Reading, Writing, And History

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One of the vainest of modern beliefs may be the assumption that it is civilization that makes life complicated. We like to dream that primitive man found existence very simple. He was at the mercy neither of his possessions, which were few, nor of his political and economic arrangements, which were extremely sketchy; all he had to do, apparently, was to solve the basic problems of survival—find shelter and food and some sort of security for life and limb—and he was home free. Life may have been hard, but it needed only to be lived, and while he was living it, primitive man did not need to think about it much.

As any ethnologist could testify, that is not quite the way it was. The simple savage did not have our worries, but he had plenty of his own, and a major concern of his life was the attempt to adjust himself to a universe that seemed just as complicated to him as ours does to us. For an illustration, read Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior , by Peter Nabokov.

Two Leggings was a war chief of the Crow nation, one of the most active and interesting of the Plains tribes. He was born sometime around 1840, and he died in the early igao’s, and a year or so before his life ended, his recollections were transcribed by William Wildschut, a field researcher for the Museum of the American Indian. A few years ago the manuscript came into the hands of Mr. Nabokov, a writer and a worker in the field of western Indian studies, who edited it and prepared it for publication. The book that now appears is the result, and it gives a revealing picture of the extraordinary amount of time and thought a savage warrior had to devote to the process of finding and maintaining his place in a baffling and unpredictable world.

Two Leggings was a hard-luck warrior. He spent nearly the first fifty years of his life fitting himself to understand and cope with the specialized society that lay between his horizons, and just as he had finished doing it, that society vanished forever. The life the Plains Indians led was over, every aspect of it gone beyond recall, and nothing the Indian had ever thought, done, or learned fitted him for the new existence the white man thrust upon him. Two Leggings wound up in a cabin on a reservation shortly before 1890, and there he spent his last thirty years. He dismissed those years, when he told his story to Mr. Wildschut, with these words: “Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegans and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.”

What makes the book interesting is its detailed picture of the kind of world Two Leggings lived in and the beliefs and actions it required of the people who lived in it. Like all of his fellows, Two Leggings was born to be a hunter and a warrior, and to win distinction, or indeed even to survive, he needed power and protection. He could get these only from the supernatural beings who inhabited the next world —the Without Fires people, who lived in the Other Side Camp, and who laid down the rules and exerted the authority that controlled everything the Indian did. These Without Fires were divided into clans, just as Indian tribes were, and they included everything imaginable—sun and moon and stars, animals and birds, mountains and trees and flowers and rocks, plus the souls of the dead Indians that were visible on windy days in the little whirlwinds that dance over the plains.

To get power and protection, the Indian needed to be adopted by one or another of these supernaturals. Kere the going began to be complicated, for some of these Without Fires were powerful chiefs, some of them were lesser chiefs, and some of them were not of much account. When you finally got a protector, it paid to get one of the good ones, because one in the lower ranks might not be able to take good care of you. In addition, the supernaturals were inveterate gamblers, and when they gambled they used their earthly children as stakes. Your protector in the Other Side Camp, be he ever so benign and active, might at any time lose you, through an unlucky throw of the bones, to some other supernatural. This, apparently, represented the Indian’s recognition of a fact modern man also has to absorb: no matter how faithfully you follow the rules and conform to the proper pattern, a bit of bad luck can send it all down the drain at any moment.

In any case, it was above all things necessary for the Indian to get and to recognize a supernatural protector. He did this through dreams and visions, and to have these the young Indian had to go through a trying and painful ritual that might go on for years before it produced a satisfactory result. Once the proper dream had been dreamed it was of course necessary to have it interpreted, because to try to figure it out on your own hook was very risky, and here was where the medicine man came in. He would construe your dream for you, and tell you who or what your supernatural protector was, what other supernaturals were allied with him, and how you yourself had to order your life as a result. The medicine man was as devout a student of dreams as any Freudian analyst, and once he told you what your dream meant you could construct a proper medicine bundle which, if you used it right, would make you a great warrior and a successful hunter.