MORE

The Hole Where the Past Should Be

"When I went back to Oklahoma, some of the elders would say, 'Don't write about this. Leave it alone. We lost. Don't bring it up again'": Diane Glancy, whose recent novel, 'Designs of the Night Sky,' remembers the Cherokee's Trail of Tears
Trish Lease

Picture the morning of December 17, 1804 at the Fort Mandan winter camp, in what is now North Dakota. The temperature had plummeted overnight to 45 degrees below zero, and the settlement's hundred-odd families crowded together beneath buffalo skins to conserve scant warmth. The shallow-keeled boats, which Capt. Meriwether Lewis had hoped to pull ashore for repairs, were solidly frozen into the ice of the Missouri River; it would be another three months before they could be chipped free. That winter was a particularly brutal one on the Dakota plains--Lewis had recently been forced to amputate the frostbitten toes of a local boy with a hacksaw. Add to the unrelenting cold: scarce and uncertain provisions; the looming threat of attack by hostile Sioux; lax discipline; and rampant syphilis (nearly every member of the Lewis and Clark expedition suffered from it). In his journal, Lewis marveled that the Mandan Indians, who were wintering with the explorers, seemed to abide such hardship so steadily. "Customs & the habits of those people has ancered to beare more Cold than I thought it possible for man to indure," he wrote.

That same morning, a young Indian woman was entering the final stages of a difficult pregnancy. Of the woman, called Sacajawea, the following facts are recorded: 16 or 17 years old at the time of Lewis and Clark's arrival, she was the second wife of a feckless French Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who had won her in a bet. As a child, she had been taken captive during a raid on her Shoshoni village. Because of this, Lewis and Clark hoped to use her as an interpreter in negotiations with the Shoshoni. Sacajawea died in 1812, at age 25, of "putrid fever" (possibly syphilis). In the Shoshoni language, her name meant "boat pusher."

Here, history begins to shade into folklore. Carrying a small infant, Sacajawea did ultimately accompany Lewis and Clark as they mucked through swamps and over mountains, repelled ravenous grizzly bears, and staved off starvation with a steady diet of dog. Though she is mentioned infrequently in the explorers' journals--Lewis and Clark could not even agree on the spelling of her name, most often referring to her as "the squaw"--Sacajawea has ridden their coattails into history as a sort of frontier Girl Friday. That Sacajawea herself has mostly remained a tabula rasa, mutely immortalized in granite and, most recently, the coinage of the conquering realm, seems only to deepen her mystery.

"That myth has become her," explains novelist and poet Diane Glancy. "During the 1920s, the suffragettes were looking for heroines, and they picked Sacajawea up and lifted her above what was historically accurate. She was really a minor character."

Glancy's interest is more than academic: In her forthcoming novel, Stone Heart (Overlook Press), she wrestles Sacajawea from the grasp of folklore. Here, the Shoshoni girl emerges as she might have been--very young, often frightened, always exhausted. Nevertheless, Sacajawea senses intimations of her destiny. "You know the explorers will change what you are," she muses early on in the story, "that you will be taken into them, that they can look past you without thinking. You know you are nothing they want. Yet you take them four buffalo robes."

Sacajawea, in Glancy's richly imagined retelling, stands as an intermediary between the fast-disappearing native world and a rising American empire. And perhaps that should come as no surprise: If history books are traditionally written by the victors, you might say that Glancy's entire oeuvre creates a secret history of the conquered.

 

One wintry Friday afternoon, Glancy is ensconced in her office at Macalester College--where she has taught literature for the past 14 years--warily regarding the thick manuscript waiting patiently on the corner of her desk. At 61, Glancy has dark hair flecked with silver. Slight and self-possessed, she speaks in a soft voice bearing the faint residual of a Southern childhood. "I think natives are very quiet people. I remember very little my family said growing up. I have trouble talking, too. It's that interior landscape that doesn't always come out in words."

"You know, Sacajawea had the same thing," she continues. "There are places in the journals where Lewis says, 'The squaw doesn't show any emotion. If she had a few beads and enough to eat, she'd be perfectly happy anywhere.' But she had things going on that she just couldn't say. So I tried to show what was really going on inside her head. Because she didn't have the freedom to speak.

"Of course, nobody really knows what she was thinking. But I thought Sacajawea's voice needed to be heard the way it could have been. So how do you walk into history and re-create what was happening in the mind of this woman?"

 

Glancy began, she explains, by researching the expedition, carting the 14 volumes of Lewis and Clark's journals home with the help of a student. Then, two summers ago, she took a cassette version of same out of the library, loaded up her car, and, traveling alone, traced the expedition's path up the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. "I would listen to these tapes," she says, "and once in a while Sacajawea would be mentioned: 'The squaw is digging roots. The squaw is sick. The squaw saved our instruments from floating overboard when the canoe capsized.'

"Then as I was driving back along the trail, I noticed there were all these statues and pictures of Lewis and Clark, and Sacajawea was always right there pointing the way. If there's one thing Native Americans need, it's heroines and heroes coming out of their own culture, so it's hard to debunk that. But I think once you get underneath the souvenir outlook on Sacajawea, she was both a real person and a heroine."

And indeed, the Sacajawea of Stone Heart is far from the romanticized figure of lore. She chafes at the hardship of the expedition; frets over the health of her child, Jean Baptiste; and glowers silently at her lazy husband, who occasionally beats her. Separated from her family and her home, Sacajawea is, above all, lonely. "When you were born, you had light skin," she recalls of herself in one passage. "Your grandmother dreamed of a small, white beaver without a tail. It had a stone heart because it had a long journey to walk. A tail and a soft heart would slow it down."

Glancy intercuts Sacajawea's narration with excerpts from Lewis and Clark's journals, and the dissonance between the two is the novel's heart. At one point, for instance, the party approaches the village from which Sacajawea was abducted by Hidatsa raiders as a child. "I cannot discover that she shews any immotion of sorrow in recollecting this event, or of joy in being again restored to her native country," Lewis records in his journal.

Meanwhile, Sacajawea is silently crumbling with the realization that, in throwing her lot with the explorers, she has also doomed herself to exile. "At night, when Toussaint sleeps, you cry as you feed Jean Baptiste. You remember how the Hidatsas ripped you from the stream. You see how the Maker might have allowed you to be taken. Something larger was coming. The white men who would take your land. They are here now. You choose to go with them. You choose to follow."

It seems telling that Glancy should attribute this sense of existential dislocation to such an enigmatic, historically remote figure: Loss and belonging are, after all, the natural obsessions of a writer who, like her heroine, has lived her life at the unstable fault line of two cultures.

 

Growing up in Kansas City, where her father, a Cherokee originally from Oklahoma, worked in the stockyards, Glancy was acutely conscious of her dual heritage. As, she recalls, was her mother, who often warned her against playing in the sun, for fear that her complexion would darken. "When you're a very fair woman--blond, blue-eyed, and white skin--and you've got this dark child running around, you're aware of that. Maybe there was more racism in those days. But I was aware that dark skin was something that wasn't very desirable.

"I wasn't real close to my mother," she continues. "She was very European, and she didn't care much for the native ways. She was very uncomfortable with all that. Why she married my father, I'll never know. Opposites attract, I guess."

By her own account a lackluster student, Glancy spent her adolescence bouncing around the Bible Belt--an experience she would recall in her first novel, The Only Piece of Furniture in the House, about an extended, devoutly Christian family. After college, Glancy moved to Oklahoma, where, while raising a family, she traveled the rural byways for the state's Arts Council. "I was living within 100 miles of where my great-grandfather was born. He was a full-blooded Cherokee. Just being on that land again, things started to come up through the subconscious."

In particular, Glancy became fascinated with the Trail of Tears, the infamous 1838 episode in which 17,000 Cherokee were forcibly uprooted from the Southeast and transported to the barren plains of Oklahoma. It was, she found, a massive, unspoken rupture in the community--as much as in her own family. "It just wasn't ever talked about," she explains. "There was this empty space that was there and wasn't allowed to be talked about. 'We're going to live in the world that is,' my father used to say. But it left this enormous hole where the past should have been. We should have talked about it, talked through it. Part of my disappointment with my father is that he didn't tell me these things I needed to know."

 

Perhaps partly due to the magnitude of that cultural cataclysm, it took Glancy 18 years to complete her own retelling of the story, Pushing the Bear. "When I went back to Oklahoma, some of the elders would say, 'Don't write about this. Leave it alone. It's very sad. We lost. Don't bring it up again.' The hardest reading I ever gave was down in Oklahoma in front of those people.

"There's this great mistrust of writing," she continues. "The natives' first dealing with the written word was in treaties, all of them broken. Three hundred and seventy-four treaties in about a hundred years, and every one of them was broken. I mean, most natives were illiterate until my father's generation. My grandmother had an 'X' she used whenever she signed her name. It wasn't so long ago."

This uneasy cohabitation of written and oral culture--and, by extension, Christianity and Native spirituality--is Glancy's preoccupation. Her most recent novel, for instance, Designs of the Night Sky (University of Nebraska Press), consists of spare, elliptical snatches of dialogue interpolated with historical source material about the Trail of Tears. Here, the written word is a script for cultural holocaust, and the grief it leaves behind threatens to engulf the novel's characters. "I believe in truth," the narrator, an Oklahoma librarian, tells us at one point, "which would become a possible truth, which would become the possibilities of truth, which would become the truth of possibilities. Anything to shift the truth from what it is. The history of loss, and of silence about the loss. I want to open it to shiftings, driftings."

Likewise in Stone Heart, Glancy uses the story of Sacajawea to interrogate the notion of historical objectivity. The tension here is between the explorers' written journals--coolly observational even when describing bear attacks--and the emotional, intuitive reactions of Sacajawea. History, Glancy reminds, is not exclusively the province of official documents; it is, rather, a sticky, indivisible conglomeration of untold stories. "I was at a conference on the Lewis and Clark expedition," she recalls. "And, by the way, it deserves all the attention it gets; these were brilliant men. But someone was saying, 'Can you imagine all these old explorers, these gruff men traveling together, and at night hearing Sacajawea's voice singing to her baby?' That's an important point: She was a human voice on this trail of hardship and poverty, with the diet of dogs."

Yet as Sacajawea travels further from her home, her voice also seems to blend with Lewis and Clark's: Having foreseen the coming conquest, she chooses to speak the language of the conquerors. "What is it Lewis & Clark have?" she muses with a mixture of awe and wariness. "A heart skin? A sacredness of behavior? What is their word for it? Do they have it because it gets them where they want to go? Or is it for its own sake? These men-who-know-the-way-where-they-have-not-been. They have a source for what they are. You want it."

Like so many of Glancy's heroines, Sacajawea makes the impossible, necessary decision to cede her voice to history--to live in the world that is, as the author's father said. Perhaps divining her own early death, she even gives her child to William Clark. In this, Glancy locates the tragedy of Sacajawea's story, as well as that of her own culture. "Sacajawea saw the coming of the end," she says. "Disease had already wiped out so many of her people. So she chose the Europeans. She chose Clark. In the end, she decided on survival."


Sponsor Content