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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale, Pt 4 Sec 1.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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Part Four.

I

At the Priest’s House

September 17 1975

ASATCHAQ WAS FOND of women and one of his most loyal supporters was the priest’s wife who visited him regularly in the care home and bought him clothes from local thrift stores. Gifts of clothes and other supplies — a large crate of eggs, a woolen dressing gown, a blanket — were particularly welcome once Asatchaq had returned to Tikigaq. But given that Tikigaq lay within the Episcopalian diocese, the warmth of the relationship was also in part a formality. It lay, after all, within Elizabeth’s pastoral responsibility to minister to members of her husband’s state-wide congregation. Still, they loved each other. Asatchaq called her ‘Lady Elizabeth’ and that autumn, also saw an opportunity to propose marriage to Elizabeth’s widowed mother who lived in the family house to which he and I were invited for lunch in mid-September. For much of that afternoon, I lost sight of Asatchaq. The narrative of the present section is dominated by Mrs Charlotte and the lecture she delivered as we sat together in the garden.

The priest’s house is a large white clapboard building in a rustic spot, and though surrounded by log cabins, was still central Fairbanks. Elizabeth and her husband have lived here for ten years and Elizabeth works a spacious front garden where she grows vegetables and flowers. Now in sunny mid-September, dahlias and chrysanthemums still bloom, sweet peas grown against the fence are dry, squash and tomatoes are ripe for present eating and for bottling against the winter.

This is my first visit and the garden presents a recognizable and quasi-English character. Straw hat, secateurs and wicker basket decorate an iron table. We might be at Vita’s, Sissinghurst in 1930 and I glance round for a typescript. Re-focussing on what we’re doing, I grind Asatchaq’s wheelchair down a gravel path between the gate and and a veranda and haul the chair up. Lady Elizabeth, as Asat­chaq calls our hostess, is in the kitchen moulding a piecrust from chocolate-chip cookies. Everything is tranquil and well ordered. I’m entering the heart of Christian Alaska.1

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‘Hi Jimmie!’ Elizabeth, the Priest’s Wife, has a natural sweetness toughened by experience of cold and isolation on Dakota missions. Her charm penetrates me deeply and unsettles the anti-Christian arrogance on which I have sustained allegiance to pre-contact history. The Old Mastodon grapples at the Priest Wife’s long pale hand as she stoops to kiss him. ‘You good to in-vite me,’ he growls with pleasure.

Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Charlotte, comes in from the garden with a tray of tomatoes and her presence deepens suddenly the layers of time expressed by Asatchaq’s association with both ‘pagan’ Tikigaq and the Christianity established in 1890.

I’m a young man, a foreigner; also a non-Christian. And no doubt represent, as evoked by T.S. Eliot, a cosmopolitan free-thinker alien to High Church tradition. My Berlin elders, born before Asatchaq, were a presence in my childhood. Their non-Jewish contemporaries were World War veterans and World War widows.

She is almost a hundred and carries her century like a goddess. Tall, straight-backed, grand in presence, she enters as though sweeping back a curtain of the present…

Mrs Charlotte is of that generation. She is almost a hundred and carries her century like a goddess. Tall, straight-backed, grand in presence, she enters as though sweeping back a curtain of the present to convey a hinterland of vaster, more important moment. Her childhood took place at the centre of nineteenth century Native history. She was raised on a Mission within earshot of the Pine Ridge reservation where some three hundred Sioux were slaughtered by the US army in the Wounded Knee disaster.

That was December 1890 when Mrs Charlotte was about eleven. She hurried with her parents to the Holy Cross Chapel to serve in the makeshift hospital that the Rev. Charles Cook had improvised for Wounded Knee victims. Straw lay on the church floor. Paper chains from Christmas celebrations still hung round the chapel.2

II

Historical Interlude

BEFORE OFFERING AN account of Mrs Charlotte’s conversation, I should mention the connection between Tikigaq metaphysics of Asatchaq’s childhood and the Ghost Dance religion that Mrs Charlotte encountered at the turn of the twentieth century in the Dakotas. Neither she nor Asatchaq was aware of this shared experience. And it was a connection that I only came to realize later.

The similarity between Inupiaq and Lakota experience was institutional and lay in the fact that Tikigaq and South Dakota were evangelized in the late nineteenth century by Episcopalian missionaries.

Unlikely as it sounds, the similarity between Inupiaq and Lakota experience was institutional and lay in the fact that Tikigaq and South Dakota were evangelized in the late nineteenth century by Episcopalian missionaries. Thus missionary Driggs who arrived in Tikigaq in summer 1890 was anb emissary from the same New York Episcopalian society that sent Mrs Charlotte’s parents to labour in the Dakotas. This was one factor shared by these widely separated communities. At a deeper level, but by coincidence, Tikigaq and the Lakota Sioux adhered to versions of the same revivalist Native cult that originated in the American northwest in about 1877. Some time in the 1880s Lakota messengers had travelled to the northwest, learned revivalist theology and returned to broadcast in its message which the Lakota transformed into the Ghost Dance. While during the same decade in the 1880s, a revivalist Inupiaq cult which came to be known as uivaqsaaq and which promised the return of ancestors and game animals, shared most of the beliefs and some of the forms as what, in the Dakotas, became the Ghost Dance religion.

There were, of course, significant differences between the two movements. While the Ghost Dance, on account of excruciating inter-ethnic conflict, acquired a military complexion, uivaqsaaq was non-violent but like the Ghost Dance promised the return of ancestors who’d been victims of American contact, the restoration of Native lands and the renewal of animals — the buffalo in the Dakotas, sea mammals in the Arctic — once Native autonomy had been restored.

How this syncretic Native and Christian-inflected religion travelled from the American northwest coast to Alaska remains a mystery. But the Ghost Dance and Tikigaq’s uivaqsaaq both stemmed from the teachings of same northwest coast visionary revivalists of the late 1870s. An outline of a possible transmission history is given at section VII below. That said, neither Asatchaq nor Mrs Charlotte knew of one another’s experience of these related but geographically separated movements.

III

MRS CHARLOTTE WAS, as she herself said, ‘a high toned old Christian woman’. But she was also a wonderfully complex and divided, if not conflicted, individual. Having grown up in the late nineteenth century on an Episcopalian Mission to the Sioux, she escaped east in her late teens, perhaps intending to put an end to the remote hardships of her upbringing, to study languages at Barnard College and had graduated comfortably when she took up with an old sweetheart who had travelled east to find her, and together they returned as missionaries to the Dakotas in the early twentieth century.

I’d read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and parts of Mooney’s study of the Wounded Knee fight. Young Mrs Charlotte — believer and sceptic, scholar, mission wife, philanthropist — had adapted to the hardship of Mission life, spoke Lakota and understood the issues Mooney outlined in his study of the outbreak.3

In the course of that Alaskan lunch time in September, there followed two astounding episodes in which I found myself alone, before the lunch and later, with Mrs Charlotte in the garden. For two and then for three hours she talked about her life, her Wounded Knee memories and her commitment to Christianity despite a secular education in New York.

I scribbled a few notes when I got home that September evening. But otherwise, my record of Mrs Charlotte’s speech is recollection re-imagined. Her monologue was uninhibited, often caustic and judgmental. It was the ‘old pagan’, as Mrs Charlotte called Asatchaq, who’d brought us temporarily together. But he, Asatchaq, was throughout, upstairs in the house with Mrs Charlotte’s daughter and I was left with Mrs Charlotte.

IV

Mrs Charlotte’s Harrangue4

ONCE WE HAD been briefly introduced to one another, Mrs Charlotte launched her monologue. She didn’t wait for me to introduce myself, but diagnosed, with some impatience, my character and attitude to Native business. Impatient, maybe, to off—load the contents of a split mind, as she saw it, to a likely fellow being.

I understand that you’re not churched and you’re against the churches. It’s a justified opinion. What right has one view to impose itself on captive people?’

And yes, they were captives in the country where they also exercised their freedom. It’s contradictory, an injustice, in this land, America, proclaiming freedom.

It’s one thing to debate a notion. Another to send messengers of power to damaged villages. I can hear that plaint. I share the outrage. The Natives enjoy freedom. Monied, worried altruistic white folks on the east coast cities enjoy freedom. They exercise freedom to extend themselves into the furthest reaches. I appreciate that vision, the estranging nature of the process. We, afterall, are also living by translation and have acculturated fragments of a Middle Eastern cult, imperfectly recorded, into domesticated, urban uniform. We have civilized a foot-loose sport of antinomial Aramaicism into an adjunct of the local government until it’s an aspect of an urban uniform.

‘Yes, look at how the church develops its self-government. And is an aspect of respectable self-governing society. We’ve become conventional. Independent spirits become delegates and prelates, dignitaries in English church robes, who speak in studied, measured ways, raise money to build offices and manufacture ritual instruments and build careers, live by self-promotation and agendas and create a history. It’s ghosts in uniform. They constitute an army fighting with historical imagination. Some Sinai desert visionary is made professor. A sage tamed to promote respectability. True up to a point.

The church becomes a decency, civility, a retreat into gentility.

‘Now your missionary’s a part of that. But he — you have to marry one if you’ve ambitions in that department — can revert to a Christ-like sort of disaffiliation. Yes, the churches allow, promote, require perhaps in order to refresh a fading self—view of their sanctity, ideosyncratic, self-promoting lonely wanderers — the missionary Driggses, Edsons, Hudson Stucks and Hoares,’ she added in allusion to Tikigaq’s half century of Episcopalian Christendom.

‘I’m not a sage. I’m not a seer, a saint or even much of an old sinner. A decent student if I’d stuck it. Though I might quite well have crashed once I’d finished my MA at Barnard. And now I’m just what Stevens called a High Toned Christian Woman. Exercising my complacencies to quote the poet.5

‘Most of what we need to know about this country’s in Walt Whitman. That’s who expresses and presents the textures, courage, brightness of America. It’s agonising work that brings us through, that makes us. Though where we arrive remains ambiguous. Yes, incessant labour, raw noise, bodies, restless movement. Read Whitman and you’re right there in that mish-mash. A society patched roughly, boldly, like our map between Atlantic and Pacific. Hard to keep track of and account for all the races, tribes, types, jobs, workshops, pioneers, professions, genders even. But one thing I noticed. There ain’t no Jews in Whitman’s America.’

She added this in response to my Hebraic eyebrow.

Later I wrote a piece in the manner of Whitman but received no response when I sent it to her. If ever an old buzzard deserved roosting with the angels it was Mrs Charlotte. Here, for what it’s worth, is the parody I sent her:

I put on a dress and wash my beard. I light the Sabbath candles
And pray with cupped palms over weeping eyelids in the Hebrew.
I spoon out chicken broth and matzah balls to which I’ve added
___schmaltz and parsley.

I adjust, in comradeship, my circumcision and celebrate my host’s
___exemplar.
It’s a flower from the desert translated to the Bowery.
It gives him headway in the sex act. It inhibits prematurity.

I dance. There’s a frohlich. Fiddle, trombone, clarinet, accordion.
I embrace each instrument. I embrace the rabbi.
I weep and laugh with grandmothers who have been widowed.
I throw high the children, catch them and return them to their older sisters.

I think that’s something Mrs Charlotte would have smiled at and I’ll acknowledge my own happy contact with Episcopalians. These are the nicest folk you could meet in America: selfless in their non-dogmatic character. In this connection I wrote one later night in Tikigaq:

I’ve met an Episcopal prig or two
But these are relatively few.

And they were easier to be with than the edgy, creative crowd in which I numbered.

‘What do you think of our Gospels, Tom?’ asked one of my teachers at school in the 1950s. We’d been in Divinity, a non-exam lesson.

‘I think they’re jolly good, sir,’ I replied, slightly forward. Frech, my grandma would have called it. ‘But why should anyone believe them any more than they might the Rg Veda?’ Which was probably rude and I didn’t get further.

‘You’re late coming to the field, young man,’ continued Mrs Charlotte. ‘Most of what you’re looking for is finished on account of the white man, never mind if he’s a scallywag or bishop. That includes the likes of Christian folks among the contact population. Hare was bishop in the Dakotas, called it Niobrara, before 1880. The word Dakota followed. And me and my hubby, we followed like gun dogs, all the way from Princeton.

You’re going,’ she continued mightily, ‘where the native folks will view you as a random, arbitrary being. And you’ll see them through the lens of ego. I know: you’ll care for them and work hard.

‘But remember, they’re still people, not ethnic types, material you want to wrap up in a book about them. Yes, they’re book material. But to themselves — they’re not figures in a work of fiction or ethnography. Their lives are real as yours and mine are. Unpredictable, in constant change and movement.

‘And here you are with this old pagan,’ and she pointed with her chin towards the kitchen window through which Asatchaq was visible with Mrs Charlotte’s daughter.

‘You see him as a sage and icon. Imagine, if you can, his day’s experience. It’s unknowable. As are fifty years of doings, thought, relationship and struggle. The details of which knowledge he’ll impart to you in scraps and shadows. You’ll note these down. He’ll praise you for it. And you’ll get a high from that achievement. But they’ll be shreds and tangles that mean one thing to him and another in your comprehension.

‘Then there’s his age,’ continued Mrs Charlotte, ‘How far will what he tells you be what he knew and understood once? Could it ever be free of fifty years’ of half-forgetting and erosion? What we old birds remember is a nest of what was criss-cross to start with and which over the decades gets stuff sticking to it every-which-way in a bird’s nest of accumulations. The original in its simple detail disappears. We hear other versions and we ourselves get tangled.

‘Today, the issue’s not which path to take any longer. The old protagonists have gone their ways. Natives, traders, missionaries, BIA officials, anthropologists have clashed, accommodated, preyed and battened on each other. The white man saw some short-term gains and natives suffered losses. The modernizing dispensation, in the Dakotas as here in Alaska, was settled almost eighty years ago. Pax Americana was established, a political and statewide, nation-wide reality and the Christian message was its escort, honey on the hard bone, of amelioration. A ghostly icing on the carbohydrate.

‘There were native agnostics. Still, to accept Jesus was an aspect of a new belonging. You got preferential treatment and achieved the promised heaven. The masks and puppets of the old tradition heaped in rotting tipis and abandoned iglus.’


Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

NOTES.

  1. The Episcopal church has been in Alaska since 1887 when the Anvik Mission on the Yukon was established. In addition to the school and hospital he built, the Rev John Chapman mastered Athabascan language and recorded Athabascan texts for publication. In 1890 the Episcopalians dispatched its first two missionaries. John Driggs arrived in Tikigaq in 1890 where he set up a school and worked as a physician. Driggs stayed eighteen years, learned fluent Inupiaq and was mourned by the village when the UK-born Hoare who’d more lately been with Chapman on the Yukon replaced him in 1907.
  2. W.H. Hare, Episcopal Bishop of Niobrara (as Dakota/Nebraska then was), arrived a few days after the Wounded Knee disaster. He wrote: ‘On the church floor…two rows of bleeding, groaning, wounded men, women and children; tending them two military surgeons and a native physician assisted by the missionary and his helpers, assiduity and tenderness marking all. Above, the Christmas green was still hanging. To one of my moods they seemed mockery to all my faith and hope: to another they seemed an inspiration still singing, though in a minor key, “Peace, good will to men.” Quoted in Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation 1963:235
  3. It will be clear throughout this narrative that Mrs Charlotte’s sympathies were, as mine are, with Sioux people, though knowledgable as she was, she could not have been acquainted with all the bands that made up the Teton Sioux nation — these included the Brule, Hunkpapa (Chief Sitting Bull), Miniconjou and Oglala who lived on the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations. Pine Ridge was the scene of the Wounded Knee massacre on 29 December 1890. Sitting Bull, one of the leaders of the Ghost Dance movement, had been killed on 15 December on the occasion of his arrest ordered by General Miles by Sioux policemen and tribal enemies. The circumstances of Sitting Bull’s murder expressed the tragic conflict between rival Sioux factions.
  4. Mrs Charlotte’s conversation has been reconstructed after more than forty years and is semi-fictionalised, her views containing some of my own projected thoughts. Important nonetheless to remember that the Episcopalian communities in the Dakotas and Alaska, as with twentieth century Jesuits in the Dakotas, moved to embrace a number of Native ideas and incorporate them in Christian doctrine. Many Dakota missionaries became fluent in Siouan languages, as did Driggs in Inupiaq. While the representation of Wounded Knee and references to Driggs and Sheldon Jackson aspire to historical accuracy, Mrs Charlotte’s views are only semi-orthodox. While she expressed doubt about missionary life and Christianity as an alternative to Sioux religion, her faith outweighed her scepticism. She also knew that there were, for whatever reason, sincere converts among the Indian Christians. This is underlined by the words that she referred me to of a dying Sioux policeman after the murder of Sitting Bull: ‘I will die in the faith of the white man and to which my five children already belong… Send for my wife, that we may be married by the Black Gown before I die.’ (Utley 1963:165) Counterpointing the responsibility of the Native police for Sitting Bull’s murder is the suspicion that they were following orders from Indian Agent McLaughlin or the military. Utley’s account of the policemen’s burial at the Congregational Mission is poignantly reminiscent of funerals, including that of Daisy, that I attended in Tikigaq’s cemetery.
  5. Wallace Stevens, A High Toned Old Christian Woman:
    Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
    Take the moral law and make a nave of it
    And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
    The conscience is converted into palms,
    Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
    We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
    The opposing law and make a peristyle,
    And from the peristyle project a masque
    Beyond the planets.

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