SOMEONE has said that, for Americans, history is by and large a contemporary invention. It serves to show us where we are on the map of time, but our frame of reference is very narrow. History, as compared to prehistory, is a negligible quantity. A former colleague of mine, a medievalist at Berkeley, likes to say that literature after the seventh century is "modern" and after 1066, it is "contemporary." His point is well taken, but he has a better grasp of the past than have most of us. Our recent celebration of the bicentennial reminded us that our whole history as a nation extends only from here to there. On the far side of 1776, there is little that is sharply defined; there is darkness reaching to creation.
Hanta Yo -- which means "clear the way" -- is a novel set in that vague distance, and it is about a people whose history is essentially invisible. It is the story of a band of Indians who lived on this continuent 200 years ago, before the coming of the white man to their homeland of the northern Great Plains. It is a large novel -- and in some ways a novel of large pretensions. The dust jacket has it that "Hanta Yo is a major achievement in the exploration of American Indian culture." It may be so, but it is difficult to tell what the achievement is exactly.
Part of the difficulty arises with the further claim that the book is "a linguistic tour de force." It is said to have been translated from present-day English into an old Dakotah/Lakotah dialect and then retranslated into an English based upon the 1806 edition of Webster's Dictionary . These maneuvers, surely very complicated, are supposed to result in a faithful reflection of the Indian idiom. Such a claim seems gratuitous, and it implies that the book is a kind of artifact, a museum piece, a curiosity. I suspect that one does not reproduce the language of the Indians by reverting to the English of 1806. And yet the author, as well as her publisher, seems concerned to make such an argument. In a note to the reader, she writes: "Admit, assume, because believe, could, doubt, end, expect, faith, forget, forgive, guilt, how, it mercy, pest, promise, should, sorry, storm, them, us, waste, we, weed -- neither these words nor the conceptions for which they stand appear in this book; they are the whiteman's import to the New World, the newcomer's contribution to the vocabulary of the man he called Indian. Truly, the parent Indian families possessed neither these terms nor their equivalents."
It is hard to take this statement seriously. In order to do so, one must necessarily formulate the impression that Indian languages are extremely impoverished. But of course, they are not. To the extend that one can generalize (there are at least 100 living Indian languages today), they are rich and intricate and highly developed. And of course there are equivalents in the Indian languages for the concepts listed above. A native people of the Great Plains, say, who do not have a conceptual symbol, a verbal equivalent, for "storm"? Unimaginable.
But I am done now with quibbling. All of this makes very little difference, as far I can see, in the verbal texture of the book. The texture is brittle here and there, but it is not tedious and it never seems archaic. The reader is not, I think, moved to question whether or not the language is a true reflection of the Indian idiom. And this is as it should be, after all. The story should, and does, appeal to him in his own terms, on the basis of his own experience, linguistic and otehrwise.
Hanta Yo , 25 years in the making, is a substantial novel, impressive in both conception and execution. In the course of the long, many-faceted narrative, there is revealed a fascinating world. In one sense it is a small, nearly private world, a world so exclusive as to be available only in the pages of a book. But it is a whole world, too, full of good things and bad.
Curiously, characterization is at best a secondary quality of this novel. Numerous figures come into view, make their mark, and recede into the current of time.None succeeds to the isolation of heroism. But it happens that this is somehow appropriate. For the heroism of Hanta Yo consists not in the individual but in the group, the Mahto band of the Teton Sioux. What we see, and what works a wonder again and again in our souls, is the humanity that informs this special world. It is nobel and real and pervasive.