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Mixedbloods and Mystery:
Crises of Identity in
Amy Lerman, Kishwaukee College
In the opening chapter of Louis Owens' second novel The Sharpest Sight (1992), the protagonist, Cole McCurtain, discusses with his father, Hoey, the possibility of being drafted to Vietnam, as his older brother has been. Hoey reminds his son of two important truths. One is that too many Indians have "died in white men's wars" (20), and the other is that Cole, as an Indian, should not have to go to war; "You don't owe this sonofabitchin' government nothing," Hoey insists (19). Cole, a mixedblood of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Irish descent, who is described by the narrator as "an almost half-breed with green eyes made 'slanty' from the epicanthic fold Indians often had" (11), responds to his father's pronouncement by saying, "I'm n ot an Indian. I'm mostly white" (21), a comment that would seemingly upset his mixedblood, though self-professed Indian father. Yet Hoey imperturbably and sagely acknowledges what his son cannot, namely, Cole's true identity: "That don't matter. You're a mixed blood and that's Indian. It's what you think you are that matters" (21).
The whole issue of what is "Indian" is of primary focus in all four of Owens' novels, Wolfsong (1991), The Sharpest Sight, Bone Game, and most recently, Nightland (1996). The highly-regarded Anishinaabe c ritic and author, Gerald Vizenor tries to clarify the meaning and significance of the term "Indian" in the Introduction to Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology (1995):
The name Indian is a convenient word, to be sure, but it is an invented name that does not come from any native language, and does not describe or contain any aspects of traditional tribal experience and literature. . . . The American Indian has come to mean Indianness, the conditions that indicate the once-despised tribes, and, at the same time, the extreme notions of an exotic outsider; these conditions are advocated as real cultures in the world. (1)
Owens seems to agree with Vizenors "take" on the term "Indian" for Cole McCurtain's inevitable discovery of self is, in great part, a result of the simple though profound advice he receives from his elders. Louis Owens maintains, in th e introduction to his critical study, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (1992), that " for the contemporary Indian novelist--in every case a mixedblood who must come to terms in one form or another with peripherality as well as both European and Indian ethnicity--identity is the central issue and theme" (5).
It is interesting to note, moreover, that the opening images of both The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game posit the novels as mysteries, for Owens has created, in actuality, metamysteries. While the overall frameworks of b oth novels focus on "whodunit" storylines, the parallel plots--for calling them "subplots" seems unfitting since they are no less important--concern Coles personal quest for identity, a search that extends over many years of his life. Thus, Hoey, Uncle L uther, whose "long hair was heavily streaked with white" and whose "face was lined with vertical wrinkles like old scars" (Sharpest 63), and Onatima, "whom everyone called Old Lady Blue Wood" (Sharpest 25), do not so much show Cole who or wh at he is as much as they guide him towards such information.
Owens' characters initially struggle but eventually succeed in discovering who they are and what their respective--or perhaps shared--identities mean, an experience, Owens believes, that is common to many Native American texts. He c laims in Other Destinies that "repeatedly in Indian fiction . . . we are shown the possibility of recovering a centered sense of personal identity and significance" (19). This impression proves true in his own pieces of fiction.
Over the course of The Sharpest Sight, Cole leaves California and goes down to Mississippi to see Uncle Luther, a relative he hopes will help him learn and eventually understand who he is; in doing so, he will also, at least partially, resolve his older brother Attis's recent death. Before Cole goes, Hoey admits to his son that he has limited knowledge of the Choctaw dances and rites so prevalent on the reservation in Mississippi. He further confesses that his birth certifica te designates him as "white," though he has been "trying to remember more things and read things, things that are Indian. . . . I'm not pretending I'm not a half-breed. The damned trouble is I don't know very much" (Sharpest 59). Going to Luther wi ll educate and guide Cole, according to Hoey, who claims, "You got a world in that old man" (60). And Luther, along with his female companion, Onatima, does prove to "awaken" Cole, from giving him "an Indian name, a Choctaw name" of "Little-chief-warrior- Red" (75)--a name that Cole recalls in Bone Game when he is twenty years older--to knowing and then advising Cole of when he should begin his dual-natured search, primarily for his sense of self and concurrently for Attis's missing bones. Luther te lls Onatima, "Such things take time, especially when a child grows up so far from home," (162) for he realizes that Cole's knowledge will not come overnight.
A body lies dead in a river at the start of this earlier novel, and it proves to be Cole's older brother:
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 me et 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. (8)
The action of the novel consequently revolves around Cole's search for Attis's body. However, Cole's relatives and Mundo Morales, a police officer and old friend of Attis's, who feels a "tightness in his throat like a bruise" (33) when he learns of Attis's ill-fate, also investigate the crime.
Cole has the additional task, however, of procuring Attis's bones, a process that will enable him to provide his brother with a proper Choctaw burial. When Cole, after a draining but rewarding journey, walks the river and locates hi s brother, "Attis lay as if he had been placed there with loving precision" (Sharpest 252). Out of love and loyalty for his family and heritage, Cole secures his brother's remains:
Cole squatted on the branches and looked at his brother, holding his breath against the smell. After a minute had passed, he took off Attis's jacket and stretched it open. Then he began to place his brother's bones upon the coat . As the body separated, he fought back his fear and nausea. When he was finished, he folded the jacket as tightly as he could and knotted the sleeves to hold it shut. With enormous care, he brought the package down the oak trunks to the ground. (252)
Throughout the novel, Onatima and Luther have talked about the significance of Cole finding the bones--and they can sense, even when they are states away, when he is near them--since he will find peace for both Attis and himself. Thus, it is fitting that Cole wraps up his brother's bones at the same time Mundo Morales and Hoey wrap up the mystery of Attis's murder and discover his killer.
But as Cole has attempted to find Attis, after his body has been swinging "around in a great whirlpool" (Sharpest 8) of river, inadvertently he has embarked on a personal quest of his own, for he struggles between identifying with his Indian extraction and feeling confused by its myths and rituals. For instance, after Cole dreams of his dead brother--and the line between consciousness and sleep seems fuzzy to Cole--he decides that the screams his brother seemingly makes are a ctually those of a real-life panther being hunted outside Luther's cabin. The next morning, Uncle Luther knows Cole has dreamed vividly of Attis and suggests that the panther may be more than a cat: " . . . maybe it's soul-eater out there. You don't hunt nalusachito . . . soul-eater hunts you" (71). Cole shivers at this possibility but then tries to downplay the power of the Choctaw mind and spirit: "You think this panther is nalusachito? . . . Nalusachito's a myth . . . an old supers tition" (71). Just as Owens has constructed The Sharpest Sight as a mystery concerning the "who" and "how" of Attis's death and the "where" of his remaining bones, he simultaneously engages Cole in a search for identity, and in both cases, Cole acq uires the necessary "truths" for understanding and healing. Raised away from it, Cole wants to resist the Choctaw folklore because he does not thoroughly understand or feel a part of it; he learns, however, that the key to discovering who he is begins by acknowledging from where he came.
Bone Game (1994) opens with mysterious images as well. Cole dreams about a Spanish priest who is hung by Indians--"'Gente de razo'n,' they mock in his foreign tongue and tuck him into bed and kill him once more" (5-6), and an Indian, whose outstretched hands offer bones and whose appearance is striking: "black meets white in a line down the forehead, dividing broad nose, lips, wide chin, thick on the long, ropy hair, black and white even to the knot of hair on top and continuing down, dividing bare chest, arms, groin, one leg white, one black, one foot white, one black where he crouches" (5). As the details of the murder case unravel, Cole, along with the help of Alex, Cole's daughter Abby, and Onatima, realizes there is a connection between his mystical dreams and the female coed's murder in Santa Cruz. The similarities between the two eventually come to light as do Cole's connection to both: the bone game he visualizes compares to his earlier situation with Attis jus t as the primitive images of the Indian compel Cole to reacquaint himself with his heritage and the present-day murder, for he does, in fact, know the murderer of this young coed. Inevitably, the reader of Bone Game discovers that the novel is not only about "identifying" (in this case, the murderer), but even more importantly, about "identity."
As a divorced college professor in this sequel to The Sharpest Sight, Cole is more "settled" and mature as a result of his age and experience: nevertheless, he still calls upon his relatives' assistance in order to find answe rs, and he still seems somewhat ill-at-ease about who he is. In his everyday life as a teacher in mainstream culture, Cole has constructed a conventional but incomplete identity for himself, aware of being Indian--he introduces himself as "Cole McCurtain- -Irish-Cajun, Mississippi and Oklahoma by way of New Mexico and California" (Bone 26)--but is not really immersed in that identity.
Though there are a series of murders that occur in Bone Game, there is, as in The Sharpest Sight, one particularly mysterious death at the center of the novel; this time it is of a Caucasian female coed from the Santa Cruz University where Cole teaches. Cole seemingly has no connection to this murder--though this does not actually hold true over the course of the novel--yet he is haunted by and drawn to this incident, often in different incarnations, mostly in his drea ms. At the beginning of the novel, after a dream-filled and restless night of sleep, Cole first makes a pot of coffee, and then greets "the ceramic buffalo on top of the refrigerator" (9), a memento he cherishes because his somewhat estranged daughter had made it years earlier. He decides to spice up his first cup of the morning with a generous jigger of Jack Daniels: "glancing at the buffalo he shrugged. 'I'm half Irish, a little Scotch maybe' . . . 'What do you know about Gaelic tradition? You're extinc t" (11). Cole's comment points to Owens', in his 1995 autobiographical essay "Motion of Fire and Form," where he suggests that "certainty is not a condition that mixed bloods can know" (93).
And Cole is not the only Indian character in Bone Game who may have a confused identity. Cole first meets Alex Yazzie while Alex is field dressing a deer carcass--hanging from a tree--in front of faculty housing. Alex needs, according to a dream, "deer sinew to make arrows" (28). (The power of dreams in both novels, as in Indian culture, is profoundly and poignantly forceful.) Cole approaches him--he has been solicited as an "Indian" colleague to mediate the situation and cal m Alex--and says to Alex, "You look Navajo . . . Is that a skirt you're wearing?" (26). Alex replies by extending a bloody hand to Cole and saying, "Alex Yazzie. Salt Clan, Born-for-Water. Chinle. . . . It's an Evan Picone. You think it's too short, too d aring?" (26). This humorous exchange is important, for Alex likes to cross-dress and may be superficially confusing in his appearance, but unlike Cole, he knows himself and his Indianness. Eventually, he will help his new friend, Cole, do the same.
In another of the many humorous episodes in Bone Game, Coles behavior recalls Vizenors notion of "Indianness"; Cole acknowledges how mainstream (White) society embraces him--yet simultaenously sets him apart--for bei ng one of the "exotic" Native Americans on campus. Though he does not associate much--at least at first--with the administrators or even the faculty members on the Santa Cruz campus where he teaches, Cole gets a phone call from the secretary at the Vice C hancellor's office when "a situation involving a Native American faculty member" (23) arises. Rather facetiously, Cole tells the woman calling, "You must have me confused with an Indian," but when she pleadingly informs him that the matter is urgent, Cole excuses himself from a student conference: "I'm sorry, but there's some kind of Indian emergency. I have to go" (23).
Once Cole and Alex meet, they toy with the frightened Anglo-administrators who watch Alex saw up and dance around the dead deer. The Vice Chancellor pleads with Cole--"Explain to him it's against both state and university regulation s" (26)--and Cole does succeed in getting Alex to halt his ritual. Still Cole, the consummate creative writing professor, cannot resist teasing the Indian-phobic onlookers a bit more, as we find out later that there is no truth in what Cole tells the Vice Chancellor:
We have to be very, very careful. By the way he's painted himself, I can tell that this man is a Navajo heyokah, a sacred warrior-clown. They're notoriously volatile. You should also be aware that once a Navajo has comple ted his deer dance, he's bonded with the animal spirit. And Navajos are well-known in the Indian community for becoming insanely violent if separated from their meat once they've bonded. We could have a very politically incorrect situation here, not to me ntion a dangerous one. The political ramifications could be unpleasant at best for the university and everyone involved; after all, we're dealing with the cultural traditions of an indigenous person of color, a real Indian. (27)
Cole, seems to be mocking outsiders' responses to and perceptions of Native Americans as he affirms Vizenor's impression that the term "Indian" does not reflect a people as much as it refers to primarily (Anglo) circumstances that have come to define an "other" populace.
Although Owens' novels have contemporary settings and characterizations, they still embrace traditions and rituals of old Indian culture. Perhaps particular rites are not depicted exactly as they were once rendered, but Owens, at th e very least, modifies such practices. Charles Alexander Eastman, a Sioux who lived from 1858 to 1939, was a prolific writer, and he describes a "coming of age" experience that ostensibly resurfaces in Owens' The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game . According to Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., Eastman wanted to write about "what it meant to be Indian in America and to stress what Indians had contributed to American society" (Heath 764). Eastman had received an Anglo-American education: after gra duating from Dartmouth in 1887, he took a degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890. Because he became so well-educated, reservation life no longer suited him, but he felt estranged by and uncomfortable with white society. In the same way, Cole McCurtain never feels completely connected to the University which employs him nor its culture. He thinks to himself, "Someday, he knew, the University would find him out, would recognize him as an imposter and have him removed. The ones who really b elonged there, by birthright and Yale, would know they'd been correct all along. Indians, even mixedbloods or especially mixedbloods, did not belong" (Bone 22).
In 1911, Eastman wrote The Soul of the Indian, an essay recalling Anglos' early attempts at "Christianizing" Indians. Concerned about the possible loss of Indian traditions and rituals, Eastman wrote about the significance of some, including the idea of hambeday, "that solitary communion with the Unseen which was the highest expression of our religious life . . . literally `mysterious feeling,' which has been variously translated `fasting' and `dreaming'" (766).
Owens seems to recall Eastman's initial definition in his characterization of Cole McCurtain in both The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game. What Uncle Luther guides Cole towards--a recognition and appreciation of self--is a journey common to young Indian men, and is, in fact, a modification of the hambeday Eastman so meticulously describes:
The first hambeday, or religious retreat, marked an epoch in the life of the youth. . . . The young man sought out the noblest height, the most commanding summit of the surrounding region. Knowing that God sets no value u pon material things, he took with him no offerings or sacrifices other than symbolic objects, such as paints and tobacco. Wishing to appear before Him in all humility, he wore no clothing save his moccasins and breech-clout. At the solemn hour of sunrise or sunset he took up his position, overlooking the glories of earth and facing the "Great Mystery," and there he remained naked, erect, silent, and motionless, exposed to the elements and forces of His arming, for a night and a day to two days and nights, but rarely longer. Sometimes he would chant a hymn with words, or offer the ceremonial "filled pipe." In this holy trance or ecstasy, the Indian mystic found the highest happiness and the motive power of his existence. (766)
Cole's is an extended version of the hambeday, for what he begins in The Sharpest Sight, he actually finishes twenty years later in Bone Game. Cole sets out on a solitary journey in the earlier novel and experiences moments of revelation and "mysterious feeling." In addition, Alex gets Cole to partake in a sweat ceremony, which is, in itself, a kind of "fasting." Not only does he come of age in The Sharpest Sight and become emotionally and spiritually mature, but he seems to acquire a sense of tranquility, especially by the end of Bone Game. As modern as the two novels and protagonist are, they still embody many traditional ideas and rites of Indian culture.
Indeed the Native American novel lends itself to issues of identity since its mixedblood characters are inherently marginalized. And for author Louis Owens, the discovery of self, even if the experience is partially subconscious or even unconscious, is part of being Indian. Owens recognizes that for writers "who identify as Native American, the novel represents a process of reconstruction of self-discovery and cultural recovery" (Other 5). When he writes of himself in "Motion of Fire and Form," Owens could just as easily be describing Cole and his perspective on self:
I have learned to inhabit a hybrid, unpapered, Choctaw-Cherokee-Welsh-Irish-Cajun mixed space in between. I conceive of myself today not as "Indian," but as a mixedblood, a person of complex roots and histories. . . . I am the product of liminal space, the result of union between desperate individuals on the edges of dispossessed cultures and the marginalized spawn of invaders. . . . the descendant of mixedblood sharecroppers and the dispossessed of two continents. (88-89)
As he simultaneously reformulates the Bildungsroman tradition in The Sharper Sight and Bone Game and writes mysteries--and therein creates metamysteries, Owens depicts how complex an issue identity is for those who are mixedbloods.
Eastman, Charles Alexander. "The Soul of the Indian." The Heath Anthology of American Literature, v.2, ed. by Paul Lauter. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1994. 765-769.
Owens, Louis. Bone Game. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
----. "Motion of Fire and Form." Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, ed. by Gerald Vizenor. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 83-93.
----. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
----. The Sharpest Sight. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Vizenor, Gerald. "Introduction." Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, ed. by Gerald Vizenor. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 1-15.