Authors: Frederick Manfred
Tags: #FIC000000 FICTION / General
Judith is able to realize her complete womanhood, however, only when she meets a man whose moral strength and self-respect elicit her admiration. Scarlet Plume is such a man, one of the last pure Dakota Indians, untainted by white ways and beliefs, but doomed himself just as his people are. As he tells Judith on their trip back to Minnesota, “Yet the power of the whites will prevail. We will be annihilated. This is a terrible thing for a Yankton to think about. Not even Whitebone will survive. It is a fated thing. Just as this mother deer is feeding us, so too the Yankton will be killed up and fed to the white man.” The love between these two, besides its value to the narrative, is Manfred’s way of illustrating the bonds that join and the barriers that separate the two races.
For most readers
is an exciting experience, a fast-paced adventure that moves from one memorable scene to another: the atrocities at Skywater and on the trail, the beautifully detailed buffalo hunt, Judith’s escape and flight from Sioux Falls toward New Ulm, the sweet love along the way between Judith and Scarlet Plume, and the climactic events at Camp Release, New Ulm, and Mankato. For other readers, however, the story is too painful to bear. Rape and mutilation, of children as well as women, brutal and wanton killing, the scalping of the body of a buried child, and a frontier missionary killed and his heart eaten slice by slice by the Sioux who had shot him to death.
is the sort of book one has to put down from time to time in order to pick it up again. The shocks in the first half and at the end come too close together, the horror is too intense, too prolonged to be borne.
My own first reading of
shortly after it appeared was a mixture of delight and pain, made more poignant by the fact that many years before, I had lived for a time on the shore of Lake Shetek without ever knowing the story of the 1862 Uprising. I had swum in its waters every day for seven summers and had passed the strange, weed-concealed monument at its east end without knowing whom it commemorated. No one at the camp where I worked knew the story—or cared. It was simply a distant rumor. Once, late at night, I tried to create an atrocity story, but it had no more substance that the last flicker of the nearly dead campfire, and the little scouts huddled about it were nearly asleep and clearly bored. With the publication of
those hints of stories hiding behind that monument took on a vivid new life. Too late for campfire tales by twenty years, too powerful, too, even for boy scouts, around a campfire, late at night along the shore of Lake Shetek, Skywater.
It may be, as Robert C. Wright believes, that
—“get at universal truths and move people’s hearts toward reconciliation” and therefore should be “cherished as instruments of peace.”
Certainly the continuing sale of the Buckskin Man Tales and other of Manfred’s novels is an encouraging sign. That he has gained wide acceptance among Sioux Indians as a sympathetic storyteller continues to be demonstrated. In 1980, for example, he was invited to Pine Ridge to talk about
. When he had finished, an old Indian who had read the book arose and announced to the assembly: “We thank Wakantanka [God] for bringing Frederick Manfred to our country to tell us how we used to live.”
Even more hopeful, perhaps, is Manfred’s current work.
will cover a century of history in Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota, from the Sioux Uprising of 1862 until the present, stretching over four generations. Some of the characters in the new work have been talking to Manfred for forty years, waiting for him to tell their story. If Frederick Feikema Manfred listens closely enough, perhaps
will be the bridge that ties the Buckskin Man Tales to the farm novels—
The Golden Bowl
This Is the Year
—that unites Manfred’s own twentieth-century experiences, growing to maturity in Siouxland, with those of the buckskin men of the preceding two centuries. That, as a matter of fact, was what he was aiming for all along, to find the spiritual roots of the land that had nourished him to intellectual ripeness, to know the other men and women of Siouxland so that he could come to know himself.
The import of this book may seem shocking to some people—still it is a book written in love, since it has always been my belief that if one wishes to speak with truth in the brain one must speak with love in the heart.
My friend, if I have achieved this, I offer it all to you.
rather handsome woman among them had become so infatuated with the redskin who had taken her for a wife that, although her white husband was still living at some point below and had been in search of her, she declared that were it not for her children, she would not leave her red lover. . . .
The woman I wrote you of yesterday threatens that if her Indian, who is among those who have been seized, should be hung, she will shoot those of us who have been instrumental in bringing him to the scaffold, and then go back among the Indians. A pretty specimen of a white woman she is, truly. . . .
I learn that Mrs.——, of whom I wrote you, is displeased because I did not call to see her more frequently and will not interpose my authority in behalf of her Indian friend, who stands a fair chance of swinging. . . .
Letters to His Wife
A family of wild swans skimmed across Skywater. Something had disturbed them. Father swan was swimming a zigzag course in the rear and trumpeting hoarse warnings, mother swan was breasting the water up front and dipping her long neck from side to side, and four baby swans, two to each side, were holding up the edges of a swiftly cutting arrowhead. Father and mother were pure white, with a wash of rust over the raised high head; the little ones were an ashen gray, also with rusty heads. Except for the spreading wakes of the hurrying swans, the glistening lake was as smooth as the pupil of an eye. The trumpeter swans headed straight for an island; after a moment vanished behind it.
Presently, after the wakes had also vanished, natural sounds returned. A woodpecker worked in the scrub oaks along the shore. Redwing blackbirds sang in a swale. Bluejays cracked the solitude with raucous scolding. A turtledove moaned pleasantly for his mate.
Judith sat in a black rocker just inside the open door of a log cabin. It was early morning. A breeze had risen in the northeast quarter and a perfume of sweet peas drifted in through the door. The night had been sticky warm, and the breeze felt cool, delicious. The breeze touched the back of Judith’s hand as if it were the passing of a sprinkling of rain. It cleansed the air of stale nighttime odors.
Judith loved the cool mornings of the wild frontier prairie. It was the one time of the day she had to herself. At the moment, her sister Theodosia was at the mission church, her brother-in-law Claude was making the rounds in a new Indian encampment across the swale, and the children, her own Angela and Theodosia’s Ted and Johnnie, were out playing Indian in the tall grass.
The sound of the singing of many birds came softly to her. Under it, like a bumping bass on a church organ, came the distant beating of savage drums. The birds might quit singing at dusk, but the Indians never seemed to stop their drumming, dusk or dawn.
Judith was a slim woman, tall for her day. She had sun whitened gold hair, high-blue eyes, and a complexion like the skin of a pale-gold pear. She had only one blemish: four thick black hairs grew in a bunch on the edge of her upper lip. She hated those four black hairs and periodically pulled them out.
Judith rocked slowly back and forth. The runners of the rocker creaked on the puncheon oak floor with a comfortable sound. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement outside the only window in the cabin. It was Theodosia’s purple hollyhocks swinging back and forth in the light breeze. The hollyhocks brushed against each other and appeared to be trying to look inside the cabin at her.
Judith had a letter in hand. It was from her husband, Vincent Raveling, at the moment a soldier fighting the Rebels in Tennessee. Judith turned the envelope over. It had been posted in St. Louis, June 20, 1862. She glanced at the calendar hanging on the log wall. Today was August 20, exactly two months later. Looking down at the envelope again, she noted the many finger marks along its edges. In her mind’s eye she could see the letter shuttling its way north: by stage to St. Louis, then on a steamboat up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, then by two-horse buggy down the Minnesota River valley to Mankato and New Ulm, then by one horse sulky to Skywater.
The letter had come the day before. She had read the letter eagerly, even though she and Vince had not got on well the last years. It had really been she who had got Vince into the war to help preserve the Union. Vince hadn’t wanted to go. Vince considered all wars futile. Wars proved little or nothing, he said. And this war, why, it was ridiculous. “I wash my hands,” he often said, “of an invading race which, before it has settled its account with a red aborigine, is already fighting brother against brother over a black aborigine. And a black aborigine, I might add, which it imported from another continent and then enslaved.” Vince preferred keeping the peace. There were good books to read in the evening—Lucretius and his scandalous notions of how a man should make love to a wife, Dante and his daring descent into hell—as well as whiskey to drink in a tavern with a doctor friend. Besides, Vince rather liked his job as clerk in a waterfront warehouse. But Judith kept taunting Vince more and more, about his growing potbelly, his humped-over shoulders, his soft, slack hands, until one day in a drunken pet Vince enlisted.
Glancing through the letter again, Judith noted that Vince seemed to have adjusted fairly well to army discipline. He was in charge of a burial detail and ate with the officers. She smiled grimly to herself. She wasn’t too sure that eating with officers would make more of a man of him, but burying the dead might. Perhaps army life would stiffen his backbone after all. Judith and Theodosia Woods had grown up together in a large family. The Woodses lived on a farm near Davenport and all four Woods brothers had been rugged men. Judith missed in Vince the hardness of her brothers. Vince was too bookish, too soft for her. She admired a civilized husband, but she still wanted him to be manly, to take the lead in emergencies. Otherwise the civilized husband might just as well be the wife. Part of her was contemptuous of Vince. He was not half the man that she herself was. Bloodletting had been a common thing to her as a farm girl, while Vince had been known to shy away from a drop of fly blood.
Judith stared through the open door. The land rolled away in slow, even swells all the way to the horizon. There were no habitations in that direction. The few pioneer homes around, along with a general store and a mission church, lay mostly to the north in and among the fringe of oaks bordering Skywater.
The smell of sweet peas came to her again. She could just see them where they vined over the wooden fence around the garden. The potato vines had long ago ripened and lay in neat brown crumbled rows. The carrots were ready to pull. The beans were in seed. The lilacs were silent.
Birds lifted and sank above the flowing prairie grasses. The plover were plentiful. Asters grew in islands of gold glory. A timber wolf sat on a low mound sunning itself. The wolf’s red tongue lolled wetly as if it were laughing and laughing to itself. The sound of Sioux drums continued to jolt the morning air. The drumbeat seemed to pound into Judith’s very belly.
A film formed over Judith’s blue eyes. She brushed her forehead, then brushed her sun-whitened gold hair back and down. She really still hadn’t got used to being out on the wild and lonesome prairie. She missed St. Paul and all the good times.
After Vince had left for the wars, Judith had suddenly on an impulse decided to get away from St. Paul for a while and visit her sister Theodosia. Theodosia and her missionary husband, Claude Codman, lived among the Sioux Indians in southwestern Minnesota. The next thing Judith knew, she had agreed to stay at Skywater and help Theodosia teach Sioux children. Judith had once had a Sioux maiden work for her and from her had picked up a working knowledge of the language. Judith was also a quick learner and soon was able to handle the four clicks and the two gutturals and the nasal of the Dakota language.
Judith’s friend and neighbor in St. Paul, Mavis Harder, whose husband had been killed in the First Battle of Bull Run, had also decided to visit Skywater with her. Mavis in turn found herself running a store and a post office on the frontier.
Judith looked musingly around inside the log cabin: at the rough oak table, at the circular rag rug on the puncheon floor, the precious single glass window, the bunk beds along the far wall, the precious china and silverware on the shelving, the red pipe of peace hanging above the mud-brick fireplace, the gold lettering on the thick Bible on top of her brother-in-law’s bookcase. Her eye in particular fell on an old copy of
. Only the day before, she and Theodosia had read an article in it telling of the terrible massacre at Spirit Lake. The story of the rape and captivity of Abbie Gardner was especially haunting. What a monster that Inkpaduta must have been. Evil.
Judith said aloud, “Yes, what in the world am I doing way out here? The farm country around Davenport was brutal enough.” Slowly she rocked back and forth. “This is all so wild here.” She rocked some more. “It’s still all like a dream to me!”
She heard yelling outdoors. Looking out, she saw first Ted and little Johnnie running for all they were worth through the tall tangled grass, then her own Angela running as if her life were at stake. Angela had on a green dress, which she held up at the hips to run the better. Angela’s blond hair flashed silver in the sun. Pursuing the three was a young Indian lad named Two Two. Two Two at fifteen winters was considerably taller than her ten-year-old Angela, and he actually towered like a man over Theodosia’s Ted and Johnnie, who were six and two.
For a second, cold sweat broke out on Judith. A redskin chasing their children? Stars alive.
A moment later Judith heard wild, merry laughter burst from all four. And understood. Two Two had probably seen the children playing Indian and had joined them in the game. Two Two was whooping and making motions as if about to scalp Angela. A big smile opened Two Two’s face. His teeth gleamed white. Judith let go a relieving sigh. Thank God it was only play.
Judith couldn’t help noticing the sharp contrast between the young Sioux with his black hair and red-brown skin and Angela’s silver hair and gold skin. There was a difference, all right, a big one.
The children playing Indian called something to mind. A few nights ago she had awakened out of a bad dream. She had dreamed that a tall, howling Indian had scalped a cowering white settler. The white settler was Vince, her husband. The dream had been so real, she could still see in her mind’s eye Vince’s scalped head: a long, narrow skinned place, red, with working arteries, and bloody hair to either side. She shivered, thinking of the bad dream again.
Then something off to one side caught Judith’s eye. She turned her head slowly and looked up. Someone had been standing beside the purple hollyhocks and had been looking in through the window at her. The hollyhocks still were parted where the someone had stood.
Again Judith broke out in a cold sweat.
Judith just couldn’t get used to the habit the Indians had of looking in on them through the window. It was probably true, as her missionary brother-in-law Claude often told her, that an Indian thought he was doing the white man an honor when he looked in on him, but to her it continued to be an unholy heathenish trick.
Before her, filling the doorway, stood a magnificent Sioux. He had one hand behind him, holding something. He was tall, well over six feet, with big bull shoulders, a large head, an aquiline nose, and black glittering eyes. He looked to be about thirty. He wore his black horsetail hair in the old manner, loose and falling to the shoulders. A single eagle feather, dyed scarlet, stood erect at the back of his head. The scarlet feather was slightly bent against the cabin doorhead. Except for buckskin moccasins and breechclout, he was naked. His skin gleamed a shining bronze in the sun. He had one face marking: a daub of yellow inside a circle of blue earth on his left cheekbone. The yellow daub was a sign to let the sun know that all men recognized that its light was needed to sustain life. The blue earth was a symbol of peace, like the blue sky above.
She recognized him. It was Scarlet Plume. She had first seen him about two weeks ago when he suddenly appeared in the new little Indian village across the swale. Word was that he was the chief’s sister’s son. His tall muscled physique and wide rich lips caught Judith’s eye. When she asked her brother-in-law Claude about him, Claude told her that Scarlet Plume was one of the better Indians. “The pity is, though,” Claude added, stroking his narrow chin, “the pity is, Scarlet Plume has resolutely refused to have anything to do with the white man or his Christian religion. He is an old-line Yankton Sioux. Just like his uncle, Chief Whitebone. Pure heathen.” Again Claude rubbed his chin. “There was once a time when I hoped to convert him. That was when his wife hanged herself two years ago. She was childless. Great was his grief. Yes. Scarlet Plume became a changed man overnight. And a strange man, I might add. He became very gentle with the children. At the same time he became more offish and distant with grownups. Yet his grief was not great enough to make his heart receptive to the Christian message.”
A look of calm gravity lay upon Scarlet Plume’s broad face. Too calm. His full, liberal lips were as if graven upon weathered copper. His breath came as if by afterthought, occasionally, barely lifting his powerful chest. Only his black eyes were alive. They were intent, brilliant, deep-set under the smooth dark eyebrow. His air reminded her of a picture she had once seen of a puma—full of pounce and just barely restrained.
Abruptly, for a fleeting second, hardly longer than the blink of an eye, a superior grimace touched his full carven lips. Then it was gone.
Almost immediately after, tears started in the corners of his eyes. A few of them ran down each cheek. And equally suddenly, the tears stopped. The quick tears made vividly real for Judith the story that in ancient times the Sioux chiefs were known to be great weepers, that they made much of letting their tears fall on the heads of those about whom they knew something bad.
Before Judith could wonder what next, Scarlet Plume’s other hand came from behind him, where he had been hiding it all along, and he threw something at her feet. The thing was ashen gray, and fluffy, and rather large. It flopped over twice, and rolled under the oak table.
Judith stared at it. Why, it was a dead goose. Scarlet Plume had brought them a present. Something to eat.
“Why,” she began, “how kind of you to—”
But when she looked up, the doorway was empty. Scarlet Plume had vanished as abruptly as he had come.
She got to her feet, hand to her brow. Her gray dress and apron fell to her ankles. She swept to the door and looked out. Scarlet Plume was nowhere in sight. Not even the grass was bent to show where he might have gone.
She went over to the table and bent down to pick up the whitish gray fowl. The bird was quite heavy. It had a long, slim neck, and black bill and legs.