From Zitkala-Ša’s 1901-published “The soft-hearted Sioux”, Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers jumps a quarter of a century to 1925, and John M. Oskison’s “The singing bird”.
John M. Oskison
Again, anthology editor Bob Blaisdell provides a brief intro to the author, but it’s Wikipedia that is able to provide more detail. John M(ilton) Oskison (1874-1937) was, like our two previous authors, of mixed parentage. He was born in Cherokee Nation to an English father and part-Cherokee mother. He went to Stanford University (where my friend who gave me the anthology went, in fact!) and was president of the Stanford Literary Society. Wikipedia says he was Stanford’s first Native American graduate. He apparently went to Harvard for graduate school but he left to become a professional writer after he won a short story competition.
By his death he had published novels, short stories and many pieces of journalism. A novel titled The singing bird was found in his papers in 2007 and subsequently published. Timothy Powell, writing about this novel, suggests it is “quite possibly the first historical novel written by a Cherokee”, and argues that it offers “an interpretation of indigenous history that stresses survival and empowerment over removal and despair”. It is set in the 1840s-50s, after the Cherokees had been removed to Indian Territory, and in it, Powell says, Oskison ‘skilfully blends fiction and reality, thoughtfully demonstrating how literature can rewrite the master narrative of “history” and bring to life moments in the past that remain outside the scope of the written records maintained by the dominant white society’. This sounds like the sort of historical fiction that is starting to appear in Australia, like Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and Anita Heiss’s Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (my review), novels that correct the colonial historical perspective that has been prevailed for too long. Oskison was, like our previous two authors, an activist.
Blaisdell focuses more on the story. He describes it as an “exciting, densely plotted story” but suggests the reader needs to “hold tight” because it is “dotted with odd, struggling phrasings that make it seem as if Oskison were translating it”. The title, he explains, refers to “cuckolding”, with “singing bird” being a term used by “full-bloods” for a “deceiving wife”. He suggests that ‘the issue of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is a messier theme’.
“The singing bird”
Powell says that it is not known when Oskison started writing his novel The singing bird. However, he does mention that this story was published in 1925 and wonders whether Oskison began to formulate the novel around this time. From Powell’s description of the novel, the characters names are different, it has a multilayered narrative structure unlike the story, and the narrative is very different, so let’s leave the novel there.
Wikipedia says of Oskison that “his fiction focused on the culture clash that mixed-bloods like himself faced”. “The singing bird” is interesting in this regard because, as Blaisdell suggests, a significant issue in the story concerns “full-bloods and half-breeds”. The story opens with Big Jim (Jim Blind-Wolfe) sending his wife Jennie away because it is time for the men to talk. They make up “the inner, unofficial council of the Kee-too-wah* organisation” and they are “self-charged with the duty of carrying out the ancient command to maintain amongst the Cherokees the full-blood inheritance of race purity and race ideals”.
This “council” is concerned about the “alarming late growth of outlawry in the tribe, an increase in crime due to idleness, drink and certain disturbing white men who had established themselves in the hills”. As they discuss this serious business, Oskison writes that “paradoxically … They would pass a jug of honest moonshine – but they would drink from it discreetly, lightly, as full blood gentleman should!” Nice touch!
Meanwhile, the ousted wife Jennie, takes herself to the “out cabin” with its “inviting pine-log room”. Here she awaits, we are told, Lovely Daniel who has already been introduced to us by the men, as their “wild half-breed neighbour”. Jennie, though, is expecting to “know shivery terror, the illicit thrill of the singing bird”. And so in the first two pages, the story is set up: Big Jim has sent his wife to the out cabin so that his little council can talk men’s business about half-breeds and white men, and that wife is waiting for one of those half-breeds to visit her in the cabin. Simple story of a dominating husband and unfaithful wife? Sounds it, but all is not as it seems. Oskison unfolds the plot well. We flash back to how Jennie and Lovely Daniel had come to know each other (including the development of his “wonderful plan, a credit to his half-breed shrewdness, if not to his name”), and to how enmity had developed between Big Jim and Lovely Daniel, before returning to the main narrative. There is a revenge theme to the story, one involving Lovely Daniel wishing to avenge having nearly been killed by Big Jim after a political altercation that had turned violent.
So if it’s not a simple unfaithful wife story, what is it? Well, it’s political. There is tension between the full-blood Kee-too-wahs and the half-breeds over whites, and the issue of leasing land to them. The full-bloods (through Big Jim) see leasing land as the thin end of the wedge, while the half-breeds (through Lovely Daniel) see the white man coming as inevitable anyhow. Big Jim, then, represents the Cherokees’ fight for their land, their fight “against “race deterioration and the decay of morale in the long years of contact with the White in Georgia and Tennessee”, while Daniel is the bad, wild man. As Blaisdell says, the theme of “full-bloods” versus half-breeds” is messy, particularly given Oskison was himself of mixed-descent. Perhaps we are intended to see this story – this conflict – more in terms of symbolism than realism, as a story about the primacy of protecting land and culture. (This suggests it’s an anti-assimilation story, though I believe there’s much discussion about Oskison’s attitude to assimilation.)
I found the writing a bit heavy-handed at times, but it also has an interesting tone. There is a sense in Oskison’s language, for example, that the full-blood Kee-too-wah men are not the whole answer either (as they sit “like remote, secret gods, in judgment on the conduct of a community”). And, although Jennie takes significant agency in the story, she is still expected, when it’s all over, to make breakfast for the men!
“The singing bird” is an intriguing story. It’s one that seems to raise as many questions as it answers, particularly when seen within the context of Oskison himself, of his oeuvre, and of course of his times – times I know little about.
* See Wikipedia.
John M. Oskison
“The singing bird” (orig. pub. Sunset Magazine, March 1925)
in Bob Blaisdell (ed.), Great short stories by contemporary Native American writers
Garden City: Dover Publications, 2014
8 thoughts on “John M. Oskison, The singing bird (#Review)”
Oh those superior men ! – lucky Jennie to have breakfast ordered after (I must presume) being known for her avian musicology.
Yesyes; I know it’s a cultural thing, but it don’t make it a tolerable one.
Haha M-R … agree.
Ooh, some of that language grates, doesn’t it? ‘Breeds’ & ‘bloods’, I’m glad that terminology is rarely seen these days.
It sure does Lisa …. I left it of course because that’s what he used and was the terminology of the time. Interesting how much things have changed – and still need to change.
I’ve said before that Scott’s That Deadman Dance was the historical fiction that changed the way I look at Australian Indigenous/settler relations. Though it was Watego’s (Non Fiction) Another Day in the Colony that fixed in my mind the Indigenous/settler dichotomy.
It seems to me that in Australia it was the whites who were more worried about levels of ‘blood’. Interesting to see it here from a Native American perspective.
Thanks Bill … I found that fascinating too. These stories are teaching me a lot. We don’t have much in the way of First Nations writing here from the same period.
Can you imagine getting one short story recognized and deciding to drop out of grad school? I actually laughed a bit when I read that. What I’m learning from reading more about African American discourse analysis for my research paper suggests to me that this concern with “half breed” or, in the case of the Black community, being an “Oreo” or similar slanders, is less about skin color about more about knowing the community’s layered ways of being. Today, I’ve been reading about the function of direct and indirect discourse, and how to perceive an audience, the function of the group, etc. that suggests seeing someone as “half” of anything may be a sign of distrust that the “half” person doesn’t know “how to be” in the in group.
Haha, Melanie, no I can’t imagine. Such confidence, eh?
And thanks for that contribution re being “half” etc. Really interesting about those perceptions about the culture you belong to (or don’t! or aren’t accepted in!)