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SOURCE: "The Indian's Burden," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 1934, p. 18.
[In the review below, Kaufman provides a highly favorable assessment of Sundown.]
No figure in the American scene is more inherently tragic than that of the young Indian who realizes fully the loss of his fathers' material and spiritual heritage, but who is unable to adjust himself to white civilization. Such a one is Chal Windzer [of Sundown], son of a mixed blood Osage father and of a full blood Osage mother, born about the turn of the century, when the Osages, Chal's father among them, were eagerly looking forward to the exploitation of their reservation in northern Oklahoma. He is molded by his heroic, tender, loyal mother and the old warriors into a typical little Indian boy.
But civilization comes to the Osage; first the cattle men, then the oil boom, with its attending demoralization. And his father's influence is at work. Chal wants to be a white man, but he does not know how. At his state university he is welcomed by the glad handers because of his handsome physique and his wealth; he feels the insincerity, the emptiness back of much college life, but he has no refuge from it except lonely walks on the prairie.
The outbreak of the war is a relief. He understands the function of war; his people were warriors. Flying appeals to him; many Osages are named "Eagle." What he does not understand is the pettiness of discipline, the fuss and the fuming, the blatant sophistication which passes for progressiveness. He meets many types of American men and women; and he appraises them without malice, but unsparingly. Yet he realizes that the day of the old Indian life is over. Sometimes he even laughs at the old ways. In the end he goes back to the reservation, to the desolation of stagnation, to the artificial stimulus of drinking.
Mr. Mathews writes with complete objectivity; he is a superb realist. Not until near the close of the book does the reader realize that it is a merciless and inescapable indictment of our civilization, which has destroyed 'something sublime and beautiful, not only without providing a substitute for it, but without even knowing that it existed. Yet there is no pleading; even in his decay young Chal keeps something of that Indian mysticism which gives him a feeling of oneness with his environment.
Mr. Mathews is part Osage; one of his ancestors, Hard Robe, led General Custer's scouts at the Battle of Washita, and another was "Old Bill" Williams, mountain man and compadre of Kit Carson. He is not only an Indian, but a cultured white man, a graduate of Oxford. He has gone deeper into Indian consciousness and set down his findings more tellingly than any other writer of fiction known to me. Moreover, he is an artist with words.
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SOURCE: "The Realistic Story of an Indian Youth," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 19, November 24, 1934, p. 309.
[An American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and author of children's books, La Farge won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel Laughing Boy. Also the winner of the 1931 O. Henry Memorial Prize, La Farge has frequently written about Native Americans and has served as president of the National Association on Indian Affairs and the Association on American Indian Affairs. In the review of Sundown below, he praises Mathews's realistic and sensitive portrayal of Native Americans.]
Mr. Mathews, himself part Osage and reared on the Osage Reservation, gave good evidence in Wah 'Kon-Tah that he could do that rare thing, write about Indians from the inside, and furthermore could make an interesting book of it with real literary value. One waited to see how he would follow up his first successful venture. In the present book [Sundown] he has taken up about where the other left off, a novel of the young Indian with some white blood, fundamentally Osage, bewildered by false values and caught in the devastating flood of gold which swept that mighty nation into the gutter.
But this is no mere historical study in novel form, nor just a literate protest against the foul conquest of a primitive civilization by an advanced barbarism; it is a full, rounded novel in its own right, reflective, at moments beautiful, at moments a little sloppy, carrying the reader with steady interest along its hero's story. In fact, I may do an injustice to Sundown by beginning with a statement of Indian themes and problems. The first consideration is that here is a well-written, well-planned, sensitive study of a young man. As such it stands on its own feet. Secondly, the young man is an Osage with one eighth of white blood (as near as I can calculate it) and too much white background for his own good, yet not enough to be useful to him—in this, typical of many. Such a novel, concerned with such a man, must then of necessity be also an unusual study of Indians in contact with whites. Since the writer is skilful, observant, and knows his material well, it is also an excellent literary document on Oklahoma, something to be taken, and enjoyed, as a little salt on Miss Ferber's too gorgeous Cimarron.
In a few spots, Mr. Mathews's grammar goes to pieces in a manner which suggests that the trouble may be bad proof-reading. He makes a good deal of the break-up of the Reservation and mentions various differences of opinion concerning allotment and oil leases, without giving the reader much, if any idea of what these signify, nor of what effects they produce. To one unfamiliar with the Osage's story, this should be extra confusing. I have some acquaintance with it in an academic way and found that part of the book somewhat so. One feels also, that the case has been possibly overstated when not a single attractive, or even reasonably decent, white American crosses the pages of the book.
Regardless of these faults, it is a relief to read a "sectional" novel of full realism, depicting oil towns, reservations, the state University, training camps, and so much else with remorseless conviction while giving one no sense of mere dirt-piling or of that fear of beauty which frustrates so many so-called realistic writers.
Most Americans do not realize in what a large part of this country Indians and whites are intermingled, nor have they any idea of the amazing, often grotesque effects of this contact on daily life, on politics, on morals and thought in every form. When thinking of Indians at all, we tend to visualize the old-time, independent hostiles, or the relatively remote and untouched tribes of the Southwest in whose stories, even today, but a few white men would appear. Mr. Mathews has turned to those others whose lives are twined in with cities and whole states, and in so doing has tapped for the first time a rich vein in the resources of our literature.
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SOURCE: "An Educated Indian," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1934, pp. 19-20.
[In the following, the critic offers a mixed review of Sundown.]
The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the Blackjack Hills when Chal Windzer was born. His Indian father, out of a vague and rather pointless ecstasy which assailed him on the night of his son's birth, had called him Challenge, saying: "He shall be a challenge to the disinheritors of his people." Though what it was the boy was to challenge, John Windzer never knew and his son never succeeded in finding out.
Sundown presents a very moving picture of the first years of Chal's life, his response to the legends of his race, his education as a day student at the reservation school, and his hero worship of his politically minded father. By the time Chal had grown to adolescence and had begun to face the problem of his future, there was plenty of money at his disposal. There were rich deposits of oil on the Osage land and the Indians, in spite of the best efforts of their white "guardians," had managed to get hold of some of the profits.
So Chal went to the State university, and because he was rather handsome and a good football player and reputed to be wealthy, he was immediately accepted into the collegiate social life. His adjustment to it, however, was a difficult one. He was intensely self-conscious, he couldn't master the small talk of his fraternity brothers and he was profoundly puzzled by their opinions and attitudes—their desire for good marks in classes, their nagging and furtive interest in the simple facts of love and mating. Believing the civilization of the white man to be superior, he grew ashamed of his Indian friends at college—constantly afraid, for some reason or other, that they would behave like Indians. For his part, he devoted himself to becoming as much as possible like his white companions.
Naturally active and intelligent, yet with no aim in life beyond the simple and momentary indulgences of drinking and love-making, Chal found a temporary respite in the outbreak of the war. He was sure of one thing—that he wanted to fly. He left college abruptly to join the aviation corps and remained in the service after the war, although by that time most of the zest and novelty had gone out of flying. At the death of his father he resigned and came home to the village where he had been born—now a garish and prosperous boom town.
In Kihekah there was no work for him to do and enough money so that he didn't need to look for any. Playing about with a group of young loafers, drinking and dancing all night, and tearing over the roads in his big car, Chal found himself unable to put a name to his spiritual discontent. He only knew that he came home as infrequently as possible and that he had grown to hate his mother. His sudden understanding that his own inertness, his own lack of purpose, is at the bottom of his mother's contempt for him, moves him to a satisfying boast: "I'm goin' to Harvard law school and take law—I'm gonna be a great orator."
Whether or not Chal has found himself this time, the reader—taking leave of him as he sits asleep in his chair—does not know. In view of his previous resolves, the enthusiasm with which he begins by regarding them and the fashion in which that enthusiasm later deserts him, the implication is that he has not. Sundown is a convincing study of a young Indian's attempt to adjust himself to a fundamentally alien civilization.
In spite of the fact that Mr. Mathews—who is the author of Wah 'Kon-Tah and himself part Osage—writes very ably, the book has a decidedly inarticulate quality, as if the problem he is trying to state had been only half comprehended and is hence not susceptible of clear statement. Perhaps this very quality, which mars the book as a novel, makes it an even more effective social study.
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SOURCE: "Black Gold and Roses," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1951, pp. 3, 42.
[Dobie was an American educator, critic, and editor who frequently wrote about Southwestern history and folklore. In the review below, he favorably assesses Life and Death of an Oilman.]
Of all the filibusters, developers, demagogues (for no statesman of high rank can be named) cowmen, oilmen and other lusty figures who have played their parts on the vast earthen stage of the Southwest during the last hundred and fifty years, hardly half a dozen have received treatment in biographies that can be called mature. Life and Death of an Oilman is one of the scant half dozen. It is mature both in style and wisdom, in perspective, compass and interpretative power.
The oilman was E. W. Marland (1874–1941). As an "independent operator," which means that he was in constant combative contradistinction to the Standard companies, he represented perhaps the most vivid class of men who have made economic history in America during the present century. He wildcatted first in the Alleghenies under the Rockefeller shadow, rose to power exploiting virgin oil fields in Oklahoma, extended his operations to Texas, Colorado, California, Mexico and elsewhere, and then through the House of Morgan of New York saw the Marland Oil Company with all its ramifications become a mere feeder to Standard and himself cast out, to take impotent refuge in politics.
He never saw himself clearly, however. A partisan biographer might well have used him to indict Standard Oil. John Joseph Mathews, partisan only to truth and art, sees the cause of Marland's failure as lying within himself and in the ending of the "Age of Freedom" rather than in his stars or the ruthlessness of powerful competitors.
He failed because of his vanity and a humanitarianism based upon the false premise that pleasure for others is an attainable goal…. He was the equal of any of the big boys (as he called them) in energy, in dreaming, in cleverness, and in acquisitive capacity, but his ruthlessness was vitiated by the fact that he had been born a gentleman. His father, moreover, had stimulated in him a feeling for the underprivileged, by any measure a weakness in those who create for themselves a single standard of money. He lacked the primitiveness of the others. Throughout his life he was too much burdened with artificiality. And if a single inclination could be said to have motivated him, it was hedonism.
He loved the clank-CLUNK of the well-drilling machine and the smell of crude oil was perfume in his nostrils, but he was a patrician. His mansion in Ponca City, which started out to be Pueblo-Spanish in style, had the repose of an English manor house. He planted miles of roses to lap it in soft Lydian airs. The hospital he built for the town had "the atmosphere of an eternal siesta." He gave stock to his lieutenants as prodigally as the miners of Nevada gave "feet" to Mark Twain.
He built houses for laborers who helped him get rich and made shares of company stock available to them on easy terms. He admitted the unwashed to his gardens and swimming pools, but for his sensitivities there were always too many of the common people in the same place at the same time. He advised associated to adorn their homes with oil paintings and Persian rugs. He was patron to Jo Davidson, the sculptor. He loved England and preferred dealing with the gentlemen governing the Hudson's Bay Company to the roughneck entrepreneurs of his own territory. Yet he was an intense patriot.
As Governor of Oklahoma—the final act in the drama of his life—he followed the humanitarianism of Roosevelt's New Deal and proposed many reforms, including separation of state schools from politics, but he had no patience for details and could not stomach officeseekers. The one thing he gave Oklahoma that will probably keep his name green is Bryant Baker's statue of the Pioneer Woman.
"It was the literary value of the man that struck one," Mathews says. The essentials of an oilman's financial and technical career are contained in this biography, but revelation of his character is what makes [Life and Death of an Oilman] compelling—gaudy achievement out of a complexity of desires, tastes, gestures, contradictions, energy, lightning perception, and then dénouement.
In three preceding books John Joseph Mathews has interpreted the land of the Southwest with a sensitiveness and understanding equaled only by Mary Austin. The peaks of his present drama of character rise out of that land as integrated background. Through the powers of thought, imagination and craftsmanship—powers always overlapping each other—he has fully realized the "literary value" of his subject.
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SOURCE: "Tribal Tribute," in The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1961, p. 24.
[An American anthropologist, ethnologist, and prolific writer, Ewers is a specialist of Native American culture. In the following review, he praises the literary qualities of The Osages.]
Oxford-educated John Joseph Mathews, great-grandson of an Osage woman and a missionary who translated the Bible into the Osage language, has written a sympathetic history of his great-grandmother's tribe [in The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters]. Likening his task to the reconstruction of a dinosaur from many scattered fragments, he has fitted together ingeniously the Indians' oral traditions and the writings of explorers, traders, travelers, missionaries, government officials and ethnologists, making allowances for white men's fragmentary knowledge, and the prejudices and special pleadings which impeded their understanding of Osage life and values.
Historians will question the author's heavy reliance upon tongue-to-ear Indian traditions to explain events that occurred centuries ago. Anthropologists will question his contention that Osage social and political organization and Osage religion, rich in natural symbolism and overburdened with ceremonial ritual, were entirely of their own making, uninfluenced by borrowings from other and closely related Siouan tribes. However, there can be no question of the literary merit of this sensitive account of an important Midwestern tribe.
The proud, warlike Osages were the dominant power in the lower Missouri Valley at the dawn of history in that region (1673). Yet these tall giants of men humbled themselves before their creator Wah'Kon-Tah by calling themselves The Little Ones. Theirs was a country teeming with game of both plains and woodland species, for which they thanked their creator and which they regarded as brothers.
For 140 years the Osages were involved in the conflicts among the French, Spanish and English for control of the interior parts of North America. They overcame their initial dislike for the body odors of heavily clad, hairy French traders who came among them, and whom they dubbed Hairy Eyebrows. They supplied Pawnee slaves as well as furs to the French. At the same time they prevented their French allies from carrying guns to their Indian enemies north and west of their villages on the Osage River. Spanish horses and French guns modified their culture, but the Osages clung tenaciously to their fine country and to their traditional religion.
Rivalry for their lucrative trade produced the first split in the ranks of the Osages when the Chouteaus (a family of fur-traders) persuaded about half the tribe to move south to the Arkansas in 1802. Pressures from Cherokee Indians resettled west of the Mississippi as well as from white settlers disturbed them after the United States acquired Louisiana. Resenting the killing of their game even more than the loss of their land, the Osages fought back.
Between the years 1808 and 1870 Federal commissioners, exploiting the vanity and ambitions of Osage chiefs, and professing to protect them from their Indian and white enemies, negotiated a series of treaties in which they gradually ceded all of their lands in Missouri and Kansas. They finally settled on land purchased from the Cherokees in northeastern Oklahoma.
After the buffalo disappeared, the Osages suffered from hunger on their new reservation, which was poorly suited to the growth of crops. Yet the present century witnessed both economic and spiritual revival among them. Oil and gas royalties brought undreamed-of wealth to these Indians who had stubbornly refused to relinquish the mineral rights to their reservation. By 1925 the Osage Nation had become the wealthiest nation in the world in terms of average individual income. Meanwhile conservative full-bloods found in the Peyote Cult an acceptable faith which combined traditional Indian religious values with some of the symbols of Christianity.
The predominant theme of [The Osages] is a spiritual one—the Osage Indians' struggle to achieve and to preserve a meaningful and satisfying system of beliefs and values, in the face of numerous strong and conflicting pressures. The author has dramatically and quite successfully portrayed this struggle from the Osage point of view.
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SOURCE: "Assimilation: Estrangement from the Land," in his American Indian Fiction, University of New Mexico Press, 1978, pp. 34-65.
[Larson is an American critic, essayist, novelist, and editor. In the excerpt below, he discusses the themes of estrangement and assimilation in Sundown.]
In the last chapter of John J. Mathews' Wah'Kon-Tah (a nonfiction account of life on the Osage Reservation during the tenure of its first federal agent, Major Laban J. Miles), there is a description of an Indian youth who returns from the white world affected by liquor, hot music, and fast cars. He is especially contemptuous of his parents:
The young man looked with pity upon his parents. He thought of how old-fashioned they were: his father still wearing his buckskin leggings and his beaverskin bandeau, his pale blue silk shirt and his blanket; his mother in her shirt, moccasins and shrouding. They were certainly behind the time, all right. No matter how swell he dressed he was always embarrassed thinking of his parents sitting out at the ranch. They couldn't even speak English. He wished he didn't have to speak Osage with them—it sure made him feel funny when they talked together in public at the Agency.
The youth wears expensive tailored clothes, is indifferent to tribal customs and beliefs, and has become a kind of cultural half-caste, no longer seeing much value in his Indian origins, while aping the worst of the white man's object-oriented world.
Wah'Kon-Tah was published in 1932—two years before Mathews's only novel, Sundown. The unnamed Indian youth is easily identified as the precursor of Chal (Challenge) Windzer, the novel's main character. Sundown is the story of a mixed-blood Indian, from the night of his birth until his mid-thirties, during the Great Depression. It is the first novel by a Native American to follow a character's life from birth to maturity, to give us his story in retrospect with all of its failures and disappointments. Somewhat akin in structure to the traditional Bildungsroman, the novel is also the story of the corrupting natures of money and the white man's educational system.
There is not much of a story to Sundown; plot has, in fact, given way to character development. In the early chapters we see Chal's confusing feelings about his parents. His mixed-blood father considers himself one of the progressives, working to advance the Indian's standard of living by supporting allotment and the oil development of the Osage Reservation. Initially, he believes that the government in Washington can do no harm, yet by contrast, Chal's full-blood mother distrusts the government and most of the white man's ways on principle. As a child, Chal attends reservation schools and later goes to the state university, though he does not complete his degree because World War I breaks out and he enlists in the air force. The war ends, however, before he is mobilized, and shortly thereafter he returns to the reservation, where he becomes a kind of drifter with nothing to do. (There are a number of parallels here with Mathews's own life. Like Chal Windzer, Mathews also attended the University of Oklahoma, and he joined the air force during World War I.)
Chal's education, Mathews would have us believe, is the primary force that has cut him off from his tribal roots. This is true at every stage of his formal education—from primary school to the university, and even to flight school. Chal's earliest memories of the reservation school are, in fact, of its sinister-looking buildings. Even before he was old enough to attend the school, he had seen Indian boys in the schoolyard; "he had a feeling that they were like animals in a cage, and certainly there seemed to be much sadness in their faces." He thinks of the door of the school "as a mouth into which they [the students] were going; a big, black mouth, bigger and darker than a wildcat's." Mathews's picture of Chal's white teachers is hardly more flattering. One teacher, named Miss Hover, has come to the school because "she fell under the romantic spell of Fenimore Cooper." When her Indian students do not live up to Cooper's image, she quickly adopts a patronizing attitude toward them.
The reader begins to understand that it is education which is slowly severing Chal's ties to his cultural past. While in high school, on the days he has no classes, he is drawn to the country, where he feels a number of strong, almost uncontrollable forces pulling at him. "One day he stripped off his clothes and danced in a storm and sang a war song." On another occasion, "he took some paints and painted his face…." These mysterious sensations come to him only when he is alone on the prairie, yet they continue during his years as a student at the university and later when he attends the air force flight school. Periodically, he has an uncontrollable urge to be alone in the country, where he can be close to the land. As his education occupies more of his time, however, he begins to feel guilty about these sensations, afraid that he is "reverting" to a kind of uncivilized past that typifies his people as a whole. These yearnings, he feels, must be controlled:
Sometimes as he walked, the urge to pull off his clothes and trot came to him; the desire to play the role of coyote, but he dismissed such desires now with shame, and when they were most disturbing he would murmur aloud to drown the unconventional thought, and he would dismiss the thoughts of his first months at the University in the same manner. He was more civilized now and more knowing, and he was ashamed of his recent past.
By denying his basic affinity with the earth, Chal's education—like Chief Pokagon's in Queen of the Woods—cuts him off from the rich heritage of his people. Even worse, the white man's schooling makes him reject his Indian identity: "He didn't want to call attention to the fact that most of his blood was of an uncivilized race like the Osages. He believed that they didn't have any backbone, and he certainly wanted to make something out of himself." In his confusion, he becomes embarrassed that people identify him as an Indian, and he often feels uncomfortable because of the activities of other Indians around him. At the university, when two of his Indian classmates decide to drop out of school, he realizes that he is actually relieved to see them depart—for "fear that they would do something wrong." In time, he feels guilty about his appearance:
He had often wished that he weren't so bronze. It set him off from other people, and he felt that he was queer anyway, without calling attention to the fact. It was embarrassing to attract attention, and when people looked at him he became shy. He thought he still might have black eyes and straight black hair that shone like patent leather when he put grease on it, if his face were only white.
At the height of his confusion, he mutters to himself, "'I wish I didn't have a drop of God damn' Indian blood in my veins.'"
Eventually, Chal completely rejects his Indianness. The incident takes place at the air force school, when a white woman, with whom he will shortly have an affair, asks him "'Are you Spanish or something?'" Chal replies, "'Yes, Spanish.'" The narrator comments, "He should like to have indicated that he had a title, as well, but he thought he had better not." Mathews's picture of Chal Windzer is not so different from those of a number of characters in Afro-American novels who are light enough to "pass" as Caucasian. Like them, Chal renounces his racial origins, sides with the white world, and in the process alienates himself from both groups. He becomes a man with no identity at all, a cultural half-caste.
Chal's problems are in no way alleviated when he returns home after the war. His father has committed suicide, after realizing that by siding with the government he acted against his people; allotment and oil development have brought total disruption of traditional life to the Osage Reservation. Ignoring the example of his father's belated insight, Chal continues to be embarrassed by his mother's Indian ways (her manner of dress, the house she continues to live in in spite of the money she receives from the tribal government from its sale of oil). Even at his father's funeral, Chal "had been embarrassed during the ceremony … because some of the older Osages had come to the grave, and turning their eyes to the sky, had chanted the song of death." Chal was, in fact, moved by their act, "but there were so many new white people in town now, that he thought they shouldn't have gone through the primitive ritual after the Christian burial." Almost all of his activities are designed so he will not offend the whites around him, yet he has no clear idea what these people are like or what they expect of him.
If education has been the greatest factor in his estrangement from his people, it is money which adds to his total debilitation. From his father's estate Chal inherits $25,000—money that came from tribal sales of oil. There is, in fact, so much money that Chal does not have to do anything to earn a livelihood, yet the money keeps coming in. Mathews uses the black oil derricks as a ubiquitous symbol of the general disruption of traditional life; there is always another one looming on the horizon, no matter in which direction one looks. In one particularly moving incident, lightning strikes a derrick and sets it on fire. One of the Osage elders states that the "'lightning struck that gas well 'cause the Great Spirit don't want the white people to come here any more.'" The earth has been polluted by the white man's rape of the land, and now this greed has spread to the Indians.
Chal's biggest problem is that he does not know "what to do with himself." In the last few chapters of the novel he drifts along, spending his time and money on fast cars, easy women, and binges with liquor that last a week or two at a time. He drives his automobile as fast as it will go; he moves from one woman to the next, finding little satisfaction in either of these diversions. Mathews implies that either liquor—his "senses were dulled … he was not acutely aware of anything"—or an automobile accident will finally destroy him.
Abruptly before the end of the novel, Chal makes one final attempt to reclaim his life. With an old friend named Sun-on-His-Wings, he goes to the sweathouse to purify his body. For his friend, this is the purification rite that precedes a service of the Peyote Church, but since Chal is not a member, he cannot attend the meeting. In the sweat lodge, one of the tribal elders named Watching Eagle speaks about the havoc that has been brought to the tribe.
Long time ago there was one road and People could follow that road. They said, "There is only one road. We can see this road. There are no other roads." Now it seems that road is gone, and white man has brought many roads. But that road is still there. That road is still there, but there are many other roads too. There is white man's road, and there is road which comes off from forks. The bad road which no white man follows—the road which many of the People follow, thinking it is the white man's road. People who follow this road say they are as the white man, but this is not white man's road. People who follow this road say that road of Indian is bad now. But they are not Indians any more, these People who follow that road.
The effect on Chal is electrifying: "he was happy and contented, sitting there." He feels free, as if he is flying.
Yet the change is quickly reversed and, ironically, the sweat lodge ritual does not become preparation for spiritual renewal or a return to cultural roots—nothing akin to what Joseph Epes Brown has described as the function of this ritual [in his 1964 The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian]:
the "Sweat Lodge" … rites are carried out in preparation for all the other major rites, and actually are participated in prior to any important undertaking. They are rites of renewal, or spiritual rebirth, in which all of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—each contribute to the physical and psychical purification of man.
For Chal Windzer, the sweathouse cleansing becomes an ironic preparation for his final bodily humiliation. He returns to his bottle, drinking by himself in the countryside. When he is in a state of total inebriation, the old atavistic yearnings return to him; he begins to dance and sing, to feel that he is an Indian again. His body, however, has been destroyed by liquor, and shortly he falls over in a convulsion of great pain. The contrast that Mathews makes here with Chal's earlier yearnings is an important one: Chal has reached the stage where he only feels these forces pulling at him when he is drunk. Earlier, when he was still an adolescent, it was nature alone that created these sensations—not the artificial stimulus of liquor.
The ending of Sundown resolves nothing. Chal and his mother are sitting together, having a kind of nonverbal conversation. She breaks the silence and tells him, "'Many white men are flying across the sea now.'" It is her attempt to rekindle his interest in flying, to get him interested in anything, yet Chal resents her remarks. "'Ah … there isn't anything to flyin'," he replies, then adds, "'I'm goin' to Harvard law school, and take law—I'm gonna be a great orator.'" Though his statement silences her, she knows as well as Chal does that he has never thought about law school before, that he has no intention of becoming a lawyer. As the novel ends, she sits watching him ("She saw a little boy in breech clout and moccasins …") as he falls asleep. For all his indecisiveness, Chal might just as well be a little boy again.
Chal Windzer is a weak character, a questionable hero. He drifts along through life with little purpose or direction, never acting decisively but permitting himself, rather, to be acted upon. He attends the university because some of his high school friends are planning to; he joins the air force at the suggestion of one of his professors; he repeatedly says he is going to start working, but he never does. By the end of the story, he is utterly passive, plagued by guilt because of his feelings about his racial identity. Though he bears a certain affinity to a number of characters in subsequent novels by Native Americans, he is more directionless than they are. He has tried to assimilate into the white man's world, yet he has failed. By the end of Sundown, Chal Windzer has become a man without a culture, reduced to a life of frustration and existential loneliness.
Sundown is the most accomplished of the novels written by Native Americans exploring the assimilationist theme, the most significant early account of the clash of cultures, in large part because Mathews has moved beyond the element of plot (so important to Pokagon and Oskison) into the realm of character development. The reader comes away from the novel knowing quite clearly that Mathews never approves of Chal Windzer's attempts to become part of the white man's world, a stance that distinguishes the author from his predecessors. Unlike [John M.] Oskison's three novels, Mathews's work is almost totally concerned with Native American characters, with the problem of the obliteration of "Indianness" because of the white man's confusing world. Whereas Pokagon uses a proselytizing tone in Queen of the Woods, Mathews has chosen to tell his story for the most part without didactic commentary. The result may not always be totally successful; the pace of the narrative at times is slowed down by overwriting and the symbolism is somewhat inconsistent. Nevertheless, John J. Mathews has written a novel which still tells us something vitally important about the Native American and the problems of his identity more than forty years after it was written.
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SOURCE: A review of Talking to the Moon, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, November, 1979, pp. 362-64.
[In the following, Blaine praises Mathews's treatment of nature in Talking to the Moon.]
John Joseph Mathews is best known for his two works, The Osages, Children of the Middle Waters and Wah' Kon Tah, The Osage and the White Man's Road. Talking to the Moon, a lesser known work, was first printed in 1945 and recently reprinted. Mathews, a quarter-blood Osage, participated in the two cultures of his heritage. Born in 1894 at Pawhuska on the Osage reservation in Indian territory, he was reared there and observed both the traditional Osage ways as well as the effects of the ongoing and steady erosion by the white man's way superimposed upon them.
After spending years away from his native lands, as a student at Oxford in England, a pilot in World War I, and a writer, he returned in 1932 to his ranch to stay. As he says in the Foreword, "I have come to the blackjacks to live, as one who climbs out of the roaring stream of civilization onto an island, to rest and to watch."
To do this he built a small sandstone house in the blackjack oaks on his land away from man-created activity. Here he lived for ten years. Like others who have had the good fortune and a sense of appreciation of Nature's harmony, he was sensitive to each nuance of its constant and consistent laws of survival and change.
Elizabeth Mathews, his widow, who wrote the present edition's Foreword, states this book was his Walden, and it is, for the most part, a Walden of the forest and plains of the Middle West written with the added dimension of the Indian perception of the forces of the universe.
The book is organized in seasonal sections with chapters named after the Osage months or moons of the year, such as 'Just-Doing-that Moon,' 'Planting Moon,' 'Buffalo-Pawing the Earth Moon,' and 'Light-of-Day Returns Moon.' In this book the author does several things. He describes with great poetic beauty the great seasonal changes of this latitude in northern Oklahoma and the minutiae that comprise the total kaleidoscope of each season: trees, insects, mammals, weather—all beautiful—pass before our eyes and we feel the place and feel at home there, a part of Nature to which we belong. Such a sentence as "I stand in the silence with emotion that hurts and cannot be relieved by expression, either by word symbols or by physical action" illustrates Mathews' reaction to his environment.
Mathews was not a total recluse. Anthropologists and other professional friends from far and wide, neighbors, including cowhands, woodchoppers and Indian become known in part. We hear them talk, we see glimpses of their characters; we recognize in them that which we have seen in our friends and acquaintances through Mathews' perceptive descriptions. And those who know the Indian of that time will recognize them in the vignettes the author sketched of his Osage contemporaries. (Mathews was on the Osage Tribal Council and spent time in Washington doing tribal business in this period).
Hunting was more than a satisfying physical activity in which he participated. Frequent episodes are described in Oklahoma as well as in New Mexico and other places. Much joy came to him in both the hunt and the observation as a nonparticipant of the total action of animal, man and in some cases, the hounds that sounded through the woods and over the Osage hills. The clever coyote, who 'talks to the moon' is a central figure in this book, a survivor in Nature, as man himself will eventually have to learn to be, Mathews infers.
One begins to know the man. You see him running down the hill with his setters from his front door on a crisp autumn morning just for the pure joy of it. Then you see him riding in a round-up, then talking to the Old Men at Osage ceremonies, or you hear him thinking and comparing Nature's activities and wherein man should try to fit, but most often doesn't. The end of his retreat came as World War II developed. He gives serious attention to this and the role of nations one to another and men one to another. He discusses the proper relationships of all as he brings forth the ideas that have come to him in the backwaters of civilization.
One may or may not agree with his philosophical musings and conclusions, but as he said, "I didn't presume that I would come out of the blackjacks with the banner of truth flying, [but that] … I might find some connections between man's artificial ornamentation and the useless ornamentations among the creatures in my little corner of the earth…."
The coyote's 'talking to the moon' is an example of ornamental expressions. They are those manifestations that are not vital to survival but are evidence of something beyond this in Nature's scheme. In man they are expressed in such behaviour as art and poetry. Mathews says much of value in this small book. [Talking to The Moon] is a treat and a retreat for the soul and poet in all of us.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5980
SOURCE: "The Protagonist as a Mixed-Blood in John Joseph Mathews' Novel: Sundown," in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 6, Nos. 3&4, Fall-Winter, 1982, pp. 319-37.
[In the essay below, Hunter discusses Mathews's treatment of the theme of the "assimilated or mixed-blood Indian as an alienated character" in Sundown.]
John Joseph Mathews' novel, Sundown, recreates as its setting Osage history from the period prior to the allotment of Osage Indian land in 1906 through the oil boom of the 1920s. It also traces the search for cultural identity of Challenge Windzer, a young mixed-blood from a wealthy Osage family. Sundown, initially published in 1934, is one of the earliest novels by an Indian author to present the theme of the assimilated or mixed-blood Indian as an alienated character.
Generally, Southwest regional and social novels of the 1930s focus on the unfortunate trials of white or immigrant Americans confronting a harsh environment. For example, more in common with the regional context of Sundown is Edna Ferber's Cimarron (1930), which attempts to recreate from a pioneer's perspective the early development of Oklahoma, including the oil boom of Osage County. Ferber concentrates primarily on the personal victory of a pioneer woman who survives the state's earliest development to become its first woman in congress. Similar to most American writers of this time, Ferber's Indian characters are stereotypes portrayed as part of the background of an untamed frontier setting.
During this same period, American Indian writers seldom identified with their tribal background. For instance, Lynn Riggs, who wrote Green Grow the Lilacs, was not identified as Cherokee. Around 1900, Simon Pokagon's Queen of the Woods, Charles Eastman's From the Deep Woods to Civilization, and Hum-ishu-ma's Cogewea, declared the advantages of an education in the white culture but, with the exception of D'arcy McNickle's The Surrounded (1936), none of these writers focused on the American Indian as being alienated in American society. Thirty years after Indian Territory had become the state of Oklahoma, however, Mathews came forth as the first American writer to present a novel which thematically portrays an American Indian—a mixed-blood—as a victim of a bi-culture identity.
Mathews was born November 16, 1894, on the Osage reservation near the Indian agency at Pawhuska, Indian Territory (Oklahoma). His great-grandmother was a full blood Osage Indian who married William Shirley Williams, a famous frontiersman known in western literature as "Old Bill Williams." Mathews' early childhood was spent in Osage County, the Osage reservation, observing events referred to in Sundown; moreover, his own youth parallels many of the experiences of the protagonist, Challenge Windzer. Like the protagonist, Mathews attended the University of Oklahoma, majoring in geology and later leaving school to serve as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Unlike the protagonist, however, Mathews returned to the university, earned his degree, and later attended Oxford, studying related sciences. After several years abroad, he returned to Osage County in 1932, the same year in which his Wah'Kon-Tah was published which won the Book-of-the-Month award. Wah'Kon-Tah is a historical biography based on the career of Laban Miles, who was government agent to the Osage tribe after their removal from Kansas to the reservation in Northeastern Oklahoma. Later, Mathews wrote Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E.W. Marland (1951), the biography of Earnest Marland—a wealthy, flamboyant oil man who became Oklahoma's governor in 1936. The Osage: Children of the Middle Waters (1961) was Mathews' final publication—a voluminous epic on Osage history and culture from the prehistorical period to the period after the oil boom in 1930 in Osage County. Mathews' other work, Talking to the Moon (1942), is a biography written in a Walden context which tells about his experiences with nature while living in a one-room house he built in the isolated blackjack oaks of Osage County.
Sundown has, as its setting, the historical period at approximately where Wah'Kon-Tah concludes, and its historical and political background is concerned with the Osage allotment act. During this same period in Oklahoma's history, the Dawes Allotment Act of 1883 gave citizenship to Indians in Indian Territory in exchange for surplus land. Although tribal regulations varied, the procedure was to enroll adult members of the tribe so that each received approximately 160 acres for homesteading, dissolving reservations and opening surplused lands to white settlers. However, the Osage tribe had paid the Cherokee Nation for land in Indian Territory and resisted the Dawes Commission under those terms. No surplus lands were therefore available to white settlers; instead, the land was divided equally among the 2,229 Osages.
In the initial chapters of Sundown, the history of the Osage Allotment Act and the earliest economic development in Osage County after Oklahoma's statehood are recreated through the role of Chal's father, John Windzer, a mixed-blood. During the late 1800s, political unrest in Osage County history, as in the novel, over allotment had divided the tribe into two political parties: the "Progressives"—mixed-bloods who promoted personal ownership of land—and the "Non-Progressives"—full-bloods who were trying to maintain communal ownership of the reservation. John Windzer is characterized in Sundown as the prototype of the "Progressive" mixed-blood factor, those descendants of marriages between French trappers and Osage women during a much earlier period in Osage history. Rather than French background in the novel, however, John was English, the grandson of Sir John Windzer, an artist who married into the Osage tribe when the Osage lived near the Missouri River. Nevertheless, as the novel also suggests, these Osage mixed-bloods were the first among the tribe to adopt non-Indian customs, to learn the English language, and to accept the white culture's education. In the novel, as Mathews portrays the consequences, the mixed-bloods rejected the Osage tribe's older customs for what they believed was a more progressive and modern lifestyle and regarded the full-bloods as uncivilized or "backward."
In contrast to the full-bloods (who lived in villages), in Sundown, the mixed-bloods (who lived in homesteads scattered throughout the territory) gathered daily in town—usually in front of the trader's store—to gossip over the latest development in tribal politics: "From the earliest days of the Agency, they had sat in front of the trader's store during the summer, hunted during the Autumn and sat around the big-bellied stoves and spat into the sawdust during the winter." John Windzer was no exception; "each day he rode his pony one block to the trading post where he met the other mixed-bloods to talk about the allotment and Frazer oil lease."
He had become a member of the Osage council and was proud to be one of the Progressives, who were mostly mixed-bloods with a few weakspined and easily led full-bloods … They employed all the tricks of their white brothers to get what they wanted and had fought hard and long for allotment of the reservation, until with the influence of the ubiquitous whites waiting on the borders, they got the consent of the council for allotment. In reality the allotment was forced upon the tribe. John and the other councilmen took pride in their progressive principles and were pleased when government officials patted them on the back and approved of their work.
John Windzer was actually closer to full-blood than white ancestry, yet he preferred to identify as white. John was not so ambitious as he was a vulnerable and naive romantic, educated in the high ideals of Romantic and Victorian writers. His favorite verse was Lord Byron's "Childe Harold"; he also admired William Jennings Bryan's patriotic speeches. John was a dreamer who envied the articulation of the orator, Running Horse—a member of the Osage Council who vehemently opposed allotment. When John went with the Council to Washington to discuss the reservation oil lease and allotment, Running Horse effectively bruised the vanity of the Secretary of Interior in a brazen speech by calling him a "Judas" and a betrayer of Osage's trust. Consequently, the Osage Council was dismissed by the Department of Interior.
Humiliated and disillusioned, John could not believe that the government could be influenced by oil men competing for Osage oil leases as the Frazer oil lease expired. Ironically, after allotment, John was murdered by a car thief who killed him for his new automobile—the ultimate symbol of progress on the Indian reservation.
Challenge's full blood mother symbolized the older traditional Osage order. Perhaps also to symbolize the passivity of the Osage woman's role during this period, Mrs. Windzer remained unnamed throughout the entire novel. She proved, however, to be a stronger and more stable character than either John or Chal, even though she was tacit and submissive in her role as John's wife. For example, although she had a hired girl, she polished John's new boots each evening. Mrs. Windzer respected John's political role, but she was unimpressed by wealth and indifferent to the projected "reforms" which he so readily advocated and, as Mathews states, Mrs. Windzer did not see "the importance of all this business" in Washington. John was her "handsome lord," and she did not want him to be unhappy. When John wrote home that he could not believe that the government was dishonest, Mrs. Windzer decided she would not tell John the truth about the "white men up there in Washington." She knew that he was naive like "a little boy," who trusted everybody; furthermore, "he always believed in the guv'mint." But from Mrs. Windzer's perspective, "the white men talked from the end of their tongues and not from their hearts."
Mrs. Windzer views her son more in terms of his place in Osage society than does her husband. Because Chal was born under the signs of the Older clan system, his character would be influenced by the moon, wolf, and coyote—the symbols of the warrior. She recalled the howling of the wolf on the night Chal was born:
She knew that she had heard him; the lone wolf that had howled from Cedarvale Hill. Even above the distant yapping of the coyote she had heard him. And at that moment she had given her son secretly to the wolf; the wolf had wanted him and she had given her son.
In common with most of the full-bloods, Chal's mother was suspicious of the white people on the reservation; she did not trust the government officials and was reluctant that Chal be sent to the Agency school. John felt formal education was a step toward equality with the whites, so Mrs. Windzer submitted to John's decision, although she planned for Chal to practice Osage customs:
Some day she would put paint on his face and arrange his clothes and set the feather in his scalplock as they should be set; she would put the symbol of her family on him, and comb his hair as he looked at himself in the mirror.
When Chal reached the appropriate age, she and John would also pick his wife from one of the other villages, but until she could "find a good woman," she would dress and decorate her son for the Osage ceremonies.
In the Osage tradition, Chal would have been given an Osage name at birth identifying him with his father's clan for, until a child is given a name, he is not a person. John Windzer's rejection of Osage tradition weakened Chal's claim to Osage identity and, as a mixed-blood, Chal was neither a viable part of Osage culture nor of white society. Not only did his father emphasize the white ancestry in the Windzer family, but more importantly to Chal's perception, John Windzer promoted acculturation and its logical extensive assimilation.
These two diverse perspectives, personified through the roles of Chal's father and mother, were also the views the boy confronted in his environment before white encroachment and certainly after the territory was open to white settlers. Osage and white cultures created two realities for Chal so that his Indian values eventually conflicted with the values of the white civilization. Consequently, he became psychologically crippled, emotionally stunted and incapable of expressing his own character which resulted in alienation from his own self-worth and identity.
Chal's formative and impressionistic years occurred while the reservation was still restricted to Osage people. He came into contact with few whites, except for the traders, the government employees at the Osage agency, and the few poor white female servants and male farmhands who were given government permits to work for Osage families. The Osage reservation was in essence pastoral. Unfenced, this vast, hilly blue-stem prairie was open range for cattle and horses; Kansas ranchers merely branded their cattle for identification at roundup time. T. M. Finney, a well-known Grayhorse trader, describes the reservation in his historical memoirs [Pioneer Days with the Osage West of 96' (1925)]:
… wild game and fowl of unlimited numbers were abundant as were deer, wild turkey, geese, ducks, prairie chickens, quail, snipe, plover, and wild pigeons. While the streams were well stocked with game fish. The otter, beaver, raccoon, opossum, coyote, and timber wolf were trapped and hunted for their pelts.
The novel portrays that Chal was unhindered by concepts of time and duty, that he spent most of the time riding on the "somniferous" prairies with Indian companions, Running Elk and Sun-on-his-Wings. Usually, he daydreamed or played make-believe roles, "whether in the form of man or animal." Mostly, Chal took the role of the coyote hiding in the tall blue-stem grass while he watched the antics of the prairie chicken; other times he pretended to be the wolf "who talked to the moon." Except for the red-tail hawk which circled tirelessly above, the novel implies that Challenge felt equal to all the prairie creatures. That Chal felt comfortable in the natural environment is indicated clearly by his casual reaction toward a tornado which hit Kihekah—he simply secured himself against the cyclonic winds in the manner of the full-bloods by holding on to a bush until the cyclone moved on. He also played alone at night on the prairie:
Sometimes he would not get home until after dark, walking or riding over the prairie and into the belt of blackjack where the density of the darkness, or half-darkness of the twilight always produced other stimuli.
Chal's affinity with nature is interrupted, however, when he entered school. His impressions of the school were that "they were like animals in a cage"; the entrance to the school was a "dark door … a big, black mouth, bigger and darker than a wildcat's."
During Chal's adolescence, the reservation was incorporated as Osage County, the largest in the newly-formed state of Oklahoma; the railroads were completed and, as the derricks increased, so followed the white population. Mathews states that, except for the trader's and the miller's boys, Chal usually associated with Indian boys. In comparison to the taciturn nature of the Indian boys, Chal thought the new white boys in town chattered like "blackbirds"; furthermore, he thought the people moving into Kihekah strange but fascinating:
He had always heard that the ordinary white people who came into the reservation, the white people not concerned with the Agency, were inferior. But if they were inferior as everyone said they were, why were they so sure of themselves, and why did they always get what they wanted?
With the increase in white population, the full-bloods were seen less frequently in town. By the time Chal was in high school, he associated mostly with whites, whom he imitated: "He simply copied the other boys because he thought it was the thing to do …"; but Chal's Indian friends, even though they, like Chal, were football stars, remained aloof: "After classes they would untie their ponies and trot off toward their villages." That Chal was beginning to reject his Osage heritage was indicated by his attitude toward Sun-on-his-Wings and Running Elk. He thought they were "out of step"; that they had "no get up" and that their attitudes "made him tired." They ignored the "civilized" school parties, yet "they danced at the Roundhouse in the village every June and September", and Chal felt "vicarious shame for them."
Sun-on-his-Wings and Running Elk are the "Non-Progressives," or the traditionalists, who resented the intrusion of the white man. In the annals of Osage County, the earliest settlers were essentially poor Irish, English, and Dutch, mostly protestant, often of the fundamentalist persuasion, who projected much of the ethos of the Victorian period. The Indian boys understandably would not compromise their Indian character in exchange for the affected manners of the whites, especially those of the younger generation at social functions.
Even though Chal believes he enjoyed the "Progressive" activities, the novel reveals that, in time, he perceived that the urban pressures began to have an effect. The noisy activities of the town—the hammering, sawing, and the noise from the oil drills—created in Chal a craving for the natural environmental "like one craves salt or sugar," with frequent periods of despondency. He notices that the wild life around Kihekah no longer existed. It had been several years since he had seen any wild turkeys along Bird Creek, and he had almost forgotten what the howl of the wolf was like. On occasion, however, Chal would hear the Osage drums and singers in the middle of a night when they mourned the death of a tribesman.
To escape from his moods and the "monotony of the fresh-painted environment of the new high school," Chal camped weekends on the prairie; yet he never told anyone, because "he felt ashamed." From Challenge's perspective, people did not go riding out on the prairie alone unless they were cowboys riding fence. Under the influence of the natural stimuli, however, Chal resumed his normal behavior of talking to the animals and personifying the hills and trees. Instinctively aroused by the moon one evening, Chal felt a profound urge to express himself:
There was the moon, large and white, hanging in a gleaming sycamore. The coyotes stopped as suddenly as they had begun. A great unhappiness filled him, and for the briefest moment he envied the coyotes but he didn't know why. For some time he looked at the moon, and the more he looked, the more intense became the emotion that seemed to be trying to strangle him. He arose from his blanket and stood naked there in the light, then spread his arms toward the moon. He tried to think of all the beautiful words he had ever heard, both in Osage and English, and as he remembered them he spoke them aloud to the moon … He tried to dance but the hill was rock, then he chanted; chanted an Osage song, but the feeling that he was being overpowered caused him to stop.
Mathews suggests that Chal's reaction was a natural response to the beauty that his ancient ancestors respected and worshipped as a reflection of their maker. In contrast to his religious experience, however, Chal rejected this deeper facet of his character. Frustrated by his emotional response, ironically, he cursed: "Gawdam it."
The psychological conflict between Chal's internal and external reality emerged more pronouncedly in his teens, especially during his freshman year at the university. Because Chal and his Indian friends were highschool football stars, they were encouraged by their Kihekah white friends and the fraternities to enroll at the university. Soon after arrival, however, Chal was left to his own initiative because Sun-on-his-Wings and Running Elk departed after sensing the insincerity of the fraternity brothers "who talked with their teeth" rather than "from their hearts." The Indian boys' cultural background was so alien to university attitudes that, rather than attempt to cope or pretend, they packed and returned to the reservation.
Although Chal remained at the university, he soon believed that he was a "misfit." The fraternity's artificial social demands were demeaning to his self-concept; consequently, he became inhibited because of his inability to imitate the other young men. He felt "dejected" because he could not understand their emphasis on grades, nor their allusions to women. Chal eventually came to the conclusion that the attitudes and philosophies at the university were "just a projection of the strange attitudes of the white people who had come into the Osage to live." Yet inwardly, Chal felt ashamed of his shy behavior. To escape the mounting frustration, he sought the solitude of the nearby country where a river ran near the campus and, in this natural setting, he returned to his habit of daydreaming. On one occasion, he was suddenly astounded to discover that, as he trotted along the river, he had unconsciously been playing the coyote role and felt "humiliated" that he had reverted to his childhood game. "I guess I'm crazy all right," was his response.
Later the same day, while Chal observed the animal behavior and admired the scenery, he commenced to sing his favorite song, "Pawnee Crying On Hill"—the song which told the incident of his ancestor's killing a Pawnee brave. Chal's happy mood changed that evening back on campus, however; he became despondent again in retrospect of the day's experiences:
He was disappointed with himself and felt distinctly that he was out of step, and he believed that on this particular night he knew the truth about himself: that he was hopeless.
When summer arrived, the effects of the past year were projected in Chal's attitude toward his father and mother. He no longer perceived his father as "a hero" and he detested his mother's broken English. The only person with whom Chal developed a rapport was Professor Granville, a geologist. The following school year, Granville, learning of Chal's interest in flying, recommended him for the Army Air Corps.
For Chal, the Air Corps represented self-respect and identity. The previous summer at Kihekah, he had objectively observed the Indians, the mixed-bloods and full-bloods, as though not aligned with either:
Chal thought the little town was very dull and backward after the university … He was the only person not doing something, except the mixed-bloods and the full-bloods, but he believed that there wasn't much interest in them—he certainly didn't want to be like them.
Chal is three generations removed from his white ancestry yet, in his distorted perception, he placed himself outside Indian society. In the Air Corps, he felt less conspicuous because he blended in with the other men in uniform. Away from the suppression of Kihekah's provincial society and the university milieu, he developed more self-confidence; in retrospect, "he felt contempt for the people of the university, and certainly for the people of Kihekah." The social activities at the Air base "under the guise of patriotism," and the military uniform gave Chal a "polished veneer." He also discovered that his bronze skin was attractive to women.
In the Air Corps, Chal's day-dreaming diminished as his self-esteem rose with the new, meaningful role. He was an officer of his post, and flying satisfied his adventurous nature, but Chal's Osage background had not provided him with the discipline to master the rigors of routine. In the social context, the Osage customs of rearing children in which the parents enjoy yielding to children's demands and whims did not help in the development of self-discipline. Thus, in the novel after the war ended, Chal became bored with army routine and, after his father was killed, he resigned his commission.
That Chal is spiritually and emotionally estranged from his Osage culture is apparent from the feelings he expressed at his father's funeral. He was "embarrassed" when his older relatives sang the Osage mourning chant at the gravesite. "… There were so many new white people in town now that he thought they shouldn't have gone through the primitive ritual after the Christian burial." Chal's spiritual sterility inevitably left him more vulnerable to the false values of materialism and consequently, as his character weakened, he became more passive and easily influenced.
Chal returned to Kihekah around 1920, which was the beginning of the oil boom in Osage county. Although John Windzer's estates had left him wealthy, Chal felt that mere opulence was no "honor" because almost everyone was rich. Mathews states that "the poorest newcomer of a year or two ago now drove about in his own car." Many people "rendered services" and "were guardians" for one, or more, restricted Indians. "Yet there were no refineries, no factories, nothing made and nothing produced by the citizens of the little town among the blackjacks."
Since Mathews is essentially focusing on Chal's character development, the allusions to the local crime, violence and corruption are subtle, yet the social environment is directly related to Chal's misdirection. During the decade, the news of Indian wealth invited infamous characters from the back alleys of civilization; Mathews alludes to this decadence through the events of John Windzer's and Running Elk's murders. Mrs. Windzer also revealed to Chal that the "guardians" appointed by the Osage Indian Agency were unscrupulously taking financial advantage of their wards.
Initially when Chal returned to Kihekah, he was impressed by the esteem shown toward the affluent businessmen, doctors and lawyers. Their success motivated him to seek an occupation:
He wished he had something to do—some business, but there wasn't anything for him to do. He couldn't get a job. No one would give a job to an Indian. Certainly he wouldn't have any chance to run for a county office, 'cause the voters always said an Indian had too much money and he could get more respect if he had a job or was in some business for himself … There seemed to be another dignity somewhere that would be hurt if he worked … He guessed he must have two dignities, one tellin' him to do something, and one tellin' him not to do something.
To ward off boredom, Chal "cruised" main street, symbolically circling in his "new red roadster" from one end of the street to the other. Eventually, he took trips to Colorado to play golf and, finally, he and the other young Osages frequented the saloons in the oil town "under the impression that they were sophisticated people from Kihekah and were slumming." Inevitably, Chal's drinking became habitual. In contrast to his father who left the "rock and rye" on the kitchen table, Chal hid his liquor not in the pretended fear of the prohibition law, but rather so that his mother would not suspect how much he was drinking. On one occasion after attending a tribal ceremony with a young Osage woman and her white friend, Chal got intoxicated and became nostalgic about his Osage heritage. He decided to visit Sun-on-his-Wings. When he arrived at his friend's village, the Indian men were preparing to enter the "peyote Sweatlodge" and Sun-on-his-Wings invited Chal to join them.
In the lodge, Chal had two warnings which, had he been less insensitive, could have saved him from his own self-destruction. For one, he learned about the Big Hill murders; for another, while under the sedative influence of the peyote ceremony, he had a dream. During the initial part of the ceremony, Running Elk's father, White Deer, told the priest (the Roadman) that he knew who had murdered his son and Big Hill relatives and wanted revenge. The Roadman warned White Deer to forget his revenge and maintain his Indian values.
Chal was as impervious to the Big Hill experience, interpreted by the wisdom of the Roadman, as he was incapable of understanding the intrinsic meaning of his dream. After Chal drank the emetic tea, he and Sun-on-his-Wings left the lodge briefly to empty their stomachs (in this manner, along with the Sweatlodge, Chal purged his body of evil). After they returned to the ceremonial lodge, Chal's mood changed, "he was fascinated and calmed … his thoughts were light … like sycamore leaves dripping to the surface of calm water." Mesmerized, Chal began to dream. He imagined that he was on a twisted trail "like a lost rope" in which he was running with his arms extended wide … "suddenly he was flying." The air currents lifted him to "dizzy heights," but when he tried to come down, he would suddenly plunge "like a plummet" and thought that he would be crushed on the hills below. Spreading his arms wide, Chal tried to save himself and, once again, the air currents carried him upward. Flying higher and higher, Chal feared that he would never come down again.
Obviously, Chal's dream is an extension of his Air Force experience in which his career in the service had given him identity, self-respect and purpose. In contrast to his previous self-fulfillment, his present passive existence was leading him toward self-destruction.
After the Sweatlodge experience, there are indications that Chal might be regenerated. However, two days later after he saw the confident attitudes of the "serious businessmen" and compared them with the image of the "mystical Indians," he decided he was being too sentimental about the Osage past. Consequently, he joined Marie and her friends on another drinking spree in which the climax of the young Osages' decadence is depicted in the party scene. After a night of "tinny juke box music" at one of the oil towns, where they witnessed a cowboy brawling over "a transparent girlfriend," Chal awakened the next morning in a stupor at one of the Indian ranch homes. On the pretense of fishing, he walked down to a creek where his spiritual emptiness is personified by Mathews who described the water as "lifeless" and Chal, himself, as indifferent to the water creatures and the natural scene which once had symbolized his Indian character. Finally, after more drinking and being deviously pursued by a white girl, Chal left the party in disgust only to purchase more corn liquor from an impecunious farmer trying to survive economic depression and crop failure. While drinking, Chal drove at a high speed to an isolated pasture where, in contrast to the past, he was now an intruder and a nuisance as indicated by the coyote "yapping" his complaint and a blue jay which seemed to be "screaming murder." Chal attempted to sing and dance an Osage song while a curious domesticated steer stared at him. In his drunkenness, however, he fell on the running board of his automobile:
He was in pain and he danced for some sort of climax; that sense of completeness that consummates the creative urge; an orgasm of the spirit. The dance became wilder and suddenly, in his despair, he broke the rhythm of his singing and yelled, but still the emotion was choked in his body. He wanted to challenge something; to strut before an enemy. He wanted by some action or some expression, to express the whole meaning of life; to declare to the silent world about him that he was a glorious male; to express to the silent forms of the blackbirds that he was a brother to the wind, the lightning, and the forces that came out of the earth. He fell … Then he mumbled to himself the freighters' old phrase of impotence. "Goddamit," he said feebly.
While the novel began with the image of the sun—the Osage symbol of life—Mathews concludes by reflecting on Chal's inertness which compares starkly with his natural surroundings and the animals that continued to actively function around him. In the final chapter of Sundown, Chal returned home after having been intoxicated for two weeks with a bank robber at an isolated shack, unable to remember much of what he had done. Weary and confused, he sat down in the yard under a shade tree. In contrast to the years in which nature provided "stimuli" to Chal's imagination, his character now reveals how unaware and insensitive he had become to his surroundings. As he sat in the shade of the oak tree, "he was lazily indifferent to everything he watched while a sparrow approached a robin's nest and took one of the nestlings, carried it to the end of the branch and dropped it. Chal heard it spatter as it hit the earth."
The young robin symbolized not only Chal and his companions, of course, but a generation of young Indian men and women who were also lifted from the security of their Indian communities to be assimilated into white civilization. Government interventions took children from their homes and carried them to BIA schools where their traditional languages, values, and customs would be obliterated and replaced by Western European mores.
The pressure on Chal to assimilate or "imitate" frontier white society had its effect. In the final episode when Chal's mother casually alluded to his flying career, Chal feebly and ineffectually defended himself, saying that flying no longer interested him; instead, he had decided to go to Harvard and become a great lawyer and orator. Chal, whose character reflects the real experiences of some Osage men and women of past and present, thought that money could buy status. True to his father's character and to other young Osages of this period, Chal was proud and arrogant; he wanted to be equal to the best class in white society. But Chal was a failure. The protagonist in Sundown failed to meet the challenge of taking the best values of two worlds—Indian and white—and to adjust these values into a viable lifestyle. In the final images, the reader finds Chal sitting asleep in the shade of the "old postoak." The shadows of the morning gradually recede as the sun reaches midday. While Chal slept, nature in the image of the grasshopper and robin, continued to function all around his slumped figure.
Chal, like many of his contemporaries, lacked a sense of interior identity which forced him to rely on models. He perceived in his community two alternatives to emulate: the solid "practical" businessmen who projected what he viewed as "civilization," or the other Osages whom he viewed as "mystical, foolish, sentimentalist and uncivilized."
This study of Sundown reveals that the younger Osage generation in the early part of the century was burdened with guilt complexes that had been generated by the system, the missionary or government education, and the values of the frontier fundamentalist society in which one's worthiness was qualified according to wealth—a society which stressed that one "should" work to become a productive citizen of serious and disciplined character. Chal's generation did not have the cultural, puritanical foundation which emphasized sacrifice, work and reward, although they were taught in the white schools to abandon the Osage traditional ideologies in exchange for values stressing individual materialism. On the one hand, Chal's character clearly reflects that he had partially assimilated due to his internal conflict over having no occupation. On the other hand, he perceived clearly that in order to gain respect in the white community, he must work; however, Osage identity was not dependent upon occupation.
Individual Osage identity during the early part of the century was associated with the tribe's social system and its relationship to the natural environment. The essence of the Osage's purpose was experiencing shared communal activities which did not focus on any one individual. The Osage spent time feasting and visiting; for, as Indian agent Isaac Gibson recorded in 1900, the Osage "love to sing, to dance, to rest … They are aristocrats and like all wealthy people they don't care for manual labor." The protagonist in Sundown is a victim of an attempt to assimilate a people forced into a non-Indian world view which was the antithesis of the values of the white civilization. Chal could find no purpose in the new value structure erected by the white man.
The meaning of Sundown is apparent in Challenge Windzer's failure. His struggle for purpose represents the young Osage Indians who were caught in a complex socioeconomic environment during Osage County's early development. Throughout the novel, the author's caustic tone and bitter criticism toward the white value structure, studied in conjunction with the protagonist's failure to find meaning in his life, demonstrates, in essence, that Mathews viewed Challenge's generation as tragic victims of abrupt assimilation.
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SOURCE: A review of Talking to the Moon, in Western American Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, August, 1983, pp. 179-80.
[American critics, Reginald and Gladys Laubin have produced numerous films and works on Native American art and culture. In the following, they offer a positive assessment of Talking to the Moon.]
[John Joseph Mathew's Talking to the Moon] is a timely book, beautifully written, and one that can be enjoyed just for its flow of beautiful English. It reminds one of the writings of Thoreau with its down-to-earth philosophy, keen and intimate observation of nature. But it is also full of native American comparisons, cowboy reflections and humor, and personal experiences.
To top all this, it was written by a native American, an Osage Indian. With all the interest that has developed in recent years in Indian authors and Indian literature it is strange that the name of John Joseph Mathews has seldom, if ever, appeared on the list of popular favorites. And yet here was an outstanding native American, who lived fully in two worlds. He went far in the white man's world—a Rhodes Scholar, a pilot in World War I, a rancher, and a noted writer on subjects other than Indian. But he was thoroughly acquainted with the lore of his own people, served on their tribal council, and brings forth little-known historical details of their existence. He knew the old people and was respected by them, often being called upon to represent them and to defend them before Congress.
Some of the experiences he records show deep insight into the ancient culture and an understanding of the problems of acculturation. There are of course differences in the attitudes of members of White and Indian cultures; these are described with high humor, but deep understanding, without prejudice or bitterness over the conflict.
The title, Talking to the Moon, is carried throughout the book with the chapters being named for the Osage moons or months. Although the Osage are a Siouan people their names for the moons, because of differences in geography and climate, are quite different from those of other Siouan tribes, but the author's use of these Osage terms is part of the fascination of the book and nicely ties in his account with the various characteristics of the seasons he is describing. His details of weather, storm, wind, temperature, rain, hail, sleet, snow, to say nothing of prairie fires and tornadoes, add greatly to his narrative and help a stranger to become acquainted with and to appreciate his beloved Oklahoma blackjacks.
Mathews' stories of many varieties of wild life prove him to have been a thorough student of nature. The many birds that lived in his "retreat" are most entertaining, and he even takes us to a prairie chicken dance. Some of his favorite local dwellers were mallard ducks. He said, "… nothing enjoys life more than a mallard…. It is a shame he can't sing." Although he was forced to consider the coyote his enemy, he admired him and played fair with him. He loved to hunt but regarded his hunting as part of the balance of nature for which he was striving, and always considered true sportsmanship ahead of taking game.
Philosophizing, he wrote, "The laws of the earth survival are laid down, and man is not far enough away from the earth to supersede them with those of his own creation; he can only go back to the earth to ascertain where he has diverged from the natural processes."
We knew Mr. Mathews personally. We were fortunate in meeting him and his wife several years ago in Oklahoma. So we naturally have a particular interest in this book, but had we never known him we would still find his writing delightful and his stories not only entertaining but valuable. He certainly was more interested in the "balance of nature" than were most people of his day and his comments and stories can help others who have a present-day interest in achieving similar goals. Mathews' own charming little sketches illustrate his text and we are happy to have had the opportunity to read this new edition of Talking to the Moon.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8653
SOURCE: "John Joseph Mathews's Talking to the Moon: Literary and Osage Contexts," in Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992, pp. 1-31.
[An American educator and critic who specializes in Native American studies, Ruoff is the author of American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (1990). In the following excerpt, she offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Talking to the Moon, examining its relationship to other Native American autobiographies, its focus on Osage culture, and its similarities to Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) and John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).]
American scholars have increasingly emphasized the importance of American autobiographies to the study of American culture. In "Autobiography and the Making of America," Robert F. Sayre attributes this to American autobiographers having "generally connected their own lives to the national life or to national ideas" [Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, edited by James Olney, 1980]. Like their white and African-American counterparts, Native Americans have emphasized the connection between their lives and the larger community. Although their life histories emphasize the interrelationship between the individual and the tribe more than that with the United States as a nation, they also stress the impact of Indian-white relations on Indian life. Recognizing that life histories constitute one of the major genres of American-Indian literatures, scholars such as H. David Brumble III, Arnold Krupat, Gretchen Bataille, Kathleen Mullen Sands, Lynne O'Brien, and Ruoff have increasingly turned their attention to the study of life histories and autobiographies. Because American-Indian written autobiographies reflect not only the personal and tribal history of the author but trends in popular literature and in Indian-white relations, they form a rich resource. This essay will focus on John Joseph Mathews's Talking to the Moon (1945), a highly sophisticated literary autobiography, and will discuss its place in the history of American-Indian autobiography. It will also examine the extent to which the form and content of Mathews's Talking to the Moon were influenced by Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) and John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) as well as by Osage traditions and history.
Full-length confessions or autobiographies in the Western European literary mode are not part of American-Indian oral literary tradition. However, Brumble indicates in American Indian Autobiography that Native-American preliterate autobiographical narratives include a variety of forms designed to convey specific information or achieve a particular purpose. Among these are coup tales, which describe feats of bravery; tales of warfare and hunting; self examinations, which might consist of confessions required for participation in rituals or accounts of misfortunes and illnesses; self-vindications; educational narratives; and tales of acquisition of powers. Even today some Indians may decline to write or narrate full-length autobiographies because their tribes consider it inappropriate for individuals to speak about themselves in an extended fashion until after they have achieved a status acknowledged by the tribe.
American-Indian life histories and autobiographies often blend a mixture of tribal myth, ethnohistory, and personal experience. This mixed form was congenial to Indian narrators and authors accustomed to viewing their lives within the history of their family, clan, band, or tribe. In her introduction to Life Lived like a Story, Julie Cruikshank provides a contemporary example of this perspective. To her questions about secular events, three Athabaskan/Tlingit women responded by telling traditional stories because "these narratives were important to record as part of" their life stories. Their accounts included not only the personal reminiscences we associate with autobiography but also detailed narratives elaborating mythological themes, genealogies and lists of personal and place names that had both metaphoric and mnemonic value. She notes that these women talked about their lives using an oral tradition grounded in local idiom and a mutually shared body of knowledge.
In the early nineteenth century, publication of full-length American-Indian life histories was stimulated by the popularity of captivity and slave narratives. In the East and Midwest, it also resulted from renewed interest in "the noble savages," who no longer threatened whites because the Indians had been pacified or, under the provisions of the 1830 Indian Removal Bill, forcibly relocated to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, and other areas west of the Mississippi. As Indians were removed, whites increasingly wanted to read about the vanished "noble savages" or about assimilated Indian converts to Christianity. Published in response to this interest, nineteenth-century American-Indian autobiographies became forceful weapons in Native Americans' never-ending battles against white injustice.
In 1833, the narrated American-Indian autobiography, a major literary form in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was introduced with the publication of The Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk. Narrated by Black Hawk (Sauk) to translator Antoine Le Claire and revised for publication by John B. Patterson, this popular book went through five editions by 1847. The earliest published full-life autobiographies written by American Indians were A Son of the Forest (1829) by William Apes (Pequot, b. 1798) and The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847) by George Copway (Ojibwa, 1818–69). Like the slave narrators, Apes and Copway consciously modeled their autobiographies on the spiritual confessions and missionary reminiscences popular with white readers. The spiritual confessions linked Indian autobiographers to Protestant literary traditions and identified these authors as civilized Christians whose experiences were as legitimate subjects of written analysis as the experiences of other Christians. Apes, Copway, and later American-Indian autobiographers, like the slave narrators, used personal and family experiences to illustrate the suffering their people endured at the hands of white Christians.
Because he was apprenticed to whites after age four and was not raised in a traditional Indian culture, Apes, unlike later autobiographers, does not include a tribal ethnohistory in A Son of the Forest. This book is primarily devoted to Apes's spiritual journey toward salvation and to strong statements about white injustice to Indians. More representative of the evolving form of American-Indian written autobiographies than Apes's self-published A Son of the Forest was Copway's The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1847). This popular autobiography went through six editions in one year. Although Copway used the structure of the spiritual confession and missionary reminiscence, he blended these with Ojibwa myth, ethnohistory, and personal experience. Copway also introduced descriptions of childhood experiences and portraits of family life designed to counteract the stereotype of Indians as "red devils" intent on killing as many innocent whites as possible.
From the early nineteenth century through the 1960s, more American-Indian life histories or autobiographies were published than any other genre of Native-American literature. However, subsequent Indian autobiographers abandoned the religious narrative as a model and in its place used versions of the blend of mythology, ethnohistory, and personal experience that Copway initiated. Instead of personal religious experience, Indian autobiographers emphasized tribal culture and history and Indian-white relations. Life among the Piutes (1883) by Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute, ca. 1844–91), exemplifies this shift in perspective. During most of the nineteenth century, Winnemucca was the only Indian woman writer of personal and tribal history. Her Life among the Piutes is particularly interesting for her characterization of her childhood terror of whites, her discussion of the status of women in Paiute society, and her descriptions of her role as a liaison between Indians and whites.
To the descriptions of tribal ethnohistory and growing up within a tribal culture included in earlier Indian autobiographies, later writers added accounts of Indian children's adjustment to white-run schools. The Middle Five (1900) by Francis La Flesche (Omaha, 1857–1932) exemplifies this trend. The most influential and widely read Indian autobiographer in the early twentieth century was Charles Eastman (Sioux, 1858–1939), who wrote two autobiographies. Indian Boyhood (1902), written for his children, describes his life as a traditional Sioux boy from infancy to age fifteen. From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916) is a progress autobiography that traces Eastman's struggles to succeed, from his first days in a white school to becoming a medical doctor and an internationally known spokesperson on Indian issues. It also reflects his growing sense of Indian-ness and disillusionment with white society.
Mathews's Talking to the Moon differs from most earlier Indian autobiographies because it is a spiritual autobiography of a specific period in the author's life rather than a life history of growing up Indian or of adjustment to contact with non-Indians and their institutions. Unlike Copway and later Indian autobiographers, Mathews did not grow up within a tribal culture. Consequently, Talking to the Moon is not an exploration of Mathews's ethnicity but rather a chronicle of his attempts to find himself at a crucial time in his life through rediscovering the land, animals, and people of his native Oklahoma. In the course of this rediscovery, Mathews pays tribute to the Osage, whose traditional life had undergone tremendous change. One-eighth Osage by blood, Mathews spent his youth and much of his adult life after 1932 living among and working with them. Most of his books were devoted to describing their lives, heritage, and history.
While Talking to the Moon does contain the blend of myth, history, and personal experience that characterizes American-Indian autobiographies, it is modeled not on these books but rather on the works of Thoreau and John Muir. Mrs. Elizabeth Mathews makes this clear in her foreword to the 1981 reprint of her husband's book: "this is John Joseph Mathews's Walden. It is a book that a Thoreau or a Muir might write, but it is a Walden of the plains and prairies, of the 1930s and 1940s, by a Native American." By incorporating many elements of the form and content of Thoreau's Walden and Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra, Mathews deliberately places Talking to the Moon within a received literary tradition, which he adapts to incorporate aspects of Oklahoma and Osage culture and history. The result is the most sophisticated and polished autobiography by an Indian author to be published up to 1945….
The period of his life covered by Talking to the Moon begins after the publication of Wah'Kon-Tah. Undoubtedly, Mathews's interest in what motivates humankind, his need to understand our relationship to nature, and his desire to observe nature closely led him to choose Thoreau's and Muir's works as his literary models. Like these authors, he withdrew from cities to overcome the separation he felt between himself and nature. For Mathews, this process involved restoring his relationship to his Oklahoma homeland and with the animals and humans, such as the Osage, cowboys, and ranchers, who inhabited it. Twenty-eight-year-old Thoreau settled near Walden Pond in 1845 and remained for two years. Thirty-eight-year-old Mathews settled and remained ten years in the "blackjacks" near Pawhuska, a region named for the tough oaks that covered the sandstone region. Clearly Mathews identified with Thoreau's statement of why he settled near Walden Pond: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." The influence of Thoreau's Walden is clearly reflected in Mathews's statement that he returned to the blackjack region in order to become part of the balance:
… to learn something of the moods of the little corner of the earth which had given me being; to learn something of the biological progression and mysterious urge which had inspired it, until the biological changes within myself had dimmed the romance of it. I had kept my body fit and ready, but my perceptive powers had been dulled by the artificialities and crowding and elbowing of men of Europe and America, my ears attuned to the clanging steel and strident sounds of civilization, and the range of my sight stopped by tall buildings and walls, by neat gardens and geometrical fields; and I had begun to worship these things and the men who brought them into being—impersonalized groups of magicians who never appeared to my consciousness as frail, uninspiring individuals.
Mathews had long realized that the wonders of civilization, as well as "war and unnatural crowding of men, slavery, group fanaticism, and social abnormalities, were inspired by the biological urge manifesting itself in progression, as were the dreams of the few who created beauty, comfort, and tragedy." He emphasized that he did not return to the blackjacks because of political convictions but rather to devote a few years to pleasant and undisturbed living. There Mathews felt he might come to understand the relationship between humankind's primal and creative urges: "I realized that man's artistic creations and his dreams, often resulting in beauty, as well as his fumbling toward God, must be primal, possibly the results of the biological urge which inspires the wood thrush to sing and the coyote to talk to the moon." Unlike Thoreau and Muir, Mathews settled in a place where as a child he had felt a oneness with the ridges and prairies. The influence of Thoreau's Walden and Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra is reflected as well in the organization and content of Talking to the Moon. Mathews follows Thoreau's example by organizing his autobiography by seasons, which allows both authors to describe not only their observations of nature but their personal growth in terms of natural cycles. The focus of Muir's book is on the description of the changes in nature during a single summer and of his maturation during that period. Mathews follows Muir's example in using a month-by-month structure, which he bases on the Osage months of the year.
Mathews also includes topics similar to those treated by Thoreau and Muir. All three authors share a strong sense of place revealed in Thoreau's loving descriptions of the area around Walden Pond, Muir's ecstatic world landscapes of the majestic Sierra Nevada, and Mathews's poetic descriptions of the ridges and prairies in eastern Oklahoma. Both Thoreau and Mathews chronicle the changes these places undergo through the seasons and years, emphasizing that these areas transcend and reflect time while Muir recounts in diary form his daily observations of his summer in the Sierra.
Thoreau examines the Walden Pond area and the soil of his beanfield to trace their history; Muir speculates about the origin of the boulders in the high mountains during the glacial period. Similarly, Mathews analyzes with the eye of the scientist and verbal landscape artist the limestone ridges and his post oak to learn the history of the rain, drought, and fire they endured over the passage of time. For Mathews, the ridges and the blackjacks link primordial nature with contemporary life. At the beginning of his book, Mathews focuses his description of the ridges on the blackjack oaks, whose dead limbs slant downward, "hard and tough as steel lances," protecting them from harm. In earlier days, buffalo rubbed against the trees to scratch their itching hides; now cows hide in their groves to deliver calves. Mathews's description of the blackjacks parallels Muir's numerous tributes to the fir, juniper, and pine trees of the Sierra.
Mathews's careful descriptions of animals, birds, and insects also reflect the influence of Thoreau and Muir. Thoreau's observations on his brute neighbors include his famous description of the mock heroic battle of the red and black ants. In attempting to come close to nature, Thoreau became an amateur scientist, observing under a microscope the movement of ants on a piece of wood, while Muir risked his life to observe a bear up close. Mathews is as curious about the creatures of nature as his predecessors were. Some of his experiments reveal a scientific detachment, as he himself seems to acknowledge. One is his futile attempt to tame a coyote whelp, which spent her days looking out of the pen with her yellow-green eyes filled with "hatred and courage." Mathews coldly comments that "She taught me nothing except the fact that even at her age her mother was still interested in her and made valiant attempts to save her. She also confirmed my experiences that coyotes suffer and die in silence and thus do not endanger the other members of the band by calling for help." Another example is his setting a chicken loose out on the prairie near a coyote den to determine the mother's reaction. Although the mother coyote clearly sees the chicken, she pretends the fowl is not there. The coyote both fascinated and frustrated Mathews, whose attempts to outthink it usually ended in failure. Like the Osage, Mathews regarded the coyote as "a symbol of cupidity and double-dealing." For Mathews these episodes exemplify the eternal battle between the intellect of humankind and the instinct of the animal as humans vainly and destructively attempt to control nature and all its creatures. Mathews is more conscious than Thoreau and Muir that his own efforts to control nature disturb the balance.
During his first year in the blackjacks, Mathews lived as part of this balance and was proud of his harmony with the life around him. However, under the influence of the Planting Moon (April), he broke the truce: "After bringing pheasants, guineas, and chickens to the ridge, I had to fight for the survival of my charges against my predacious neighbors, which was probably a more natural state and in the end more satisfying than the 'friends and neighbor' idea." The presence of his charges whetted the predators' desires and sharpened their cunning. He and the predators were caught in a struggle, pitting their wits against one another. Mathews wonders whether his position was unnatural since he did not live off the land; thus, he was then not part of the economic struggle of the ridge which results in the balance. Mathews vividly depicts this battle with predators in the chapter entitled "Little-Flower-Killer Moon" (May), in which he tells how he emptied the cylinder of his revolver into a skunk that slaughtered many of his chickens "from sheer lust." Mathews emphasizes that the skunk behaved abnormally, killing for enjoyment rather than survival and leaving behind his headless victims. Nevertheless, Mathews confesses that, when he held the muzzle of his gun to the skunk's head and emptied the cylinder, he gloried "in the nauseating musk odor that hung on the heavy air of night, transforming its glory with the sharp explosions that broke the silence of the ridge into a symbol of the mighty power of Homo sapiens when aroused and announcing his entrance into the struggle." For Mathews, the episode reveals the desire for revenge that lurks just beneath humankind's civilized veneer. He also acknowledges that this tragedy resulted from his bringing the chickens to his land, an act that interfered with the balance.
Like Thoreau and Muir, Mathews emphasizes sensory experience in nature, particularly hearing and sight. Just as Thoreau devotes a whole chapter of Walden to "Sounds" and gives detailed descriptions of animal sounds in "Winter Animals," and as Muir catalogs the animal and human sounds of the Sierra sheep camp, so Mathews includes descriptions of sounds: the April sounds of bird songs filled with "injured innocence and pessimism" and of long cattle trains that "come screaming into the little loading pens and stand panting from their exertion as the cattle bawl and the boys shout as they unload them." Mathews follows the examples of Thoreau and Muir in his emphasis on sight as well. Thoreau, in his chapter on "The Ponds" in Walden vividly describes the colors of shore and water while Muir, in My First Summer in the Sierra, paints verbal landscapes of the magnificent grandeur of this mountain range. Although Mathews includes far less geographic and landscape description than Thoreau and Muir, he includes some lovely descriptive passages in his chapter "Little-Flower-Killer Moon" of the thousands of little flowers that die away in May and of the flowering weeds that replace them, reinforcing the theme of the fragility of life in the cycles of nature elaborated in that chapter. Equally beautiful are the pictures of the prairies awash in the old-gold color of sunflowers, butterflies, and gold-finches that Mathews creates in the chapter called "Yellow-Flower Moon" (August). However, in both of these chapters Mathews uses these descriptions as introductions to his observations on insects, birds, animals, and men, which are the focus of his interest.
Another parallel to Thoreau and Muir is Mathews's description of his living accommodations. For Mathews, as for Thoreau, his cabin and cultivated land represent personal space between the town and the wild. Whereas Thoreau recounts his labors in planting his garden and tilling his beanfield, Mathews describes his in planting kafir, a grain sorghum, for the prairie chickens and trees and shrubbery for his yard. Thoreau plants to eat while Mathews plants to encourage the presence of fowls and to shade himself from the parching Oklahoma sun and winds. Just as Thoreau pauses in tilling his beanfield to observe the hawks flying above him, Mathews pauses in his planting to observe the mockingbirds' return, the prairie chickens' dances, and the cocks' fights. Unlike Thoreau, Mathews does not use the description of building his cabin as a jumping-off point for discussing the history of man's attitude toward shelter. Instead, he uses it to introduce the human inhabitants of the ridges and prairies—Virgil, the most efficient hand on the ranch and Mathews's house builder, and other ranch hands who question why Mathews builds on a high ridge far from arable land and why he plans to live alone. Their attitudes set Mathews's own in relief.
There are parallels as well in the three authors' treatment of such subjects as solitude, neighbors, and visitors. For example, all three enjoy occasional visits with friends. Thoreau keeps three chairs for company; Mathews keeps a bountiful supply of food for his city guests. Mathews's descriptions of his pleasures in cooking echo those of Thoreau and Muir on bread making. The three authors also create memorable portraits of their visitors and neighbors. However, Muir and Mathews do not denigrate their neighbors or companions as does Thoreau in his description of the hapless Irish bogsman, John Field, whom he calls "honest, hardworking, but shiftless." Muir has little in common with his campmates, who are oblivious to the beauties of nature. He refers to Delaney as Don Quixote, because his sharp profile resembles that of the Spanish knight, and to Billy, the tobacco-chewing shepherd and camp butcher, as Sancho Panza. However, Muir is sympathetic to the hard life that Billy led.
Mathews creates several vivid portraits of locals. Especially memorable is that of Les Claypool, a former cowboy whose face was "like weathered granite"; "his steel-gray eyes and his silence, as he looked at his great gold watch with the hunting case," caused Mathews to feel like a guilty schoolboy when he was late for a meeting. Claypool staunchly clung to the past and resisted change. Thirty-eight years after he quit working on cattle drives and after he became a car owner, Claypool still kept his horse saddled, ready for emergencies.
Talking to the Moon shows the influence of Thoreau's Walden in its purpose, general structure, and content, and of Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra in its detailed, scientific descriptions of nature and sympathetic portraits of local characters. While it is clear that Mathews wished to write Talking to the Moon within the tradition of the pastoral, spiritual autobiography popularized by Thoreau and Muir, it is equally clear that he wishes to distinguish his work from theirs by adding an emphasis on Indian history and culture largely absent from their books. The difference in the focus of the autobiographies is evident in the authors' choice of titles. Whereas Thoreau and Muir select titles that refer to the places where they renewed themselves in nature, Mathews chooses one that alludes to the Osage's interrelationship with their natural gods. In Walden, Thoreau makes only a few fleeting references to the Indians near Concord, their simple shelters, and the ancient civilization that inhabited the soil Thoreau tills in his beanfield. Although Muir includes more descriptions of Indians he encounters in the Sierra, he is equally detached from them as people. This is especially clear in his comments about the Indian member of his sheep camp. Describing how the men chatted during breakfast, Muir remarks that the "Indian kept in the background, saying never a word, as if he belonged to another species." Unlike Billy, the shepherd, the "Indian" is neither given a name nor described in a character sketch. Later in My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir expands his reaction to Indian silence in the description of another Indian who arrived unobserved, "as motionless and weather-stained as an old tree-stump that had stood there for centuries. All Indians seem to have learned this wonderful way of walking unseen,—making themselves invisible like certain spiders I have been observing here." Muir also mentions the Digger Indians who inhabit the area and gives a short biography of Old Tenaya, the Yosemite chief and namesake of the basin.
By stressing the Indian heritage of the blackjack region, Mathews makes Talking to the Moon an account of the changes in the Osage culture that had survived for centuries as part of the balance of the blackjacks and prairie as well as an account of the changes in nature and himself. Mathews's sensitivity to the Osage is evident in his decision to pay tribute to his tribal ancestry not by exploring his own ethnicity as a mixed-blood but rather by focusing on the tribe's myths, history, customs, and elders. In fact, he does not mention his own Osage heritage, although his wife does in her foreword to the 1981 edition. As Terry P. Wilson points out in "The Osage Oxonian" [Chronicles of Oklahoma 59, No. 3 (Fall 1981)], Mathews was well aware of the antagonism of a faction of Osage full-bloods toward mixed-bloods. The full-bloods had not forgotten the fraud perpetuated in 1906, when many whites had their names included on the Osage rolls in order to get allotments of Osage land. Mathews realized that, although his own identity as an Osage was not tainted in this way, he was always "suspect in the minds of some." According to Wilson, the author's "elections to the tribal council said less about his identification as an Indian in the eyes of the Osages and more about their respect for his education, familiarity with the complexities of white society, and devotion to the tribe's interests." Wilson correctly concludes that this "reluctant dependence on Mathews and other mixed-bloods is typical of the ambivalence in most tribes and many Indian organizations."
Undoubtedly, Mathews realized that exploring his own ethnicity in this autobiography would have resulted in severe criticism from the Osages and would have undercut his efforts on their behalf. Instead, he chose to focus on recording what he learned from the Osages and on creating memorable portraits of tribal members. Mathews was all too aware that, since the beginning of the reservation period in 1878, the Osages had endured traumatic changes in their culture. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and the Osage Nation reservation became Osage County. Unlike other Indian tribes in Oklahoma, the Osage had retained the mineral rights to their lands after allotment. The discovery of oil on Osage lands in 1897 led to boom times in the 1920s that threatened to extinguish traditional Osage culture and values. Oil companies, entrepreneurs, and scalawags poured into Osage County to take advantage of the Osages' oil and their new-found wealth. During what Mathews calls in The Osages the "Great Frenzy," some Osages spent their money freely. Other Osages were defrauded or murdered for their lands and oil money. Still others succumbed to alcoholism. By 1932, when Mathews settled in his cabin in the blackjacks, the boom of the 1920s was over. As Mathews notes in The Osages, the oil royalties peaked in 1925 at $13,000 per capita but slipped in 1932 to $712.
The traditional Osage were, in Mathews's view, the human inhabitants of the blackjack region most in tune with the land. The key to this oneness with nature was their religion:
He [the traditional Osage man] built up in his imagination the Great Mysteries and he walked, fought, hunted and mated with the approval of them. When the Force urged him to expression, he turned his eyes to Grandfather the Sun; the colors he saw under his closed eyelids, he put into beadwork, quillwork, and painting, as inspirations from one of the greatest manifestations of the Great Mysteries, the sun, Father of Father Fire, impregnator of Mother Earth.
The Osage tribe symbolized the universe, and the Osages divided themselves and their universe into two parts: man and animal, spiritual and material, sky (Chesho; Sky People; Peace Division) and earth (Hunkah; Earth People; War Division). The Osage conceived of the moon as a woman because she periodically appeared twelve times a year; because of the moon's power over the earth; and because when she dominated the ridges, there was no disturbance by the male element: "Grandfather the Sun has gone to rest and even Father the fire is dim in her presence, as though out of a traditional understanding and deference, like a great warrior in camp where woman is supreme." As a good woman should, she leaves at dawn, taking her children, the stars, so as not to disturb Grandfather the Sun when he takes over the male world of daytime. Mathews incorporates the Osage concept of the moon as a woman into many chapters of Talking to the Moon. The opening passage of the chapter called "Single Moon by Himself" (January) illustrates how Mathews uses Osage concepts of the Moon Woman to set the mood: "The Moon Woman floats by herself now. There are no babies or fruits or flowers, say the Osage, and the Moon Woman is lonesome. She is not so gay and temperamental but dull and moody. Snow may stay on the ground for a long time, and there will be no sun, and the days as much alike, cold and gloomy. The moon is sometimes called Frost-on-Inside-of-Lodge Moon and long ago was known as the Hunger Moon."
For Mathews, traditional Osage life achieved a balance in nature which the white man never gained and which the Osage themselves lost when they were forced to abandon the old, free life and substitute the peyote cult or Christianity for the gods of their ancestors. Mathews describes the balance the Osage achieved in the chapter on the Planting Moon (April), the time for female ceremonies of planting and growth. Using Osage-style English, Mathews retells old Ee-Nah-Apee's story about Osage planting customs, which exemplify the tribe's belief in balance:
Purty soon womens go to them little—hills, I guess, and they make hole with that pole on south side of that there hill. They used to say Grandfather sure would see them holes in them hills on south side, that-a-way. We put corn in them hills, in them little holes; and when we have all of 'em with corn in it, we put our feets on it. We stand on them little hills and make drum against the earth with the poles and sing purty song.
The women stamp the hills with the left foot for Chesho and the right for Hunkah. That the Osage have moved from these customs into the world of the white man is demonstrated by Ee-Nah-Apee laughing when she told the story, as "though she were embarrassed by recalling such primitive things that the tribe was now attempting to put away forever." The Osage recognized that the nature of the world and humankind included both of these polarities, which must be kept in balance. They also recognized that at various times one would dominate the other. Certainly this division of the Osage into Chesho (associated with peace and thought or imagination) and Hunkah (associated with war and physical action) influences Mathews's attitudes toward his own state of mind, which moves between these polarities. When the author first moved to the blackjacks, he exulted in the physical: "I wanted to express my harmony with the natural flow of life on my bit of earth through physical action." The planting song of the Osages runs through his head, stimulating him to the physical action of planting trees and shrubs. Another example of action during a Hunkah state of mind is his narrative, in the chapter called "Deer Breeding Moon" (October), of joining in a hunt to track down a bear which had killed some of a neighbor's sheep: "Bear hunting, with its frenzied action and the deep voices of the bloodhounds echoing from the savage walls of the mountain canyons, awakens every nerve to incautious action." He notes that, ten years later, his desire for action had been tempered. In the chapter "Single Moon by Himself" (January), Mathews describes his thoughts as "Chesho, as they should be, and there are no longer Hunkah thoughts of youth and action, when Single Moon by Himself comes to the blackjacks, and I am inside the dark little sandstone house by the fire."
Among the several Osage myths that Mathews blends into Talking to the Moon is that of the spider, the Osage symbol that Mathews uses on the spines of the books he has authored. Mathews indicates that the spider was formerly a clan symbol but is now used by a woman's secret society. According to the story, members of a clan could not make up their minds about which animal to choose as a symbol suitable to great warriors. During their search, they rejected many animals until one of their leaders walked into a spiderweb. The spider persuaded them to accept it as their symbol: "I am a little black thing; I have not the strength, the courage, the beauty of those you talk about, but remember this: wherever I go I build my house, and where I build my house all things come to it." Mathews also comments on the Osage use of the coyote in their stories that "depend on dignity made ridiculous as a basis for humor." The coyote also appears as a warning for children that they should never think of themselves as being shrewder than others, since "one may be outwitted through one's own vanity." For the Osage, the coyote was an indicator of something astir on the prairie, either enemy, friend, or quarry. They mimicked his yelping to deceive enemies: "He was an important person in the scheme of things, but he hadn't the proper virtues for symbolism."
Mathews's most extended treatment of Osage history and culture is contained in the chapter "Buffalo-Pawing-Earth Moon" (June), focusing on the month when the Ee-lonshescha, male ceremonial dances, are held at the villages of the three active branches of the original five physical divisions of the Osage. He vividly evokes the color and customs of these dances, describing the different costumes and steps used by dancers from various clans, the honoring songs, giveaways, and the storytelling. Mathews's activities and observations during the ceremonies reveal his relationship to the tribe. While he does not participate in the ceremonies, he observes proper etiquette by giving money to the drum keeper to help support the ceremonies and then joins the old men, who evidently welcome him: "Here I pick up many stories of the jealousy between the Peyote factions, and laugh with them over the stories of dignified men being humiliated. I like the sound of their voices and the graceful movements of their hands as they talk, in this setting of colorful activity." To illustrate Osage storytelling, Mathews recreates a scene in which an elder describes, in Osage dialect and within the hearing of the subject's grandson, how an arrogant Osage male was humiliated in the midst of his bragging. While the proud Osage was in the middle of a speech designed to impress some Sioux visitors, a louse crawled up his eagle feather headdress: "At the same time he finish his talkin' that feather make bow, ain't it? That little eagle feather make bow with louse ridin' on it—sure was funny." The story exemplifies Indians' use of humorous stories to enforce approved behavior.
Mathews confesses that he has never grown tired of watching the dancers, whom he has watched since he was a small boy—"a time when they wore nothing except breechcloths, moccasins, silver arm bands, and scalplocks and carried hand mirrors and war axes." Then the dancers were tall and lean. But now, despite the fat bellies and flab-by arms and gorgeous costumes, "the dance is grave and the figures graceful, and in its dignity and fervency the dance is still a prayer" to Wah'Kon-Tah of the old religion, "not withstanding the symbols of peyote with which they adorn themselves." He comments that the June dances, which originally had ritual but at the time he describes had only social significance, and the gossip at the dances about conflict between peyote factions reinforce his sense of the drama in the world represented by the relentless movement of Christianity: "I feel the earth's drama all about me, but the conflict between Christianity and the old religion of the Osages forces itself upon my attention…." Mathews feels extremely fortunate to witness the last struggle of a native religion and believes that his daily life in the blackjacks was as influenced by this as by any other struggle for survival: "The passing of a concept of God seems to be almost as poignant as the passing of a species."
Mathews illustrates this passing of the old religion, along with his own determination to preserve its artifacts, by recreating a scene between himself and the second son of Spotted Horse. The young man brings his father's message that, although it is all right to have a sacred medicine bundle in the Osage museum that Mathews is to establish, he should not open it: "He says you alltime ask too many questions about them bundles, he says. You oughtn't do that; it's bad. He says you' sure die if you fool with them things. Osage have put them bad things away, he says."
The confusion into which Christianity and industrialization have thrown the Osage is only part of that tribe's tragedy. Although old men lamented the destruction of the social structure, they lamented even more the consequent end of the tribe as a unit and the loss of their individual immortality. Their consciousness points out to them "the end of their race, the end of their god, the complete assimilation of their children, and the end of their immortality. It is the sheet-water of oblivion that washes their moccasin prints from the ridges and agitates their last thoughts."
Because the old Osage chief, Eagle-That-Gets-What-He-Wants, feared that tribal traditions would disappear from memory, unremembered by young Osage eager to adopt white ways, he arranged for his wife to interpret his accounts of Osage oral traditions, which Mathews wrote down. The chief's story about Tze Topah, his uncle and the chief of the Little Osages, illustrates how the Osage used oral tradition to keep their history and culture alive in the memories of their people. When old Tze Topah realized he would die soon, he spent many hours telling people what he knew and did when young. Unable to tell his stories to a band out hunting, Tze Topah dressed in his war finery and rode through the band's camp, singing so that all people would stop their work to hear his song and so that they would know him and remember him as long as they had tongues to talk and their children ears to hear.
For Mathews, the peyotism of the Native American Church represents a blend of Osage religion and Christianity. Many of the Osage elders felt that the religion of their god, Wah'Kon-Tah, was not strong enough to stand up against Christianity and therefore should be put aside. Mathews emphasizes that the Osage "adopted the Man on the Cross because they understand him. He is both Chesho and Hunkah. His footprints are on the peyote altars, and they are deep like the footprints of one who has jumped." Mathews enlivens his discussion of Osage culture with a series of verbal portraits of Osage elders. Many of these are contained in the chapter "Yellow-Flower Moon" (August), in which he describes how he helped an artist commissioned to paint the pictures of the old men for the Osage Museum. The proud Osage elder, Claremore, insists on posing for days in full regalia despite the withering July heat. The teasing Abbott, a member of the Osage tribal council, comments that the portrait of Claremore looks like a "white man that lost his money. Maybe someday when I look at it, I shoot myself." When Abbott poses for his own portrait, Mathews brings the desired twinkle to the council member's eye by recalling the story of how Abbott, who was always in debt, told a butterfly that landed on his shoulder, "'Pay you next week.'" The incident also illustrates Mathews's rapport with the Osage elders. Other examples of Indian humor are provided by Nonceh Tonkah, the only elder to wear a scalplock. The old man instructs his daughter in Osage to tell the artist to bring his daughter to Nonceh Tonkah in exchange for his posing. The elder also asked the artist if he wants Nonceh Tonkah's head when he dies. His patronizing daughter refuses to translate these unseemly remarks. Mathews creates another memorable portrait in his characterization of Louie, a Cherokee who talks to owls, explaining that he does not have to hide from the owls because "'them owls don't care 'bout nothin' when they do this here big talkin'.'" Louie hoots at the owls in a coaxing, seductive tone which they answer in kind. For Mathews, Louie embodies the unity between the Indian and nature.
Like Thoreau and Muir, Mathews sees himself as a mediator between man and nature. However, whereas Thoreau eschews identification with the purely natural man represented by Indians and non-Indian woodcutters, and Muir feels a bond with his shepherd but not with the Sierra Indians, Mathews praises both Indians and other men of nature for achieving a natural balance through instinct that he can achieve only through intellect. Each of the three writers attempts to achieve a balance between the polarities of the intellectual or imaginative and the physical or instinctual. Thoreau's concept of nature and of the balance between the polarities is rooted in the Romantic attitudes toward nature expressed by writers like Goethe and Wordsworth. As James MacIntosh points out [in Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance Toward Nature, 1974], Thoreau shares with these writers a "powerful wish to love nature and even to merge with it, with a consciousness, sometimes explicit, sometimes concealed, of separation." MacIntosh notes that Thoreau shares the Romantics' secret fear of the destructiveness of nature—the natural cycle of growth, decay, death, and rebirth—and that he is wary both of the existence of nature within himself and of his realization that nature can sometimes exist as power or chaos rather than as life or growth. For Goe-the, Wordsworth, and Thoreau, repeated experience is a "necessary way to enlightenment and truth." They are attracted by the "world of generation that brings pleasure and peace to the men of restless mind because it is both ordered and alive."
Muir shares with the Romantics an ability to express ecstasy in the presence of the natural sublime. Like Thoreau, he was influenced by both Wordsworth and Emerson. Harold P. Simonson suggests in "The Tempered Romanticism of John Muir" [Western American Literature 13, No. 3 (1978)] that the author tried in his work to reconcile the conflicting ideas that pertained, on the one hand, "to nature that conforms to the mind's eye and projects the drama of one's developing self; and, on the other hand, to nature as divine emanation, as revelation, as topological figure presupposing a distinctly separate and sovereign God." Simonson comments that Muir attempted to verify nature's higher laws, as did Thoreau, and found his epiphany in nature. Although Muir has less fear of the destructiveness of nature than Thoreau, he is nevertheless aware of its darker side. Simonson concludes that, despite Muir's affirmations about the flow and unity of nature's laws, Muir retained a dualized Christian cosmology, in which the soul is a divine spark known in a rapt state of wildness, and body was the bondage of society and morality, symbolized by life in the lowlands.
Mathews's sense of balance is rooted not only in the literary traditions represented by Thoreau and Muir but in the oral traditions of the Osage. Like Thoreau and Muir, he too deals with issues of duality—between the primal and the ornamental (a term he takes from Thoreau) or intellectually creative. Strongly influencing his thought, however, are the Osage principles of Chesho (sky, passivity, peace) and Hunkah (earth, action, war), which one must learn to balance. However, Mathews seems far less fearful of the dark side of nature than do Thoreau and Muir. In the chapter "The Single Moon By Himself" (January), Mathews comments on the constant battle to keep the balance:
The peace of my ridge is not a peace but a series of range-line skirmishes and constant struggle for survival. The balance is kept by bluff and a respect for that power which backs it up, and it utilizes and protects an area large enough and fruitful enough to sustain that power. The laws of the earth for survival are laid down, and man is not far enough away from the earth to supersede them with those of his own creation; he can only go back to the earth to ascertain where he has diverged from the natural processes.
Thoreau and Muir lament that America destroys its soul and the land in its quest for material and industrial wealth. While recognizing these dangers, Mathews is also deeply concerned about the possible extinction both of Osage culture as a result of white pressure and of the free world as a result of World War II. Writing in 1942, when the survival of freedom in the United States and Europe was very much in doubt, Mathews concludes that the human race cannot have lasting peace, even though organized warfare seems to be human-created and therefore may be human-controlled: "Forced peace, which is the only kind of peace man can conceive of now in his present stage of development, cannot last any longer than the powers that impose it."
All three authors want to merge with and yet remain separate from nature. The differences between the philosophical positions of Thoreau and Mathews are exemplified in their attitudes toward hunting. In the chapter on "Higher Laws" in Walden, Thoreau stresses that hunting and fishing are usually a young man's introduction to nature. If he has the seeds of a better life in him, a man "distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fishpole behind" as did Thoreau himself. Meat eating, Thoreau feels, is a throwback to savage cannibalism—a reminder of a primitiveness that man must overcome. Muir treats the subject indirectly, through his description of the hunting techniques of David Brown, a gold miner and renowned bear hunter. Mathews, on the other hand, regards hunting as a form of ornamental play, a reminder of man's struggle for survival. The instinct to hunt remains strong in Mathews despite his progression to a sense of community with humanity and its renewal in nature. In the chapter "Deer-Breeding Moon" (October), Mathews describes the revitalizing power of a bear hunt:
Somewhere ahead of that excited chorusing was a great black beast whose ancestors far back in time once hunted man, and man has a racial memory of having been the delicate, thin-skinned hunted instead of the hunter, which adds zest to bear hunting; the racial memory of the scratching and sniffing at his cave barrier is still deep in man's soul.
Thoreau, Muir, and Mathews use the cycles of nature as a framework for describing their own cycles of maturation and renewal, recalled for the benefit of the reader. All three authors emphasize, as did Wordsworth before them, that humanity must progress from physical to spiritual perceptions of nature but that close observation of the physical is a necessary stage to reaching the spiritual. Early in Talking to the Moon, Mathews stresses that, although humankind has the same natural urges as other species, he goes farther by acknowledging the progression of life through his dream of God. Mathews's attempts to protect his fowls from predators made him part of the life struggle and of the balance of the ridge: "Thus, I achieved a greater harmony with my environment and found that there is no place for dreams in natural progression, and it seems to me that I realized for the first time that with responsibility come enemies."
As the time and the seasons come and go, Mathews, like the other inhabitants of the ridges and prairies, is changed. Although he no longer wants to battle the natural elements, he becomes restless because just living and filling up his days are not enough: "First, I had to have responsibility and disturb the balance of the blackjacks: then, after a few years, I extended my activities beyond the ridges." Unlike Thoreau, he did not move away from his retreat, but instead he entered the world of social service by becoming a member of the Osage tribal business committee and a member of the Oklahoma Board of Education.
In explaining why he left Walden Pond, Thoreau says that "perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route and make a beaten track for ourselves." Urging his readers to be a "Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you," Thoreau wants them to open new channels, "not of trade, but of thought." Thoreau yearns for truth rather than for love, money, or fame. For Muir, the exploration of the Sierra Nevada is the first excursion into a sublime land, which ends only because the coming fall and winter necessitate his bringing the sheep back down from the mountains, not because he was psychologically ready to leave unspoiled nature. He remained in the Sierra for ten years.
Like Thoreau, Mathews matures sufficiently to end his isolation. He had begun to reenter the world of social responsibility by becoming a member of the Osage tribal council and running, unsuccessfully, for the school board. His decision to conclude his retreat is dramatized in his vain attempt to enlist in active service during World War II, described in the last chapter, "The Light-of-the-Day-Returns or Coyote-Breeding Moon" (February). Turned down, Mathews was forced to recognize that he had indeed moved from the active Hunkah world to the inactive Chesho world. His "Chesho thoughts have the same roots as his Hunkah thoughts and the same roots as the Hunkah actions in all species, even though inspired by the Force as an urge to immortality." Not satisfied to feel and enjoy the flood of emotion that living inspires and expresses in action, he now wants to express the subtleties of world symbols.
In his conclusion, Mathews seems to take up the challenge offered by Thoreau to seek out new worlds of thought, which he will express in words, so that people will not only know that a great ego passed that way but that Mathews "heard the wood thrush at twilight—the voice disembodied in the dripping woods—that I have heard the coyote talk to the moon and watched the geese against a cold autumn sunset." By writing Talking to the Moon, Mathews recaptures the experience of renewal in nature earlier described by Thoreau in Walden and Muir in My First Summer in the Sierra. He also immortalizes in poetic prose the traditions of his beloved Osage, who achieved a harmony with nature that the three authors sought and that humankind must seek if we are to survive.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5200
SOURCE: "Maps of the Mind: John Joseph Mathews and D'Arcy McNickle," in his Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 49-89.
[Owens is an American educator, critic, and novelist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Sundown, concluding that the novel "depicts starkly the consequences of oil and acculturation for the Osage while simultaneously refusing to accept the familiar pattern of simple doom for the Indian."]
With the publication of Sundown in 1934, the mixedblood Osage writer John Joseph Mathews introduced the modern American Indian novel, laying out a pattern for novels by Indian writers that would be confirmed two years later when D'Arcy McNickle published The Surrounded (1936) and again and again during succeeding decades. Like The Surrounded, Sundown is the story of a mixed-blood living both in and out of his tribal culture, and it is a nearly fatalistic tale that at a superficial glance seems to mesh neatly with the popular naturalism of the twenties and thirties. While Hemingway had chosen to emphasize at least an earthly continuum in his title for The Sun Also Rises, another novel of deracination and despair, at first glance Mathews would seem to focus starkly upon the other end of daylight, showing us the tragic results of the oil boom in Osage County—what had until only recently been the Osage Reservation.
Mathews himself served as an unlikely model for his protagonist, Challenge Windzer. Like Chal, Mathews was born on the Osage Agency of mixedblood parents, and like Chal, the author studied at the University of Oklahoma and went on to become a pilot during World War I. Like Chal, Mathews came of age amidst the oil boom that brought wealth and disaster to many Osage people, but unlike his character, Mathews graduated from the University of Oklahoma, served in France during the war, and later received degrees from both Oxford and the University of Geneva. Mathews, described by his publisher, Savoie Lottinville, as possessing "many of the qualities of the English gentleman blended with those of the gentleman Osage," may be in fact the most acculturated of all Indian novelists. After completing his degree in international relations at Geneva, where the League of Nations was in session, he toured France by motor bike and bummed around Europe. It was while on a big-game hunting trip in North Africa that, after encountering a wild group of Arab horsemen, he decided to return to his home and learn about his Osage relations.
With impressive tenacity and foresight, the Osage opposed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 (the General Allotment Act), which had such disastrous consequences for other tribes. According to Terry Wilson, "By steadfastly resisting a hasty application of the Dawes Act to its reservation, the tribe was able to protect the valuable mineral resources beneath the surface from individualization and to avert the loss of any of its territory through the expropriation of 'surplus' land by white settlers as had happened to Oklahoma tribes whose land was allotted earlier" so that when the Osage at last submitted to pressures for allotment in 1906 the tribe was able to keep its reservation holdings intact. Eventually, Osage County in Oklahoma retained the outline of the Osage Reservation boundaries. As an allotted member of the tribe, Mathews received 560 acres and a headright, and he came to take a deep interest in his heritage, writing about his people in Wah'Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man's Road (1932), in his autobiographical Talking to the Moon (1945), a kind of Osage Walden, and in The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961). From 1934 through 1942 Mathews also served on the Osage Tribal Council.
Sundown seems to offer a quintessential postcolonial scenario, as described by [Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin], the authors of The Empire Writes Back: "A valid and active sense of self may have been eroded by dislocation, resulting from migration, the experience of enslavement…. Or it may have been destroyed by cultural denigration, the conscious and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by a supposedly superior racial or cultural model." Like others in such a postcolonial drama, including nearly all Native Americans, Mathews's characters are beset by "a pervasive concern with … identity and authenticity." Prior to the opening of Sundown, the Osage, like Ridge's Cherokees and many other tribes, had been forcibly relocated by the federal government. Their culture had been exposed to the denigrating pressures of missionaries, including schools, and disruptive Euramerican values. And with the discovery of rich oil fields on tribal lands, this process had been accelerated enormously. The Osage in Mathews's novel are finally overwhelmed by outsiders who (with their extreme sense of racial and cultural superiority) consciously and unconsciously destroy traditional values and attempt to displace the Indians yet further—through miscegenation, marriage, and simple murder in order to gain control of headrights and, thus, oil money.
Sundown begins with Chal Windzer's birth at a critical point of transition for the Osage Nation between old and new worlds. "The god of the great Osages was still dominant over the wild prairie and the blackjack hills when Challenge was born," writes Mathews in the novel's opening line. "He showed his anger in fantastic play of lightning and thunder that crashed and rolled among the hills; in the wind that came from the great tumbling clouds which appeared in the northwest and brought twilight and ominous milkwarm silence." The ecosystemic world of the Osage is intact in this scene and can be comprehended mythically. From these first sentences to the final lines of the novel, associations with the natural world—the sacred geography of the Osage people—will serve as an index to Chal Windzer's character and well-being. During those moments when, for a brief time, he is immersed in nature, he will feel nearly whole and close to something instinctual and sustaining; when he is removed from intimate contact with the natural world, he will become ever more displaced and confused.
"On this birthnight," Mathews continues as the novel begins, "the red, dim light which shone from the narrow window of the room where his mother labored, seemed faint and half-hearted in the moonlight; faint as though it were a symbol of the new order, yet diffident in the vivid, full-blooded paganism of the old; afraid, yet steady and persistent, and the only light in the Agency on this tranquil, silver night of silence." Associated with the sun, for the Osage the most powerful manifestation of the creator, the color red figures as a crucial link to the traditional Osage world in which the sun was honored in virtually every aspect of life. In this birth scene, the color seems to emanate from Chal's fullblood mother—the "only light in the Agency"—whose Indianness remains steadfast throughout the novel as a touchstone to unchanging and essential values. However, in its half-heartedness in conjunction with the sacred moonlight—also symbolic of the older, immutable Indian world—the red light underscores the tenuousness of even the mother's hold on traditional identity. Cast into this uncertain light at birth, Chal Windzer is born into the easily recognizable postcolonial and modernist position of deracination, alienation, and confusion.
Mathews's opening scene introduces the dialectic that will inform the novel's plot: the struggle between old and new—Indian and Euramerican—"orders." In keeping with this dialectic, the color red becomes sacred to Chal almost from birth, when he reaches out for the red dress of the Euramerican "har'd" girl. Red, Chal learns later, is the color of the Sun "who was Grandfather, and of Fire, who was Father, and of the Dawn, sacred to Wah'Kon-Tah."
John Windzer, Chal's father, declares at his son's birth, "He shall be a challenge to the disinheritors of his people. We'll call him Challenge." Ironically, however, Chal never overtly challenges the new order, attempting instead to mold himself according to the new, non-Indian values, which he accepts but never comprehends. This attitude he inherits from his mixedblood father, who sits at home reading "Childe Harold"—a canonized artifact of the privileged culture and a romantic narrative that reinforces the Euramerican's "epic" and thus entropic view of the vanishing, historic past. This "triste tropiques" myth of cultural ruin and decay dovetails neatly, and ironically, with the Euramericans' desire to brush the Osage aside while appropriating Osage oil and land. Chal's father, one of the rapidly growing population of politically influential mixedbloods amongst the Osage, is proud to be a descendant of British nobility in the form of Sir John Windzer, an artist who lived among the Osage, and he boasts that "if it hadn't been for the progressives on the council, they never would have been any allotment, if it was left up to the fullblood party." With this declaration, Mathews is illuminating the bitter division between fullbloods and mixedbloods within the tribe, with the former generally struggling to retain traditional ways of life while the latter pushed increasingly for adoption of "civilized" values.
Serving as a pawn in the whites' maneuvers to control and rob the Osages, John Windzer facilitates the disfranchisement of the son he named Challenge. In the end, it is Mathews's depiction of Chal Windzer's descent toward ruin which challenges "the disinheritors of his people," a descent culminating when Chal swears to himself, "I wish I didn't have a drop of God damn' Indian blood in my veins."
In a recurring pattern throughout the novel, Chal identifies with animals and the natural world. As a child he imagines himself consistently as animal: "a panther lying lazily in his den" or "a redtail hawk circling high in the blue of the sky" or "an indefinite animal in a snug den" or a coyote stalking the prairie. On an almost unconscious level, he remains aware of the older Indian world outside of his parents' comfortable house and the increasingly civilized town:
And then sometimes, when he waked early in the morning, he could hear some mourner on the hill which bordered the creek, chanting the song of death, and always some inscrutable sorrow welled and flooded him; something that was not understandable and was mysterious, and seemed especially fitting for the dense dark hours just before dawn; the hours most fitted for that questing, that feeble attempt to understand.
Chal's own unstated quest in this passage is for the impossible: an understanding of a world that has been made remote from him at birth. The song of death and the "inscrutable sorrow" are for the Osage world disappearing at astonishing speed in the course of Chal's life as oil money pours into what had been the reservation. This is the romantic posture toward American Indian existence adopted and celebrated by the non-Indian world. Writers from Freneau and Cooper to Faulkner and LaFarge would stop here, with a crocodile tear for the dying noble savage. Writing from within the supposedly "dying" culture rather than from the outside, however, Mathews goes beyond such a stock response, making of Chal's story a more complex narrative of cultural survival. The "dark hours just before dawn" are Mathews's subject; a "feeble questioning" of the dilemmas of Indian existence and identity in the twentieth century is his method; and an awakening to a renewed sense of self—authenticity—for Native Americans would appear to be his goal.
Central to Chal's childhood is the nearby creek, where he swims and about which his life seems to revolve. And it is the creek which serves as an index to how far the destruction has progressed in the name of progress. Even as the oil boom is just beginning, Chal notices a change: "It had been several years since he had heard the wild turkeys flying up to roost along the creek, and he could scarcely remember what the howl of the wolf was like." As the "civilized" values of the town grow too intense for Chal, he invariably returns to the creek, still searching for that "something that was not understandable and was mysterious." One night he rolls up in his blankets to sleep beside the creek only to be awakened by the abrupt howling of coyotes: "There was the moon, large and white, hanging in a gleaming sycamore. The coyotes stopped as suddenly as they had begun. A great unhappiness filled him, and for the briefest moment he envied the coyotes, but he didn't know why." He rises and studies the moon and then
he crossed the creek and climbed a little hill in the full flood of the ghostly light. He stood there, then spread his arms toward the moon. He tried to think of all the beautiful words he had ever heard, both in Osage and English, and as he remembered them he spoke them aloud to the moon, but they would not suffice it seemed; they were not sufficient to relieve that choking feeling.
Chal envies the coyotes because they know, instinctively, how to celebrate the sacral significance of the moon—nature—something he cannot do. In his desire to utter a polyphony of "beautiful words," Chal is attempting to create a prayer that would comprehend the potentially rich heteroglossia of his world, to fuse the "internally persuasive" language of his Osage heritage with the "authoritative" discourse of English in a syncretic utterance, and by speaking this hybridized utterance to the sacred Osage moon, to put the parts of himself together in an identity that can comprehend both worlds. Could Chal conflate the "beautiful" in both discourses, he might solve the painful dilemma of his inauthenticity and achieve a "temporal unification of the past and future with the present" that leads to a coherent sense of self. He is, with his desire to "think of all the beautiful words he had ever heard" and to speak them, attempting to emulate the coyotes. But Chal's dissociated sensibility cannot speak in one voice; he is choked into silence by his inability to articulate—to put the pieces of the self together into a coherent utterance. "But this mysterious unhappiness came to him only at times," Mathews writes, "and never except when he was alone on the prairie." At other times, Chal achieves a kind of transcendent awareness of his place in the natural order of the traditional, sacred Osage world:
The sun was setting and the west looked like leaping flames that had been suddenly solidified…. Then, very suddenly, that mysterious feeling came over him. A mild fire seemed to be coursing through his veins and he felt that he wanted to sing and dance; sing and dance with deep reverence. He felt that some kind of glory had descended upon him, accompanied by a sort of sweetness and a thrilling appreciation of himself.
As the oil boom draws more of the "civilized" world to the Osage country, Chal grows more distant from the natural world. When he leaves for the state university with his friends, Sun-on-His-Wings and Running Elk, his disinheritance from his Osage identity becomes almost complete. From the beginning, he is annoyed with his childhood friends "for acting like Indians." When he flees the university to walk along the river, he daydreams about his future: "He couldn't dream fast enough to visualize all the honors that came to him. He even visualized a great feast and dance held in his honor by the Osages when he arrived back home for Christmas. They had made a song and invented a dance especially for him, and they gave him a name, but he couldn't decide what the name should be." In Indian cultures a name is earned—as Chal's father has told him earlier in the novel—and most crucially a name comes from the community to both confer an identity and confirm one's place within that community. Indian identity is communal, and Chal has lost his place within his Osage community; thus he cannot conceive of an Osage name. At this point the daydream evaporates, and in place of a rich heteroglossia Chal is left with only the authoritative discourse represented by the American dream of being "self-made": "As pleasant as the dream was, he decided to leave the Osage part of it out. He didn't want to call attention to the fact that most of his blood was of an uncivilized race like the Osages. He believed that they didn't have any backbone, and he certainly wanted to make something of himself." Chal's reflection mimics the observation of one J. E. Jenkins, an inspector for the Indian Office, who reported approvingly in 1906 that the Osage mixedbloods—who by the turn of the century out-numbered fullbloods—"act like white people, well educated and intelligent." A year earlier, however, Frank Frantz, the Osage agent from 1904 to 1905, had reported that if the fullbloods were an improvident lot, the mixed-bloods was "a worse proposition" and did not "deserve any efforts in his behalf."
As Chal prepares to go to a college dance, he remembers his reflection: "At the last impression of his face in the mirror that evening, he had seen a bronze face in the black-and-white; the white making the bronze stand out, and he had wondered if he wasn't too dark." By the (white) values of the privileged culture, Chal finds himself unacceptable. However, Mathews does not allow Chal to completely repress his Osage way of viewing the world. As Chal dances with Blo, his beautiful (white) date, Mathews writes: "But this was a new experience, merging with someone in such fervency; someone like the Moon Woman, who, like many things beautiful, lived briefly. Like the Moon Woman of his childhood who reigned over the forgetfulness of the night; over the tranquil world of dreams; the world of Wah'Kon." Mathews adds later: "He wondered why he had a feeling that was something like a religious emotion when he thought of Blo. Of course it never occurred to him that it might be the tribal heritage of religion associated with beauty and dreams." For a moment, Chal's Osage self has achieved the upper hand in this political struggle, reversing the pattern that denigrates an Indian world-view, removing his date from the referential context that had made him feel "too dark" and displacing her into an Indian system of reference. She is made beautiful and given significance within the mythic paradigms of his tribal heritage.
Chal leaves the university to enlist in the Army Air Corps, and upon graduation from ground school, "he thought of himself as being separated by a great abyss from Sun-on-His-Wings and Running Elk, and from the villages and the people moving among the lodges." So separated is he that he tells a female admirer that he's Spanish rather than have her guess his real identity. Nonetheless, Chal is still profoundly Indian, and his ambivalence is underscored when he looks down from his airplane: "He had a feeling of superiority, and he kept thinking of the millions of people below him as white men." In the air, radically displaced, alone and controlling the most sophisticated example of American machinery, Chal fuses his resentment of the white man with a sense of having beaten the whites at their own game of individualism and machinery. Still, when he begins to gain self-assurance brought on by the admiration of women, "he felt that he had begun to be gilded by that desirable thing which he called civilization. He was becoming a man among civilized men."
When his father is murdered, Chal returns home and becomes another of the directionless Osages drinking and driving fast cars. In this aspect of Chal's malaise, Mathews reflects an accurate picture of the cultural disintigration besetting the Osage. In fact, while the bootleg liquor Chal drinks was a major problem among the Osage as among other portions of the American population, even drugs had become a scourge of the newly wealthy Indians, with morphine, cocaine and marijuana provided by an influx of "pushers." A seizure of fifty thousand dollars' worth of drugs in a single cache in Osage County in 1929 was reportedly the largest single drug seizure in Oklahoma prior to World War II. On a drinking spree, Chal goes in search of the old special place by the creek only to find that "several black wells stood about on the prairie above the trees and from each a path of sterile brown earth led down to the creek, where oil and salt water had killed every blade of grass and exposed the glaring limestone. Some of the elms had been cut down, and the surface of the water had an iridescent scum on it." Again, nature mirrors the condition of the Osage. Later, after an all-night drunk, Chal returns to the creek to try fishing, but "the water was lifeless."
While Chal was away, his friend Running Elk has also been murdered by whites trying to gain control of allotments. Before his murder, however, while drying out in a detoxification ward, Running Elk provides a vivid nightmare image of what has befallen his people. When Chal visits him, Running Elk describes a terrifying dream in which a "fat white man, completely naked and glistening, would stand at the door of his room with a spear in his hand." This nightmare vision illuminates the displacement of the Indian by the avaricious (fat) white man who has, as the spear and blocked doorway suggest, both looted Indian culture and trapped the Indian. The particularly deadly displacement of Indian males—which will be a concern of the next generation of Native American novelists—is suggested in the sexually aggressive posture of the naked white man with the phallic, appropriated spear. There would appear to be no place left for the Indian male except escape through alcohol and unconsciousness.
As foils for Chal, Running Elk and Sun-on-His-Wings stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of possibilities for the Osage. While Running Elk has sought oblivion through alcohol, Sun-on-His-Wings has turned toward Osage tradition and the new peyote church. Visiting his childhood friend, Chal takes part in a Sweat Lodge ceremony and is moved by the experience. After the ceremony, "they went back into the lodge, picked up their blankets, and dispersed. Chal drew his blanket closely around him." To Chal, as for others, the blanket has always been a sign of traditional, "primitive" Indians, and as such something to be scorned. Here, following the sweat and the prayers of the ceremony, Chal becomes, briefly, one of those scorned "blanket Indians." With this brief touch, Mathews hints at a potential return to traditional, immutable values through the new, syncretic peyote ceremonies.
The promise seems short-lived, however. During the Sweat Lodge ceremony, Watching Eagle, the Road Man, has told a man named White Deer: "Your son and those People who have been killed by these white men, followed that road which they thought was white man's road. Your son married white woman. You have children of your son, but they are not your children. They can never have a name among their people. They have no people." On a literal level, Watching Eagle is referring to the fact that according to tribal laws the offspring of Osage men and white women could not receive allotments or headrights, though children of Osage women married to white men could. Even though his mother is Osage, Chal, too, has no name among his people. As a mixedblood, he seems, in fact, to very nearly have no people. When he takes a group of drunken whites to see an Osage dance, Chal feels a strong urge "to go down on the floor and dance." He does not dance, however, because as Mathews writes, "he had never danced with his people." Chal's alienation is further emphasized when shortly after the Sweat Lodge ceremony he thinks that "he wanted to be identified with that vague something which everybody else seemed to have, and which he believed to be civilization."
Near the end of the novel, after drinking all night, Chal dances alone as he had in childhood:
He stopped the car suddenly and climbed out and started talking to himself; talking nonsense. He kept repeating to himself, "Extravaganza," without reason, as the word was not associated with his frothy thoughts…. He arose with difficulty, with an intense urge for action. Suddenly he began to dance. He bent low over the grass and danced, and as he danced he sang, and as he sang one of the tribal songs of his people, he was fascinated by his own voice, which seemed clear and sonorous on the still air. He danced wildly and his blood became hotter, and yet that terrific emotion which was dammed up in his body would not come out; that emotion which was dammed up and could not be exposed. As he danced he wondered why that emotion which had begun to choke him did not come out through his throat. He was an Indian now and he believed that the exit of all spirit and emotion was the throat, just as the soul came out through the throat after death.
Chal's solitary dance is an extravaganza, a frenzied celebration of nothingness rather than a ceremonial act expressive of one's place within the tribal community and natural world. In its frenzy, his dance contradicts the traditional poise and dignity of Osage dances, which never embraced the wilder "fancy dancing" of Plains tribes. Mathews's irony is heavy when he writes, "He was an Indian now," for in his extravagance (that is, extra, "outside," and vagant, vagari, "to wander about") Chal is far from his Osage people. He still cannot fathom that mystery he sensed as a child: "He wanted by some action or some expression, to express the whole meaning of life; to declare to the silent world about him that he was a glorious male; to express to the silent forms of the blackjacks that he was a brother to the wind, the lightning and the forces that came out of the earth." Drunk and without the teachings of his people, Chal has no language for such expression. He is inarticulate. His performance is, from the white per-spective he has learned to value, simply another "extra-vaganza."
Sundown does not end on a fatalistic note. In the final scene, Chal boasts foolishly to his mother (while correctly associating linguistic facility with political power), "I'm goin' to Harvard law school, and take law—I'm gonna be a great orator." He then falls asleep with his head on his arms. Around him, in the novel's final lines, nature comes alive: "The nestlings in the nest above settled down to digest their food. A flamewinged grasshopper rose in front of Chal's still form, and suspended there, made cracking sounds like electric sparks, then dropped to the grass and became silent. The flapping and splashing of the mother robin, as she bathed in the pan under the hydrant, was the only sound of activity." The natural imagery of this conclusion, enveloping the sleeping Chal, strikes a positive note. Thus far, Chal has failed as a challenge to the disinheritors of his people. He has been disenfranchised culturally and is adrift in a wasted land. However, the novel, within which natural imagery has served consistently as an index to whatever is positive in Chal's world, ends with the purifying image of the bathing robin. A few lines earlier, a sparrow has pushed from the nest and killed one of the robin's young, but the mother goes on; she has other young and proceeds to cleanse herself. It is a small story of loss followed by renewal and hope. The flamewinged grasshopper sounds a more portentous note, rising like a warning before the sleeping Chal. In the grasshopper may also be seen a sign of hope, however, for in this image Mathews merges the natural world of the Osage—the sacred red, or flame color—and the "civilized" world of electricity. As the novel ends, unlike Running Elk, Chal is alive and sleeping peacefully near his mother in whom Osage values still live. The natural world, represented by bird and insect, remains intact.
Sundown ends on a somewhat ambivalent note, leaving the future of its mixedblood protagonist and of the Osage people unresolved. Just as the strong identity and self-assurance of the more traditional Sun-on-His-Wings balances the despair of Running Elk's disintegration and death, the novel depicts starkly the consequences of oil and acculturation for the Osage while simultaneously refusing to accept the familiar pattern of simple doom for the Indian, the "vanishing American" pattern so familiar to American literature and thought. In Sundown, Mathews leaves open the possibility of "another destiny, another plot" for the American Indian, refusing any romantic closure that would deny the immense difficulties confronting the displaced Native American, but simultaneously rejecting the cliché of the Vanishing American as epic, tragic hero. In this repudiation of the simple, entropic plot assigned to the American Indian by Euramerican myth-making, Mathews anticipates the major direction of Indian fiction into the 1990s. Perhaps the author saw other possibilities for Chal in the model that he, John Joseph Mathews, had to offer as a sophisticated, worldly, educated mixedblood and member of the Tribal Council. Perhaps Mathews is anticipating the possibility articulated by a member of a succeeding generation of Osages, Kenneth Jump, who wrote in 1979: "Could it be that Indian blood mixing with other bloods will create a new type of Indian? If this be true then the Osages will not be engulfed by present society but a new type of Osage Indian will emerge from this propagation." Chal may indeed represent the "new type of Indian" who figures so prominently in contemporary American Indian fiction.
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