Living between worlds

You can imagine why Frank Waters, the noted author of the American South West, holds an unsettled reputation since he occupies the very place that his literature faithfully explores: the people who do not quite fit in and, thus, must find their own reconciliation with and pathway through life.

He was of native American heritage, his father was Cheyenne, his mother Caucasian and he grew up in the 'white world' yet sufficiently exposed to the indigenous to be able to move within it successfully (if not always inclusively).

Like the protagonist of his finest novel, 'The Man who Killed the Deer', he could not inhabit a native American tradition as a 'traditionalist' but neither could he slip into 'white America'. Waters own way was to seek reconciliation in a 'mystical' centering where both worlds offer something to a emergent whole. This perception was deeply influenced by his reading of Jung; thus, the intuitive, communal primordial 'Indian' tradition meets the extroverted, rational, instrumental 'Western' tradition in search of a more comprehensive, balanced reality. It was, also, influenced by wide reading in Eastern traditions.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could dissolve into dangerously platitudinous generalization - the mushy mysticism that the hard nosed are always on the lookout for but Waters immense sympathy for, and knowledge of, the particular, both in terms of person and place, imagined and real, gives his work a realism and value that is happily tangible and delineated.

Martiniano in 'The Man who Killed the Deer' was, in fact, based on a real person inhabiting the conflicts of finding his place within his community and his actual experience of killing a deer a day or two "out of season" (an imposition of the white world) did, in fact, trigger a whole campaign for land restitution that his Pueblo community won (in real history). It is a book that explores sin and redemption, individual and community, speech and silence in extraordinarily compelling and beautifully written ways.

His most read work, "The Book of the Hopi'', became a Sixties best seller gratifying to seekers after spirituality, who having 'tuned in and dropped out' sought mythological and spiritual framing from diverse sources including the indigenous. Needless to say the book neither endeared him to Hopi traditionalists, thinking of it as "ersatz spirituality" or serious scholars (though interestingly they appear simply to pass over in silence rather than stick the pen in).

I suspect, having read, "Pumpkin Seed Point: Being within the Hopi" his lucid and engaging account of spending three years with the Hopi and researching Hopi tradition that though both parties have a point, they are missing the point.

First, it is clear that Hopi society itself was fractured between 'traditionalists' and 'modernizers' like most defenders of 'tradition' in truth, on closer examination, you have branching truths and myriad constructors of the 'truth'. Understandably so here because of the intense pressure Hopi society was in from the outside world.

Second, for the scholars, Waters is beyond the ethnographic pale for not being a 'scholar' but an amateur and one given to 'intuitive and mystical' interpretation. However, you do get a real sense of Waters' sincerity, diligence and care in developing his own 'strong reading' (to utilize hermeneutic language) of a tradition whose stories, rituals and life framing meant a great deal to him. If he was wrong on the detail, it was not for want of honoring, the people's worldview and stories he wanted to transmit.

Meanwhile, in its own right, Pumpkin Seed Point is an engaging account of one man attempting to be allowed to understand a tradition, winning trust from some of its representatives but not others; and, faithfully interpreting it according to his lights. You meet on the way memorable folk for whom every aspect of life and place is sacred, who are clinging to preserve it under hostile conditions - from within as well as from without - and doing so with great dignity. Whatever Waters' failings might have been as an interpreter of the tradition, it was not from either a lack of love or clear sighted realism. 


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