Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 16 - Intermission

This chapter is mostly just tiresome - not boring, but annoying to read.  The weird thing is that there isn't much to it, because "Grapevine" is more or less a recap of the story thus far.  So props, Hubbard, for making the dull painful.

The author spends roughly five pages in dry, wry historian mode, having picked up an affection for it after experimenting with that voice in Chapter 14.  He pauses in the process of "cutting, trimming, drying, smoking and stacking the chronicle of Yellow Hair for posterity's digestion" to recount what led our hero to Fort Chesterfield in the first place, without really explaining why it's necessary.  Maybe he worried that by page 131 we'd have forgotten what happened on page 16.

So the author reminds us that this whole thing started when Captain Lewis killed two Pikuni "(in self defense, of course)," but Yellow Hair, "with naive reasoning that must be greatly regretted, he supposed that whites, like Indians, had their good people and bad people and were, after all, human with natural human frailties."  Alas, contact with the Nor'Westers proved how wrong he was when they took advantage of him, even attacking his good name by accusing him of murder!  Yellow Hair merely wanted to kill Lewis or the enemy Tushepaws, he hadn't actually gotten a chance to yet, thank you very much.

Hubbard (again) compares the "gallant rider of the plains" to a knight, someone with "honor, cleanliness and a strict code" whose skin tone was in truth "only a sixteenth of a shade deeper than the faces of the frontier interlopers," and I'm wondering how you measure that.  Well, not enough to actually look it up, I assume paint makers have a way to-- anyway, just as "King Arthur was too good himself to see the vice in the knights around him," so did the Native Americans initially assume that the invaders meant their words about brotherhood and peaceful coexistence.

Just as a reminder, this whole story started with Hubbard taking a historical incident and insisting that the Blackfoot had no choice but to try and steal Lewis' guns, because a tribe that his expedition visited earlier who believed his message of peace was attacked by other Indians.

Next our author attacks other authors, specifically Alexander Henry and his scornful yet popular account of the natives he encountered.  Unfortunately Hubbard is careless in this - Alexander Henry the younger was a Nor'Wester who did indeed travel across the Canadian frontier to sneer at the savagery of the Native Americans he encountered, and yes, he was enough of a dickwad to complain that their women weren't properly ashamed when he stood around to watch them bathe in the river, "yet so close did they keep their thighs together that nothing could be seen.”  But though he called the Blackfoot and their offshoots "Slave Indians" due to their propensity for taking captives, he described them as fearsome warriors obsessed with conflict, which doesn't exactly clash with how Hubbard has presented them so far.  You can read some extracts from Henry the younger's Ethnography of Fort Vermillion on this badly-formatted page.

Now Alexander Henry the elder, on the other hand, was a Nor'Wester who was adopted by one of those savage tribes, and had the diplomatic skills to get along with them.  He also wrote about his experiences, and in his 1809 book Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories between the years 1760 and 1776, which you can read online here, he assures us that he isn't trying to encapsulate the American Indians' history or explain their morals - "All comment, therefore, in almost all instances, is studiously avoided."  I've just skimmed it in places, and it seems pretty dry but not nearly as judgmental as its author's nephew.

But isn't that an important oversight?  Hubbard condemns one Henry as being responsible for painting the Indians in the worst light, but conveniently forgets to mention the other Henry who got along with them and wasn't so fiercely critical.  I guess he believes his own words about Yellow Hair being naive for assuming that there must be a decent white guy somewhere out there.

And then there's a shining moment of unintentional hilarity.

A bestial drunkard, a sot without decency or compunction, Henry passed enduring judgment upon the late American Indian. A trick of writing too well known for much enlargement here is to make most of your characters so dull your comedian appears uproariously funny.  By contrast murder can be made noble.  Henry was an unclean, lustful brute, but to make himself a hero in the Indian country, he carefully painted the Indian worse than himself.

I'm impressed that Hubbard could type this without a flash of awareness and shame compelling him to crumble up that page of the draft and start over.  Because let's take another look at our "hero" - see any redeeming qualities?  Anything that would make us like him?  Maybe I need a new glasses prescription, but all I can spot in Yellow Hair is a craving for violence and glory, seasoned with a disrespect for his elders and a tendency for his impulsiveness to get him in over his head - even the author admits that he possessed a "restless and impatient temperament" that might be beaten out of him in the unlikely event that he was defeated in battle.  But to make up for the hero's shortcomings, Hubbard has painted all the white men Yellow Hair encounters as drunkards or murderers or betrayers, allowing him to pass judgment on the entire race, even though doing so overlooks people like Father Marc who are more neutral than evil.

Or in other words, Hubbard is doing exactly what he's accusing Henry the younger of doing.

The good news is that we know that Hubbard will eventually get better about this.  I mean, he'll still paint an entire species or planetary population as irredeemably evil and/or corrupt (regardless of how many exceptions appear in the story), but he won't rely upon that alone making his protagonist heroic by comparison - instead he'll beat us over the head with how virtuous and exceptional the story's main character is while making everyone else as evil as possible.

Anyway.  The narrator says that given his experiences, it's small wonder that Yellow Hair, "while he was shipped like so much worthless rabbit fur to York Factory" underfed and denied medical treatment from Father Marc, developed "a deep and enduring hatred of his own race."  This isn't supposed to excuse or whitewash what he'll do in the rest of the story, the author assures us, we should simply try and keep things in perspective when we judge him.  Be a fair and unbiased audience, in this tale that demonizes everyone who opposes our hero.

The rest of the chapter describes how the legend of Yellow Hair spread across the continent - "From the Rockies to Quebec, from Hudson's Bay to St. Louis, men related the story, added their bit to it with wide, serious eyes, believed everything they heard about it, and importantly saw to it that the story rolled onward."  Soon one white Indian in dirty buckskins who killed five men in a siege has grown into a savage halfbreed who went about naked, with scarlet paint on his face and lit matches woven into his hair like Blackbeard.  They say he survives off wolf's blood, has eight to fourteen wives, killed as many as 231 people over his career, rides a giant stallion, roasts his foes' flesh in their burning forts before consuming them, savagely tears apart women and especially babies, and it took the British an eight-day-long battle to subdue him.

Small surprise then that when Yellow Hair arrived at York Factory, he was dumped in an outhouse - I'm assuming that's a house out from the rest of a complex, not the toilet - without clothes or blankets, kept under armed guard while the governor and his staff tried to figure out how to "get their money's worth out of 'that inhuman fiend.'"  ...Wait, what?

Now, you might think that with such a vicious killer on their hands, the authorities would be eager to get him tried and executed as quickly as possible, maybe even rushing through the former to get to the latter.  But luckily for our hero, the colonial governor is willing to spend time and resources keeping Yellow Hair alive, if in miserable condition, while postponing his trial for as long as possible, so that he'll have an opportunity to escape.  In, say, exactly thirteen pages.

Back to Chapter 15

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