in a collective voice. It is important for us to know our family histories and this book models a way of knowing that is accessible to every tribal person. It is to know the tribal names, where people lived, who they married, who their children are.

Talking Indian is definitely a book with many facets. I shared memories, points of discussion, teaching from this book with friends and colleagues and we found a great deal to discuss. It undoubtedly only touches a small part of the complex life Walters leads as a contemporary tribal woman working in an academic setting. Her autobiographical work allows the reader to cross the bridge between our daily lives as tribal citizens and our oral teachings.

I’d like to see more autobiographies by tribal people. This sharing of individual and tribal stories woven with our teachings maps the oral histories which connect our past and promise the future.

This book contains passages which should be read more than once. It can be used in the classroom to pro­voke discussion about the many conflicts faced by tribal people today while enriching our understanding of our many strengths. Any course in native women’s studies, native American literature or other literature or writing course would benefit from the addition of this book.

Cheryl Crazy Bull is vice president of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation of South Dakota.

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