A native wanderer exiled in the oppressor's old country
Speaking of the "ethnic cleansing" native American peoples experienced during the latter half of the 19th century, US Bureau of Indian Affairs director Kevin Gover recently said it was long past time "for sorrowful truths to be spoken."
In James Welch's new novel "The Heartsong of Charging Elk," such truths are powerfully and movingly spoken. But this work is much more than a tale about an Indian man. It is sometimes sorrowful, as it would have to be given the way things have turned out for native Americans. But in the end, the book is healing and redemptive, a revelation of the human heart and spirit.
As a young Ogalala Sioux, Charging Elk saw the massacre of General Custer's forces at Little Big Horn. Rather than move onto the reservation, as their families are forced to do, Charging Elk and his friends live out at "the stronghold." For a few years, it's a remnant of freedom, a place where the spirit of resistance leader Crazy Horse remains.
Now in his early 20s and on a tour of Europe as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West Show" in the 1890s, Charging Elk has become stranded in Marseille, France. Desperate to find his way back to America, he's confronted by characters, circumstances, and choices that are challenging and sometimes harrowing.
Charging Elk is a metaphor for those without a country, or ones who have lost their country to an invasion of force and culture. Except in this case, the protagonist is lost in the place - Europe - where the dominant colonizers have come from. He speaks no French and only a few words of English. He may be a "noble savage" to some, but he is a savage nonetheless to most.