March 16, 2010

Dan Simmons tackles Black Hills

Book World:  Barbara Ehrenreich reviews 'Black Hills' by Dan Simmons

By Barbara EhrenreichBLACK HILLS
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown. 487 pp. $25.99


The premise of Dan Simmons's new novel, "Black Hills," is not promising. A Lakota Sioux man named Paha Sapa ("Black Hills"), who is a paragon of Native American spirituality, goes to the Battle of the Little Big Horn and gets infected by the soul of Gen. Custer, thus becoming locked in uncomfortable interior intimacy with the celebrated Indian killer.
And:Confused? Well, welcome to my mind, which for better or worse has been colonized by this insanely prolific, multi-genre writer. So when Paha Sapa turns out also to be channeling Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum in addition to Custer, and to be capable of visions that carry him from the Pleistocene to well into the 21st century, I barely flinched.And:After the genocidal Indian wars that Paha Sapa has been unfortunate enough to witness, it's impossible not to root for the destruction of the presidents' rock faces on the mountainside. But for anyone expecting a paean to Native American nobility and spiritual superiority, "Black Hills" holds a surprising twist. Toward the very end, Custer's ghost, who by this time has had second thoughts about his historical role, points out to Paha Sapa that the Sioux themselves were a "ruthless, relentless invasion machine," who had beaten back the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Crows and Pawnee and that the Sioux were, furthermore, ecological vandals: "We could smell your garbage heaps from twenty miles away," says Custer's ghost. "The only thing that made you look and seem noble was the fact that you could keep moving, leaving your buffalo-run heaps of rotting carcasses and giant mounds of stinking garbage behind you."

A stolid, hardworking survivor of so many battles and massacres, Paha Sapa is himself a kind of node in history, bringing together Crazy Horse and Custer, white expansionism and red defiance, not to mention astronomy and native mythology, as well as reverberations from the incipient European Holocaust.
Comment:  This is the first I've heard of stinking garbage heaps that were detectable from 20 miles away. Of course, waste products are a little-discussed aspect of human existence. Did a Western town of 1,000 people have a better way of disposing of human waste than an Indian encampment of 1,000 people? If so, what was the method?

I don't think any pre-modern society had a great way of disposing of waste besides 1) leaving it in place or 2) flushing it downstream and making it someone else's problem. Moreover, since carcasses and other forms of organic waste get recycled into nutrients, I don't think they're ecologically harmful. Therefore, I'd say the Indians are not guilty of being "ecological vandals."

For more on that subject, see Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian.

As for the "ruthless, relentless invasion machine," I believe the basic facts are true. But the picture is incomplete unless it includes the Euro-American pressure on tribes to move west against their will. If your choice is fighting a war of extinction or "invading" someone else's territory, you don't have much of a choice.

Unless the "Sioux" were equally ruthless and relentless before and after European contact, it's unfair to simply label them without context. It's also unfair to focus on them without noting the many tribes that didn't engage in warfare as a way of life.

For more on that subject, see Warlike Indian Cultures.

Unfortunately, Ehrenreich's review is more a description than a critique of Black Hills. We'll have to wait for more reviews to learn how good it is. But judging by Hyperion and The Terror, Black Hills is probably worth reading.

1 comment:

Lorie said...

Question: Isn't saying Lakota "Sioux" somewhat redundant?