History does not consist of absolute truths; rather, as illustrated in "Rashomon," it depends on the perspective of the interpreter. American Indians, who lacked written languages, have had little opportunity to shape the historical record of their own cultures. Consequently, contemporary understanding of American history is rife with the bias of Europeans, and there has been little opportunity to see indigenous cultures, their daily existence and their way of looking at the world, through Indian eyes. Jamake Highwater and Beverly Hungry Wolf, both of Indian descent, proved a unique opportunity to view Indians as Indians see themselves. "The Sun, He Dies," a historical novel set in pre-Columbian Aztec society, and "The Way of My Grandmothers,," a folk history of the Blood tribeswomen, present new insights into Indian experience. It is refreshing that neither of these authors sets out to glorify Indian ways, to prove that Indian ways are superior to those of the Europeans; they simply strive to record a version of history from an Indian perspective.
In his brillant, well-written historical novel, Jamake Highwater draws the reader into an unfamiliar realm, the world of the pre-Columbian Aztec empire. Using historical documents, Highwater weaves fact into a fascinating narrative. In the first-person account of Nanautzin, a humble woodcutter who rises to the rank of chief orator for Montezuma, we learn how an Indian empire -- composed of millions -- could be destroyed by a mere 600 Spanish soldiers.
Nanautzin's narrative begins in 1503, around the time when Montezuma II became the lord of Tenochititlan. But celebration rapidly gave way to misery and discontent within the empire. The repressiveness of the regime, the demands for increased tribute from the already overtaxed peasant villagers, and the excessive ritual sacrifice of enemy captives contributed as much to the downfall of Mexico as did any European intervention. In fact, the arrival of the Conquistadores in 1519 is almost incidental to the story, for the ultimate demise of the Aztecs had been portended in their ancient legends. By 1525, the extraordinary world of the Aztecs ceased to exist.
Though the history of the destructionof the Mexican Indian is a tragic story, Highwater is able to recreate the glories of Aztec achievement and share the Aztec vision of the conquest. This book establishes Highwater, a Blackfoot-Cherokee who has written many books about Indians, as one of the most accomplished and versatile Indians writing today. This captivating novel should remind us that there is an alternative version of history: that of the conquered.
"The Ways of My Grandmothers" is a modest book by comparison, but nevertheless important. Beyond the portrayal of Indian women as mindless chattel, traitorous squaws or heroines who aided the white man in the conquest, there has been little effort to understand the refinements of the Indian woman's existence. Beverly Hungry Wolf, in her first book, sets out to change those images of Indian women by sharing the history and culture of her grandmothers, the elder women of the Blood tribe of British Columbia.
Her vignettes of the grandmothers, many of them born in the "buffalo days," interestingly show us the melding of old and new ways, especially those related to daily life. Some of these women were born in tepees, survived the Indian wars, attended Miss Welles School for Girls -- where they acquired a taste for fancy hairdos, brooches, and elegantly served teas -- became soap-opera fans in modern times and yet remained "Indian." Others of the grandmothers maintained traditional ways and played significant roles in the religious ceremonies of their tribe. It is interesting that the grandmothers who are of mixed blood or had married Europeans do not seem to be diminished in status in the tribe. Their diversity of experience and knowledge of old and new greatly contribute to the dynamic culture of modern-day Blood Indians.
Many important legends about women are included in the book, as are techniques for constructing tepees, tanning hides, making moccasins and clothing, preparing Indian culinary delicacies, caring for babies' and producing handicrafts. That the latter part of the book reads like "Helpful Hints" does not detract from the warmth, honesty and sincerity with which the book is offered.
In recording the old ways, Beverly Hungry Wolf wishes to fill a void in history. By relating the stories of her grandmothers, she hopes to leave a model of Indian life that will serve a guide the development of the younger women of her tribe. And although she hopes that an understanding of her grandmothers will help to improve "the present world situation," perhaps it will at least affect Hollywood scriptwriters and popular novelists. Indian women should be deeply indebted to her.