The Heartsong of Charging Elk
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Tue Oct 3 08:54:16 MDT 2000
NY Times, October 1, 2000
The Heartsong of Charging Elk
By JAMES WELCH
James Welch's novel follows an Oglala Sioux to France with Buffalo Bill's
Wild West Show.
By BRIGITTE FRASE
The Montana writer James Welch has been chronicling his Native American
heritage since his first novel, ''Winter in the Blood'' (1974), a spare and
harshly beautiful account of a death-haunted reservation Indian. His
historical novel ''Fools Crow'' (1986), about the last days of the
Blackfeet, is a dirge for a culture that could neither defeat nor outrun
the expanding American empire.
In ''The Heartsong of Charging Elk'' Welch explores another dimension of
the late-19th-century Native American diaspora. In 1876 the Oglala Sioux,
along with other tribes, massacre Custer's Seventh Cavalry in a futile
effort to free themselves of the ''longknives'' and the miners and settlers
who come in their wake. In 1877 Crazy Horse and his demoralized people
surrender their remaining possessions and accept reservation life. Only a
few, like Charging Elk and his friend Strikes Plenty, refuse to give up the
old ways, until the buffalo become scarce and the only choices left seem to
be slow starvation or the degrading life of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
We learn all these facts indirectly, as Charging Elk visits his
increasingly ghostly memories of an eroding past. When Buffalo Bill came to
Pine Ridge in 1889 to recruit Indians for his Wild West Show, he picked
Charging Elk. The young man was a daring rider, and his height, dark skin
and slit eyes fit the European image of the American savage.
We first see Charging Elk in a hospital bed in Marseille. More accurately,
we wake with him in an unfamiliar room in ''a white man's healing house.''
He has been injured in a riding accident, and abandoned here; the show has
moved on to Italy. Welch, who began as a poet, has devised a strong plain
style for Charging Elk that suggests the rhythms and concepts of the Lakota
language. Readers share the constant shocks of strangeness that Charging
Elk absorbs as he tries to make sense of an alien civilization. One night,
he is standing in front of a ''holy house'' and watches men carrying the
statue of a woman dressed in blue, a golden circle attached to her head. He
wonders ''what kind of ceremony this was that the white people held during
this Moon of the Popping Trees. He knew it was holy; perhaps as holy as the
wiwanyag wachipi. But the Dance Looking at the Sun was held during the Moon
of Red Cherries, when it was warm and Sun looked down on his people for the
longest time of his yearly journey.'' For 16 years he becomes the virtual
prisoner of French bureaucrats who decide that he is either dead or an
illegal immigrant who lacks a passport, or both. He can neither rejoin the
Buffalo Bill group nor go home.
The bulk of the novel describes Charging Elk's apprenticeship to European
life. He is taken in by a fishmonger's family and learns the trade. Later
he gets a job in a soap factory. All the while he is learning the language
and customs of the land. He falls in love with a prostitute, with
disastrous consequences. A melodrama of sex and violence erupts, mainly, I
think, so that Welch can expose his protagonist to the double bind of a
legal system that does not recognize the principles by which the Lakota
live. The court views Charging Elk as an idiot savage, yet holds him
accountable to the standards of a French bourgeois.
Charging Elk, like his family and tribe, finally resigns himself to
belonging nowhere. Fate or accident has put him in Marseille, and there
he'll make a sort of home.
During the Enlightenment, the French were much taken with the literary
figure of the naf. In sunny didactic tales, the noble savage would be very
much at ease in Paris, full of perspicuous observations about European
culture and deep natural wisdom about the best ordering of a society. ''The
Heartsong of Charging Elk'' is the melancholy revision of such optimism
about the meeting of cultures. It is the coming-of-age story in the key of
James Welch estranges our vision. We have no choice but to feel, as we look
through Charging Elk's eyes, what it is like to live in a no man's land
Brigitte Frase is critic at large for The Ruminator Review (formerly The
Hungry Mind Review).
First chapter: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/welch-heartsong.html
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