Friday, February 26, 2016

History Rewritten - 3

Languages evolve over the course of centuries to meet the needs of their speakers and to convey the thoughts these speakers choose to express. Each language shows us a unique way of understanding experience; the loss of a language means the loss of all that could be learned through the study of that language about human values, oral literature and tradition, history, and human thought.
-Dr. Lyle Campbell, University of Canterbury

Almost in desperation, linguists have begun to adopt the vocabulary and metaphors of biologists. They too are speaking about the resilience that comes with diversity. They too are asking for niches of equilibrium to remain undisturbed. They too are warning of the dangers inherent in ... an "impoverished and homogenized world," one in which a few dominant lifeforms have overrun and erased the diversity that used to sustain us.
-Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages


In the sixteenth century, the linguistic diversity of the Americans was far greater than that of Europe.  Thousands of languages were spoken in the Western Hemisphere, but as indigenous people were wiped out by colonization and related causes, many of those languages went extinct.

And it continues.  Let’s consider a few statistics from David Crystal, author of Language Death:

There are some 6,000 languages in the world at the moment. And of these, about half – some say more, come say less – are going to die out in the course of the next century. The relevant deduction is sobering: 3,000 languages in 1200 months. That means, on average, there is a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so.

Crystal points to natural disasters, cultural assimilation and genocide as reasons for language extinction. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to draw parallels to the current unprecedented rate of extinction for biological species.

In his book, Crystal retells an amazing story of a lost language recovered:

The explorer Alexander von Humboldt was searching for the soure of the Orinoco, in South America, in 1801. He met some Carib Indians who had recently exterminated a neighbouring tribe and captured some of their domesticated parrots. The parrots still spoke words of the now extinct language, and von Humboldt was able to transcribe some of them.

Von Humboldt himself explained it in this manner:
A tradition circulates among the Guahiboes, that the warlike Atures, pursued by the Caribbees, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heartofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as it’s language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767, in the time of the missionary Gili. At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures’

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) spent five years in Latin America, including extensive exploration of the Andes.  Von Humboldt visited many of the same places as had Hernando De Soto (1500-1542) almost three centuries earlier, though De Soto kept a much narrower focus with his curiosity (“Where’s the gold and silver?” was his obsessive demand wherever he went). 


Starting his career as a conquistador at age 14, Hernando De Soto honed his deadly skills under the command of Francisco Pizarro, sharing in the plunder of the wealth of the Incas.

1954 Desoto Adventurer

De Soto expected to find similar treasures in North America, landing in Tampa Bay with 620 men and 220 horses.  Soon after their arrival in May 1539, an incident as remarkably improbable as Humboldt’s Parrots contributed immeasurably to the expedition.

Rodrigo Ranjel recalled the unexpected find for the De Soto party:

Toward sunset, being off their road, because the Indian, who was the guide, led them wandering and confused, it pleased God that they descried at a distance some twenty Indians painted with a kind of red ointment that the Indians put on when they go to war or wish to make a fine appearance. They wore many feathers and had their bows and arrows And when the Christians ran at them the Indians fled to a hill, and one of them came forth into the path lifting up his voice and saying, "Sirs, for the love of God and of Holy Mary, slay not me; I am a Christian like yourselves and was born in Seville, and my name is Johan Ortiz."

“Juan” Ortiz was a member of the disastrous Narvaez expedition to La Florida 11 years earlier. Since his capture he had been living among Timucuan-speaking Florida natives.  A kind of Pocahontas story emerged concerning a chief’s daughter who saved Ortiz from certain death. 

In fact, some historians have accused John Smth of stealing the story of Juan Ortiz and adopting it as his own.   As retold in 1908, the story of Juan Ortiz’s capture and punishment and his rescue by Ulelah would be just the thing for outdoor drama. 

I thought I was above these digressions into outrageous fiction (?), but this is too rich to pass up:

Narvaez, who had made a treaty of peace with Ucita, Casique of the province called Hirrigua, afterward treated that chief with the greatest cruelty, giving his aged mother to be torn to pieces by dogs, for complaining of an outrage which had been committed by one of the Spaniards on the person of a young Indian woman. The chief becoming incensed, threatened vengeance, when he was seized and scourged, by order of Narvaez, and his nose cut off.

This chief and his family were not slow to wreak their vengeance upon the unfortunate Spaniards who had now fallen into their hands. They were taken to a square inclosed with palisades and, in the presence of Ucita, one of the four was stripped of his clothing and made to run around the inclosure while the Indians amused themselves shooting arrows into his body, until death terminated the cruel sport.

This was repeated with two of the others until Ortiz was the only survivor. Believing him to be the son of Narvaez, he was reserved for slow and more lingering torture. A wooden frame was constructed on which the victim was laid and bound, and a slow fire built beneath. 

The tortures of the unfortunate youth, who was but eighteen years of age, excited the pity of an Indian woman who hastened to the dwelling of the Casique and made known the situation to Uleleh the Chief's eldest daughter, then about sixteen years old. The young princess thereupon threw herself at the feet of her father and entreated him to suspend the execution and release the victim.

Her request was granted and Ortiz was unbound, but suffered greatly from his burns. He was attended by the medicine man of the tribe, and the princess and her attendants did all that they could to relieve his sufferings.

But, notwithstanding the importunities of his daughter, Ucita would not desist from the infliction of continued cruelties upon the young man, or relieve him from the sentence of death under which he was. He was employed in the most slavish and laborious occupations, and at times compelled to run all day in the public square where Indians stood ready to shoot him if he should stop.

After about nine months of such life the chief consented to suspend execution of the death sentence for a year on condition that he be required to keep guard over the cemetery of the tribe, three miles from the village; where, according to custom, the bodies of their dead were exposed on biers or stages several feet above ground. It was necessary to keep watch over them at night to protect them from beasts of prey.

Criminals under sentence of death were usually appointed to keep this watch, and were permitted to live provided they escaped from the dangers of their occupation. If the guard permitted a corpse to be carried away by wild animals he was put to death the following day. Uleleh informed Ortiz of the conditions of the suspension of his sentence, which he did not hesitate to accept.

Armed with a bow and arrows he commenced his lonely watch, occupying a hut in the midst of the cemetery. The stench of dead bodies soon overpowered him. From this he recovered, however, sufficient to drive off wolves that appeared in the early part of the night.

About midnight an animal carried off the corpse of a child. Ortiz, terror stricken at what might result from the failure of his vigilance, followed in the direction the animal had taken and guided by the sound of the gnawing of bones, taking aim, as best as he could in the dark, shot an arrow at it, which he was rejoiced to discover next morning had penetrated the heart of the animal (a panther) and killed it. This feat won the admiration of the Indians.

After about two weeks of such service in the cemetery, the princess Uleleh accompanied by two faithful attendants came to the cemetery one night and informed Ortiz that the priests had demanded his death at their approaching festival; that their demands would have to be complied with unless he escaped by flight.

Inspired by the great beauty of the Indian princess and her uniform kindness to him, Ortiz made a declaration of his love, entreated her to accompany him in flight, seek asylum with some friendly tribe and become his wife, promising to take her to the land of his birth.

But the dusky maiden was not slow to inform her white suitor that her kindness to him was not the inspiration of love, but pity for his sad condition, that she was already betrothed to a neighboring Casique, Mocoso, to whose protection she was about to recommend him.

She then presented him with a girdle, as a token that she had sent him, and furnished him with a faithful guide. Accompanied by this guide, Ortiz was prompt to seek safety in flight, arriving near Mocoso's village, the guide then left him. Some fishermen discovered him as he was approaching the village and took up their weapons with the purpose of assailing him, but desisted when he showed them the girdle.

He was then led by them through the village and to the presence of the chief Mocoso, a young Indian of handsome appearance and intelligent countenance, to whom he presented the girdle sent by his bethrothed, the princess Uleleh, with request for his protection.

Mocoso assured him of safe asylum and treated him with every kindness and affection. When the Casique Ucita heard that Ortiz had escaped and taken refuge with Mocoso he sent a demand to the latter for his return to him; this Mocoso refused, causing an estrangement between the two Casiques, which delayed for a considerable time the marriage of Mocoso and Uleleh.


Whatever actually happened before his reunion with fellow Spaniards, the appearance of Juan Ortiz was the best thing that De Soto could have hoped for. And, according to the chroniclers, Mocoso cultivated the relationship with De Soto, believing the Spanish force would help him gain revenge against his old enemy, Ucita.

With language skills acquired over the preceding decade, Juan Ortiz was De Soto’s interpreter through Florida and to the interior.  As the army marched beyond chiefdoms speaking languages known to Ortiz, a boy named Perico came into the picture, adding to the capacity to communicate in Georgia and the Carolinas.

During his three-year invasion of America, De Soto travelled through areas that were home to at least five families of languages – Timucuan, Muskogean, Siouan, Iroquoian and Algonquian.  Each of these might have been represented by one or more (or many) specific languages and dialects. 

Possibly, the Mobilian Jargon, an evolving pidgin language, bridged barriers on parts of the trip.  It was spoken among the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.  But the Mobilian Trade Language, whatever its stage of development in 1540, must have been of limited value. 

By the time the De Soto expedition reached the Mississippi River, Team Ortiz had grown to between ten and fourteen interpreters, captives plucked from villages speaking different tongues along the way.


With so many links in the chain, misunderstandings, mischief, or worse, must have arisen.  It brings to mind an incident included among the Payne-Butrick papers, from the early nineteenth century:

The [Creek] prisoner was brought up for trial.  One Captain [James] Carey, a Cherokee Interpreter, was called upon to explain.  Carey did not understand a word of Creek, but it was not for him to disclose the secret of a tribe with whom he was friendly, so he let the Court believe that the prisoner talked good Cherokee.

“What is the man’s name?” asked the Judge.

“Hibungo Highgo,” replied the Interpreter.

“And what,” continued the Judge, “may Highbungo Highgo, mean in English?”

“It means, please your Honor, Dance upon Nothing.”

“Very well.  Proceed & read to him the Indictment & let the Interpreter explain it to the prisoner.”

The Indictment was read & the Interpreter, turning to the Prisoner, said: “Buncknee highgo hominy haw heebucks-cheh.”

To which the Indian replied, not understanding a syllable: “Oom hoo.”

“What is it he says, Captain Carey?”

“He says, your Honor, True Enough.  He shot Jo Ish in the back with two bullets while he was ploughing.”

Said the Judge, “Ask him if he is ready for his trial.”

“Buncknee highgo hominy haw heebucks-cheh,” says Captain Carey.

“Oom hoo,” repeats the Indian.

“What does he say now, Captain Carey?”

“He says he is a man & a warrior and not afraid to die.”

“What?” said the Judge.  “Does he say all that is so few words?”

“Your honor must know,” replied the Captain, “that the ‘Cherokee’ is a very comprehensive language.”

Whereupon the plea of guilty was entered in due form & the Indian executed.  When Carey was asked afterward whether his conscience was at rest after the affair, “Perfectly” said he, “for I’ve done a fine thing for the Cherokees.”

Sunday, February 21, 2016

History Rewritten - 2

The problem of writing the social history of the Native peoples of the Southeast is formidable. One has to simultaneously represent both synchronic social and cultural systems and the diachronic change that transforms them. One has to both represent the exotic world of the Southeastern chiefdoms and the European world-system that impinged upon them as "storms brewed in other men's lands" and in time destroyed, dissolved, or enveloped by them. And we must do it with the merest fragments of archaeological and oral evidence. As cultural and social beings, the Native peoples of the Southeast have been fundamentally transformed by history several times over, as have we all. If the Native peoples of the Americas are ever to be more than moral fodder for various ideologies--whether left, right, or postmodern--they must find their proper place in the social history of the modern world. Since 1976 some progress has been made on this front by archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and historians, but much more remains to be done.
—  Charles M. Hudson, 2000

Long ago, when I first read the chronicles of Hernando de Soto's expedition across the Southeast, I was reading very narrowly.  Specifically, I sought the eyewitness accounts of the first interactions (in 1540) between Cherokees and Europeans.  Talk about seminal moments!

Revisiting the De Soto adventure, with a broader perspective on the natives of the Southeast and with the support of scholarship not available 25 years ago, I now realize that "seminal moment" on the De Soto itinerary is not as sure a thing as I once assumed.

Three members of the De Soto party recorded their accounts of the ill-fated expedition and another writer reported the trip soon thereafter.  Despite the relatively rich documentary record, disagreements continue regarding the exact route of the three-year-long expedition.  "We crossed a big river.  We marched north three days.  We crossed another big river," leaves a lot of room for interpretation.  Several years ago, I compiled a list of the proposed locations for just one village that De Soto encountered on the trip:

Guaxule # 1 – Coosawattee Old Town, near Carters, Murray County, Georgia
Guaxule # 2 – Etowah, near Cartersville, Bartow County, Georgia
Guaxule # 3 – Nacoochee Mound, White County, Georgia
Guaxule # 4 – Peachtree, on the Hiawassee River, Cherokee County, North Carolina
Guaxule # 5 – Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina
Guaxule # 6 – Embreeville, on the Nolichucky River, Washington County, Tennessee
Guaxule # 7 – Garden Creek, on the Pigeon River near Canton, Haywood County, NC

In the 1930s a federal commission headed by John Swanton had the task of nailing down the De Soto route.  The Commission sent the conquistadors cruising through southwestern North Carolina.  The Spaniards caught US 64 near Highlands and followed that to Murphy and beyond, so to speak. 

And unless the signs have come down, no fewer than seven North Carolina Highway Historical Markers commemorate the Swanton route.  That explains, too, the presence of Desoto Trail Realty and Desoto Trail Construction in Franklin.  But to the chagrin of local tourism boosters, the Swanton Commission's "official" route has fallen out of favor.  Over the past twenty years, a route proposed by the late anthropologist Charles Hudson has assumed the frontrunner spot.  (Guaxule #6 is on the Hudson route, by the way.) 

Even so, on some segments of the trip De Soto covered too great a distance in too short a time to reconcile the Hudson route with the written record.  Of all the places De Soto visited, from landing near Tampa Bay to his death near the Mississippi River, only one has been identified with a high degree of certainty - the site where he spent the winter of 1539-1540 in what is now downtown Tallahassee, Florida. 

Nevertheless, the De Soto narratives provide an unmatched perspective on the natives of the Southeast in the mid-sixteenth century and do offer some clues concerning events that occurred before and after 1540.  As a casual student of the subject, I've been perplexed by the huge gap that falls beyond the reach of the historic record and beyond the realm of the archaeological evidence.  When the marketing division of any organization spins yarns to fill in that gray area of mystery, the result is less than satisfactory.  At least to anyone who ISN'T a fan of the phony history that makes it onto billboards, roadside interpretive exhibits and the endless flood of books intended for unsuspecting readers. 

One popular misconception is that native groups were "one with the land" in the sense that they settled their respective territories of the Southeast, "putting down roots" for century after century, peacefully tending their crops, hunting, fishing and picking berries from the same fields, forests and streams as had their ancestors for millennium upon millennium., not exactly.  And though it may disappoint starry-eyed New Agers to say this, another counterfeit image is that of noble stoics gathered around a fire, passing the peace pipe, singing "Kum Ba Yah" and congratulating themselves on their impeccable environmental ethics, like a bunch of hippies at America's first Sierra Club meeting. 

Despite the limitations, embellishments and inaccuracies in the primary sources, they convey some idea of what De Soto discovered in the Southeast.  He didn't find the precious gold and silver that he craved so much, the object of his trip.   What he did find, at various points along the way, were remnants of the High Mississippian culture, suffering tremendous stress, and on the verge of collapse.  He encountered hospitality and hostility.  He reached villages that were evacuated in advance of his arrival.  He reached villages that sent out great welcoming parties bearing gifts.  He observed abandoned settlements being reclaimed by the elements, active settlements with a scattering of fields interspersed with homes, and villages packed tightly inside of protective palisades.  He traveled through densely populated river basins and through vast swaths of land, equally attractive, but apparently uninhabited.

Though I've been perusing dozens of sources, two books are especially helpful for following the De Soto travels.  One is Charles Hudson's 1997 work, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun and the other is a 1996 biography by David Duncan, Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas.  Hudson brings the native people and the historic landscape to vivid life, and Duncan does the same for De Soto and his men.

One more that should be obvious, but isn't.  The botanist William Bartram covered some of the same ground as Hernando De Soto (more or less - through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas) crossing the Blue Ridge in 1776.  At first glance, their accounts of "early life" among the natives of the Southeast might seem to overlap.  But the people and places encountered by De Soto were hardly the same people and places encountered by Bartram.   De Soto's adventures were just as "ancient" to Bartram as Bartram's adventures are ancient to us.  (To put it another way...De Soto to Bartram, 236 years...Bartram to the present day, 240 years.)

Getting an accurate picture of the two and a half centuries since Bartram is one thing. 

Getting an accurate picture of the two and a half prior to Bartram is another matter altogether.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

History Rewritten - 1

Forty-plus years ago I strolled around Hannibal, Missouri...on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi.  I remember visiting Mark Twain's boyhood home, right there in the middle of town:

And I remember being mildly annoyed by this sign for "Tom Sawyer's Fence":

"Either go all historic or go all storybook, one or the other, make up your mind," would have been my demand of the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce.  But I know that's too much to ask of any tourist trap town.  It still makes me wince, though, to see how history gets distorted for the sake of attracting a herd of slack-jawed vacationers.

On the other hand, in this slick age of irony where we're all trying to be acceptably cool in the dominant social order, scuffling for a higher toehold on the totem pole by buying the right lettuce, the right craft brew, the right car, the right shoes, the right blah, blah, blah, it is amazing that the cheesy roadside attractions of old, reeking faintly of mold, are still around and still filling people's heads with misinformation about the history of this proud country. And while I marvel that they can still generate enough traffic to keep the lights on, I know I'll be sad when they're gone, to be replaced by something more virtual and more exhilarating, no doubt.

Not long after the Hannibal visit, I went to "The Nation's Oldest City," St. Augustine, Florida and "Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park."  I don't recall any specific historic faux pas other than the whole premise of the place, since neither Ponce de Leon nor his cadre of explorers ever left us any mention of a fountain of any sort, much less Youth.  The legend was born when a fellow Spaniard dissed Leon mercilessly, questioning his manhood, soon after his death -  in 1535 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés accused Ponce de León of seeking a "fountain of youth" to cure his sexual impotence.  In the following years, one writer after another repackaged the mirthful dig against the conquistador.   Over time, the myth about his "Fountain of Viagra" was domesticated into something more suitable for audiences of all ages.

But when it comes to anachronistic cornpone history jazzed up for witless rubes, nothing beats outdoor drama.  Don't get me wrong.  If I were to win an all-expense paid trip to see "The Lost Colony" I would be barreling down US 64 in a cloud of dust - pronto.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I did make it to "Horn in the West" which had Daniel Boone winning the Battle of King's Mountain or something equally preposterous. I noticed the other playgoers didn't bat an eye at the literary license taken with history.  Actually, the narrative (such as it was) seemed to go right over their heads, though the occasional burst of gunfire, cannon blast or fire dance was sufficient to keep the audience on the edge of its seat, or stir them from their torpor.  I appreciated the stagecraft, if not the credibility of the story.

And it was about the same when I attended "Unto These Hills" thirty years ago.  I knew that this rendition of the Cherokee Removal was skewed to something other than historical accuracy, but I admired the effort that went into putting on a big show.  A decade ago, though, the powers that be decided the Kermit Hunter script had reached the end of its useful life. I just retrieved the news release announcing its replacement.

For immediate use
April 28, 2006 -- No. 231
'Unto These Hills' rewritten, staged by Cherokee from tribe's viewpoint

CHAPEL HILL - Big changes and big names are coming to outdoor historical drama in North Carolina this summer.

In Cherokee, "Unto These Hills" will be an all-new show, re-written as a celebration of Cherokee history and culture by a Native American author, professor and consultant for 30 years on representations of Native Americans in theater, film and TV shows.

Playwright Hanay Geiogamah also will direct the show, the first Native American to do so in 57 seasons of the story about the Cherokee people....

Opening on June 8, the new "Unto These Hills" will be more musical theater than play, Geiogamah said. Selu, the Corn Mother, and Kanati, the Great Hunter - two major figures in Cherokee legend - will narrate. Spirits of the seven clans of the Cherokee - represented by actors in masks and costumes - ask them to help create a new kind of cultural presentation for the tribe, Geiogamah said. That creative process becomes the new show.

I can understand the urgency of abandoning a script written by an old white guy, but this sounded like trouble from the get-go.  I am certain there is a place for Pretentious Artsy Fartsy High-concept Etherea, and I am equally certain that the Mountainside Theatre in Cherokee is not that place.  Did no one tell Mr. Geiogamah that he needed to tug at the heartstrings of the Dollywood crowd, or at least keep them awake?

"But we have not in any way reduced the spectacle" of the show, Geiogamah said. "There is abundant Cherokee music, abundant Cherokee dance and abundant Cherokee ceremony."

In fact, there will be double the previous number of dances, including a war dance and a hoedown. The eagle dance, a highlight of the original show, will return.

"We have devised a way of presenting the story that will be entertaining and informative and definitely move the show along," Geiogamah said. "The driving energy throughout is creativity and renewal."

The old script lacked two major aspects of Cherokee culture, said James Bradley, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, which puts on the play: "One, that it was matrilineal, with women playing as important a role as men. The other was the sense of humor that Native Americans have, and how we relate to each other through humor."

ROFLMAS, I'm sure.

The original script by the late Kermit Hunter sympathized with the Cherokee in its portrayal of the tragic removal of most of the tribe from its native Great Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma in 1838. But it left an impression of the Cherokee as a woeful and broken people, Bradley said.

"The new show has the Cherokee rising up from the ruins of that past," he said. "It has more of a spiritual awareness of what being Cherokee means now, and how we implement that."

And that means what, exactly?  It doesn't involve bear zoos, right?

Sure enough, the revamped version of the outdoor drama turned out to be a huge dud, although Knoxville News writer Doug Mason enjoyed it:

It was literate and beautiful to look at. It presented Cherokee culture as a rich and living thing, rather than some dry subject lifted from a fifth-grade social studies text.

And it lasted only one season.

The director of the Mountainside Theatre told me there had been many complaints. The new play was "hard to follow." Regular visitors missed "the story" from the original. How Chief Junaluska led the Cherokee in battle to aid Gen. Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, only to later have President Andrew Jackson sign the decree that would force the removal of the chief's people from their lands. How the noble Tsali sacrificed his life so that a band of Cherokee could remain in their homes and not join the Trail of Tears.

So this year those plotlines are back. And so are the trite storytelling, static staging, and grade-school history lessons. At least the gorgeous dances have been retained.

It was originally intended that Geiogamah's play would run five to seven years, and then be replaced by a new play hopefully written by a Cherokee (Geiogamah is Kiowa).

Instead, the 58th season of the country's second-longest-running drama introduced "Unto These Hills - A Retelling," written by Pat Allee and Ben Hurst, a duo described to me as "veteran Hollywood writers." A Google search found that most of their credits are from TV cartoons, including "Sonic the Hedgehog."

Maybe the folks in Cherokee know what they are doing. After all, it's a tourist town. Commerce rules. If you don't give the people what they want, they can always go down the street to the souvenir shops and watch the feathered Indians do a war dance in front of a sheet-metal teepee.

"Unto These Hills - A Retelling" mostly commits the sin of being dull.

Personally, though, I would rather have watched "Sonic the Hedgehog."

So, thanks to Mr. Mason, it looks like I don't have a monopoly on snark. 

It has been many moons since all this tinkering with the drama.  Maybe I'll get back there this year to see the current version of "Unto These Hills."  I can't imagine it hanging on for much longer, though, 21st century being what it is.

Thankfully, the great Werner Herzog did some filming in Cherokee back in the '70s.

Enough of this digression.  There IS a better story to be told and I'm trying to find it.  With a return to the old texts and the help of some new scholarship, the picture is emerging.  The story of native people in the Southern Appalachians and the rest of the Southeast is much more complicated - and much more interesting - than anything a tourist will encounter in Cherokee, with the possible exception of piano-playing chickens.

Maybe the next revision of the outdoor drama will feature an all-poultry cast.  Now that's entertainment! 

"Unto These Hens," anyone?

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wacky Weeds and the Waggery of Nature

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
-William Blake

"...keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots...thus they unlive their former lives, and commence [to be] men by forgetting that they ever have been boys..."
-Robert Beverley

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resigned...

-Alexander Pope

Sometimes psychedelia pops up where it is least expected.

I would be more than hesitant to consume any part of the plant Datura stranomium, cheap thrills or not.  But some people ingest it and survive.  I found not one but two instances of such a thing from the early years of the Virginia colony. 

A Colonial Fighting Farce

In The History and Present State of Virginia (1705), Robert Beverley eavesdrops at the doors of perception and reports on the highs and lows of adventures with Jimson Weed.  In 1676, conflict in Virginia erupted with Bacon's Rebellion and soldiers were sent in to tamp down the unrest. However, one group of hungry soldiers from Jamestown foraged for wild greens despite their apparent deficits in plant identification:

The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the Plant so call'd) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in the World. This being an early Plant, was gather'd very young for a boil'd Salad, by some of the Soldiers sent thither, to pacific the Troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn'd natural Fools upon it for several Days:

One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou'd dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.

In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow'd in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play'd, and after Eleven Days, return'd to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass'd. 

And that is how the "James-Town Weed" earned its name, shortened later to "Jimson Weed."  Supper turned into an 11 day trip to Neverland.  Actually, when used properly, it created the antithesis of Neverland. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Among the native people of the colonies, the coming of age ceremony for young boys involved a drink called wysoccan, a drink containing Jimson Weed.  The objective of the huskanaw ritual was "taking away the release the youth from all their childish impressions."  As early as 1612, Captain John Smith (1580-1631) described this rite of passage.  Again, from Beverley's 1705 work:

The Indians have their altars and places of sacrifice. Some say they now and then sacrifice young children; but they deny it, and assure us, that when they withdraw their children, it is not to sacrifice them, but to consecrate them to the service of their god. 

Smith tells of one of these sacrifices in his time, from the testimony of some people who had been eye-witnesses. His words are these:

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between ten and fifteen years of age, they painted white; having brought them forth, the people spent the forenoon in dancing and singing about them with rattles. In the afternoon, they put these children to the root of a tree. By them all the men stood in a guard, every one having a bastinado in his hand, made of reeds bound together. They made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed five young men to fetch these children: so every one of the five went through the guard to fetch a child each after other by turns; the guard fiercely beating them with their bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all, defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows, that pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while the women weep and cry out very passionately, providing mats, skins, moss and dry wood, as things fitting for their children's funeral. After the children were thus past the guard, the guards tore down the tree, branches and boughs with such violence, that they rent the body, made wreaths for their heads, and bedecked their hair with the leaves.

"What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley as dead, where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered, that the children were not dead, but that the Okee or devil did suck the blood from the left breast of those, who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead; but the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men, till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any; and of these were made their priests and conjurers."

John Smith - he's checked into countless motels since then

How far Captain Smith might be misinformed in this account, I can't say, or whether their Okee's sucking the breast, be only a delusion or pretence of the physician, (or priest, who is always a physician,) to prevent all reflection on his skill when any happened to die under his discipline. This I choose rather to believe, than those religious romances concerning their Okee. For I take this story of Smith's to be only an example of huskanawing, which being a ceremony then altogether unknown to him, he might easily mistake some of the circumstances of it.

The solemnity of huskanawing is commonly practiced once every fourteen or sixteen years, or oftener, as their young men happen to grow up. It is an institution or discipline which all young men must pass before they can be admitted to be of the number of the great men, officers, or cockarouses of the nation; whereas, by Capt. Smith's relation, they were only set apart to supply the priesthood.

The whole ceremony of huskanawing is performed after the following manner:

The choicest and briskest young men of the town, and such only as have acquired some treasure by their travels and hunting, are chosen out by the rulers to be huskanawed; and whoever refuses to undergo this process dares not remain among them. Several of those odd preparatory fopperies are premised in the beginning, which have been before related; but the principal part of the business is, to carry them into the woods, and there keep them under confinement, and destitute of all society for several months, giving them no other sustenance but the infusion, or decoction, of some poisonous, intoxicating roots; by virtue of which physic, and by the severity of the discipline which they undergo, they became stark, staring mad; in which raving condition, they are kept eighteen or twenty days.

During these extremities, they are shut up, night and day, in a strong inclosure, made on purpose; one of which I saw belonging to the Pamunky Indians, in the year 1694. It was in shape like a sugar loaf, and every way open like a lattice for the air to pass through... In this cage, thirteen young men had been huskanawed, and had not been a month set at liberty when I saw it.

Engraving from History of Virginia, based on John White painting, depicting a priest and a conjurer.  In the background is the huskanaw pen described by Beverley.

Upon this occasion, it is pretended that these poor creatures drink so much of that water of Lethe, that they perfectly lose the remembrance of all former things, even of their parents, their treasure, and their language. When the doctors find that they have drank sufficiently of the wysoccan, (so they call this mad potion,) they gradually restore them to their senses again, by lessening the intoxication of their diet; but before they are perfectly well, they bring them back into their towns, while they are still wild and crazy, through the violence of the medicine.

After this, they are very fearful of discovering anything of their former remembrance; for if such a thing should happen to any of them, they must immediately be huskanawed again; and the second time, the usage is so severe, that seldom any one escapes with life. Thus they must pretend to have forgot the very use of their tongues, so as not to be able to speak, nor understand anything that is spoken, till they learn it again. Now, whether this be real or counterfeit, I dont know; but certain it is, that they will not for some time take notice of any body, nor anything with which they were before acquainted, being still under the guard of their keepers, who constantly wait upon them everywhere till they have learnt all things perfectly over again. Thus they unlive their former lives, and commence men by forgetting that they ever have been boys. If, under this exercise, any one should die, I suppose the story of Okee, mentioned by Smith, is the salvo for it; for, (says he) Okee was to have such as were his by lot, and such were said to be sacrificed.

Now this conjecture is the more probable, because we know that Okee has not a share in every huskanawing; for though two young men happened to come short home, in that of the Pamunky Indians, which was performed in the year 1694, yet the Appomattoxs, formerly a great nation, though now an inconsiderable people, made a huskanaw in the year 1690, and brought home the same number they carried out.

I can account no other way for the great pains and secrecy of the keepers, during the whole process of this discipline, but by assuring you, that it is the most meritorious thing in the world to discharge that trust well, in order to their preferment to the greatest posts in the nation, which they claim as their undoubted right, in the next promotion.

On the other hand, they are sure of a speedy passport into the other world, if they should, by their levity or neglect, shew themselves in the least unfaithful.

Those which I have observed to have been huskanawed, were lively, handsome, well timbered young men, from fifteen to twenty years of age, or upward, and such as were generally reputed rich.

I confess, I judged it at the first sight to be only an invention of the seniors, to engross the young men's riches to themselves; for, after suffering this operation, they never pretended to call to mind anything of their former property; but their goods were either shared by the old men, or brought to some public use; and so those younkers were obliged to begin the world again.

But the Indians detest this opinion, and pretend that this violent method of taking away the memory, is to release the youth from all their childish impressions, and from that strong partiality to persons and things, which is contracted before reason comes to take place. They hope by this proceeding, to root out all the prepossessions and unreasonable prejudices which are fixed in the minds of children.

So that, when the young men come to themselves again, their reason may act freely, without being biased by the cheats of custom and education. Thus, also, they become discharged from the remembrance of any ties by blood, and are established in a state of equality and perfect freedom, to order their actions, and dispose of their persons, as they think fit, without any other control than that of the law of nature. By this means also they become qualified, when they have any public office, equally and impartially to administer justice, without having respect either to friend or relation.

All in the Family

Beverley (1673-1722) was a brother-in-law of the wealthy Virginian William Byrd, II (1674–1744), author of The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and also The Secret History of the Line between Virginia and North Carolina (which was the R-rated tell-all about the survey party that laid out the borderline.)   For more on the incomparable Billy Byrd, see Pig in a Puppy (4/19/08). ... in which he announces

"The truth of it is, the inhabitants of North Carolina devour so much swine's flesh, that it fills them full of gross humours."

William Byrd, II

Datura Initiation in Carolina

Robert Beverley was also the contemporary of John Lawson (1674-1711) whose accounts of life in the Carolina backcountry were published in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709). Lawson had has own stories of the hallucinatory "husquenaugh" practices.  His full account appeared here 8/24/09 in Sex, Drugs and Rockahomine,  Part Two.  Here's an excerpt:

They give them Pellitory-Bark, and several intoxicating Plants, that make them go raving mad as ever were any People in the World; and you may hear them make the most dismal and hellish Cries, and Howlings, that ever humane Creatures express'd; all which continues about five or six Weeks, and the little Meat they eat, is the nastiest, loathsome stuff, and mixt with all manner of Filth it's possible to get.

After the Time is expired, they are brought out of the Cabin, which never is in the Town, but always a distance off, and guarded by a Jaylor or two, who watch by Turns. Now, when they first come out, they are as poor as ever any Creatures were; for you must know several die under this diabolical Purgation. Moreover, they either really are, or pretend to be dumb, and do not speak for several Days; I think, twenty or thirty; and look so gastly, and are so chang'd, that it's next to an Impossibility to know them again, although you was never so well acquainted with them before.

I would fain have gone into the mad House, and have seen them in their time of Purgatory, but the King would not suffer it, because, he told me, they would do me, or any other white Man, an Injury, that ventured in amongst them; so I desisted.

They play this Prank with Girls as well as Boys, and I believe it a miserable Life they endure, because I have known several of them run away, at that time, to avoid it. Now, the Savages say, if it was not for this, they could never keep their Youth in Subjection, besides that it hardens them ever after to the Fatigues of War, Hunting, and all manner of Hardship, which their way of living exposes them to.

Besides, they add, that it carries off those infirm weak Bodies, that would have been only a Burden and Disgrace to their Nation, and saves the Victuals and Cloathing for better People, that would have been expended on such useless Creatures.

The Waggery of Nature

But back to Robert Beverley.  It would appear that he had a mischievous sense of humor. Beverley relates the story of finding a wildflower that he does not identify, but that I would guess to be the Pink Lady Slipper.

About Two Years ago, walking out to take the Air, I found, a little without my Pasture Fence, a Flower as big as a Tulip, and upon a Stalk resembling the Stalk of a Tulip. The Flower was of a Flesh Colour, having a Down upon one End, while the other was plain. The Form of it resembled the Pudenda of a Man and Woman lovingly join'd in one. Not long after I had discover'd this Rarity, and while it was still in Bloom, I drew a grave Gentleman, about an Hundred Yards, out of his Way, to see this Curiosity, not telling him any thing more, than that it was a Rarity, and such, perhaps, as he had never seen, nor heard of.

When we arrived at the Place, I gather'd one of them, and put it into his Hand, which he had no sooner cast his Eye upon, but he threw it away with Indignation, as being asham'd of this Waggery of Nature. It was impossible to perswade him to touch it again, or so much as to squint towards so immodest a Representation. Neither would I presume to mention such an Indecency, but that I thought it unpardonable, to omit a Production so extraordinary.

Is it just me, or does Robert Beverley (ever so slightly) resemble the famous hippie-flower-gun barrel guy?

Datura Rites in California

Datura initiation rites similar to huskenaw occured among many native North Americans.  In "Creation in Light of Luiseno Religion" Sam Gill writes of the ceremony practiced by indigenous people of southern California:

Intoxicated by the datura, the youths were assembled around a fire and given a display of the magical powers of the adepts.  These were performances in a shamanic style in which all manner of mortal wounds were seemingly suffered, often self-inflicted ones, with the wounds then being miraculously healed. 

While the effects of datura were felt only during one night, the initiates continued to fast for a period of days.  Three days after drinking the datura brew, the youths were taken to a pit in which a net representing the Milky Way had been placed, along with three stones forming a crude human shape. 

The Milky Way is the spirit to whom human spirits go when human beings die.  The initiates had to enter the pit and leap from stone to stone.  A misstep or fall presaged an early death...Crossing the Milky Way expressed the Luiseno wish that, upon death, their spirits would be free from the earth and go to be caught in the net which is the Milky Way.

Datura has been, and remains, in the top tier of sacred plants worldwide. 

Used in a variety of ways and for different purposes, it has served a major role for Hindus, Aztecs and Carlos Castaneda, among others.

From an ancient Aztec herbal

How to Create a Zombie

Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis has examined its use in Haitian "zombification" procedures.  From a 2004 news report:

The story begins in 1962, in Haiti. A man called Clairvius Narcisse was sold to a zombie master by his brothers, because Clairvius refused to sell his share of the family land. Soon after Clairvius "officially" died, and was buried.

However, he had been later secretly unburied, and was actually working as a zombie slave on a sugar plantation with many other zombies. In 1964, his zombie master died, and he wandered across the island in a psychotic daze for the next 16 years. The drugs that made him psychotic were gradually wearing off.

In 1980, he accidentally stumbled across his long-lost sister in a market place, and recognized her. She didn't recognise him, but he identified himself to her by telling her early childhood experiences that only he could possibly know.

Dr. Wade Davis, an ethnobiologist from Harvard, went to Haiti to research this story. He discovered how to make a zombie. First, make them "dead", then make them "mad" so that their minds are malleable. Often, a local "witch doctor" secretly gives them the drugs.

He made the victim "dead" with a mixture of toad skin and puffer fish. You can put it in their food, or rub it on their skin, especially the soft, undamaged skin on the inside of the arm near the elbow. The victims soon appear dead, with an incredibly slow breath, and an incredibly slow and faint heartbeat.

In Haiti, people are buried very soon after death, because the heat and the lack of refrigeration makes the bodies decay very rapidly. This suits the zombie-making process. You have to dig them up within eight hours of the burial, or else they'll die of asphyxiation.

The skin of the common toad (Bufo bufo bufo) can kill - especially if the toad has been threatened. There are three main nasties in toad venon - biogenic amines, bufogenine and bufotoxins. One of their many effects is that of a pain-killer - far stronger than cocaine. Boccaccio's medieval tale, the Decameron, tells the story of two lovers who die after eating a herb, sage, that a toad had breathed upon.

The other half of the witch doctor's wicked potion comes from the pufferfish, which is known in Japan as "fugo". Its poison is called "tetrodotoxin", a deadly neurotoxin. Its pain-killing effects are 160,000 times stronger than cocaine. Eating the fish can give you a gentle physical "tingle" from the tetrodotoxin - and in Japan, the chefs who prepare fugo have to be licensed by the government. Even so, there are rare cases of near-deaths or actual deaths from eating fugo. The toxin drops your temperature and blood pressure, and puts you into a deep coma. In Japan, some of the victims recovered a few days after being declared dead.

Back in Haiti, once you've got the zombie-in-waiting out of the ground, you make them mad, by force-feeding them a paste made from datura (Jimsons Weed). Datura breaks your links with reality, and then destroys all recent memories. So you don't know what day it is, where you are and, worst of all, you don't even know who you are. The zombies are in a state of semi-permanent induced psychotic delirium. They are sold to sugar plantations as slave labour. They are given datura again if they seem to be recovering their senses.

Life on the sugar plantation.  Who knew that the BBC was ever this raunchy!

Datura (Jimsons Weed, Angel's Trumpet, Brugmanisa candida) contains the chemicals atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine, which can act as powerful hallucinogens in the appropriate doses.

They can also cause permanent memory loss, paralysis and death.

The person who applies these chemicals to a victim has to be quite skilled, so that they won't kill them. There is a very small gap between appearing-to-be-dead, and actually being dead.