TWO POSSIBLE MODELS FOR NOVEL CHARACTERS

“NO MORE BUFFALO” by Bob Scriver

The male character I will call “Abe,” though that wasn’t his name, but his appearance and manner suggested the former president. He was indigenous to the east slope of the Rockies, mixed with a type we think of as arising on the edges of Great Britain: Scotland, Wales or esp. Ireland and I suppose that was part of his genetics. Sometimes he looked like the guesses at the appearance of Jesus, which is to say long-haired and beardless, a young man’s look, esp. in that time, as much because indigenous people in this place have a genetic fundament of Asian pattern so that some look very much like the people around Lake Baikal in Siberia, tall thin people like Eddie Big Beaver who posed for Bob Scriver’s sculpture called “No More Buffalo.”

At least two students of mine were like this and I wanted them to be writers. When they wrote, it was extravagant, multisyllabic, the vocabulary of auto-didactic readers who were reaching for something uninterpretable, caught in an incoherent time, fighting to find a morality that was not based on fighting. In terms of Ireland, there are poets and singers who are tall and gaunt in this way, attached to the land and depicted as cloaked and cowled, always walking across wilderness with a tall staff in hand. They inhabit our sci-fi as religious figures. Both these young men are dead of alcoholism, illness, and misadventure.

The other fictionalized figure has already wrecked the beginning of an attempted novel called “Both Sides Now.” I think she will do better in the new barely begun novel called “Prairie Gladiators.” She makes me emotional in a more negative way than the male figure though I don’t know her as well.

One night I got a phone call from a young indigenous woman, not from here, who was very angry. Speaking on a cell phone, she said she was lost on the web of dirt roads across the rez and she demanded that I rescue her. It was too dark for landmarks with no signs, no lights, no dumpsters anchoring convergences of roads — nothing but the occasional black cow.

I didn’t know her, didn’t know of her existence or how she knew about me. Possibly she had read a Bozeman articIe about the beginning of my circuit-riding as a UU minister. I never saw her as she never came here, only knew my phone number which is a landline and therefore in the phone book. She said she was a Ph.D student in Bozeman and named her professor, whom I knew by reputation. Then she disappeared. I assumed she found a way to safety.

Clearly she was a type that had been released by the idea that the sexual revolution was an empowerment and access to a world she imagined existed because of novels and movies. I heard a story about her joining tribal fire fighters, the tribal Hot Shots who had begun as just a way to make money in summer and had developed into disciplined, hardened, romantic figures. The idea of including women was a little fringy and it soon became clear that she expected sexual access to all the men, which they were okay to go along with, until fights started. Anyway, she couldn’t handle the work and got sick, so was sent home.

I didn’t hear any more until my name popped up in a thesis, once again — like that phone call — picturing me as a wicked, hating figure. Her professor was identified, so I called him up. He acted as though the whole thing was hilarious. I tried to explain to him that her boldness, her assumption that her very sexiness would protect her, her willingness to show up in dangerous places, was going to end up with her face-down in a stream — maybe never found, just another of the tribal women who disappear. I don’t know what he really thought, but he defended her attitude and results. Uninformed academic convictions were playing into something much more deep and risky.

I don’t know whether this woman is still living or whether she has changed. I don’t know whether anyone else except her professor knows who she is. To me she has a madness that may destroy her, something like the young men. But both of these figures — not the real people but the constructs that begin with them — break open the status quo, offer alternatives, one that is only accepted by a certain demographic. What do they say about society? One poetic, stoic, and fatalistic and the other enraged, demanding, confronting death by not believing in it.

What plot could put these two in the same story but not necessarily as characters who meet and interact. They are quite separate in time — the young woman’s conviction is very recent — for one thing, while the man is authentically tribal, embedded in family, known. I’m not entirely sure the woman exists and she is much more modern, maybe by fifty years. The man was never academic, ascetic but not monastic. The woman used university settings as access to ideas that served her purpose but were libertine.

The male version here is an old-fashioned, even 19th century. The noble red man, the natural Jesus, the one-with-nature, an ideal in stories. The female character is right up to the minute and pushing in the face of what some consider immoral. The contrast should be a good challenge for exploration and maybe the synthesis of a new future.

Either one of these real-life people could suggest novel plots, maybe depth of inquiry about the nature of being “Indian.” The woman’s thesis focused on Gerald Vizenor’s idea of Survivance which came out of his work as a Minneapolis social worker — resisting the AIM leaders of the time — and then his academic career which built on French high theory at Berkeley so a kind of universality that invited non-Indians or marginal Indians, turning away from anthropology or religion.

It’s not an idle difference. Many are working to reconcile specific place origins in contrast the the universality of being human. The wild card is that it appears from studying hominin variations that human species are full of variety and adaptations. Uniqueness is relevant and to me, at least these two characters are one-of-a-kind, resisting the stereotypes.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.