Jamake Highwater Essay - Critical Essays


In much of his fiction and nonfiction, Jamake Highwater attempts to convey basic American Indian beliefs and presuppositions. When he emphasizes the differences between contemporary American values and those of American Indians, he stresses that there is more than one reality and that one is not necessarily more valid than another. Each reality has its own truths. By expressing the truths of various Indian cultures as he understands them, Highwater attempts to foster the understanding that must precede peaceful coexistence.


Anpao, a Newbery Honor Book in 1978, has perhaps received less attention than it deserves. Recognition as an outstanding book for children suggests to some critics that a book is intended only for a young audience. Like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), however, Anpao may be enjoyed by those of all ages. As an odyssey of the American Indian, Anpao is a compilation of legends, an oral history of Indian tribes. Highwater chooses a number of versions from recorded accounts of these legends, giving credit to his sources. The book’s hero, Anpao, is his own creation.

The novel begins with Anpao’s falling in love with the beautiful Ko-ko-mik-e-is, who agrees to marry him if he will journey to the Sun and get the Sun’s permission for her to marry. The quest begins; Anpao, also called Scarface, sets forth. On his journey, he learns that Anpao means “the Dawn” and that his father is the Sun. Anpao’s mother was a human who went to the World-Above-the-World without dying. After the birth of her son, Anpao, she becomes homesick and attempts an escape with her son, but she manages to get only part way to Earth because the rope that she has woven from sinew is not long enough. When the Sun is taunted by his jealous first wife, the Moon, he becomes angry. He follows the footsteps of his human wife to a hole in the sky. Seeing her dangling just above the trees on Earth, he makes a hoop from the branch of a willow tree and orders the hoop to kill the woman but to spare the child. The Sun is not quick enough to snatch the rope when the root that holds the rope in the World-Above-the-World sags because of pity for the dead mother of Anpao. When the child falls onto the dead body of his mother, blood from her body causes a scar to appear on his face. The child, Anpao, lives on Earth, and his journey toward the Sun involves the learning of basic truths of American Indian culture. The legends that he learns on his travels are imparted primarily through traditional storytelling, a mode of teaching used not only by Native Americans but also by ancient Greeks and Romans.

LikeHomer in the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Highwater states his theme in the short opening chapter and then moves to the story in medias res. Anpao and his twin brother (created when Anpao disobeyed the warning of the Spider Woman, with whom he lived, not to throw his hoop into the air) are poor youths who arrive in the village where the beautiful young girl Ko-ko-mik-e-is lives. After Anpao sets forth on his journey to the Sun, he meets an old woman who tells him the story of the beginning of the world, of the death of the creator Napi, and of his own birth. Then the creation of Oapna, the contrary twin brother of Anpao, is accounted for, and his death is also told. The Clown/Contrary is a familiar figure in American Indian legends.

In another typical Indian legend, Anpao meets with a sorceress, a meeting that invites comparison with Odysseus’s meeting with Circe. One of the most important obstacles that Anpao has to overcome is the intense dislike of the Moon, who, as the first wife of the Sun, despises the child born to the human responsible for the Sun’s misalliance. Anpao, however, earns the love of the Moon when he saves her son, Morning Star, from death; thus, Anpao becomes the first person to have the power of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.

As a result of his journey to the Sun, Anpao has the ugly scar removed from his face, thus enabling him to prove to Ko-ko-mik-e-is that he did indeed make the journey. The marriage of Anpao (the Dawn and the son of the Sun) and Ko-ko-mik-e-is (Night-red-light, which is related to the Moon) takes place, and Anpao begs the people of Ko-ko-mik-e-is’s village to follow the couple as they leave to escape the death, sickness, and greed that are coming to their world. The people will not follow; instead they laugh at Anpao. (This action suggests the lack of unity among American Indians, a lack that may have been crucial to the course of Indian history.) Undaunted, Anpao, taking his beautiful bride with him, goes to the village beneath the water. Ko-ko-mik-e-is is assured by Anpao that what is happening will not be the end, because they and their people are the rivers, the land, the prairies, the rocks—all of nature. This unity with nature is fundamental to American Indian culture.

Most of the legends in Anpao belong to times long ago, but Highwater also has included some more modern tales that tell of the arrival of whites with their horses, weapons, and diseases. The legends selected by Highwater are, as American Indian writer N. Scott Momaday says, “truly reflective of the oral tradition and rich heritage of Native American story-telling.” The legends, old and new, are the cornerstone of Indian culture.

Journey to the Sky

After writing Anpao, essentially a mythical journey, Highwater turned to recorded events for material for his next novel, Journey to the Sky. This journey is a fictionalized account of the actual explorations of two white men, John Lloyd Stephens, a New York attorney, and Frederick Catherwood, a British artist and architect. Stephens and Catherwood began their first trip in search of the lost cities of the Mayan kingdom in October, 1839. The men made two extended trips to the kingdom of the Mayan peoples, but Highwater confines his tale to the first exploration, which ended late in July, 1840.

Journey to the Sky is a suspense-filled adventure story that displays Highwater’s writing talents more effectively than does his first novel. Although the narrative is interrupted occasionally by Highwater’s accounts of later archaeological findings, the suspense and excitement of the journey are sustained throughout. Particularly impressive is Highwater’s narrative skill in selecting highlights from the historical account of the Stephens-Catherwood expedition (Stephens did the writing, while Catherwood provided illustrations). Like a number of novels that appeared in the 1970’s, including E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Lennin v Tsyurikhe (1975; Lenin in Zurich, 1976), Journey to the Sky is a new kind of historical fiction.

Having been appointed by President Martin Van Buren as U.S. diplomatic agent to the Central American Confederacy, Stephens fulfills his public duties as a diplomat, but his true interest is in the search for ruins. He meets with leaders of various colonies in Central America, paying courtesy calls and extending greetings from the U.S. government. Although Stephens finds the performance of his official duties pleasurable, he is in a hurry to begin explorations.

Early in the trip, while in Belize, the two explorers hire a young cutthroat, Augustin, as their servant. Although they seriously doubt that he will serve them well, by the end of the journey, they realize the rightness of their choice; he proves to be a loyal and valuable servant and friend. They also hire men to help transport their belongings, which include tools, food (including live chickens), and clothing. From time to time, and for differing reasons, new employees must be found.

The trip over Mico Mountain is extremely hazardous because of jungle, rocks, mud, and treacherous gullies. The rough terrain is only one of many natural hazards that they encounter during their explorations in Central America. Insects, climate, earthquakes, and malaria are some of the other forces of nature that they encounter. In addition, they meet such varied characters as the double-dealing Colonel Archibald MacDonald, superintendent of the English colonies in Central America, the petty tyrant Don Gregorio in Copan, good and bad padres, and hospitable and inhospitable people. The explorers are imprisoned, threatened with murder, and surrounded by an active rebellion in Central America.

Highwater captures the enthusiasm of Stephens and Catherwood as they discover the “lost city” just outside Copan. They are the first white men to see these tumbling pyramids and idols, evidence of the religion of the Mayas. Stephens and two helpers begin removing the foliage from rock piles that the people of Copan have been ignoring as piles of rubbish, and Catherwood sets to work documenting their discovery by making drawings of each of the fallen figures. To Stephens, this desolate city with its many magnificent works of art is evidence that the Mayas were master craftspersons.

Having located and documented the ruins at Copan, Stephens and Catherwood move to other sites, where they find further evidence of the Mayan culture. Even illness cannot deter them. From one site to another, the explorers continue their amazing trip. Although warned not to go to Palenque because of the danger to whites as a result of political upheaval, they go. There they find ruins that are quite different from those in Copan. After documenting the Palenque ruins, they go to Uxmal. Many times during the journey in Central America, the New York attorney and the British artist are warned about the hostile Indians, yet the Indians are often more hospitable than the white people they encounter. Stephens and...

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