Migration and Memory in James Welch’s The Heartsong of Charging Elk: A Postcolonial Study
Issa Omotosho Garuba
Issa Omotosho Garuba is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English, University of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria. His current research interest extends to American literature, specifically African American and Native American literatures.
It is an observable phenomenon in every immigrant globally that, at some points in their sojourn in a foreign land, they are often overwhelmed in varying degrees with the memory of home, especially when they have to deal fundamentally with the novel or alien culture to which they have been exposed. Individual immigrant found in this state is perceivable as being indeed torn between two cultural realities. In migration literature, this condition is termed ‘ambivalence’. On the other hand, the immigrant’s ability to adjust and adapt to the new culture and build a new hybrid life, amidst such cultural ambivalence, is regarded as ‘adjustment’. In this study, this experience of ambivalence and adjustment is being ascertained in a culturally displaced Native American protagonist of James Welch’s novel The Heartsong of Charging Elk, who is found an immigrant in France in the nineteenth-century. To this end, the experience is revealed in the study as constituting the underlying narrative essence of the novel. Specifically, the significance of this methodology is anchored on two cardinal points: one, it constructs the novel as a significant work of migration literature in the Native American literary canon, thereby further justifying a post-colonial discursivity in the canon in general. Two, it also critically locates the discourse of contemporary Native American identity in the United States within the context of hybridity and difference in the novel.
Keywords: Post-colonial Discourse, Migration, Ambivalence and Adjustment, Memory, Native American Literature.
By the term ‘migrant literature’, what immediately comes to the mind is that reference is being made to a literary canon of a category of writers who are writing in nations or geographical locations other than their original nationalities as migrant individuals. Indeed, thematically, what underscores the rudiment of migrant literature will corroborate this assertion. According to Anna Nasilowska, migrant literature encompasses:
intercultural relations, including the juxtaposition between a person’s own cultural baggage– their behavior and stereotypes brought over from their birthplace – and their new environment, as well the problems that emerge when attempting to adapt to new location, to forge a new self and a detached attitude towards any permanent definitions. (6)
However, within the post-colonial critical context, what is central to this literary genre is more of the narrative experience in the text than the writer’s status as an immigrant in another cultural setting. In this regard, taking a holistic view of the concept, it would refer to “the whole range of migrant experiences, exilic or diasporic, faced by immigrants, refugees, expatriates and all other travelling individuals” (Naguib 22). This, thus, presupposes that a non-immigrant writer’s work could also be characterised as migrant literature provided the aforementioned major preoccupation of this genre constitutes the focus of such a work. In other words, according to Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdoali Vahidpour, a writer “can be accounted as a migrant artist in his homeland, because what distinguish the migrant writers from the non-migrant is not the geographical borders and places, but the hybrid nature of their works” (687).
It is within the above context that the novel The Heartsong of Charging Elk by a Native American, James Welch, who is a non-migrant writer, is being considered in this study as work of migrant literature premised on its narrative content which bothers on the colonisation of the American Indians and its specific consequence of migration, among others. The novel narrates the experience of cultural crossing of a Native American, Charging Elk who joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on a performance tour to Europe in the nineteenth-century as a way of escaping the unpleasant life on the reservation. This being a development against the backdrop of the European invasion and subsequent settlement on the Native American land, and the eventual uprooting and confinement of the native people to various reservations put in place for them against their wills. Maria Brave Heart and Lemy DeBryun offer an overview of the atmosphere following the European invasion and settlement on the Native land:
Armed conflict and removal of tribes from traditional lands became the norm. Numerous tribes faced “long walks” where many, if mot the majority, died from disease, fatigue, and starvation. As the reservation system developed, tribal groups were often forced to live together in restricted areas. When lands were found to be valuable to the government and Whites, more often than not, ways were found to take them and resettle Natives elsewhere. (62-63)
Left in a hospital in Marseille by the Wild West show when he sustains an injury, Charging Elk is, against the failure of every measure to repatriate him, forced to remake his life in a strange land. Meanwhile, with the ensuing experience, he is constantly bedeviled with strong memory of home; his culture, land and people. This initially triggers an ambivalent atmosphere that is later weathered by the protagonist’s ability to adjust and adapt to the new culture. To this end, therefore, the feeling of ambivalence and adjustment exhibited by a culturally displaced individual is conceived in this study as constituting the underlying narrative essence of the novel, thereby making it a significant work of migration literature of Native American literary canon.
Migration in the Postcolonial Context
The term ‘post-colonial’ is used to refer to “all the cultures affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day” (Ashcroft, Tiffin and Griffiths 2). What makes the literatures of these cultures distinct, “beyond their special and distinctive characteristics”, is attributed to their emergence “out of the experience of colonization” and the assertion of themselves by “foregrounding the tension with imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre” (2). This fundamental ideology presupposes that “post-colonial theory has its roots in the frustration of the colonized and the tensions and clashes between their culture and that of the dominant group” (Pourjafari andVahidpour683). To this end, several concepts have evolved out of the post-colonial theory and condition, dealing with specific aspects of colonialism and its effects on the colonized in the post-colonial era. These range from hybridity, hegemony, alienation, exile, diaspora and migration, among others.
The last in the above continuum, migration, which is said to be a relatively recent tenet in post-colonial theory (Pourjafari andVahidpour685), constitutes the major focus in this study. Prominently, it has been employed in post-colonial theory as “a metaphor for movement and dislocation” (Naguib 22) with a view to enhancing its understanding as “a site for interrogating fixity in identity” (22). Homi Bhabha and Salmon Rushdie are its major proponents who have indeed metaphorically conceptualized it in their respective post-colonial theories. In Homi Bhabha’s conception, it is argued that:
Metaphor, as the etymology of the word suggests, transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the ‘middle passage’, or the central European steppes, across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation people. (139-140)
By imagined community above, Bhabha suggests a collective imagination of a nation by a people – migrants or metropolitans – whose belief or imagination translates to a set of shared commonalities (141). Assmaa M. Naguib posits that Bhabha’s argument in this context is that “the migrant possesses the power to offer imaginations different from that of the nation”. (23)
Similarly, Salman Rushdie conceives migrants as “metaphorical beings”. This is premised on the connotative notion of metaphor which suggests “the migration of ideas into images” (278). In his view, the social dislocation and disruption of home place, which often characterizes migration, enable migrants to realize that “reality is an artifact” (280). The relativity with which things appear to the migrant, upon the exposure to a different culture, aids his/her resistance to all “absolute forms of knowledge” (280). It is, therefore, on this basis of theoretical metaphorization that, according to Assmaa M. Naguib, both Homi Bhabha and Salman Rushdie “introduce migration as a site of empowerment where the experience of pain or loss is diminished and where the privilege of unique insight is highlighted” (23).
Andrew Smith makes a justification for migration as a significant concept in post-colonial theories by summarizing its inherent potentiality as that which underlies the keen interest of post-colonial scholars in it: “Fundamental to postcolonial criticism has been the puzzle of how aspects of life and experience in one social context are impacting on worlds that are geographically and culturally distant” (244). Hence, the figure of the migrant writer assumes “a forerunner in a new type of politics in which groups no longer mobilize on the basis of the old dichotomies of opposition, but move together in and through hybridity and difference” (249). In this way, with reference to the conceptual metaphorizations of Homi Bhabha and Salman Rushdie, it is posited that literature of migration assumes “a kind of metaphor, a symbol that catches many of the shared understanding and assumptions which give postcolonial studies its parameters and shape” (250).
According to Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdolali Vahidpour, there are three general sub-concepts that are of relevance to migration literature (685). These are hybridity, ambivalence and adjustment, and abandonment and return. Meanwhile, for the purpose of this study, the workings of ambivalence and adjustment in post-colonial experience are discussed as a sub-framework. Ambivalence in migration literature is described as “the character’s reaction towards any complex, confusing or emotionally charged social phenomenon” (Pourjafari and Vahidpour 687). In this way, “the migrant character’s experiences are analyzed in the light of ambivalence as either an enduring emotion, a situational, specific attitude, or even as a permanent life condition” (687-688). These complexities create two opposing affections visible in the migrant’s typical life experiences, hence a character is portrayed amidst these complexities as a migrant who “move between identities, experiencing the exile’s desire to retain cultural roots, whilst at the same time, being drawn to the acceptance of and integration to the new to the new culture” (688). On the other hand, adjustment comes to play in the character’s experiences as a resolution to his ambivalent struggles. This is achieved when the migrant character “willingly adjusts himself to the new environment, forgetting the either roles and choosing the third space: the hybrid in-betweeness” (688). Critically, in all of the above; from the general post-colonial literature to migration literature and to the sub-tenet of ambivalence and adjustment, it is apparent that the role of memory in this complex web of identity and/or cultural location and dislocation is significantly presupposed, given that a migrant character is portrayed as being embattled with the image of home which constantly finds its way into his/her psyche in the face of new cultural realities.
Synopsis of the Novel
Based on historical events, Welch narrates the story of a Native American (an Oglala Sioux) deserted in Marseille, France, having travelled a wide and cultural distance from a familiar tribal life in Black Hills of South Dakota to a strange existence on the streets of Marseille. Prior this, following the futile years of fighting resistibly with the American government, the Oglalas have finally surrendered and begun to live on Pine Ridge Reservation. As a young boy, Charging Elk witnesses the heavy struggle between the Natives and the US government. Meanwhile, determined to be free, he takes preference in living in the old ways on the Stronghold, other than on reservation. With his skills, he is attracted to Buffalo Bill, the leader of a Wild West show, a performance troupe which travels across the capitals of Europe for various performance shows. In Marseille, Charging Elk is injured and during his convalescence, the show moves on, leaving him behind without making any provision for his wellbeing. He escapes from the hospital and, at the time, he can neither speak French nor English. He finds himself in the hands of the authorities led by the American vice consul to France, Franklin Bell, who tries but fails to get him repatriated. Thus, his life in France is lonely and filled with confusion and longing as well as being haunted by sad dreams of his family and homeland. He falls into series of events including living with a fishmonger, Rene, a love affair with a prostitute (Marie) and a shocking murder of a despicable man (a gay) that turns his life around utterly beyond his imagination. Following his prolonged trial; with extenuating circumstances considered, he is sentenced to life imprisonment, instead of death penalty. He spends almost ten years in prison before his release on morality ground. He eventually marries and settles in Marseille, given no consideration for returning home anymore.
Displacement and Cultural Recovery in Native American Narratives: The Import of Memory
Many accounts of the Indian/white contact have revealed that the European invasion of America during the colonisation era and the subsequent forced removal of the so-called indigenous people from their ‘sacred’ territories largely subjected the native people to a condition of displacement as well as huge cultural loss. This is because territory, in this context, is not defined solely in geographical term; it encompasses such sociological terms as community, culture, and identity. For the Native Americans, “land, plants, and animals are considered sacred relatives, far beyond a concept of property. Their loss became a source of grief” (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 62). This, in a way, recognises the inseparability of the geographical and psychological realities. Thus, the novel under study is seen as being informative of the psychosocial effects of removal of one from one’s consecrated community and land. The psychosocial effect is often engendered by what is termed ‘recovery’ in the criticism of Native American literature. This recovery process is being significantly enhanced by ‘memory’, which is a peculiar concept that is associated with post-colonial narratives.
In the introduction to Other Destinies: Understanding Native American Narratives (1992), Louis Owens posits that ‘recovery’ is central to the study of American Indian fiction, specifically the recovery of indigenous identity (5). He explains that one of the fundamental questions of this genre and its criticism – what is an Indian? – “comprehends centuries of colonial and postcolonial displacement” (4). Thus, “for writers who identify as Native Americans”, in the context of such displacement, the novel represents “a process of reconstruction of self-discovery and cultural recovery” (5). The recovery process largely depends on the memory of place as well as community. In the narrative of The Heartsong, the protagonist, Charging Elk is critically pictured in this psychosocial realm of recovery, leading to question of cultural ambivalence and adjustment, through constant memory of an ideal home, from territorial (geographical, cultural and identity) displacement.
Migration, Memory and Ambivalence in the Novel
Assmaa M. Naguib defines migration as “a journey away from home in the sense that it places the person in a setting that is previously unfamiliar, away from ‘the home’s mundane realities’” (31). In this regard, if home seems unavailable, a person could turn to its memory as a compensation or recovery strategy (Porter 304). As a migrant who finds himself in an environment where the realities of home are no longer ideal or shared collectively, the more this awareness hits him, the more attempts he displays to preserve his idea of ‘home’. Indeed, one of the routes to this is ‘memory’. The immigrant Charging Elk is caught up in the grip of these idealized memories and the uncertainty of a return to his homeland.
According to the modern usage of the term, migration refers to “the trend of displacement and movement made by individuals with the hope to find more personal convenience or better their material or social conditions” (Pourjafari andVahidpour680-681). In the instance of Charging Elk, he indeed joins the Wild West show on the European tour with a view to finding a better social condition from that of the life on reservations as a result of having been displaced from their original territories and confined to these reservations by the whites. The process that leads to his eventual migration with the Show begins when, at the age of thirteen and having spent a year on the reservation, he and a fellow tribe, Strikes Plenty run away from white man’s school at which they have been placed by the white’s authority. In their condition as the colonised, it is such a move that could be described as an unconscious resistance or defense mechanism in the psyches of such little individual American Indians against white’s cultural colonisation. The duo continue to move from one place to another so as to avoid being caught by the white officials, especially when they become aware of their threat to get them, as well others who have followed suit, back onto reservations. Their sojourn away from the white man’s territory lasts for a period of nine years before individuals in their camp go their separate ways:
…Later they would move again, when the wasichus threatened to come get them, along with other children. They moved to a place in the badlands called the stronghold, along tall grassy butte with sheer cliffs on three sides that could be easily defended. But the white men, soldiers and settlers alike, were afraid of the stronghold. The Indians out there were considered bad Indians, even by their own people who had settled at the agency and the surrounding communities. Charging Elk and Strikes Plenty lived off and on at the Stronghold for the next nine years, hunting game, exploring, learning and continuing the old ways with the help of two old medicine people. (Heartsong14)
For Charging Elk, joining Buffalo Bill’s show was an option at a point in time in the past. But, now that what has led him to his present state of loneliness in a foreign land is being attributed to it, he recalls it regrettably: “For the first time in his life, he wished he had stayed in school and learn the brown suit’s language. “Buffalo Bill,” he said, without hope. “Wild West.” (14). In view of these, it suffices therefore to assert that he leaves his native land in a desperate bid to escape confinement and explore greener pasture following the occupation of their land by the white colonisers, which is equally one of the circumstances identified as underlying migration (Pourjafari and Vahidpour). Indeed, according to John Gamber, the novel portrays a young, male Native protagonist who eventually becomes a migrant in a novel geographical setting as a result of his sheer resistance to:
the physical stasis mandated by US governmental requirements of Indian people broadly – that they be bound to reservations not only (historically) as a form of containment if not outright incarceration, but also (more recently) in order to conform to a discourse of Native authenticity by which only reservation Indians count as “real Indians” (97)
Finding his way from their territory with the Wild West show to France as a performer, he becomes ill in Marseille and eventually faints in the course of attempting to perform. He recuperates in a hospital from which he flees afterwards. Subsequent to his convalescence and escape from the hospital, and the realization that the troupe has left him behind, Charging Elk is doomed to exile coupled with the series of events which unfold thereafter. In the light of this, he is found as being territorially displaced. This is justifiable as the overall sense of geographical, cultural and communal displacement begins to set in overwhelmingly on him with the memory of home, right from the very moment he wakes up in the hospital as he regains his consciousness:
He was surprised to see many beds, maybe a hundred of them, virtually all of them occupied. As he surveyed the room, he suddenly remembered Featherman. The night he had come to the sickhouse, Featherman had been in the next bed. Now there was a wasichu with a waxy face and thick sandy hair in the bed. But where was Featherman? Had he really been there? Had he been a dream? Charging Elk’s heart fell down as he remembered the dull, flat eyes. Yes, he had been there. And now he was dead. But perhaps there were other Buffalo Bill Indians in the other beds. His heart lifted again and he thought he might shout “All my relatives!” in Lakota… (Heartsong19)
Upon the above realisation that he is dreadfully lost in the wilderness of the ‘other’, what vigorously runs through his mind as he moves around the streets of Marseille is the recovery from the loss, which can only be enhanced by a kind of re-union between him and his familiar territory, his native land. This is understandable considering Douglas. J. Porteous’ view that home can only be comprehended from a migrants’ perspective, whose temporary loss of the feeling of home pushes them to attempt to recreate it (387). In the instance of this migrant protagonist, that recreation of home is only feasible in his memory.
The street Charging Elk walks along is crowded with people and noisy, and the way he is strangely looked at everywhere causes him a sudden remembrance of how different from these people he is. Even in his native land the whites are a different race that looks upon them as wild savages, which is also one of the grounds on which his people are being confined to reservations. Nevertheless, he has his people there and, indeed, it is a familiar and free world that is quite incomparable with the present one he has found himself. This “feeling of community”, which appears to have been disrupted by migration, is what Charging Elk tries to rebuild in his memory. This is because, to a migrant, thoughts of home assume “an act of remembering” (Ahmed343). Thus, he grows tensed, and the psychosocial import this has on him is substantially of the recovery process as it is being played out in his memory:
But he felt obliged to follow up on his slim chance. As he crossed the field to the street that led to the station, he noticed that his fuzzy slippers had become wet with dew. He almost chuckled at this latest problem. Wakan Tanka was not content with just the hunger and weakness of his pitiful child – now he was given him cold feet. Charging Elk looked up at the sky to beseech the Great Mystery and he rain clouds where once had been sun. Nevertheless, he stood at the edge of the field and sang a song of pity and prayed with all his heart that Wakan Tanka would guild him home to his people, to his own land. (Heartsong49)
The above mental state is both definitive and suggestive of the world of racial difference, occasioned by the whites colonizing system as a result of which Charging Elk is found a migrant. As a Native American, Charging Elk is seen in the process of individual and cultural preservation and recovery. It is a “continued agony” which Frantz Fanon claimed was the ultimate objective of the colonizing system. On this note, the reader realizes that, at that point in time, the character of Charging Elk is in an unconscious state, hence he can perceptibly steps out of his body and fly to the country of his people, regarded as the real world, in a gratifying and comforting condition. The act of his leaning momentarily against a building with his eyes closed to shut out the world around is a pointer to this journey into the unconscious perception. By the time he opens his eyes, he has returned to the conscious state, and thus realizes that he has only travelled home through his memory but still at the very same world of the ‘others’.
Oblivious of the fact that he is in an unconscious state of mind in his momentary trip to his country, it appears to him that his country home is now empty of people by the time he regains his consciousness. This makes him to experience more loneliness and estrangement. Subsequently he is overwhelmed with good memories of home until he later relapses into dreams, both day and night, largely premonitory ones that point to imminent extinction of his people back home:
One night Charging Elk dreamed. He had wanted to dream of the girl, because in dreams many things happen that one desires. But this dram was not a happy one; nor was it about the girl in the blue robe. In his dream he was standing on one of the sheer cliffs of the Stronghold. Something was wrong and he was weeping. He wanted to jump off the cliff, but every time he tried, a big gust of wind blew him back. He tried four times… but each time the wind pushed him back, until he was exhausted from his labours. But the next time he approached the cliff, too weak to even attempt to jump, he looked down he saw his people lying in a heap at the bottom. They lay in all positions and directions – men, women and children, even old ones. They lay like buffalos that had been driven over the cliffs by hunters, and Charging Elk understood why he had been weeping. As stood and looked down at his people, he heard the wind roared in his ears like a thousand running buffaloes, but in the roar, he heard a voice, a familiar voice, a Lakota voice, and it said, “You are my only son.” And when he turned back to his village at Stronghold, there was nothing there – no people, no horses or lodges, not even the rings of rock that held the lodge covers down – not even one smoldering fire pit. Everything was gone. (Heartsong235)
On the foregoing, since his country home is empty of his people, and having thus resigned to fate, he takes to enjoying life in the so-called foreign land that initially appears horrible. Between these processes of ambivalence and adjustment, memory plays a significant role in that his constant remembering of home, which initially places him in-between the two worlds, eventually precipitates his adjustment to settle for life in the current world, having imagined in his memory the likely calamity of swinging into extinction that will have befallen his people. At this point, he seems to be getting out of his moments of ambivalence, thereby paving way for the process of adjustment and/or adaptation into the new cultural setting.
Charging Elk and the Process of Adjustment
The atmosphere or process of adjustment begins to play out in Charging Elk’s mind the moment he is taking in by a fishmonger family, Rene and Madeleine, to live with them following the failed attempt of the American vice consul in France, Franklin Bell to get him repatriated on account that “he lacks any documentation and is not a citizen of the United States (citizenship not being conferred upon most Native people until 1924)” (Gerald 98). In view of this, the vice consul hands him over to the fishmonger to live with them for sometimes till the process of his repatriation is finally in place. Charging Elk lives and work with them happily and, more or less, like a family.
Nevertheless, the horror of the dream about the extinction of his people and homeland never ceases to haunt him. This indeed is an enduring situation of ambivalence and adjustment being demonstrated by the migrant protagonist. The complexities surrounding his state of two opposing affections (of his far away native land and the currently inhabited white world) are what Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdolali Vahidpour regard as “the complexities of the migrants who move between identities, experiencing the exile’s desire to retain cultural roots, whilst at the same time, being drawn to the acceptance of and integration to the new culture” (688). This critical dimension can be further corroborated in John Gamber’s reading of the novel alongside another Native American narrative, Gerard Vizenor’s Blue Ravens within the context of what is described as a peculiar narrative frame in Native American narratives – homing plot. In his study, a specific insight is offered on the frame of ambivalent in which Charging Elk’s situation could be contextualised:
Charging Elk’s (the protagonist of Welch’s novel) adaptation to France is often read as extremely positive. However, as I will demonstrate, his transition is in fact quite complicated, and I argue, ambivalent at best. Such an ambivalence is fitting, when one considers that these moves out of settler colonial spaces are also moves in to colonizing metropoles; these indigenous characters cannot simply cast off the colony or colonization. Specifically, Charging Elk represents an always-ready (temporally) diasporic subject, removed from what he perceives to be home not in space but also in time-even when he dwells in the Oglala Stronghold. (97-98)
Charging Elk’s encounter with a prostitute, Marie, marks another turn of event in his life. Over time, he becomes obsessed with her to the extent of nursing the idea of getting her married despite that he knows she is not only a whore but also a white. The significance of this obsession with Marie is seen within the contexts of what Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdolali Vahidpour conceive as the situation whereby the migrant character “willingly adjusts himself to the new environment, forgetting either roles and choosing the third space: the hybrid in-betweeness” (688). This presupposes that if the marital proposal pushes through, the question of cultural hybridity would automatically set in.
However gratifying the imaginative development could be to Charging Elk, Marie seems to be unaffected by any form of emotion, which is understandably intrinsic to her personality as a prostitute. Her inability to reciprocate Charging Elk’s affection for her not only turns out chaotic but also highlights a strand of the discrepancies between the two cultures – the question of same sex intercourse which is absolutely alien to a typical American Indian who had not hitherto left the shores of their territory.
Upon the obsession with Marie, Charging Elk is now frequent in her room. But on a fateful day, a gay man, Arman Breteuil, conspired with Marie to drug Charging Elk in her room so that he can access him sexually; a deal for which Marie is paid the sum of twenty francs. In the process the man ends up being killed by Charging Elk. Although the details of the episode is not offered in the narrative, it is deductible from the age-long warring separation and enmity between their race and the white settlers from Europe, reminiscent of the build up to and the actual Battle of Little Bighorn narrated in another James Welch’s novel Killing Custer, that such an act could have been done furiously, considering the nature of such utterly alien assault on his personality. This is because no matter how happy and friendly he is while he finds himself among them, the racial discrepancy and the ensued atmosphere of enmity is at constant operation in his unconscious mind, and thus anything of such horribly alien assault could affectively trigger it, which could equally result to sheer damage to the other party.
The above is similar to the story of Michael Adonis, a young coloured South African and the protagonist of a famous apartheid narrative, Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night. In his encounter with a white man, Mr. Doughty, an argument ensues between them over a bottle of wine. And, as a personality who is already burning with sheer anger over his disengagement from his job for daring to speak back at his white boss, coupled also with the various points of disadvantages the racialised society pushes them to as blacks, he kills Doughty. This, indeed, is unconsciously consequential of the similar racialised social formation in apartheid South Africa. On this line of thought, the prosecuting counsel’s observation in the court during Charging Elk’s trial is keenly informative. The counsel affirmatively says that he lives happily like a family with Rene and Madeleine, yet he leaves them, and eventually finding life in a despicable home of prostitutes and smokers alike:
“Ah! He finds the true Frenchmen, the God-fearing natives of this soil, not to his liking?” the prosecutor had directed his question to the jury. There was not a dark face among them. The hawk-faced advocate objected, and the chief magistrate agreed that question was inflammatory. The prosecutor explained that he was mere trying to establish a pattern that began when the defendant left a fine French family and went to live in an area of the city where the morals of the inhabitants left much to be desired. (Heartsong329)
By inference from the above, therefore, it means that his counsel holds vehemently to the view that the realities of this unconscious mind are beginning to set in, to overtake his consciousness. And, indeed, if it does, definitely there will be gradual withdrawal of the ‘self’ from the ‘other’. Hence, regardless of the comfort and happiness with which Charging Elk lives in their midst, he is susceptible to withdrawing to himself whenever his unconscious relates to his consciousness his status of racially inferior difference from the whites.
Again, in the above, his memory is significant in the shaping of that phase in his sojourn in Marseille as a migrant, taking into cognizance his counsel’s argument at his trial which suggests that Charging Elk has, all along, been in a state of mental imbalance. In this context, moreover, Charging Elk’s mental imbalance can be construed as the frame of ambivalence operating in his psyche. Hence, what appears to be a relief from this psychical trouble is the adjustment process that takes over him and makes him to imaging the possibility of a comfortable life well in the white world, noting that one of the reasons for which he runs away from their reservation is the possibility of a cohabitation and/or dealing with the whites in their school. Indeed, according to Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdolali Vahidpour, that state in which Charging Elk is pictured “acts as a passage which should be crossed by the migrant character to reach the more secure coast of adjustment” (688).
Although the adjustment process indeed creates some considerable relief for him, if he could imaging settling down for life in Marseille and also getting married to a white (a supposed enemy figure in his native land), it is however apparently short-lived. Thus, his adjustment can be considered as being a truncated process, initially, in a migrant because he is unable to fulfill it on a full scale, obviously owing to the insincerity on the part of Marie, what is described as the migrant character’s process of becoming “successful in contacting with diverse cultures within a created hybrid space” (688). This means that if Marie had reciprocated Charging Elk’s affection for her, it would have, at this point, translated to a whole embrace of life over there and, thus, his experience of alienation would be drastically abated.
Nevertheless, eventually, he is able to attain the process fully following his release from incarceration, rather than being overwhelmed with homesickness or thoughts of returning to his native land, considering the circumstance of alien assault surrounding his imprisonment. Largely because the situation at hand is quite overpowering on him, he falls in love with another young white girl, Nathalie, the daughter of a man, Vincent Gazier on whose farm he now works. After a period of amorous relationship between him and Nathalie, and having spent considerable period of time with them and found his relationship with the family worthwhile, he moves to Nathalie’s father to get her married: “I wish to take your daughter to be my wife,” he said, now looking up. “It would be an honor to me” (394). From the man’s body language and response, an insight is gleaned on the unimaginability or inconceivability of such move or request by an Indian man to take a white woman as a wife, as pointed out earlier in the case of Marie:
Vincent looked into Charging Elk’s face. He didn’t know where to begin. He wasn’t angry; he was too dumbfounded to be angry. He just saw the impossibility of such a request. There was no reason in the world to make such a request, much less grant it. Surely the savage would understand that. But in the back of his mind Vincent wondered if the Indians of America just decided to take a wife, no matter who or why. (394)
In view of this, it can be established that the move further justifies the fact that, truly, the atmosphere is describable as a process by which a migrant is strongly willing to adjust and adapt to the new cultural reality and/or setting.
This idea is further reinforced after they have got married and returned to Marseille. It is in an encounter with some fellow Lakota family who are part of the Wild West show upon the show’s return to Marseille. In this encounter, Charging Elk inquires after his parents, and one of them, Joseph, tells him that his mother, Double Strike Woman, “still lives at Pine Ridge Agency. She has little cabin. She is well” (430). However, his father “died three winters ago. Influenza. I didn’t know him well, but there was a big ceremony at the church, then at the community hall. Everybody went” (431). While Joseph queries Charging Elks’ failure to be home for his father’s burial, being an important man in the community, he adds further that his mother lives alone and would be extremely glad to see him home again. Ordinarily, the subject of their conversations as well as the persuasions by Joseph, ought to constitute plausible grounds for Charging Elk to consider returning home, yet he replies him:
“This is my home now, Joseph. I have a wife. Soon I will have a child, the Moon of Frost in the Tipi.” Charging Elk stopped as he realized how improbable this must have sounded to Joseph. Then he said, in a wistful voice, “I am the young man who came to this country so long ago. I was just about your age and I thought of it all as a great adventure. But now here I am, a man of thirty-seven winters. I load and unload ships. I speak the language of these people. My wife is one of them and my heart is her heart. She is my life now and soon we will have another life and the same heart will sing in all of us.” (437)
It is obvious from the above that Charging Elk has deeply adjusted to the new culture. Hence, unlike when the culture is still new to him and is thus torn between homesickness and adaptation, he now finds it unthinkable to return home anymore, not even for his mother’s sake: “She will be all right,” he said. “She will be better off without me. By now, she thinks I am dead for sixteen years. Let her remember me with a loving heart” (437).
The study has constructed the substance of the narrative experience in the novel as typical of a work of migration literature in spite of the author’s geographical status as a non-immigrant Native American writer. It relies on the theoretical construct of Fatemeh Pourjafari and Abdolali Vahidpour which conceives the subject of migration literature as unrestricted to authorial geographical location and rather places emphasis on the narrative content or experience of a literary work as the major determinant. The foregoing is primarily conceived against the backdrop of the historical European invasion, on a colonising mission, of the Native American territory which is said to have accounted for the displacement of multitudes of them, as in the case of Charging Elk, from their various sacred territories. It is a colonial condition of the Native Americans which has arguably generated in the modern time what is conceivable as post-colonial reflections and traces in their writing. Hence, James Welch’s narrative of a Native American migration to Europe during their colonisation is a manifestation of Assmaa Mohamed Naguib’s assertion that both Homi Bhabha and Salman Rushdie “introduce migration as a site of empowerment where the experience of pain or loss is diminished and where the privilege of unique insight is highlighted” (23). That is, to the Native American novelist, on the one hand, the migration narrative provides a significant insight into the ‘nativity’ of the Native Americans; their strong cultural affiliations and resistance to externalities that are capable of disrupting their collective existence and identity as a people. On the other hand, owing to this insight, the inherent experience of pain or loss is thus being caused to diminish in the face of the strong self-assertion which underlies the narrative.
In view of the above, as a migrant narrative, the discourse in the novel ultimately assumes what Andrew Smith considers as “a forerunner in a new type of politics in which groups no longer mobilize on the basis of the old dichotomies of opposition, but move together in and through hybridity and difference” (249). This endpoint of hybridity and difference, as opposed to the old dichotomy of white and red, is apparently what the protagonist eventually demonstrated by insisting on not returning home and yet cherishes his identity as an American Indian. To this end, another American Indian with the Wild West show alongside Joseph, Andrew says to Charging Elk against his decision not to return home: “You are not a stranger. You are Lakota, wherever you might go. You are one of us always” (435-436). This means that though Charging Elk is no longer that raw American Indian he used to be; being now a hybrid of two cultures, yet he would forever be different as a Lakota man.
Critically, the above assertion is highly fundamental to the identity of Native Americans in the contemporary period because it foregrounds the fact that, in the present day United States ethnic or racial formation, this phenomenon of hybridity and difference indeed characterises the identity of the Native Americans. Examining contemporary Native American identity, Perry G. Horse provides a self-reflexive insight into this:
…We emulate their ways. We are educated in their schooling system. We can speak and write like them. We have adopted their form of government. […]. We attend mainstream universities. In many ways we have assimilated into the dominant culture. On the surface it seems we are indeed like them.
Be that as it may, we are still the original Native people of North America. We are Kiowa, Navajo, Comanche, Apache, Wichita, and so on down the list of five hundred or more Indian tribes. We cling to that distinction consciously and unconsciously. That realization, that consciousness is where Native American identity begins…. (61)
Given the above, thus, the novel inevitably assumes a significant site for the discourse of Native American identity in the contemporary period.
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