Candy Moulton: Reading the West 12-20-10
Cheewa James has an easy conversational tone in her collection “Catch the Whisper of the Wind: Inspirational Stories and Proverbs from Native Americans.” This Modoc writer, motivational speaker, and former television producer has amalgamated a diverse collection of lively pieces about American Indians from one end of the country to another.
The opening essay in the book, “The Spark,” by David James Esterla, Cheewa’s son, centers on his maternal grandfather, a man who made an impression on nearly everyone he met, having what Esterla called a “spark.” He goes on to address his mother and notes that she also has a “spark.”
I first met Cheewa at the Western Writers of America conference in Tennessee earlier this year, but even before being around her in person, I had some e-mail correspondence and felt a connection to this Modoc woman. After the WWA conference, a new member of the organization wrote an article for the magazine I edit recognizing some of his experiences at the conference. Among them he singled out the “aura” of Cheewa. That is the spark about which her son writes, and it carries through even to the written page.
One of the proverbs included in this book – indeed the overall premise of the writing throughout – is by Cheewa herself, “May serenity circle on silent wings and catch the whisper of the wind.”
The stories included are primarily contemporary accounts of Indian women and men. They include lessons of morality such as “Turn the Other Cheek” by Rory Elder (Cherokee), who writes of his grandmother following the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and later enduring taunting by a group of non-Indian teenagers. The lesson of the day – understanding Indian heritage and being proud of it in spite of such inappropriate actions.
As the subtitle of the book notes, many are inspirational. This is a book that Maidu/Wintun elder Bertha Nye Norton called “the American Indian acorn soup for the soul.”
They are historical, especially the proverbs that include those attributed only to a culture such as the Northern Cheyennes: “Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins.” Or the Hopi proverb, “Lose your temper and you lose a friend; Lie and you lose yourself.”
Then there is advice about marriage (don’t let any men read this!). SamBlowsnake (Winnebago) gives this advice, “When you get married, do not make an idol of the woman you marry; do not worship her. If you worship a woman, she will insist on greater and greater worship as time goes on.”
Of course most men may see the truth of this one, which is anonymous: “Marriage among my people was like traveling in a canoe. The man sat in front and paddled the canoe. The woman sat in the stern but she steered.”
This is the kind of book you can read from cover to cover, or perhaps better yet, explore and enjoy in small doses so you can truly appreciate the wit and wisdom of these native people.
One story that I particularly liked is “The Dogs Who Spoke No English,” by Victor Gabriel (Washoe), I guess because I never thought of animals knowing a particular language, but it makes some sense that if a person gives instructions to a dog in Washoe, the dog may not “speak” or “understand” English … unless it is a bilingual dog that is!
This story has enlightened me in many ways … I now understand why our dog usually ignores me but is Mica-on-the-spot if Steve just makes a sharp whistle!