Dee Brown Leslie Marmon Silko

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Leslie Marmon Silko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dee Brown is known primarily for his best-selling tragic history of American Indian policy, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."… Although the prose was somewhat plain, the strength and conviction of Dee Brown's view of this history brought the book alive. "Creek Mary's Blood" covers much the same material but in the novel Mr. Brown attempts to deal with a point of view other than his own…. In attempting … to cover such great spans of history and geography and provide an Indian perspective on these events, Mr. Brown overreaches his abilities as a novelist.

For one thing, Mr. Brown's prose style, though it served him well enough in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," becomes inadequate, far too sketchy, for a novel that attempts to evoke what Indian people felt for the land that was being taken away from them and for a way of life that was being destroyed. Places and characters are outlined as if for a script treatment of a television mini-series, not a novel. At the beginning of the book, Mr. Brown's white journalist narrator tells us how startling the Montana landscape is and describes it as "an immense space of frosted yellow grass and blue sky." We wait for further description or visual details, but they never come. Yet this is the land for which Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and thousands of their people fought and died. When the narrative shifts to the Indian characters, still no attention is paid to the powerful kinship between the Indian tribes and the land for which they fought.

This is a serious omission in a book that purports to deal with the native American perspective of this segment of history. Even the least sympathetic non-Indians have tended to view the struggle as a fight by the Indians for their rightful possessions, the land on which they lived. But the Indian people did not view the land as a mere possession. The predominant native American view was, and still is, that humans belong to the land, that the earth possesses us. For the Creek and Cherokee, and for the Cheyenne and Sioux as well, the land was their mother, and this relationship was so deeply felt that when the Indian people saw that the land was being taken and destroyed, their reaction was as emotionally charged as that of a person watching the death of his own mother. Dee Brown may understand how Indians perceive themselves in relation to the land, but he is unable to coax this view out of his Indian characters….

Mr. Brown knows and tells us a great deal about the Creek and Cherokee cultures of the 1820's, but his attempts at characterizing what he knows often fail. Early on, we are told that Creek Mary is an exceptional woman, a leader in a culture in which women have traditionally held esteemed positions as decision-makers….

Yet Mr. Brown takes Creek Mary, a powerful Creek figure, he claims, and reduces her to a cartoon of a woman—the city debutante lost in the woods.

Moreover, the Indian characters often make statements to-tally opposed to the Indian perspective Dee Brown promises the reader. (p. 10)

What is unfortunate about a novel like "Creek Mary's Blood" … is that the reader is led to believe that the Indian characters depicted therein express authentic Creek … feelings and views of the world. But in fact, what we are offered is a non-Indian view of the world which the [author identifies] as Indian. One has only to read the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday's "The Way to Rainy Mountain" to realize that native American concepts of time and space and the convergence of past, present and future are radically different from those of Western Europeans. Yet Mr. Brown … employs linear time structure to convey a "native American" perspective of history.

Far better novels have been written by native Americans…. And such non-Indian authors as Frank Waters, Claire Huffaker and Dan Cushman are far more worthwhile. Readers who become familiar with the works of these earlier writers will have little patience with "Creek Mary's Blood."… (p. 22)

Leslie Marmon Silko, "They Were the Land's," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1980, pp. 10, 22.