Dances With Diction

Michael Blake's heart is in the right place, but his prose and grammar are not

It's hardly a surprise that Dances With Wolves author Michael Blake would produce an Indian work as his first nonfiction book. Recalling Kevin Costner waiting to make contact with the Sioux prepares the reader for the attitude Blake brings to the Plains warriors featured in Indian Yell. And the dust jacket--juxtaposing period photographs of gnarly-looking U.S. soldiers with dignified Native Americans--symbolizes the problems he raises in the text.

If only Blake's tropes and biases didn't get in the way, Indian Yell could be a very affecting book.

What Blake, a Southern Arizona resident, addresses here is the U.S.-Indian wars, from 1854 to 1890. He chronicles 12 conflicts that led to the destruction of tribal peoples and indigenous game. These conflicts range from the theft (or loss--depending on your perspective) of a settler's cow in Wyoming to the wholesale slaughter of Sioux at Wounded Knee. Many of the stories and characters are well known, but some are new. George Custer is introduced early; by the time Little Big Horn enters the action, Blake has laid the foundations for both Sioux and Cheyenne resentments and U.S. political and military pressures.

Blake personalizes the historical by focusing on individuals--General Sherman, Elizabeth Custer, the Cheyenne leader known as "Roman Nose," the Kiowas' Lone Wolf and Satanta, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. He relates anecdotes (Elizabeth Custer's premonition, for example, of heaven, just before Little Big Horn) and disputed reports. (Did "four to five hundred warriors" die at Sand Creek, as reported by "Fighting Parson" John Chivington, or fewer than 50?) He clearly admires Custer, who grew to appreciate Indian culture (and women), but pursued "hostiles" with single-minded determination. The book's strength lies in its graphic presentation. Chapters open with text overlaid on photographs; vintage shots of Indian encampments and groups accompany narrative; 21st-century landscapes evoke the pre-Western Movement plains. Most powerful are the photographs of the main players--the formal military men with their braided, buttoned uniforms, facial hair and stern, averted glances; the tribal leaders with their braids, feathers and war gear, staring down the cameraman.

Blake and his publisher should have been more attentive to the words accompanying those pictures, however. As objective history, Indian Yell goes subjective. Blake announces in his introduction that he has read hundreds of history-related works that gave rise to his novels Dances With Wolves, Marching to Valhalla and The Holy Road. His fiction came out of internalizing and imagining that reading, and this work reflects "conclusions (he has) made concerning events (of) ... one of the most poignant, instructive and, despite enormous tragedy, most romantic periods in the history of America." As a result, while he does recommend other books, he offers no traceable sources--no bibliography, footnotes, attributions or elaboration. This could make a historian crazy. His prose similarly makes this writing teacher crazy. Blake writes that as a journalist in college, he tracked down significant stories of the time, only to see them misreported by the mainstream press. Having abandoned nonfiction those decades ago, he's returned to it here to present his version of history. Unfortunately, while he was reporting the real news at college, he might have forgotten to attend English 101. There's hardly a composition rule he doesn't break. Blake writes so much in the passive--rather than the active--voice that you wonder if anyone actually did anything in this period, or if stuff just happened to people. He generalizes and doesn't develop assertions. He loads on adjectives and adverbs rather than selecting precise verbs. He hyperinflates his hyperbole and loses control of his metaphors and clichés ("much of the country dropped its jaw in disbelief"; "it would be a good bet that the blood of Roman Nose runs yet in human form somewhere on the Great Plains"). If Northland Publishing had only assigned a copy editor who recognized dangling construction and diction errors, Blake wouldn't have drummed poor Elizabeth Custer out of the military ("After being court-martialed, George Custer and his wife Libbie ...") or lexically emasculated the Boy General ("protégée" of General Sheridan). There is no doubt that the Indian Wars remain a tragic, shameful period in American history. Americans moving west denied humans their humanity. They destroyed cultures of hundreds of years' standing. They subverted their own purported religious and ethical views about the sanctity of life, moral behavior and truthfulness. They rendered nearly extinct whole species of animals. Contemporary American societies still suffer the effects. Blake clearly cares very much about this. With his celebrity, those great pictures, historical anecdotes and the power of the injustice on his side, Blake should have produced a memorable book deploring U.S. policy. Unfortunately, Indian Yell ends up being a cry for rhetorical restraint and editorial oversight.