Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Following on the heels of my “shelves” post two weeks ago about James Elmore’s western stories, I’ve got a couple of non-fiction gems this week that deal with the old west.

In The Apaches, Eagles of the Southwest, Donald E. Worcester has done a magnificent job in tying together the complex history of this amazing group of tribes, focusing on their tumultuous relations with other Indians, Spaniards and Anglos. An Athapascan people related to the Navajos, the Apaches were a pretty libertarian outfit, even compared to other native-American tribes, as indicated in this passage.
Apaches had no tribal government, nor did they assemble as a tribe for any ceremony such as the Sun Dance of the Plains Indians. They were divided into bands, each with its own hunting and gathering territory and, in some cases, its own farming lands. What simple government they had was in the local group and its chief, though he lacked authority to punish his people. All chiefs of local groups were theoretically equal, although some, because of their character, “powers”, or skill at war, had a wider influence than others.
Interestingly, the Apaches had a unique solution to the age-old mother-in-law “problem”.
When a young Apache married he and his wife lived in her family’s camp. Thereafter he served her parents, though he did not neglect his own. Because of the mother-in-law taboo, he and his wife lived in their own separate dwelling, and he never spoke to his wife’s mother. [unfortunately, the book is silent as to whether the mother-in-law had the right to talk to her daughter’s husband – Paco]
Worcester has put together a very comprehensive history, and you will find within the pages of this book much on the fascinating culture and day-to-day life of the Apaches, as well as their wars and skirmishes under famous chiefs such as Cochise, Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas, and the U.S. Army’s long struggle to subdue them (as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ erratic policies of managing them). Adding to the value of the book are the dozens of old photographs of chiefs, warriors, scouts and camp settings.

The late Paul Horgan was one of our finest authors on western themes, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his epic history, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. In Great River, Horgan describes, in lyrical prose, the four civilizations that arose along the Rio Grande: the Native-American, the Spanish, the Mexican, and the Anglo-American. From the ancient people who mysteriously abandoned their cliff-dwellings in the 12th and 13th centuries, to the struggle for Texas’ independence, and on through the American Civil War and the great ranchers, outlaws and peace officers of the late 19th century, this is a sweeping and enthralling narrative that is a classic of regional American history, extraordinarily well-researched and well-written, and drawing keen insights from even the very distant past – for example, this passage which highlights one of the signal failures of the ancient Pueblo civilization ( a lesson, incidentally, that is particularly relevant today):
So the Pueblo people agreed without exception in their worship, their work, their designs for making things in the largest to the smallest forms, their views of prosperity, the education of their children, the healing of their sick, and their view of death.

A clear and simple and within its limits a satisfactory plan of living together was understood by everybody, and complied with. But tragically it lacked the seed of fullest humanity. Mankind’s greatest gift was not encouraged to burgeon in Pueblo society. Individuality, the release of the separate personality, the growth of the single soul in sudden, inexplicable flowering of talent or leadership or genius, were absent. In harmony with all nature but individual human nature, the people retained together a powerful and enduring form of life at the expense of a higher consciousness – that of the individual free to unlock in himself all the imprisoned secrets of his own history and that of his whole kind, and by individual acts of discovery, growth and ability to open opportunities that would follow upon his knowledge for all who might partake of them. It was costly, that loss of the individual to the group. The essential genius of humanity, with all its risks, and yet with its dazzling fulfillments, was buried deep in the sleeping souls of the Indians of the Rio Grande.

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