Monday, April 27, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 9 - Time Flies

So for reasons the author doesn't bother to spell out for us, Yellow Hair decides to stay at Fort Chesterfield to continue his mission of learning about the white man.  You might assume that the next couple of chapters will be a story arc about Yellow Hair doing just that, observing and commenting on the pioneers' behavior, comparing their life in the fort to his upbringing in a Pikuni village, maybe even wondering who or what he would have become had his father stayed East instead of adopting a new culture in the West.

You'd be wrong.  Instead, Chapter 9, "The Winter Passes," sums up nine months at the fort in four pages.

We're told our hero "fared fairly well," and also that "trouble treated him like a magnet."  This would be a contradiction if Yellow Hair wasn't so dead 'ard that he easily wins the two fights some French-Canadians pick with him, which fill up the jail so he gets to be housed elsewhere (we're not told where).  So even when trouble comes after him, he manages to benefit from it instead of being endangered.

We're told that Yellow Hair behaves so well on his parole walks that he becomes the fort's main hunter, since none of these other frontiersmen are savvy enough to pick out a two-year-old buffalo cow or sufficiently talented to ride alongside it and bring it down with an arrow at point-blank range.  None of the other hunters are "skillful enough to be selective in their kills," though the author doesn't explain why this was important, whether the stupid white guys were killing enough pregnant or young animals to put the entire population in jeopardy, or if they were blasting the first varmint they saw and bringing back a single rabbit for the whole fort to share.

We're told that the only real moment of concern - even including Yellow Hair's fights - came when other Blackfoot visited to trade and asked about our hero.  They were told that he was out hunting, though in truth he was under armed guard in a locked room, with orders to shoot him if he showed his head.  Why's that necessary, though?  What's Luberly and McGlincy afraid of?  Are they under the assumption that Yellow Hair thinks he is still a prisoner and would complain to the others, even though he's been given considerable freedom and could leave any time if he really wanted to?  Or do they think that the other Indians will talk him into leaving before he can be the fall guy in their scheme? 

We're told that Father Marc learns a lot of the Blackfoot tongue, particularly after figuring out that it has no equivalent sounds for B, D, F, G, J, L, R and Z, but that his language exchange with Yellow Hair is largely "one-sided."  See, Yellow Hair last spoke English when his papa died when he was six, but it's all still in there, plus he has the superhuman memory required of a Blackfoot scout.  "And when a man can look at a trail and notice the pattern of hoofprints, remember the weather of thirteen days past, recall the peculiarities of fifty different bands and reconstruct a history of the passage which would take two hours in the telling, a few things like words are not apt to be found difficult."

We're told that Yellow Hair's only difficulty is wrapping his head around a written alphabet, which he doesn't see the point of when there's perfectly good pictograms to work with - what part of "circle, slightly higher circle, circle, semicircle with the flat side down" don't you understand?  But he gets the hang of it eventually and masters the white man's language, although Yellow Hair has disgustedly given up of ever trying to understand the white man's culture.

We just aren't shown any of it.

It's understandable, I mean we're a third of the way through the book already, and this is supposed to be a story of "violence, treachery, privation and death," not some sort of insightful cultural critique.  The author clearly wants to get to the good stuff, not character development or anything, but death and mayhem.  So the chapter ends with the mention that the frozen river is melting, the shipment of the Hudson Bay Company's furs will be coming through soon, and Yellow Hair is completely ignorant of the plan McGlincy and Luberly have in store for him.  Soon we'll get to the scalping and the shooting and the yelling.

I just have to ask, why did we even need the "Yellow Hair wants to learn about his people" angle in the first place if it was so quickly and decisively abandoned?  I suppose it got him to go to the fort to be captured so he could be used as a patsy during some corporate warfare, but if the Blackfoot come to the fort anyway to trade, why couldn't he arrive then?  And then he has his first beer and causes a ruckus and the fur traders convince the Pikuni that justice demands that he sit in jail for a few days, or whatever?  And maybe he's already picked up some English from an earlier visit? 

And why does he have to be white when he's making no effort to blend in or learn about his original culture?  ...Oh.  I see Chapter 25 is titled "Who is Yellow Hair?", a question that probably wouldn't be asked if he was just another dirty Indian.

Back to Chapter 8

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