Monday, April 18, 2011

One Thousand White Women

One day when I was looking for birthday gift ideas in the YA section of a bookstore owned by a local children's writer, Bonnie Pryor, she recommended a novel to me, One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd, by Jim Fergus.  I added it to my pile of books, brought it home, and let it get buried underneath books from the library and others with more urgent deadlines.  Then a few weeks ago, looking for something different to read, I unearthed it and read it in a couple of sittings.

The premise of the novel is taken from an actual historical event; in the preface, we are told that
"in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world--a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needless to say, the Cheyennes' request was not well received by the white authorities--the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and, of course, the white women did not come. In this novel they do."

At the beginning, I thought the novel was going to consist of Chief Seattle-type propaganda about the noble Native American.  The Cheyenne Chief who asks President Ulysses S. Grant for the women explains that "we have never been numerous because we understand that the earth can only carry a certain number of the People" and proposes the idea of intermarriage so that the white women can "teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone."  But the novel becomes more a portrait of a vanished way of life, with the character of May Dodd as interpreter, rather than apologist.

Although I grew up near a state park called Trail of Tears in memory of the Cherokee who died crossing the Mississippi River in the winter of 1838 (including the "Princess Otahki"), I've never had any experience of prejudice against Native Americans, and have always regarded it as something that existed only in the past.  This novel explains some of the prejudice on both sides by showing how May, who grows to love the Cheyenne, experiences hatred from both "civilized folks" and "savages."

Although May does continually praise things like "how cunningly and perfectly these native people had folded themselves into the earth" and criticizes "the white man" for "his flimsy fortifications against the vastness and emptiness of earth which he does not know to worship but tries instead to simply fill up," she doesn't venerate the Cheyenne blindly, but frequently challenges their "male only" rules and laments their "pitifully low tolerance" for alcohol.

Both the love affair May has with a white man, Captain Bourke, and the love she feels for her Cheyenne husband, Little Wolf, help her see the deep gulf that lies between their different views of the world:
"According to Captain Bourke...the only true hope for the advancement of the savage is to teach him that he must give up this allegiance to the tribe and look towards his own individual welfare. This is necessary, Bourke claims, in order that he may function effectively in the 'individualized civilization' of the Caucasian world. To the Cheyenne such a concept remains completely foreign--the needs of the People, the tribe, and above all the family within the tribe are placed always before those of the individual. In this regard they live somewhat like the ancient clans of Scotland. The selflessness of my husband, Little Wolf, for instance, strikes me as most noble and something that hardly requires 'correction' by civilized society.  In support of his own thesis, the Captain uses the unfortunate example of the Indians who have been pressed into service as scouts for the U.S. Army. These men are rewarded for their efforts as good law-abiding citizens--paid wages, fed, clothed, and generally cared for. The only requirement of their employment, their allegiance to the white father, is that they betray their own people and their own families...I fail to see the nobility or the advantage of such individualized private initiative..."

The way the story is told--with an introduction by a fictional male descendent of May Dodd's, a prologue based on the historical meeting of President Grant with a Cheyenne Chief, and an afterward about the journals kept by May-- gives the story a feeling of authenticity and preserves some of the flavor of the antiquated diction that Fergus uses so well for "Dodd's" writing.  I was surprised to be reminded, at the end, that this novel was written by a male author, so deeply had I been immersed in the female point of view.

The greatest strength of this novel is characterization; these well-realized characters will live in your memory for a long time after you've been drawn into their stories.


kittiesx3 said...

One of my absolute favorite classes I took as an undergraduate was a Native American literature class. I wasn't familiar with that genre at all and taking the course opened up a completely different way of life to me. Lucy Tapahanso came in and spoke to us and I remember her saying how dark and gloomy Kansas was to her (she lived in either Arizona or New Mexico, the details escape me). I thought Kansas was amazingly sunny but I'd moved there from Ohio.

I think I would enjoy this book.

Anonymous said...

The first time I ever worked as a TA it was for a 100 level "US History to 1865" class. I learned more about teaching in three months from that class than any other TA experience I ever had, amazing professor... anyway, he's part Cherokee and made a point of including Native Americans in his lectures to a degree I'd never before heard - totally changed the class for me.


FreshHell said...

Dusty and I were just discussing Native Americans the other night. It's something that's not taught (at least not yet) in American history and she has an acquaintance at school who is some part NA and attends local pow wows, dances, etc. The Mattaponi have a reservation not too far from us. This book might be a good one to read to her (so we can both read it at the same time).

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, the novel talks about adult issues with sex in a way that I'm not sure my daughter would have been quite ready for at Dusty's age.

picky girl said...

I read this years ago for a western lit class and loved it. Glad you stumbled across it. That may be one I need to re-read.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, so you read literature by native Americans, or about them, or both?

Lemming, you confirm my guess that midwesterners on at least twenty years either side of my generation are still not generally taught much about the part of native Americans in even the history of their home states.

Picky Girl, I think it's a good introduction because it's so well-written.

Aarti said...

I know we already talked about this book via email, but just wanted to let you know this is an excellent review that makes me want to pick it up again! I think my next Native American-centric book will be Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, though :-)

Jenny said...

Oh, fascinating! I love the premise for this book. We did a big unit on American Indian stuff in my American history class (starting with Howard Zinn and carrying on from there), and it was pretty appalling stuff. And I forgot a lot of it since high school, I fear. :(

Lass said...

I think it would be interesting to get an Indian's take on this. (And before anyone gets their panties bunched, "Indian" is what my, uh, Indian friends call themselves.)
I am not a big fan of historical fiction especially when it comes with a "what if" premise, but I will add this to my Amazon queue and let you know what I think. But only because you asked. :)

FreshHell said...

Ah - good to know. Maybe I'll read it first then.

kittiesx3 said...

Jeanne, we read books by Native American authors who wrote about their own culture, both past and present. Fascinating stuff.

Harriet said...

freshhell, Mr. Spy has written a mess of books about various Native American tribes aimed at Dusty's age. I'm not sure what we have in the way of extras around here, but I can look.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, This is not a kind of fiction I've read much; Lass's recommendation of Sherman Alexie started me down this path sometime last year.

Jenny, so you actually studied some of this history. Or maybe you just remember it because you're younger! My daughter has gone all the way through high school without reading much about native Americans. One of the events that hadn't happened in the novel is Custer's last stand, but it's coming, and that's chilling to see.

Lass, I'd be interested in your reaction to it. I don't know if I'm recommending it, except that it is well written.

Elizabeth, that sounds like it would reveal a completely different way of life to most people of our age who went to high school where we did.

Harriet, reading about different tribes does seem to be a good place to start for a kid Dusty's age, around 10. There were so many.

Jodie said...

I read this ages ago and I had totally forgotten it was being told by a male relative. The female voice really fills my memory when I think of it.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, It's actually told in May's voice, from her diaries, but the male relative is in the framing story. He brings the story to light a couple of generations later. I thought the male author did a good job with the female voice.