The Three Voyages of Captain James Cook The Transit of Venus i Green, green and blue. Colours are stronger than the history that inhabits them. The ship beats up to land. The white surf beats upon the shining sand. Sounds travel slowly. They are only heard hundreds of years later. ii It is difficult to tell if this is a war or a party, an invasion or a benediction. The white sailors and the dark islanders circle each other cautiously. The red hibiscus shouts against the vicious somnolent green of jungle. The natives offer boughs, the white men axes. iii The natives have no respect for property. They adore irrelevant trinkets, spy-glasses and snuff-boxes. One steals part of the quadrant and has to be pursued for days, carrying the beautiful brass of the useless instrument deep, deep into the jungle to the mountains. iv Firearms and hostages procure the purposes of civilisation. The natives cannot decide about this curious order, this flowery death. They provoke and placate alternately, their friendship persistently possible, recurring undaunted like a vegetable. v Rape is not necessary, only small presents. The sailors are amazed by this willingness, these women who accept them like the jungle muttering in colours they do not understand. vi They build a fort for their telescopes, their observations. They have come round the globe to calculate its distance from the sun. Venus observed provides them numbers and the promontory a name. The bay is Matavai, the point Point Venus. As the strange ship sails away, the names combine. The colours of the dreaming island are displaced, inherited by a fragile but inexorable map. The Second Voyage He possesses the fundamental curiosity of the real explorer, though he is forced to flog his crew of pressed men into this unreality, he is always anxious to see the other side of the next hill, the next eager, sailless horizon. The weevils possess the biscuits. He force-feeds everyone (including himself) pickled cabbage, to keep scurvy at bay. The ship's timbers protest. It's splintering, salty wood is their entire universe, their only hope of answer from the void. He moves between the two extremes of nature, Tahiti and Antarctica, between the green jungle and the white abstraction. Always pushed back, neither holds him. From the tropics, the iceberg calls, and in the outrageous cold he is driven north again to the barbarous sunlight of the peopled isle. He is bounced in his history, his encroachment transcending him. His sailors steal the ship's nails to buy the grass women. He puts them in irons. Metal is the only answer he has. He cannot separate water from water or staunch the commerce of his regal discoveries, his disease. The Third Voyage He comes back. He returns. Greenwich cannot hold him, his obsession is beyond the potency of the most comfortable sinecure. Ease cannot tolerate his itch. The sea commands him. And that barbarity he disdains and he has broken. On Tahiti iron replaces stone. The custom is lost. The chiefs have taken to sleeping on beds. He knows this. He knows that he has irreversibly entered their monstrous history, and their sun will never be the same. He returns. As they said he would. As they say he always will. And he knows they cannot return, their own demons have overtaken them. He repeats the pattern, with new islands, new horizons. Doubting the process, pondering in his log. But his civilisation impels him, his Admiralty. For the last time he enacts the drama, the same deja-vu, the control of property, the taking of sullen hostages. And the natives' brilliant rage engulfs him, overwhelms him, casually, he falls into the warm alien ocean with his own knife, stolen, sunk into his back.
Australia A Poem in Three Sections, with a Coda 1: Botany Bay i 'In Botany Bay all is quiet and stupid as could be wished.' The chain-gangs shuffle off into the bush to carve survival out of the dumbness, build their prison. They dream their sweat. England is far, far away, but they have nothing else to think about. ii Nothing goes right. The seeds they plant, hacking the devastated ground with hoes, scratching with obstinate fervour the intransigent landscape, refuse to sprout, or sprout, and are blasted by the lidless sun. It is so hot that bats and parakeets fall dead out of the trees. The sheep die of some strange disease. The cattle stray. (They find them seven years later -- two bulls, four cows multiplied into a herd of sixty-one and all gone wild. iii Phillip, the governor, a pensioned Captain brought out of retirement, plans a fine town, main street two hundred feet across. After six months they have achieved two small brick-and-stone houses, an observatory and a wooden hospital. iv Weevils and maggots get into the stores. Scurvy continues. Thefts threaten everything. Phillip hangs six marines, flogs others till they cannot stand. The sullen blacks, driven from the coast, spear any straggler who strays inland. v The convicts believe China is only a hundred miles away, just beyond the mountains. Who knows why? They assume denials are lies, accustomed to being lied to. A group of Irishmen sets out for Canton. Some die, some stagger back, half dead. Some cross the mountains, and, astonished by the endless desert, go native, marry the unreal, hammering land. vi They discover the bush is not completely barren, just stubborn and different. They make tea from the roots of sarsaparilla, red gum from the eucalyptus treats the scurvy, fish come, in season, and they learn to trap the bright, swift birds. June fourth 1788 is the fiftieth birthday of King George III, who slips inchwise into insanity in another world. They celebrate it with salutes of guns and bonfires. Phillip pardons four men condemned to death. By night the ships at anchor toll the hours, and from the phantom town of tents and stockades and the smell of fear, the sentries call in answer that 'All's well'. 2: The Route through the Bight i The Nullabor is God's backside, naked to the blind Antarctic spume. In this wilderness everything runs to excess. The swell blows in and hacks away the cliffs, and where there are no cliffs the raw, salt water sweeps inland. At noon the sun strikes like a blow, with no tree to appease it, only the saltbush and the endless scrub. By night everything freezes. There is no fresh water except when the cyclones burst onto the coast, and inland, the sand blows like a scouring, suffocating fog. The flies and mosquitoes multiply insane on nothing, swarming to drill the exposed inch of flesh. The aborigines believe the place inhabited by demons. The aborigines are not stupid. ii Eyre has already opened half the continent. He has travelled further in the bush than any white man, driving cattle from one speck of possession to another. Now he proposes to open the route around the Bight. For three months he sets out over and over again from Fowler's Bay, and always he is forced back, no water, no anchorage, no path. The governor sends out a boat imploring him to give up, but he will not listen. He sends off everyone but Baxter, the overseer, and three of the natives, Wylie and the two boys from the north, and sets out into the eye of the desert. iii The blacks pick grubs and lizards, to supplement the white men's bread. They are indifferent to the fearful heat and the insects. Eyre and Baxter force the march, their rigid will keeping them moving from water-point to water-point, where they dig in the soft sand reclaiming the elusive moisture. The boys scrape the dew off the brush in the morning, if there is dew. iv By March they have dragged themselves to the head of the Bight. They abandon the superfluous, whatever can be spared -- great-coats, pack-saddles, some of the firearms, all their cooking pots. When the weaker horses drop they slaughter them for eating or abandon them. v Eyre and Baxter both get dysentery. They kill the last sheep and one of their last horses, dipping the slices of meat into the sea to salt and hanging them out to dry. The natives steal the meat, Eyre puts them on a ration. The two boys take to the bush, but come back, days later, half-starving. Baxter shoots an eagle. They find a dead penguin. Food. Anything animal is food. vi At this point the ordeal is its own purpose. The journey has lost all meaning. Clearly no stock route can ever come through here. There is nothing to discover but survival. vii Things come to a head on April 29. A hurricane blows up but there is no rain. Eyre is collecting the horses when he hears a shot. Baxter is dying when he gets to camp, gargling his blood, and the two boys gone with the good guns, and everything else they could carry. Wylie is still there. He explains nothing. viii Eyre fears ambush by night. They leave the body wrapped in a blanket, the ground unbreakable, interment impossible. The next day they see the boys, wrapped in blankets, each holding a gun. They stand a way off and retreat as Eyre approaches them, calling to Wylie to come away with them. When he makes no move, they follow at a distance, keening and howling. ix Eyre pushes on. Eighteen miles. Twenty-eight miles. Five days without water and they have no choice but to keep driving. A hundred and thirty eight miles from the last watering place. But they continue to hope. The country is changing. The shrubs are flowering. They come upon the ashes of a fire. On the third of May they find a native waterhole. They lash the frantic horses who rear and push trying to kill themselves with drink. x They never see the boys again. No one ever finds them. On the second of June Eyre thinks he sees a boat. They scramble anxious down the shore, but there is only the empty ocean. Half an hour later they see two cutters far out in the bay. They light a fire and scream till they are hoarse. The boats slip indifferently away. xi Still it is over. Eyre is sure. These are whalers and the mothership will anchor close at hand, away from storms. His right hand is injured. His stomach aches from the horse-flesh. Seven months and exhaustion is stronger than anything else. He scans the null coast for the hunting mast to tell him he's arrived. 3: Daisy Bates (The Passing of the Aborigines) i She leaves the grip of Europe and she does not leave it. All her life a moving to something else. The first time they sent her to Australia for her health. She married, had a child. It did not succeed. It did not satisfy her. She left them, went to England, wrote. The second time she came as a thinker, an outsider. She came for the dying blacks and not the possessing whites. And came, transgressing her curiosity, to live, she said, their lives and not her own. But still in the noxious desert, the Nullabor, so barren no one wanted it, except the desperate remnants of the tribes, still she dressed each day in her button boots, her long skirt and her blouse, her gloves, her parasol. She would not give in. ii From her isolation in the desert she watches the invasion of the land, the first sparrows, the English rabbits breeding their way west, the sandstorms as the settlers cut the trees for crops that take no root in the dry heat. And then the men themselves, the prospecting miner, the trader, the labourers on the rail gangs. And finally the passengers, transient in their coaches, to whom the aboriginals are beggars, dusty blacks scrounging for food and liquor at a nowhere stop. Her two worlds meet, and she is powerless to prevent them. Standing in the scrub in her hat and her stiff collar, clutching her bag Obstinately witnessing the death. Coda: The Kangaroo Probably the first white man to see a kangaroo was Francis Pelsaert the Dutch navigator, who was wrecked on the western coast of Australia in 1629. His description, however, is not accurate. Banks first noted, in his journal, a beast fleeing in the bush, something like a stag or a large dog. Subsequently he and Cook reduced the mystery by shooting several (and eating them). They brought back to Europe a skin, which was stuffed and given to Stubbs to paint, and a skull, which they presented to William Hunter, the physiologist. It remained in the Royal College of Surgeons until it was demolished by German bombs in another war.
Etienne Brule i Brule, at sixteen, was accustomed to bad food and painful beds. The peasants in Champigny had little, and the sailors on the king's ships even less. He didn't hold much with divinity. Come with a gang of priests into this wilderness, he had other things in mind. ii Why Champlain ever approved him it is hard to say. Perhaps he desired his hardness as he desired the difficulty of the whole enterprise. Perhaps he digested his youth, his obstinacy. Perhaps he predicted their orbit (though it is unlikely), their opposition, the statesman and the renegade turning about each other in the savage continent. iii Perhaps he did not approve him but sent him out into the Huron madness of the woods to be rid of him. iv Politics were much the same, though the methods were a little different. The Hurons must bleed the Iroquois because the Iroquois had been bought by the Englishmen. Hence they were dragging trunks of ammunition through this pointless forest. Hence they were teaching the muscular savages to use an arquebus. v The first time he saw a Huron victory Etienne vomited. They were not reserved or considerate. Pain was the simplest form of defeat they understood, and so they scorched their prisoners flesh with torches, hacked them to pieces with knives and fed them to the dogs. vi Brule became a Huron, or so he suggested. Certainly, he became something different. Whatever counter in the game of treaty he served as, he walked the woods in his own right, killed in his own right, slept in his own skin. He could have ploughed the same priest's furrow, bent to the customary marriage. Instead, he acquired a different grudge, found new squaws to betray. vii They couldn't get him back. He didn't believe Champlain's glory or his civilisation. He followed him for a season, to the ice or the empty southern coasts, but he always went off, back to the barbarity he'd learned, the silent condemnation of the trees. viii He volunteered for crazy missions for reasons of his own, becoming a hero or a villain indifferently. When the French and their tribes blundered into disaster in Ontario, it was Brule they sent south to bring the promised aid. If he failed, they weren't surprised, seeing him leave, shooting the spitting water, his canoe, his strength and weakness, in the balance, even his grip on survival a question mark. ix Brule was the first white man to do a lot of things, because he didn't care. He discarded a lot of territory, setting foot on undivided forests, scanning unalloted lakes. He did not possess it. His willingness was a setting forth, a letting go. He just went there. x Brule traverses Toronto, he passes Hamilton. In bark canoes he edges round the lake, portages, skirting Niagara, Buffalo, he hacks down to Pennsylvania. It means nothing to him, he does not count the ghosts of the future that he walks upon. xi The Andastes celebrate him to death. They feast him, fete him. He is annoyed. He is here on a mission and the simplest thing would be to fulfil it. Instead they kill livestock, smoke pipes, deliberate endlessly about the hypothetical war. Finally they send five hundred braves -- too little and too late. When they arrive the battle has departed. Only ashes and insects remain. He is obstinate. xii The Andastes, masters of equivocation, return to their camps. He wanders in the woods with the last of his Huron companions. This is not their territory. When they sense approach they flee, leaving him to fight the Iroquois alone. He guessed this arbitrary capture, is not afraid of the air. xiii The Iroquois are much like their enemies, the Huron. They flay their prisoners to death. He understands this. He is not a saint or a martyr, and his courage therefore is greater, or stupider. xiv Tied to the post and bleeding, far from the slaughter of his life, he is more animal than the animal, he thinks he has arrived at the insensate nub. When a brave grabs the medallion round his neck, he curses the trophy, knowing the brave will die in any case. He is as surprised as them by the lightning, the thunder, the sudden collapse of rain. As they back away from him in virulent respect he laughs himself silly, knowing it has all started again. xv It takes him a year to recover, limping, bandaging his hands. Champlain too is limping, from a leg wound in the wars. They cross each other angrily in the fortress, the two extremes, the two mad angels of New France. xvi Champlain prays for Etienne's soul, which Etienne does not believe he has. He knows he has bones. He thinks they will somehow be his immortality, their loss in earth his peace with stones. xvii When the English surround Quebec it is Brule again who goes for hope. Champlain can never get out of the habit of sending his shadow to fetch the sun. In the fort it is dark. They are starving slowly. The English are winning methodical as slaves. xviii Brule shoots another river. This time the ships have gone, the whole thing is hopeless. He talks his companions into treating with the redcoats. Why? is the question everyone will ask of him. Not for any real hope of gain. It is just Etienne proving his laws. Any jaw is arrogant. The woods will not complain. xix The English certainly have no time for traitors. They know the etiquette of war. It is not wise to reward the changeable, the unallied. They are more the enemy than the enemy, they disregard the dance, and are likely to disappear into your territory, to strike like a weevil in your treaty state. xx Brule returns to the Bears but the Bears are wary. His desires are bigger than their savagery, their pride. He smells something different. Also, unaccountably, they are sad Champlain has gone. He was a chief. His priests talked nonsense, but it was nonsense they could understand. xxi History is as treacherous as the wind. Brule knows this. The English make peace with Louis, sell him back the continent for 400,000 francs. So C. comes back. This is the way it goes. C. will die here, and so will he. xxii Brule never could play the piano. The bones in his mangled hands ache with the damp. He strangles the birds he traps, his only arpeggio. This goes on too long, his freedom to compete. There are too many of them when they come for him, and he is not prepared. He has bred into their temper and rejects their knives. But they pin him down. xxiii They parse him. They scorch him and flay him, offering his blood to the ignorant Champlain, far, far away, sailing up the St. Lawrence to Quebec. This is Etienne's end, this mishmash of confused loyalties and peacemaking. This time no God has irony enough to save him. He dies genuinely in his agony. xxiv Champlain has aged. He is tired. He shows no enthusiasm for Brule's death, almost as if he has forgotten. The braves become uneasy but he makes no gesture of revenge. He pledges the old amities in elaborate ceremonies, exchanges gifts, makes speeches. His colony has survived Brule, now it will ignore him. xxv The Hurons offer to return Brule's bones (they have decided, upon consideration, that he was probably a hero), but the Jesuits do not want them. They have martyrs of their own and can always make more, less angry, and less profligate. So he lies buried in his violence, churned in the black soil. The Canadians who dig for him, wanting their history neat, can never find him. He is indistinguishable from all the other dead Indians in the pit. xxvi Just before C. dies he dreams of Etienne. He has never dreamed of him before, always of God, agriculture, the power of faith. Etienne is crying, something he never did. And as he cries each tear turns into a little pebble, and they fall into the St. Lawrence. And as they fall they dam it up, curled like the buried, angry fossils of the Shield.
Cargo The Cult* of John Frum The principle source for the facts and quotes from individuals (which are, however, treated with a degree of license) is the book 'John Frum He Come: a polemical work about a black tragedy' by Edward Rice, Doubleday, NY, 1974. *'Cult' -- a word used for religions by those who do not believe in them. i John Frum come. John Frum. Jonfrum / / / Jonfrum / / / I tell that man, he say you fool boy believe that John Frum god-man come I tell him you wait nineteen whaty-what that Jesus Christos I go wait some few more years for John. ii Mr. Nicol once ship's engineer now British District Agent reports there is a certain 'John Frum' at Green Point, who draws crowds with promises of gourds full of shillings and such things. Nicol: It is of course the usual idea that Tanna natives could run Tanna better than I can. Natives drink kava. Natives dance all night. Natives buy knives. Goats are killed to feed the dancers. iii Nicol sends two of his boys to stop the nonsense. They come back stoned and hungry for Jonfrum. The next time he sends three. They don't come back at all. Over the walls and by the talk-talk tree the whites hear promises of John. iv The trading posts are empty. Everything is sold. Even the mouldy oranges and the ship's anchors. The old Chinese shakes his head and frowns -- your black man he so poor, how come he spend one thousand pounds, buy every piece of junk? Some still have money. They throw pound-notes and copper coins into the sea. v One Manelevi arrested, charged with being John. Nicol berates him in the square, ties him to a tree. That is not John, they say, oh no that is not John. vi John Frum is King of America. He will send his son to seek the King whose name is Rusefel. John Frum and Rusefel are cousins. John's three sons, Isac, Jacob and Lastuan, have landed by plane at Lake Siwi by Yasur, sacred mountain. John's sons are half-black-white. They have black hair and dress in robes without a pocket. They wear lava-lavas. They wear khaki shorts, like white men. vii John's ropes thread the island. The word 'rope' threads the island. It means 'messenger' and also 'vine'. It is the word 'nul'. The Ropes of John. viii April 1947. Everything costs much. In White Sands blacks mob the store, tear off the tickets with the prices. Steal nothing, break nothing, go away. 'Orders of John Frum, sir. John Frum like black now white.' ix There is a certain ambience in the South Pacific, a certain feeling of the sea. Not that every island is the same, or that every village on every island is identical. One cannot say that Tanna is like New Georgia, or Fiji is like Arnhem Land, but certain webs abound, same deaths, same gifts. Magic is necessary and nothing comes without it, good or bad. Wetman, he no see magic. Wetman make fun. So much for him. x In the days before the coming of the whites some estimate the population of the islands as one million. H. Roche (Description of the New Hebrides -- London, 1846) puts it at forty million -- but this is perhaps a misprint. Alexander Don (1870) and Felix Speiser (from a study, 1882) claim six hundred and fifty and six hundred thousand for those respective years. By 1892 the Colonial Office states the population is one hundred thousand. And by 1920 the government figure is fifty nine thousand. In 1935 Harrison says 45,000 for all the islands. And still the bastards are not civilized. xi A Tangu dream is not a fantasy woven out of sleep. Men dream to solve their problems. The Tangu men will not waste time building traps for pig until they have dreamed of a pig caught in the trap that might be. xii In Wewak town native go see Cargo, see 'fridgerator, come back home, make 'fridgerator out of wood, make vines go wires, and pray and pray. When 'fridgerator door go open, he give native ice-cream soda cold. Like white man get in Wewak. By and by. xiii One Runovoro, from the mission school, remembers stories how when native murderer was him self killed all victims come to life. Runovoro starts movement kill all whites. Much promise. Dead will rise. After a Flood will Cargo come. Charge fee for joining. As much one pound. Build sheds for Cargo. Runovoro's wife, she die. Five men kill Mr. Clapcott, deaf and lonely in his bungalow. * * * H.M.S. Sydney shells two villages. Eighteen are arrested, one dies, three are condemned and executed. Runovoro tells them he no scared, no more. xiv It is impossible to stop the islands growing. Tree trunks and limbs cut, and sunk as fence-posts root and branch. Everything is buried, wooded, banyans, vines, bougainvillaea, wild Swatow oranges, lime, papaya, bread- fruit. xv John Frum is baloney. First tell a lie and then come to believe it. Like Kohu who ended by believing all those things he said Some said a submarine had landed in the South. Americans would come ashore at night. Some said the dogs were soldiers shaped like dogs to fool the whites. There was a bridge you couldn't see between Mt. Yasur and Port Resolution All hokum. All baloney. xvi After the row died down I went into the village to see their 'radio'. It was a stove with the side torn off, and on the upper handles a piece of rope that went out of the hut and up a tree. It was the same thing, always. Always ropes and vines and some old piece of junk. And talk of the voices from America, and the planes with Cargo that would come soon, come by and by. xvii John is black. He is a black man, one from Tanna. Because of friendly spirits he goes visiting America. He visits often. He does not change. He is the same man as he always was. John is God. He is the son of God. I think myself that John is Kalbapan. John has been with me all these years. And he will come again. How, I am not sure, whether here or someplace else, whether friendly or not. We can none of us be sure how we will see John again.
The Indian Wars I In Washington arrows move upon a map, interpret a continent and reinterpret it. The truth of pictures. Paper that moves. Every treaty that's signed, every state of affairs, every border is truth. But truth changes. Settlers depart for the frontier in wagon-trains. Gold is discovered. The new extinguishes the old. New treaties. New states. The empty spaces on the map are given names. The Indians live on a shrinking piece of paper. * * * The Indians are not real. Their existence is malleable as clay. They become what the whites wish them to be, what serviceable justice calls them. Their memories are repelled, kept out, by laws, as raindrops fall, and trickle upon the surface of an oilskin. * * * More arrows move upon more maps. The tribes are recognised by their effects. Settlers and miners following their urges into the empty space are harassed, killed. War is declared against a phantom nation, a nation that does not exist. * * * Sheridan moves the Generals in his mind, the language of strategy: Crook north from Wyoming, Gibbon east from Montana, Terry west from the border of the Dakota territory. The invisible men that move in the white space between will be solved by artillery, houses, railroads that grow imperceptibly, neutrally, like gas entering a chamber. II These are the people who dwell on the plains: Unkpapa: the ones on the edge, the ones who camp by themselves. Oglala, the scattered ones (or those who scatter the dust). Brule: the burnt ones (children of those who escaped through the fire and jumped into the lake, named in a doubly foreign tongue, abandoned by its owners in these hills and grasslands). Miniconjoux: the harvesters by the water. Wahpeton, dwelling among the trees. Oohenonpa: those who cook twice, the providers of feasts. The Blackfeet, Sihasapa, whose feet were black for a reason that shrivelled and died on the tree of history. The Sans Arc, those who lost their bows. All these are Sioux, which is to say the stump of Nadouessioux, which is the voyageurs' mangle of Nadoue-is-iw, which means the little snakes, the enemies, but in their own tongue Dakota, Lakota, Nakota (variously, in dialects) which means the friends. With them Cheyenne, which some translate as dogs, confusing its seeds, but is Sha-hi-ye-na: red talkers, those the Sioux said spoke an alien tongue. And the Crows, the Up-sah-ro-ku, who forgot the meaning of their own name, called themselves Crow because of a mistranslation into another world, served white men, scouted and fought for them, because they hated and feared the Sioux and that was reason enough. III Let us reach back for a first battle (understand that we cannot understand: what really happened did not happen. All we have are fragments, different tongues, shattered meanings of different witnesses with permanent, sharp edges, like the shards of a mirror out of which we reconstruct what was once reflected in it.) The cow of a Mormon strayed by a Sioux camp. Or perhaps a Mormon led a lame ox (or a worn-out ox). Or perhaps a crippled ox was left by a party of travellers. A Miniconjoux called High Forehead shot the ox (or cow, or perhaps he was trying to shoot the Mormon -- if the Mormon was there). Probably his people were hungry, or possibly he wanted the hide (or hated the Mormon for some reason, if there was a Mormon). The elders of the village offered to pay, but Grattan, Irish lieutenant out from West Point, decided otherwise, set out for an arrest. * * * Grattan called Indians cowards. What he meant and why no longer is. The word remains like dust left by the wind. He told his men to shoot at the order. 'Fire as you damned well please' some thought they heard him say. * * * In some versions he had a sergeant, a corporal and twenty-seven troopers. In others a posse of nineteen men. All report Auguste, the interpreter, swilling whisky, spurring his mule back and forth, yelling that Sioux would die and he would eat their hearts. * * * Some sort of conference took place. Auguste yelling and gesturing. Perhaps a gun was fired. Some think that Grattan called 'Hownh! Hownh!' meaning "I agree" and the posse, hearing 'Now! Now!', shouldered their weapons. * * * The Sioux killed all of them. Grattan, twenty-four arrows through his corpse, his face smashed in, was recognised by his watch. One, Private Cuddy, managed to crawl amongst wild rose bushes, was found plugging his wounds with sagebrush, diapering himself, died when they brought him back to the fort. * * * Only one Indian fell: Chief Whirling Bear, the Bear that Wins, the Bear that Drives the Enemies. Dragged away with a bullet in his back, he finished soon after, was wrapped, and placed on a scaffold by the river, before they fled north. * * * This, in the newspapers of Boston and New York, was the first link in a chain of war, the beginning of a story that would not be a story if it did not have a beginning, but did not have a beginning, and was not a story. IV Crazy Horse is dead. Crazy Horse is dead. Who will mourn for him, wailing and gashing their thighs with stone knives so that their blood waters the ground, as our people used to do? Crazy Horse is dead. In the real world he saw his horse dance, the red hawk flying over his head. He did not believe the yellow-eyes were real enough to kill him But they did. Crazy Horse is dead. Wrapped in the limbs of treacherous friends, prisoned and gutted with a bayonet. He learnt how the minds of generals moved the columns of blue soldiers upon the snow. He learnt to defeat them once, twice, how to run away. But he did not learn enough. Crazy Horse is dead. His bonnet of red hawk feathers, the pebble he wore behind his ear, his pigments of red and white -- the lightning, the hail -- all so much junk: the moultings of a dead bird, dust, a stone. Crazy Horse is dead. A word spoken by a tongue that cannot understand it, his spirit gone. The land of the Sioux reduced to a foreign alphabet. Crazy Horse is dead. V Only from a great distance could this be called a war. Perhaps wars can only be fought by men who understand each other. Or perhaps on the battlefield, in the long grass, in the village, in the snow there is really nothing to understand, and only afterwards is the blood, the howling cauterised by words. Chiefly the parts of bodies one remembers -- White Antelope's privates cut out by a soldier who said he would make a tobacco pouch of them; Fetterman's men at Lodge Trail Ridge, as Carrington described them: Eyes torn out and laid on rocks, Noses cut off, Ears cut off, Chins hewn apart, Brains taken out and placed on rocks, with members of the body, Hands and feet cut off. Or the bluecoats at Sand Creek carrying the private parts of women on sticks, on saddle-bows, on their hats. Taking the scalps of children too young to run to hang upon their belts. Is this war? Perhaps it is. VI The Indians, it appears evolved a sense of mutilation, a grammar of bone and blood by which their presence could be detected. The hacking, disjointing of arms was the mark of the Cheyenne, also the taking of fingers (at Rosebud Creek they were seen to chop off the arm at the elbow, riding away, waving the stump in its sleeve). The Sioux cut throats, or severed the head at the neck. The Arapaho, known as keen scented, would slit the nose or cut it off. All took scalps: parting the skin of the skull at the cranium in a single piece, though the cut varied from tribe to tribe. When there was time the scalp was cured, stretched on a frame, painted, embroidered with beads, acquired beauty, became a story. VII Language enters the land like a virus, the shock of a strange disease that cannot be resisted. Creeps through the rivers, woods, the plains, inch by inch and word by word, invisible, microscopic. Neither truth nor translation reveal what it is doing, its terrible, passive power. America is infected and, slowly, America dies the trapped face puzzled, proud and red. VIII Sitting Bull History is a snarl of wires in which he drowns, mumming at Wild West shows, posing on platforms, shaking the endless stream of limp white hands. Beyond 'You bet', the way they said his name, he never learnt their language (though in their dreams he reads Napoleon in the French, writes Sapphic verse). Smith met him in the store at Standing Rock -- hearing his name whispered, he grasped them by the arms, smiling and nodding, chortling 'Seeda Boo, you bet!' * * * He was 6 ft. tall. He was 5 ft. 8. He was surly, recalcitrant. He loved humanity. He was a coward. He was full of implacable stubborn rage. * * * He died in the doorway of his cabin shot in the breast, his face smashed with a plank, his scalp lifted, most of his clothing stolen for souvenirs. 43 Indian police, a hundred soldiers and two Hotchkiss guns. -- A dangerous old man who'd started to believe in ghosts, they said. IX Pain is not something you can escape, nor something you can understand. The Sun Dance defeats the white spectator's observations because it has no intellectual content, only the rudest theology: a sort of dynamic autocrucifixion -- the warrior's muscles are slit on the back or the chest, and thongs, looped through, are tied to the central pole. Half raised from the ground, he dances until the muscles tear, leaving, sometimes, holes big enough to put a fist in. What they prove by this bemuses: that they are mad, impervious to pain, cannot be judged by European terms -- which comprehend agony, slaughter, even the yen for martyrdom -- but only as instruments, infatuation, the consequence of power, or love not this incessant drumming on the ground (these bloody feet, these fires) which finally enact, not prove, not cause, impenetrable, beyond paraphrase. X The buffalo disappear. The idea of the tribes is replaced by an order that is too large, too old, too different from the surface of the sea of language that speaks the fickle, yellow men. The Indians use interpreters, make treaties, 'touch the pen', but cannot touch what lies in the word's dark, fleshy heart: slaughters that sleep between the covers of a book, in clusters of X's on a map, iron horses moved by dead men's lies, knowledge that is the grandchild of knowledge, and cannot be loved or learnt. XI Literature limps out onto the prairies. A General, stationed at a frontier post, draws the curtains of his drawing-room, draws the illusion of furniture about him, antimacassars and the moose-head on the wall, even a piece of Indian bead-work, shelves of books. By the light of his oil-lamp, writes articles for an Eastern magazine. In the shelter of his words, recreates the meaning of his triumph. A Major in a tent describes the sunset in ten pages of meticulous prose: his journal, which he shows to no one, is read only in another world, long after he is dead. XII Custer's idea was himself. Though he scraped the bottom of his class at West Point, was once court-martialled for shooting deserters down, disobeying orders -- leading an army at forced march the wrong way through hostile territory to visit his wife. Though he crossed Grant, was almost cashiered, was known as a General who lost his men, still he dreamed of being President. Many admired him. His bravery. His dash. His personal marching song, his personal flag. His hounds that adored him, hunting over Indian lands like a gentleman, his odes on their deaths. Some say when he spurred down the valley ahead of Terry, ignoring the warnings of his scouts, he wanted the victory to himself, a telegraphed message -- the Democratic convention before the nominations closed (though he was wrong, the wire was down, his dates were out, and half the Sioux nation lay in front of him. XIII These were the Indians killed at the Little Big Horn: Cheyenne: Black Cloud, Whirlwind, Left Hand, Owns-Red-Horse Flying By, Moustache, Noisy Walking Limber Bones, Hump Nose, Black Bear Swift Cloud, Lame White Man Oglala Sioux: White Eagle, Many Lice, Bad- Light Hair, Little Skunk, Black White Man Unkpapa: White Buffalo, Asshole, Hawk Man, Swift Bear, Red Face, Long Road Sans Arc: Two Bears Long Robe, Standing Elk Cloud Man, Elk Bear, Long Dog Miniconjoux: Tall Horse, Long Elk Two Cookings: Chased-by-Owls. XIV And afterwards. More massacres, more cities. A different kind of nation altogether. Those who live long enough become history, telling the stories over and over, notebooks and, later, tape machines. Interpreters, broken English, sign language. The story changes with each telling. Or the story does not change, but the listeners, the tellers, change, meanings do not travel from one language to another, from the language of time to the language of words. A historian writes on the flames that consume them: 'Testimony delivered from the aboriginal frame of reference risks serious distortion.' This is the process. These are the tongues of fire.
Back to Main Poetry Index