12/19/14

The Comanche Tooth Fairy: Secrets of the Captivity Narrative

The Comanche Tooth Fairy: Secrets of the Captivity Narrative

A few weeks ago I was in Seattle’s University Bookstore, browsing for Christmas gifts.  I was also on the prowl for a captivity narrative. I have developed a fascination with these true-life accounts of white settlers abducted by Indians, which some call America’s first literary genre. Yes, they are horribly politically incorrect.  Yes, there are repellent undertones of racial purity and miscegenation.  But for those willing to bite through the thin crust of Indian savagery and Christian piety, a powerful reading experience awaits.  Reading these tales, one feels like a captive offered a slab of raw meat.  You can’t eat it without staining your starched linen collar, nor can you deny it’s a nourishing meal.

Before I could find the work I was seeking, a voice came on the intercom.  “Dear customers, Thank you for supporting us on Small Business Saturday. As a token of our appreciation, please come to the information desk on the main floor for a personal book recommendation from author Sherman Alexie.”

Sherman Alexie. Literary interpreter of the contemporary quandary of Indianness, Twitter poster of substance, and an ultrahip Seattleite to boot. I revere his work, which inhabits the cusp between Indian and white perspectives and methodically shatters the clichés associated with each. There was no better person to ask for a recommendation. I hastened down the northern of the twin stairwells that flank the bookstore’s main floor, struggling to think of something clever to say in greeting.

Alexie emphasizes the influence of basketball upon his life, what he calls “the basketballness of me.” He also clearly enjoys waxing lyrical about his fading youth. I therefore expected to find a tall man whose body had gone to seed. Not exactly. Beneath his dark suit Alexie’s shoulders are broad and unmistakably muscular. His imposing physical presence compounds his literary stature to form an intimidating persona, fortunately tempered by a welcoming smile and engaging demeanor.

Alexie chatted with the first customer at the desk while I chose one of his poetry books from the counter.  My turn came and I had nothing clever to say in greeting but managed to mumble a hello.  He asked my name, inscribed the frontispiece (“Barry—thank you for buying poems! – Sherman”) and waited for my question.

“Er, I was wondering if you had a favorite captivity narrative.”

Alexie appeared taken off guard. Perhaps the question was unfair. Why should any writer, even one steeped in Native history, retain a mental list of this genre? Alexie’s eyebrows rose behind thick black frames. “The book on the making of The Searchers,” he said. Assistant Manager Seija Emerson vanished from Alexie’s side and reappeared within seconds.  The book was in her hands. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. I thanked them both and headed for the register.

The Searchers introduced me to captive Bianca Babb, who tells the story of the Comanche Tooth Fairy.

Frankel’s primary subject is the making of the movie The Searchers, the classic John Ford Western starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood.  He wisely chose to begin his tale with the true life events that inspired the film.  The result is a sweeping panorama of Western history, from the dust of 1830s Texas to the glitz of 1950s Hollywood. It begins with Cynthia Ann Parker, takcn captive at age 9 by a Comanche band and returned to the white world, also by force, 24 years later. Parker lived to see both of her families, white and Comanche, slaughtered before her eyes.  Her tragic life was base material for Alan LeMay’s Western novel The Searchers, which in turn became the source for the legendary film. Frankel sets the historical stage with details from several captivity narratives.  That is where I discovered Bianca Babb.

When a raiding party attacked her home compound in 1866, ten-year-old Bianca saw her mother shot in the back with an arrow, lanced in the throat, and scalped.  One of the raiders approached Bianca to haul her away.  The little girl held tight to a wooden post and refused to move. She held fast when the man drew a knife and threatened to cut off her hands.  She describes her response when he grasped her round the waist and yanked her free, tearing the flesh from her palms so that the blood ran freely:

I did not cry, had made up my mind that I would not cry, even if they killed me. The Indian who took me captive told me afterwards that if I had cried he would have killed me then, as an Indian does not like a coward.[1]

I found Bianca’s tale so compelling that I paused midway through The Searchers to search for her primary account. According to Frankel, Babb’s short typed manuscript was never published. I crossed my fingers that a web search would reveal it within a historical archive. Within minutes I discovered, to my amazement, the full manuscript online, tucked within a historical journal like an ancient prairie flower. Babb’s is the only narrative of Indian captivity from a young girl’s point of view, a clear-minded first person account of Comanche domestic life in the late 1860s when the horse-and-buffalo, raiding-and-captivity economy of the Great Plains was at its peak.

After Bianca’s capture, she and her captors rode hard for three days and nights to reach the Comanche homeland.  There she was handed into the care of a young widow, Tekwashana, whose husband had recently died.  Though Babb reports the village welcomed her into the tribe, it is clear that her reception was not universally warm.  Several in the village treated Bianca with contempt, and some appear to have made a game of testing her courage.  Gavroche came to mind as I read of this child’s audacity and resolve, and also Oliver Twist.  As the story progressed I became more aware of her adoptive mother’s critical role.

Tekwashana treats Bianca with unconditional affection.  She adorns the child with jewelry, pierces her ears, teaches her to dress a buffalo hide, teaches her to swim. The palpable bond between this grieving pair, who had every right to hate each other, lends the narrative a powerful moral force. The purity of their connection tugs at the heart 150 years later, a glimmer amid the detritus of clan-based violence that litters history to the present day.

Bianca soon adopted the Comanche tongue and forgot how to speak English. But she did not completely forget who she had been, nor cease to yearn for her former world. Late in the season of her stay, young Tijana (she had abandoned her American name) developed a loose tooth. Tekwashana helped her pull it free.

She told me to put it where I could find it next morning, and for me to take it and go straight East until just before the sun came up, I should turn my back to the East, stoop over until I could see between my legs, and just as I saw the sun come in sight to throw my tooth directly towards the sun, throwing it as far as I could, and at the same time make a wish and that it would come true. [2]

Tijana did as her new mother instructed. She made a wish to return to the world of her birth.  She writes “That was one wish that came true.” Soon afterward a scout arrived in camp, paid her ransom and took her back to the world of the whites.  She never saw her adoptive mother again.

Bianca Babb, briefly known as Tijana, died in April 1950 in Denton, Texas.  She was America’s last surviving Comanche captive.  Were it not for her written account, the Comanche tradition of throwing lost teeth into the sun would have vanished.  For this historical gem we can thank not just Bianca but Tekwashana.  In the memories Bianca carried of the Tijana she had been, in Tekwashana’s grief at her daughter’s parting, beats the captivity narrative’s bittersweet heart.

 

[1]. Gelo, Daniel J. & Zesch, Scott (2003).  “Every Day Seemed to Be a Holiday”: the Captivity of Bianca Babb, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 107, No. 1, July 2003-April 2004, pp. 35-67.  Retrieved from Texashistory.unt.edu

[2]. Ibid.

03/20/14

Frazil Ice

Frazil, ice crystals formed in turbulent water, is an American coinage from the French fraisil, cinders.

A testimonial to the power and mystery of ice.

Those yet to visit Yosemite in winter should do so at first opportunity. One need not travel to Antarctica to encounter nature’s grandeur. If Yosemite is too far, seek out somewhere closer, somewhere secret.  A place known only to you.

04/16/13

Shackleton mines Robert Service for literary impact

“…in memories we were rich.  We had pierced the veneer of outside things.  We had ‘suffered, starved, and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’  We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders.  We had reached the naked soul of man.”

These lines are among the most famous from South, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic account of the trials of the Endurance expedition.  Few contemporary readers may be aware that for this passage Shackleton mines another work, a poem with which he clearly assumes his readers are familiar: Call of the Wild, a celebration of masculine valor by Scottish-born poet Robert Service.

For the title of the poem, Service mined the work of author Jack London, whose novella of the same name first appeared in print in 1903.  Service’s debut collection, Songs of a Sourdoughwas published in 1907 and quickly became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1917 the British edition of Songs of a Sourdough was in its 36th printing.  Service’s muscular poetry, little known today, must have been well familiar to Shackleton’s readers at the time of South‘s publication in 1919.

Shackleton suggests that his crew was remarkably well read.  After the perilous open boat journey from Antarctica to South Georgia Island, Shackleton and five companions set up camp beneath the inverted hull of the lifeboat James Caird, converting the vessel “into a very comfortable cabin a la Peggotty.”  They christened the place Peggotty Camp.  Sir Ernest offers no further explanation.  With this casual name-drop he assumes a common knowledge of David Copperfield, in which the hull of an inverted fishing boat forms the Peggotty family’s tidy home in the marshes.

When first I read South the Peggotty reference was completely lost on me.  Reading Copperfield years later, I was chastened to reflect that at least where Dickens was concerned, the rough-hewn Antarctic sailors of the heroic age were more cultured than myself.  I can picture the young Tom Crean reading Copperfield at sea by the light of a storm-swung lantern.

 

 

04/1/13

Hail muse and let words and ideas flow

I call this page Island of Meaning for several reasons.

 

Lost sailors who make landfall here will, I hope, find a place where the streams run clear, the trees are laden with fruit, the shade is cool and they can pause awhile and reflect on items of substance before resuming their journeys.

 

The name alludes to Man’s Search for Meaning, the seminal work of psychotherapist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.  Searchers could do worse than to explore his quiet and profound philosophy.

 

This page introduces a novel, Some Say in Ice, about a cruise ship disaster in the Antarctic. The island of meaning springs from the mind of Alison, a polar adventurer who fights to keep her island from sinking beneath the sea of human appetites that brings the great ship Omega to her Antarctic doorstep.  Aboard the doomed liner, each passenger’s island of meaning affects his or her fate, sometimes in surprising ways.

 

Island of Meaning records the journey of Some Say in Ice to publication.  It serves as a side portal into the story, a gateway to explore its setting, themes, and characters in a nonfiction medium.  As I write, only a handful of people know the novel exists.  Time will reveal whether this will change.