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Essay

THERE WAS about him always, my great-great-grandmother Mathilde had written, a cloud of strange fragrance. She ticked off its elements in a diary entry made in the summer of 1885: sassafras grass, wool, raw leather, and a quick-sublimating sweat dense with some Hunkpapa condiment. In a different entry she added in the scents of the anise and elkweed that grew brushy-thick at the base of the bluff, and what she termed “a memorial deep marination in buffalo blood.” This southern Dakota territory would not become a state until four years later.

He came to the house the first time when my Quaker great-great-grandfather Eben Sharpless was at the next farmstead with the buggy and two of the horses. Mathilde, having spied him from the kitchen window, came to the door as he mounted the hill on foot with one tall brave and a young boy of twelve years or so. She found out later that both were his sons.

She stood in the doorway, feet slightly apart in that way that she had, feisty, defiant, wiping her hands on the apron whose muslin gathers stretched over the six-months-gone bulge of her belly. She was making half-a-dozen pies, and a dusting of white pastry flour had sifted down over her like a fine rain as she rolled out the bottom and top crusts and then flipped them into their pans. On the left side of her forehead and streaking her hair there, a white smudge; on her upper lip, a slight flour-dusting moustache. Her forearms below the roll of her blouse sleeves were heavily floured. Her hair glowed with all the pale hues of striated ash wood: at night hanging down to her thighs, slapping the gathers of her white gauze-cotton nightgown; in daytime rolled into a fat figure-eight at the nape of her neck. Her blue eyes glowed fiercely.

Coming uphill, then, this was Sitting Bull. He marked each measured step of the climb with his tall walking stick, bright feathers like flowers on strings attached to its tip tugging away in the stiff summer breeze: Sitting Bull, terror and scourge of the white man, Sioux warrior-hero of the Little Bighorn, orator, negotiator, defier. Mathilde, of course, did not yet know this. She knew only: here come some Indians.

Sitting Bull had made his hunting camp down at the river, on land which since eternity had belonged to his people, land on which they had hunted buffalo since the dawn of time until the white man had come and now there were few buffalo at all for anyone. If one were to credit the government deed, the land now belonged to Eben and Mathilde Sharpless. As Quakers, they had conflicted consciences on the subject of the property rights of new settlers, themselves included. Eben and Mathilde had seen the Hunkpapa band from a distance, cooking over a fire near the river below the sixty-foot-high bluff they called theirs, but matters had not yet come to direct contact.

Eben held forth philosophically at some length on the subject of the Promised Land of the Hebrew Scriptures, trying to convince himself. From a different angle, he opined that perhaps the “promised land” was among other things a metaphor, the hopes of believers’ hearts anywhere becoming a cup into which good things might be poured at God’s behest, at the appointed time. Eben had been born in Liverpool, England, and had heard a British Zionist there speak fervently at a meeting, before he sailed for America with his parents and two brothers at age sixteen. He was decidedly not convinced by that impassioned oration on the Zionist cause. Eben and Mathilde had discussed with their Bibles laid open across their knees, and citing verse upon verse, whether they actually had any right to the land.

Then, having been offered this homestead whose view was like that of paradise itself by the federal land agent, as if he had the right to offer it, they’d gone ahead regardless and signed the deed. Mathilde clutched her heart, imagining the children they would raise here. She did that sort of thing all the time, looking into the future as if with a brazen spyglass. Eben said uncomfortably into the silence, “We can share it with the natives, then,” as if that made any sense at all.

This land, Promised or not, the land of the Hunkpapa Sioux, was starkly beautiful, and they really had needed to move west to homestead, to start their own family. Iowa, where Eben had lived only seven years after his family’s arrival, and where Mathilde had come later with her parents at sixteen, had after all in the past two decades come to seem no longer the frontier, in fact overly civilized. Practically crowded, almost urban. Brick sidewalks!

How do I know all this? It has all come down in the family, an oral history which I trust. Stories in my family have been told and retold, each teller repeating what was told him or her, verbatim, as if we had inherited the mandate of some ancient clan sitting rapt at the words of our bard, telling and retelling holy fact. No one would dare to embellish. We are, after all, at root, as Prussian by way of Mathilde as we are British by way of Eben. Imagination is not our family’s strong suit.

In addition, confirming this narrative, there was in the family for many years a framed sepia portrait of Sitting Bull. The dark carved-wood frame was fractured at the top right corner joint. Sitting Bull himself had given this portrait to Mathilde, and a pipe of his, and a hunting knife—but I should tell how that happened.

Atop the piano in the parlor there had stood a photograph of great-great-grandmother Mathilde at age sixteen, with her five younger siblings, all blond as herself. It had been taken back in Saint Ansgar one morning in summer, a riotous moonflower vine obscuring the trellis up which it climbed, leaving the porch behind it in fragrant shadow. Mathilde’s pale hair glowed in the photograph.

Sitting Bull, remarking that afternoon upon her beauty in respectful tones, had asked for the photograph in exchange for the portrait of himself, which he would bring on his next visit. When Mathilde looked doubtful for a moment, he threw in the pipe and the knife.

Then she thought: I have no need of a photograph to remember my brothers and sisters, for they are engraved upon my heart. Eben, preoccupied with practical matters, did not notice the photograph’s absence till two months had passed. By that time he felt it was too late to lodge an effectual protest.

“But that photograph of you was special to me!” he said mildly. Mathilde remarked that pouting was unbecoming to a good Quaker man, and the subject was closed.

I recall my own feeling as a child, when I stood on a chair in my grandmother’s shadowy dining room and looked into the dark, severe eyes of the portrait of Sitting Bull. I did not know who this was, but I sensed he was somehow an ancestor, or I his descendant, despite my pale skin. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror when I brushed my teeth, making the mouth he was making—a look of intractable determination and wisdom and stoic rage. I could not quite manage the wisdom. His eyes seemed slightly crossed. I would cross my own, giving myself a headache. I did it straight-faced, bracing myself for my day, with toothpaste drool at the corners of my mouth. It seemed reasonable to me. I was sent to the cloakroom once in the fourth grade by a nun for some infraction I had not committed. There was a mirror there, chalk-dusty, small. I wiped it clean with my fist and made my face in the mirror Sitting Bull’s.

The photograph went to a museum in Chicago, which infuriated my mother and her brother, as they wanted it all to have gone to the Smithsonian. The pipe and the knife ended up under glass in the collection of an artsy private top-dollar college in Oregon, which made them even angrier. My mother ranted to her friends about this over coffee for two years, then did not mention it again. She and my uncle barely spoke to their oldest brother, Leo, who had done this without consultation, and they would not attend his funeral when he died.

It was suggested that Uncle Leo had profited significantly by the transaction. He drove a 1957 El Dorado with redolent crimson-and-white leather seat covers, a drop-down armrest in the back seat, and an ivory-pushbutton radio. At a Thanksgiving family gathering one year earlier, a boy-cousin sneaked Uncle Leo’s keys out of the house and four of us sat in the car in the lavender twilight on the crest of a hill behind the house with the radio on, while the grownups watched a football game on television. They were glad for the brief silence and did not send out a search party.

We turned on the engine—the cousin knew how—listened to three Elvis Presley songs and the five o’clock news, then sneaked the keys back before we were detected. I remember Elvis’s voice: blue, blue…blue suede shoes, uh-honey. My mother’s nostril-flaring contempt for that car must have been connected to Leo’s betrayal. I imagine his gravestone looking windswept and forsaken because of this rupture, even the autumn leaves blowing away to leave him uncovered and bare. I have no idea whether I’m right.

§

When Mathilde was halfway through that first pregnancy, Eben drove her in the buckboard the hundred miles south to the nearest railhead, where they slept sitting up in the train station, leaning against each other on the hard bench. The next morning she boarded the train back to Iowa to give birth there, with her mother’s assistance.

Her parents had emigrated from Prussia, from Zarów, which now is in Poland. Her father, a baker, was prosperous. She had inherited his broad thumbnails, his ability to whistle Bach in chords, and his talent with flour. Through the last months of her pregnancy she sewed for the coming infant and helped with the bakery work, not because they needed her but because she detested idleness. Her blackberry-preserve lemon-curd tarts were famous in Saint Ansgar, Iowa. They became known as “Mathildes.” Still are.

Two months before her child’s due date, she had put in an appearance at a community social. Mathilde was not herself Quaker by birth, and she was a good deal constitutionally less dour—or more sanguine—than Eben. She played the piano that night, an unspeakably forward act for a pregnant woman in her era.

She smiled a discreetly twinkling smile at the chagrin on the faces of neighbors. Then she left early and walked home alone, wrapping her wool shawl about her, pleading a need for fresh air and a bit of light exercise, insisting that she was only slightly indisposed, waving away an offer of a ride in a neighbor’s buggy.

By the time her parents arrived at home after the social, she had delivered a three-pound child, my great-grandfather, Rutger, and ensconced him in flannel wraps in a Chief Wan-Ton cigar box with a picture of the fictive Chief Wan-Ton, smooth-faced, rainbow-headdressed, inside the box lid on slick white paper. Other pieces of wood were propped up just so to tunnel warm air from the radiator to the cigar box, creating an incubator of sorts. Great-grandfather Rutger thrived: at maturity he was six feet four inches and broad-shouldered. I imagine that I see his features in my younger brother’s son—high cheekbones, small bright intelligent eyes.

I got my middle name from my great-great-grandmother, and my brother insists that my habit of standing with my legs apart, just so, must have come straight from her too. I have no children myself, but, says my best friend, I would probably leave the same social, give birth to my great-grandfather, and find the same cigar box useful for precisely the same purpose.

The home Eben had built on the bluff for his bride was substantial: four rooms, a broad porch overlooking the sweep of the river and all the land south, a stone-faced fireplace and a roughed-in stairway that would lead to a planned second floor. There were five ranch hands (three whites, a mulatto, and a “Chinee”) to help build, and these men had a bunkhouse. There were two barns and a stable, a corral for the horses, a shed, and two outhouses. I think of the house as a pale pumpkin color but that may be wrong, deduced from the sepia tint of the photograph.

As for the existence of the photograph itself, I have no explanation. No itinerant photographer with his unwieldy equipment would have in the normal course of things happened across these wild plains, but the normal course of things is no one’s actuality. Quirky accident builds upon random event, and out of these scatters is built the life of everyone on earth.

My great-great-grandparents were visibly proud of their home. They stand straight and young in that too-bright sunlight with the house big and angular in back of them. There is nothing around them for miles, and that sense pervades the photograph, though we cannot see anything past its edges. It all looks so raw, with the air—to me—of some new, tree-nude post–World War II subdivision, a high white sun washing out every shadow.

In that photo the world seems fixed, at that moment, with any future at all inconceivable—much less the disappearance of the broad green plain below, its replacement by asphalt and franchise and neon and wire, and the disappearance of the Sharplesses’ neighbors the Hunkpapa Sioux, along with the few remnant brown buffalo below, grazing the prairie like skaters on ice.

On this particular day, the “Chinee,” who was called Yellow Jim, along with the mulatto, a teenager from Missouri called Brown Jim, and the three white ranch hands were out on the range sinking fenceposts. Eben was several miles away at the next farmstead, bartering wire for nails with the bachelor rancher there. There was no other woman around for miles.

Uphill, then, toward the stark new house came Sitting Bull. Mathilde noted the slight limp as he set his weaker foot gingerly into the slope of the hill. A bullet had scooped out the sole of that foot when he was seventeen, after a childhood in which he won foot race after foot race. A tale was told in print by a white journalist, in the wake of his reputation for fierceness, that he’d taken a knife to the man who had wounded him—a chief—and cut out his heart. It was said that that chief had been wearing a red shirt with ermine trim, and that blood soaked the shirt even redder as the young warrior limped away.

I doubt the story altogether: Plains Indians did not go in for that sort of thing. Cutting out hearts, indeed. Counting coup—simply touching an enemy on the battlefield—satisfied their sense—so alien to the whites—of unspoiled courage and gallantry. Journalists then, as today, sought drama more than they sought truth, and just as today, the gullible—most people—believed them.

Mathilde wiped the sweat of her brow with the back of her hand. She looked at the young brave and saw the same features as the older man’s, who would have to have been in his fifties. Those features were so undiluted that he must be son and not grandson.

As the Indians approached the porch steps, she called out to the boy. “I have just baked some pie-men. Men cut out of pie-crust. With sugar. Come have some.”

She saw the look in the eye of the old Indian. She had breached etiquette, certainly, but then she knew that. She had taken the high ground already. She had not acknowledged his authority as he would have liked—though she did not yet know he was Sitting Bull, or even who Sitting Bull was—and she was about to win over his son.

The old Indian translated her English into harsh, fluid Sioux for the child. Mathilde had rightly intuited that the older man understood English. The boy tried not to seem a child, too eager. He nodded solemnly toward Mathilde. Yes, he would sample these pie people. With dignity.

Mathilde turned and went inside, and the Indians followed her into the kitchen. She lifted a sheet of fresh-baked crust people from the oven and pressed raisin eyes into their round, blind faces. She said, “These will have to cool. Come in here.”

She sat down at the dark-varnished piano, which had come all the way from Zarów and was painted with a fading scene of a Prussian landscape: hills, a small church with a steeple, a number of puffy white sheep grazing. She took out a hymnal. She played for the Indians, a hymn that was not ancient, having been written two decades before, “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart.” Mathilde, sitting severely upright and with legs apart because her taut round belly got in the way, turned herself on the stool and said to her guests, “This hymn was written by a man named Plumptre.” She mimed “plump tree” in the air, as if they were playing charades. This made sense to the Indians. They nodded agreeably. It was not unlike the sorts of names they gave to themselves and their young.

The Indians sat silent, listening, on a hard bench pushed back against the wall. The song exhorted “the pure in heart” to “wave their festal banner on high.” It urged “bright youth and snow-crowned age” to “raise high their free, exulting song.” It challenged its listeners to “march in firm array, as warriors through the darkness toil, till dawns the golden day.” Mathilde sang a strong alto, dense and complex as the wood that went into fine violins like the Guarneri she had heard at a chamber music concert in Zarów—and which afterward she had petted in awe, surreptitiously, while the violinist was looking away.

She pinched off the last amen and swiveled around, awkward with her pregnant girth, on the piano stool. “Do you understand this?” she said to the old Indian.

He laid the leathery brown fingers of his right hand solemnly over his heart. “Pure in heart,” he repeated. His eyes were bright. He shook his head side to side. “Not many,” he said. “Not many in this whole earth.”

“Well,” said Mathilde, decisively, “it can be our song, then.” She assumed rightly that he was including her with himself among the pure in heart.

The boy ate three crust people happily. Crust spewed from the corners of his mouth. His father looked pleased at his son’s messy joy, nodding, his dark eyes alight.

Mathilde remarked to herself on the smooth quality of the boy’s skin, the brightness of his eyes. He would be killed five years later with his father at the age of seventeen, shot by native Sioux Indian troopers in white-man haircuts and US government–blue uniforms with epaulets, at the command of a federal Indian agent. The boy’s name was Crowfoot. I once saw a studio photo of him, in a history book. He stands before a painted backdrop of pseudo-classical columns wearing a blanket like a cloak. He stares into the camera with wise, ancient eyes. Such a beautiful child, and this child sat in my great-great-grandmother’s parlor, listened to her sing, and ate her raisin-eyed pie people!

It was not that day, but a day the following summer, after Mathilde had gone back to Iowa to give birth and had returned with the child, my great-grandfather Rutger, that the event occurred which would seem no event at all to others but which has been preserved for over a century with a halo—astonishment, laughter—in my family of origin.

Sitting Bull had come up to the house with two braves. I was told he brought different ones each time, and that the braves vied for the chance to visit these odd settlers’ imposing new home on the bluff, though they all feigned coolness. Mathilde was alone, with little Rutger, only a few months old, asleep in his cradle, only his wild duckling-yellow hair showing above the ribbon trim of his blanket. She made coffee for the Indians and gave them warm biscuits with butter and blackberry preserves she’d brought back from Saint Ansgar.

Eben had complained to Mathilde about the expense of her generosity to the Sioux, whose visitations became very regular. Mathilde had replied, “They are children of God. If that argument holds no water for you, perhaps you’d do well to think practically, Eben. If we are their friends, we are safer.” Eben sulked again. Mathilde just turned away, as she would from a wayward child.

The chief asked her to play a hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” one she had played on a previous visit. She felt delight rise into her own eyes at the request. She said yes, of course she would. She loved the simple chords of the song, which sounded tinny but perfect on the old piano. She loved the run-up to the first line. She loved the lyrics, which went on forever.

She seated herself on the piano stool, her back to the Indians. Sitting Bull spoke to her burgundy-dyed muslin back, “And sing.” As she played the first chords, then launched into the lyrics, she was aroused to an internal joy she seldom felt out here on these desolate, wind-whipped plains, and tears came into her eyes. She was of course turned away from her audience.

The gist of the lyrics: the composer’s heart is overcome that grace and salvation were bought for him at the cost of Jesus’s life. Amazing love! sings the refrain. How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me? Mathilde wiped her eyes on her sleeve between chords, she hoped unobtrusively. The Indians might well believe she was merely pushing her hair away from her forehead.

When the hymn was done, Sitting Bull knocked his staff again and again enthusiastically on the floor in appreciation, perhaps the Hunkpapa equivalent of the rhythmic stomping at a rock concert or football game today. Mathilde cleared her throat and retreated to the pantry on some imaginary errand.

She rearranged the cans of Borden’s sweetened condensed milk on the pantry shelves and, running her fingers over the rough boards of the shelving, resolved to put shelf paper on the list she would give Eben the next time he drove to the railhead. Small increments of civilization would finally bring them back to what she considered gentility, even in this wild land. She heard shuffling and the movement of objects in the next room, and then the front door closing. She turned, her eyes dried by now but her spirit still fragile.

Sitting Bull appeared in the pantry doorway, outlined by bright sunlight. She felt a strange emotion she could not name. Apparently he had sent the braves outdoors to wait for him. He took two steps into the darkness of the pantry and took both of Mathilde’s shoulders rather sternly into his hands. He pulled her toward him, though not all the way: he held her six inches away from his body. He kissed her chastely once on her left cheekbone. Then he stood back and looked at her. He leaned forward and sniffed—as if she were a flower—at that place in the forehead some like to call the Third Eye. He sang the line she had just sung, in precisely the spirit she’d sung it, a kind of inchoate faith, not rascality or romance. “Amazing love!” sang Sitting Bull. “How can it be?” To Mathilde, his tones sounded quite correct but also in a minor key.

Then he turned and walked out the front door and down to the pump where his braves stood waiting at a kind of military attention, their bare bronze skin glistening in the sun.

§

The day of his father’s death at Wounded Knee, December 15, 1890, by which point Crowfoot was a teenager—and indeed it was the day of his own death—while his father was dressing, slowly, almost ceremoniously, to go with the soldiers who had come for him, Crowfoot berated his father for surrendering so meekly.

“Tatanka Iyotanka!” The boy spoke the chief’s Hunkpapa name authoritatively, sonorously, with great dignity, as if he himself were not the child but the chief, speaking to a child. He went on to point out, in the Sioux tongue, that this meekness did not befit the great chief, his father.

Startled by his son’s newfound authority, Sitting Bull listened to the imperious words of young Crowfoot for what seemed to those present to be a very long time, though surely it was a minute or two at most. Sitting Bull’s eyes flashed, and he decided to resist. His death came quickly, by a bullet from an Indian in a government-issue police uniform.

§

When some time later Mathilde heard the news, it was by way of Brown Jim, who had been down to the railhead for supplies. She flipped the skirt of her white apron up over her head and stood shaking silently, facing the wall. Brown Jim had no idea what to do. He simply backed out of the room. Mathilde did not, would not, could not cry in public: this was the best she could do.

§

She grieved for a full two months in silence, and then she was able to tell Eben about the last visit of the great chief. She sat in the rocker in which my own mother rocked me decades later, her hands in the apron in her lap. I imagine her rocking slightly, almost imperceptibly.

She described for Eben her playing of the hymn, and the shuffling disappearance out the door of the braves as she entered the pantry. She spoke of rearranging the cans of condensed milk and thinking she ought to order shelf paper soon, to be able to return to the civilized standards they’d known back in Iowa. She spoke of the kiss of Sitting Bull, pointing with her right index finger to the spot he had kissed, as if it were sacred, and a visible flush rose to her cheeks.

I am told Eben was a more sensitive man thereafter, and a far better Quaker. Never again—and they both lived well into their seventies, by which time civilization far beyond Mathilde’s dream of mere shelf paper had moved like a plague into even South Dakota—did he complain about the coffee and condensed milk and flour Mathilde continued to have him haul north from the railhead, to be ever-ready for guests. One never knew who might stop by.


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