The Sharpest Sight
A shaken young deputy sheriff stands beside his car on a dark and rain-swept bridge in central California, where he has just avoided hitting what he swears was a panther. Peering over the guardrail and into the dark, flood-swollen waters of the river, Mundo Morales watches as the dead body of his best friend, Attis McCurtain, floats past beneath him—its arm raised “as if in casual farewell.”
Attis McCurtain spun in the river, riding the black flood, aware of the branches that trailed over his face and touched his body, spinning in the current of the night toward something he could feel coming closer, rising up to meet him. He knew he was dead, and in death an ancient memory had awakened, a stirring in his stilled blood, moving with him and around him on the flood.… [A]long that shore stood thin old men and women with deep eyes and long, stringy hair. They grasped at him with hands gnarled and twisted as tree roots, the nails of the thumb, middle, and index fingers long and sharp as knife blades, slicing the damp air.
At the same time, hundreds of miles from the bridge in a rough, one-room cabin hidden deep in the swamps of western Mississippi, an old Choctaw Indian man, Luther Cole, is pulled from his sleep by the cry of the koi, the panther. As the old man sits in the dark, he speaks to the shadow that stands in the dim corner of the small room—in the Choctaw language, it is the shilup to which he speaks, the outside shadow, or ghost, or the murdered Attis McCurtain.
Thus Louis Owens, himself of mixed-blood Choctaw descent, begins The Sharpest Sight, an important novel filled with magic and truth. The first volume in the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series from the University of Oklahoma Press, the book is a celebration of the traditional storytelling art of Native America as reexpressed in modern terms.
It is an unfortunate reality that mainstream America is largely ignorant and unappreciative of its native cultures. America is especially unfamiliar with those cultures that—often by reason of their unwarlike natures—have been largely ignored by the purveyors of popular culture, that is, popular books and popular motion pictures. What is popular Choctaw history? It was a peaceful village not of Choctaw farmers but of Cheyenne and Arapaho families that was slaughtered at Sand Creek; it was not the Choctaw but rather the Sioux who engaged Custer at the Little Big Horn; Geronimo was Apache, and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were great Sioux warriors. Moshulatubbee—is the name unfamiliar?—was a great Choctaw leader; and it was the Choctaw who were the first to be forced by the U.S. government to leave their ancestral homeland in Mississippi and walk to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma under Andrew Jackson’s policy of removal. Even so, it is the Cherokee that come to mind when one thinks of the Trail of Tears. All of this is to say that the Choctaw—the third largest tribe of Native American people—have not enjoyed much recognition. It is to Louis Owens’ credit that The Sharpest Sight provides the reader with an insider’s look at the search for traditional cultural values in a world gone slightly screwy. More important, perhaps, the book affords those who attend closely truths that are quite wonderful to encounter.
In September of 1830, the Choctaw Tribe of Indians sat down with representatives of President Andrew Jackson on the banks of Dancing Rabbit Creek and ceded to the United States all that remained of their rich and fertile ancestral homeland east of the Mississippi River, in exchange for a portion of the then-wilderness of what is now Oklahoma. Over the next few years, some fourteen thousand men, women, and children left their homes and any of their belongings that they could not carry and made what their tradition remembers as the Long, Sad Walk to Indian Territory. According to the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, those Choctaw who chose not to remove but rather to remain in Mississippi and “conform to the white man’s way” were required to register with the Indian agent within a period of six months. Once registered, those Choctaw...
(The entire section is 1715 words.)