The Construction of Faulkner’s Indians Patricia Galloway Faulkner’s Indians?


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The Construction of Faulkner’s Indians
Patricia Galloway

Faulkner’s Indians?
Everyone with a Mississippi background has a Faulkner story, and this is mine. My father’s Auntie Mag, Margaret Galloway Muckenfuss, was a faculty wife in Oxford married to a chemist. Like many others associated with the university, she knew Faulkner by sight and encountered him in the street from time to time. On one such occasion, so the family story goes, she took him to task for writing shocking books, and asked why he did it. He replied that he did it for the money, doubtless quite intentionally shocking her more by telling the unvarnished but ambivalent truth. Not a very original story, but it brings up the significant issue of context that I would like to discuss in this paper: not the context of Faulkner’s exposure to great minds and little magazines, but of his reception of popular ideas about Indians and their place in the Mississippi of Yoknapatawpha’s beginnings.

Faulkner’s Indians begin as the denizens of short stories, if they do not end that way. I think we have to ask, for example, whether Indians did not owe part of their early prominence to the fact that Indians were a popular subject in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. Indians were certainly a popular magazine fiction staple in Faulkner’s day: during the lifetime he shared with the Post, it published more than 260 stories about Indians, although Faulkner’s five Post stories with Indian themes – ”Red Leaves,” “Mountain Victory,” “A Bear Hunt,” “The Bear,” and “Hell Creek Crossing” – are a clear minority of the 21 stories he published in the magazine.1

And did he actually make his Indians up, as he claimed, or was this another mask to hide his craft and his intent? As far as what is known about both the Indians he claims to portray in the stories (Chickasaws, nominally, but Choctaws figure more strongly; some characters shift from one to the other) and those who dwelt actually in and on the borders of the real Yoknapatawpha (Chickasaws and Choctaws were the only ones left by the end of the eighteenth century, though both Chickasaws and Choctaws had absorbed the more shadowy Yazoos, Chakchiumas, Ibitoupas, and Taposas), the ethnographer’s answer must be that he did pretty much make them up, in the sense that he assimilated the practices of several tribes into his alleged “Chickasaws” and was very far from presenting ethnographic accuracy.2 But he certainly did not create “his” Indians without using any sources at all beyond his own imagination, nor did he create them in either a local or national cultural vacuum. Along with a measure of the old and contemporary scholarship that he claimed to ignore, and in spite of his very real claims to iconoclastic originality in other aspects of his work, Faulkner assimilated both local and national popular thinking about Indian people, and it shows.
Scholars’ Indians
In the 1930s there were few Chickasaws anywhere around north Mississippi who had not faded into métissage or moved to Oklahoma or Tennessee, but there were hundreds of Choctaws in east-central Mississippi, assisted by a Bureau of Indian Affairs agency in Philadelphia. Though they would not be recognized by the U.S. government as a self-governing tribe until 1945, efforts had been under way since 1918 to repurchase land for them around their traditional homeland. There was also a certain amount of scholarship available in Oxford and in the possession of people Faulkner knew, which he could have seen had he expressed the slightest interest.

Faulkner scholars have tracked down many of the sources written by the early colonizers and state-builders and reflective of their views. Original historical materials were available in new editions. James Adair’s 1775 History of the American Indians, which focused upon the Chickasaws with whom Adair spent most of his time as a trader for the English, was reprinted in 1930, and several volumes of colonial and territorial historical documents were edited and published (and the French sources translated) by Dunbar Rowland from 1905 to 1932.3 Secondary histories of Mississippi were also widely available and tended to be collected by old white families. The classic history was J. F. H. Claiborne’s Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State, first published in 1880; it was widely respected in Mississippi as a nearly eyewitness source on early Mississippi history, and has a lengthy section on Indians dating from the claims hearings of the early statehood period, precisely the period Faulkner’s Indian stories cover (see Dabney 37n32). Robert Lowry and William McCardle published a popular history of Mississippi to the death of Jefferson Davis in 1891.4 The missionary Horatio Bardwell Cushman’s history and memoir of his life with the Indians in the early statehood period appeared in 1899.5 Early volumes of the Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society attempted to register more serious considerations of Chickasaw history and lore.6

The relevant scholarship in Faulkner’s own time was dominated by the obsessive ethnographic work of John R. Swanton, who specialized in the study of the southeastern Indians, including the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Many of Swanton’s works were released during the time that Faulkner was working on his Indian foundations of Yoknapatawpha.7 One of Swanton’s correspondents in Mississippi was Calvin S. Brown, who was also Faulkner’s professor of French and literature at the University of Mississippi during his brief career as a student, and whose son maintained a friendship with the writer. Brown was also an antiquarian whose 1926 book, Archeology of Mississippi, still serves as a compendium of information about private collections of “relics” that were not commonly available for study then, many of which are now entirely lost.8 The Bureau of American Ethnology was assiduous in making sure that copies of its publications were distributed widely, especially to individuals who had been helpful in its inquiries, and these books in the BAE series were certainly available at the University of Mississippi library or through the connection with Brown. Had Faulkner wanted to talk about Indians with someone who was well informed on the best ethnographic scholarship of his generation, he could have done no better than to talk to Brown, so it is likely that he could have learned quite a lot at a high level without doing the research he allegedly despised.

In addition to Swanton’s vast œuvre, a variety of other works of rather dubious scholarly status were conveniently available, perhaps all the more interesting because they take us closer to the kind of oral history resources that Faulkner favored so much, to the talk, landscape, and names of the region. Local historians like J. H. Malone (Tennessee) and E. T. Winston (Pontotoc, Mississippi) wrote romanticized, boosterish histories of the Chickasaws and events in their homeland. The Works Progress Administration in Mississippi sponsored county projects to collect folklore, tradition, and local history from all over the state, including Lafayette County; at least one notable local legend confirmed by Faulkner’s friends and relatives also shows up in the WPA collection.9 School textbooks and works by local historians repeatedly stressed the “big three” Indian leaders: Pushmataha, the powerful and undefeated American ally; Greenwood LeFlore, the great planter and state legislator; and Levi Colbert, wise craftsman of the Chickasaw Removal treaty. Finally, although African-American traditions of their own relations with Indians have not received much study, many African-American families in Mississippi have traditions of Indian family members that go far beyond the common “Cherokee princess” genre.10 A huge amount of original documentation, scholarship, popular history, anecdote, and custom was thus not only available to but hardly avoidable by Faulkner, even if he had never met an Indian.11

Much of this source material has already been reviewed bit by bit by Faulkner scholars, most notably by Lewis M. Dabney in his 1974 work, The Indians of Yoknapatawpha: A Study in Literature and History. But neither Dabney nor anyone to my knowledge who has written significantly about Faulkner’s Indians has been an anthropologist or a specialist in Indian history. The assimilationist bias reflected in Dabney’s book, according to which the adoption of any sort of European cultural item marks the decline of Indian culture, now appears to be more Faulkner than reality. A spate of research during the past thirty years has changed the premises for understanding the colonial, territorial, and early statehood history of Mississippi and of the several peoples who came to inhabit it together, simply by beginning to turn away from an exclusively white male political-historical viewpoint.12 Like the rest of U.S. history, this history of Faulkner’s multiracial region now offers a drastically changed focus.

It is now evident that we should be satisfied to take Faulkner at his word on the creative role that he played in orchestrating the materials in the Indian stories: though clearly he worked from historical and legendary materials to a considerable extent, his Indians are constructions, stage properties, not modified portraits of real individuals or individual types whom he knew personally and cared for, as was the case with many of his white and black characters. In Faulkner’s Mississippi there were very few identifiable Indians, and his approach to portraying them was an amalgam of received stereotypes and modernist orientalism.13

The Faulkner timeline, incorporating information from the whole of the œuvre, places the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe in 1813 as the seller of the square mile of land that will become Jefferson for a racehorse (SF “Appendix” 406-7). In 1833 Ikkemotubbe sells a 100-square-mile tract to Thomas Sutpen (AA 23). These two dates and the whole foundation of Faulkner’s fictional universe are anchored of necessity to the 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc by which the Chickasaws ceded their Mississippi lands in and all around Lafayette County. The treaty provided formal allotments of land in Mississippi to individuals (few of whom were situated precisely in Lafayette County), who agreed to sell them in order to remove to Oklahoma, thus permitting speculators to buy up their lands. Hence the “Indian stories” that have actual Indian characters in some kind of tribal setting all must somehow have taken place after 1798, with the exit of the Spanish and the entry of increased numbers of English-speaking witnesses and actors, and before 1837, when the Chickasaws finally departed for Oklahoma.14 The three Indian stories linked by being parts of the story of the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe apparently took place in Mississippi’s territorial and early statehood periods, 1798-1837, since there is no portrayal of the Spanish influence that prevailed after 1763. The expedition of the Choctaw mixed-blood chief Weddel to Washington seems to have taken place around 1824-1830.

This was a time when Anglo settlers were following early French and British traders (some of whom, like John Colbert, had stayed put) into north Mississippi by marrying into prominent Indian families. Such mixed families include, in the Chickasaw case, the Colberts, who are mentioned explicitly in the stories, and in the Choctaw case, the LeFlores, who are far more important to the stories.15 The Colberts were soon joined by royalists after the American Revolution, some bringing their slaves with them from eastern colonies, and began to prosper through the cultivation of cash crops. Through the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, however, there was a real fluidity of class, race, and gender in Mississippi, at least partly because the numbers of whites and blacks who lived in the Mississippi interior among the Indians were still relatively small.16 Surrounded by Indians as they were, embedded in what remained a distinctly Indian society, they had to succeed in their ends by conforming to Indian requirements. Traders married into matrilineal clans to gain access to trading preferment, and farmers did the same to gain access to land. One very clear signal that Faulkner manufactured Indian culture as well as people was his imposition on Mississippi Indians of the same patriarchal social structures that he gave his Anglos and Africans – when in fact female control of land, lineage, and possibly even politics was a central element of the culture of all Mississippi Indians and was the key to the power of Chickasaw and Choctaw mixed-blood men, who were the children of the sisters of chiefs and were considered by the tribes to be of the substance of their mothers (Swanton, Indians [1946], 654, 666-70).

Time and Blood
The presence of mixed-blood Indians in Faulkner’s stories is thus not surprising in view of the historical context, but may also have been nudged along by the fact that those who wrote Mississippi history paid greatest attention to their stories and believed them to be superior in their admixture of white “blood” to their full-blood relatives. In fact the shadowy and chorus-like character of Faulkner’s full-bloods – the President in “Lo!” speaks of their all having the same face (CS 382) – echoes the popular memory of Indians in Mississippi. I quote from the final paragraph of the “Indian chapter” of John K. Bettersworth’s school history from 1959:
Today, Mississippi’s Indian heritage is almost forgotten. Very little is known about the Indians who once roamed these parts. About all that the average person knows is that some of our towns, counties, and streams have unpronounceable names that hark back to the days when the first of Mississippi’s “first families” inhabited the state.17

Even Bettersworth, however, went on to mention Pushmataha (as a heroic and loyal ally of Old Hickory), Greenwood LeFlore (the planter and legislator from Carroll County), and at least one Colbert (a sacker of Mississippi River commerce during the Spanish period): these leaders had become canonical.

Scholars have construed the Indian strands in Faulkner’s work as two family sagas for some time, none more explicitly than Walter Taylor in making the case for another shadowy “novel Faulkner never wrote.” According to Taylor, “Red Leaves,” “A Justice,” and “A Courtship” are all manifestations (and include retellings) of an “Ikkemotubbe” saga, while “Mountain Victory” and “Lo!” are evidence of a “Weddel” saga, which can be analogized respectively to the Sutpen/McCaslin and Sartoris strands of Faulkner’s overall Yoknapatawpha scheme. These materials were then reworked and reused to expound the main themes of loss of innocence and degradation in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, and accordingly never saw the light of day as a fully-articulated novel. Interesting as this argument is, there are elements in the extant stories themselves that argue for a more piecemeal accretion, and perhaps a more episodic inspiration.

The social organization of the Indian groups portrayed in the stories is more like that of Germanic warlords than of Chickasaw or Choctaw tribal chiefs. The “Man” is an absolute leader whose word is not only law but life or death, and this word is carried out by a cadre of male retainers who also participate in the supervision of African slaves. There is talk of a council of elders in “Red Leaves,” but no indication that they actually have substantive control at the time of the story; instead they function as a chorus to reflect on the novelty and burden of black slavery. Previous Faulkner scholarship has simply accepted this sociopolitical structure as a genuine expression of aboriginal Indian governance, or else taken Doom’s progress as a sign of the degeneracy into tyranny that Faulkner attributes to white influence. Both the historic Choctaws and Chickasaws, however, were known for their egalitarian social organization and practices, and among them political power (as opposed to influence through kinship) was at best weak and situational, leading to a systemic factionalism in the face of calls for unity but a resilient decentralization that made external dominance impossible as long as no tribe faced a single more powerful hegemonic enemy. These very characteristics left them more or less at the mercy of white exploitation once Americans took uncontested control of the region. Only the powerful mixed-blood families, especially the Colberts among the Chickasaws, were able to orchestrate their extended families into structures that even remotely resembled what Faulkner portrays, and even they did not dare approach the level of orientalist tyranny wielded by Ikkemotubbe and his family. But even here Faulkner’s imagination had a good deal of help in the long-embedded conviction of white historians that white-Indian mixed-blood leaders automatically rose to dominance of their tribes through their superior “blood,” and virtually controlled the tribes in the making of treaties toward Removal.18

The convoluted genealogy underlying the Ikkemotubbe family, although it does not remain fixed from story to story, seems to me to have been reconstrued from historical fact. Issetibbeha was in fact a historical figure, actually the last “king” of the Chickasaws who appears in treaty documents: Ishtehotopa, the nephew of the leading chief Chinubbee. And Faulkner didn’t just use the name, but gestured at the pattern of inheritance as well. Chinubbee was the nephew of the leading chief of the 1760s, Paya Mataha, and was preceded as leading chief by his own brother, Taski Etoka or the “Hair Lipped King.”19 Then the pattern repeated: on his death in 1819, Chinubbee’s leadership role was initially passed to Ishtehotopa’s brother Chehopistee, then to Ishtehotopa on Chehopistee’s death in 1820 (by natural causes, I hasten to add). Ishtehotopa held the distinction of “king” (the nomenclature was white-applied) from 1820 through Removal, and into the 1840s in Oklahoma (Atkinson, in press; Gibson 174, 188, 245). As already mentioned, to the extent that anything was inherited among the Indians of Mississippi, perhaps especially their ethnicity, it was inherited through the mother, so that when chiefly office was passed on to a male relative it went to a brother or a sister’s son, and that is the pattern we see here. The several transitions of power in both the fictional and the real events are sufficiently similar, I think, to warrant the suggestion that Faulkner used the real events and the name, but inverted the lineal transfer of power: in the real Chickasaw case, the son of the chief’s sister would not have been excluded from leadership, but specified for it.

FIGURE. Ishtehotopa Genealogy
Faulkner did more than this, however, and I think that what he did can be shown by tracing the alterations he made in his fictional genealogy over time. In “Red Leaves” the truncated “male” side of the genealogy is little elaborated, as power is quickly hijacked by Ikkemotubbe to create his own Indian-African dynasty of three generations, which we see from the perspective of its conclusion. But in “A Justice” two things have happened: Ikkemotubbe’s path to power has been made more complex, while his dynasty is as yet not specified, and the Indian-African miscegenation that creates Sam Fathers is proxied for Ikkemotubbe by a slave he owns and a henchman, Craw-ford, whom he commands. By the time of “The Old People” the three-tier dynasty has been fully articulated on the “male” side – now transformed to “fullblood” – by folding in the brother’s abdication from “A Justice” to the Issetibbeha-Moketubbe sequence taken from “Red Leaves.” Sam Fathers is now Ikkemotubbe’s own son and the miscegenation Ikkemotubbe’s as at the beginning, but shortened by the subtracted generation. The final step, fictionally earliest, shows the “male” side regularized to three generations and the “female” side with Ikkemotubbe’s future unknown. This process of reshaping the Ikkemotubbe story keeps the African-Indian miscegenation on the “Doom”-ed “female” side while transferring the Issetibbeha-Moketubbe relation to the fullblood “male” side. Faulkner was no longer interested in the Africanness of the grotesque Moketubbe; instead he found a way for a “doom”-ed Indian race debauched by Europeans to join with the endurance of African women to produce the archetypal figure of Sam Fathers.
FIGURE: Ikkemotubbe Genealogy through Four Stories

The Weddel lineage is less complex, more clearly the reflection of one individual. The story “Lo!” presents a large group of “Chickasaw” Indians who have come to Washington to obtain “justice” from the President regarding the death of a white land speculator who had attempted to trick them out of control of a ford. Once more their leader is French-influenced, with a French name (Vidal – or perhaps Weddel?) and possibly French blood; he is inordinately fond of European garments as long as they do not include trousers. As Elmo Howell pointed out long ago (253), this incident is probably modeled upon the 1831 expedition to Washington of the three-quarters French, one-quarter-Choctaw, slave- and plantation-owning eventual Mississippi state legislator Greenwood LeFlore, with other features borrowed from the 1824 journey of the full-blood Choctaw chief Pushmataha.20

This connection is further explicated in a slightly earlier story, “Mountain Victory,” which outlines the journey to Washington and makes more evident the connection to LeFlore by explicating the French blood quotient of the returning Civil War soldier with a half-French father who had built a huge mansion called “Countalmaison” on his slave-farmed plantation. Greenwood LeFlore’s mansion near Greenwood, Mississippi, which burned in 1942, was called Malmaison in memory and admiration of Napoleon’s wife Josephine – adding another link with Saucier’s grandfather Vidal, “a general of Napoleon’s and a knight of the Legion of Honor” (CS 759). As Taylor has pointed out, this leads us back in a circle to Ikkemotubbe’s patron/tutor Sœur Blonde de Vitry, said to have been worthy of being a Napoleonic marshal (SF “Appendix” 403). A couple of historical facts tantalize here: the chief military engineer in the Louisiana colony in the 1720s was named Le Blond de La Tour; while one Joseph Vidal was the aide to Spanish governor Gayoso of Natchez in the 1780s and later served as an agent of several consortia of Natchez businessmen in buying up Chickasaw lands in the 1830s.21 Faulkner’s omnivorous readings in the available Mississippi documentation could easily have supplied these names too. But again the context of received beliefs about European predecessors in Mississippi intrudes: the descendants of Anglo “winners” in the struggle for control of the lands of Mississippi justified their success by disparaging the Spanish as actively evil minions of the Pope, and the French as debauched failed colonists of a bloated monarchy; Lafayette, even Napoleon, were their French heroes, both safely gone from the American continent.

Slavery and Retainer Sacrifice
The central story of “Red Leaves” is the nameless slave’s long run to escape what anthropologists refer to as “retainer sacrifice” – burial with his dead master. There is no verifiable record at all of Chickasaws’ having killed black slaves to accompany them to the other world, and only a little evidence to suggest that they may on occasion have killed dogs or their much-prized Chickasaw ponies for this purpose, though they frequently took inanimate objects with them into the usually modest graves placed underneath the bed platforms they had occupied in life within their houses; archaeological evidence has verified the historical accounts in these particulars. Hence the central thesis of “Red Leaves” misrepresents both Chickasaw and Choctaw funeral practice, although as Dabney and others have observed, the Natchez Indians, driven from the state in the eighteenth century but amply documented by Claiborne and Swanton, practiced large-scale retainer sacrifice at the deaths of their supreme “Sun” leaders (see Swanton, Indian Tribes [1911]). It has been suggested that Faulkner, like many another writer, was fascinated by the imperial picture of the Natchez “Suns” whose obsequies echoed the sacrifices of European prehistory so fancifully but influentially portrayed in Frazer’s Golden Bough. Yet the immediate inspiration has been identified as a local one. Dabney has documented and others have mentioned the local Lafayette County tradition that at the death of a Chickasaw chief named Toby Tubby, efforts were made by his people to bury his personal slave with him.22 As far as can be discerned, this legend is poorly located in time and cannot be substantiated historically, but people in Lafayette County believed it, and Faulkner made it the premise of “Red Leaves.”

The general treatment of African slaves by Indians and the attitude toward them expressed by slave-owning Indians has long been an issue in discussions of “Red Leaves” and “A Justice.” The colonial-period Chickasaws had not scrupled to serve as notable catchers of Indian slaves on behalf of the English among their neighboring tribes since before 1699, when the French arrived on the Gulf coast and immediately gained popularity with the Chickasaws’ victims because they were willing to supply them with guns to counter those that the English had supplied to the Chickasaws. But this practice, already unprofitable because Indians made such poor slaves both in the Carolinas and in the Caribbean, came to a halt with the Yamassee War of 1715 against the Carolina colonies. The Chickasaws were not notably involved in enslaving Indians for sale afterwards, though they did trade war captives to the English from their various encounters with the French of Louisiana. The whole of this practice, however, should not be conflated with that of chattel slavery practiced to extract free labor for the working of cash crops. Instead, it was part of the Native practice of non-chattel, non-hereditary slavery that amounted rather to keeping a captive alive to replace a lost relative, or the use of captives as hostages, and it is not clear to what degree the Chickasaws had actually begun to think of Indian slaves traded to the British as commodities by the time the trade ceased. During the colonial period, their acquaintance with enslaved and free Africans was limited to occasional packhorsemen in the service of English traders and to the black militias used by the French in their Chickasaw wars. It therefore seems that Faulkner’s notion that some Indians learned a new style of slavery from whites is in fact accurate, however accidentally it may have been arrived at. It is interesting that the examples of the abuse of slaves by Chickasaws, given in the Faulkner literature to support the verisimilitude of the slave’s sacrifice by Chickasaw Indians, seem to resolve to a single report by a disgruntled Indian agent.23

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