Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

This was the book that I almost didn’t read.  I was at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention and of course going through the exhibition hall.  This was my first convention and I didn’t know that on the last day of the convention, the vendors give out books like candy.  So all I knew was that people were shouting out book titles and people were pushing and shoving to get them.  Basically it was a bibliophile’s Mardi Gras.  So I was at one vendor who was just handing out one book after another.  And I’m not the type to turn down a free book.  So after collecting an arm full of books, I took them back to my room to look at the booty.

Shadow CatcherShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan, stood out amongst the rest.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been trying to beef up my reading about Native Americans and/or by Native Americans.  Also, this particular book won a National Book Award, just adding to its gravitas.  The book is a biography of Edward Curtis, a photographer from late-1800’s Seattle, who made it his life’s work to document the languages, religions, customs, and everyday lives of the Native Americans.  He started this work after taking several portraits of chief Seattle’s daughter, destitute and living off of scraps from a trash heap.  He was curious to know more about the Native Americans living near Seattle.  What he saw shocked him.  He found civilizations that were in danger of becoming extinct.  The few Native Americans that were still living on their own land showed Curtis that they were not the savages that the government and popular beliefs made them out to be.

While establishing himself as one of the premiere photographers not only on the West Coast but the U.S., he used the earnings from his studio to fund excursions to reservations such as the Hopi, Navajo, Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Blackfoot, Kwakiutl, and the Inuits.  He brought with him to the reservations assistants to record language, customs, and ceremonies.  After collecting data from each tribe, they would all hole themselves up and put it all into words.  After realizing the undertaking of this task, of documenting the crumbling world of Native Americans, Curtis applied to J.P. Morgan for help.  Morgan gives him the money and continued sponsoring the project until its completion.

Sadly, like many great artists, Curtis’s personal life was in shambles.  Because of his devotion to the project, he neglected his life at home.  Alone, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, his wife finally divorces him.  Luckily, his children understood his passion and eventually sided with him in their adulthood.  Also, like many of the greats, he wasn’t appreciated in his time.  He didn’t sell enough subscriptions to actually make any money from the project.  The only copies that were purchased were by academic institutions and by foreign dignitaries.  However, during and after his lifetime, he has been lauded for his efforts and achievement to document the lives of Native Americans.

It was a bit of a tough read merely because it was hard to read about the disappearance of entire civilizations, not due to time but due to governmental mismanagement and racial intolerance.  Plus it was hard to listen to Curtis’s life crumble around him even while he’s trying to document the lives of others.  I’m glad that Egan left readers on a good note.  Several of the tribes Curtis documented, later went back and used the information to recreate, rejuvenate, and even reinvigorate their language, cultures, and religions.   It’s inspiring to know that even while the Native Americans were being pushed onto reservations and their way of life completely altered, a few people stood up to the injustices and tried to give a voice to people who didn’t have an audience.

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Only the Names Remain: The Cherokees and the Trail of Tears

As I’ve mentioned in several of my previous posts, I’m trying to read more works that are written by or feature Native Americans.  The latest book I read is a brief history of the Cherokee nation.  Even though it’s brief it’s packed with facts that I never knew.  And once again I’m disappointed that my education never told me such facts as the Cherokees actually had a capital city, were the first to have a written alphabet, and developed a political system based on the U.S.’s style.  The most I learned about the Cherokees is that they were driven from their lands and forced to march west.  Along the way many died due to the elements and starvation.

What continues to frustrate me is that I’m starting to see an echo between the past and the present due to the immigration conflict developing on our southern border.  A lot of people are using the thousands of women and children from Central America who are fleeing violence and crossing illegally into the United States as some sort of “invasion”.  They make it sound as if these individuals are going to drive us from our homes.  And while I do have some concerns about how our infrastructure will handle the influx of immigrants, I do not see this as a threat.

I get frustrated that these same people who are crying out over this “invasion” are the same “patriots” who are lampooned in one of the best satirical films I’ve seen, with puppets I might add. But I think these “patriots” are forgetting that we are a nation of immigrants, and Lady Liberty, whom they appropriate quite freely, stands for the “huddled masses yearning to be free”.  And most of the “patriots’s” family trees were immigrants fleeing violence and political unrest in their respective countries.  Clearly there’s a difference between legal and illegal immigrants, but the principle is that we are a nation built by and for immigrants who are escaping oppression.

Only the Names RemainAnd this idea of “invasion” is preposterous.  No one is going to show up on my doorstep and demand that I move because they need to house some Nicaraguans here.  But might I remind our dear “patriot” friends that their same ancestors who fled oppression turned to the people who were already living here, ahem, the Native Americans, and drove them off their land with violence and oppression.  Yes, it’s a long dark period in our history.  It’s uncomfortable to talk about and it certainly taints our soapbox of the land of the free and home of the brave, but it’s something that we have to acknowledge and learn from.  And to acknowledge it we have to accept that it happened and share it with each succeeding generation so that they will learn how we arrived at this point in history.

So while the “patriots” continue blocking buses full of young immigrant children, I’ll be shaking my head and telling everyone that I can that we don’t have a lot of room to stand on and cry foul when it comes to “invasions”.  Because we were all the invaders once and it’s up to us to help those who are fleeing oppression.  And maybe we need to change our infrastructure in order to help speed up the immigration process.  There’s many solutions but crying and sending people back into the violence doesn’t seem like the best solution.

I know this is supposed to be a book review, but good literature should cause readers to reflect and connect what they’ve read to their lives.  Thank you for your patience in reaching this point so far.  Hopefully we can develop a generation of true patriots who can understand the tragic events that occurred in the past and who work to make sure they don’t happen here in the future.