The Ghosts of History Past


Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a Pawnee on his way to the Kitkahahki

Watching The Revenant do so well at the Oscars tonight, I feel a sense of complicated pleasure.  It is a film that visits a newly imagined version of Pawneeland.  The award-winning cinematography summons up a mountainish world that feels like a real place.  But it isn’t; not really.  What matters most to me at this moment is that the film features a number of Pawnee characters, a range of roles – this is rare for films that have touched on Pawneeland in recent decades.  And those Pawnee characters have been finely crafted, nicely acted.  Believable and human.

In all of its extravagantly crafted details The Revenant aims at a specific visual texture that the director has termed “authenticity.”  The purpose is for this film to suspend us in the midst of a story that feels propelled by history.  We are not to worry much about trying to sort out history from pseudo-history.  Entering the theater, we already know it represents a rewritten past.

 The Revenant was carefully designed to resonate with present-day racial storytelling, not with history.  But we are encouraged by the rich detailing to equate this kind of story with history – a past that has racial Indians oppressed by racial whites.  Hugh Glass serves as the moral compass.  We, the audience, peer through his eyes.  We hope for guidance toward our most uplifting contemporary multicultural values.  What we demand from pseudo-history is something more real than history.

Many Pawnees today are descended from French-American fur traders from St. Louis.  The residents of St. Louis were very diverse, dominated by French ancestry from Canada and New Orleans.  The ties of the St. Louis families to Pawneeland were deep by the 1820s.  In fact, Pawnees could be found there as residents not long after the founding of the city.  If you have St. Louis ancestors going back to circa 1770, it is likely that you have Pawnee ancestors.  There was no endemic warfare between the Pawnees and the St. Louis French-Americans.  Nor were there ever any assaults on Pawneeland by French or American military forces.

But in early June 1823 the Arikaras did attack an American trade expedition on the Missouri River – this was an American group that included a good number of French-American traders.  And an American military expedition did subsequently lay siege to an Arikara earthlodge city; they shelled the city by cannon-fire.  They were accompanied and assisted by a large Sioux military force – along the Missouri River the Sioux were the first military allies of the Americans.  A complex set of evolving relationships between the Arikara, Sioux, and Americans drove these events.  It is impossible to frame this history as a racial rivalry of “Indians” versus “whites.”  To accomplish this impossibility, The Revenant twists all of these details into an entirely new configuration of the past.

During the 1820s race was still a new idea in Pawneeland.  The Pawnees had a long way to go before they would become full-fledged “Indians,” before they would completely absorb the tenets of racial identity systems.  But the obscure and elaborate and simple historical mechanisms of race… this topic is not the primary theme of The Revenant.  It really has to do with surviving an implacable narrative of social violence, a tale fraught with the mechanisms of war, vengeance, and slaughter.

In this movie, in this re-imagined Pawneeland, one must kill or be killed.  And so, even though the Pawnees come across as humanized in the film, and even though this happens in a way that we haven’t seen in other films, all the Pawnee characters get murdered and massacred.  That is, with the exception of one ghostly starving woman who survives, maybe.

Tonight I’m glad this film won a few awards.  I’m glad for Pawneeland.  I’m pleased to find a film contemplating a version of that world.  It does matter when historical narratives get rewritten to suit film-narratives, but it is true enough that the complexities of history are sometimes not as real as the appeal of pseudo-history.  Tonight, I suppose, feeling pleased that a film with Pawneeland at its heart has won Oscars for cinematography, best director, and best actor, perhaps it could be argued that not everything that is important in our storytelling is necessarily real.  Not really.


The Ghost in the Glass


I saw The Revenant yesterday.  My overall impression… I guess it was as if I had visited the ancestral world that would eventually give rise to the world of Mad Max.  Fur-clad protagonists who wallow in the churning machinery of savagery will surely give birth to futuristic protagonists wallowing in the slow-motion disintegrating machinery of slaughter.  The Revenant and Mad Max imagine very similar worlds.  A brute grotesque vision of humankind.  Dark dystopian fantasies.  Parched outbacks and snowbound mountains provide the mythic vistas that generate one epic downfall after another.  The savage people.  The savage animals.  The savage guns and gears.  We find ourselves cast into sand storms, furiously gritty, and into rivers, furiously frigid.  But we who enter such realms… we must endure scene after scene until the end comes for us all at last.  When you leave this kind of theater, don’t bother looking back to ponder the bloody footprints at your heels.

But The Revenant was nice, in a way.  It was wonderful to see cinematic Pawnees who were not murderous, who were not bent on terrorizing the innocent.  Hugh Glass is given a sweet Pawnee wife – an anonymous dreamlike Mrs. Glass who floats in & out of the movie.  Hugh misses her.  It is terribly sad, the way she was murdered by unhistorical soldiers who senselessly savage a Pawnee city in an unhistorical massacre – it never happened in actual history, but it is a moment that fits seamlessly into our preferred pro-race mythmaking.  And they have a son.  “Hawk” is quite a well-chosen name – very common for Pawnee boys of that time.  Hawk loves his father.  He is loyal and caring and a little sad.  He is so easily murdered in this dark fairytale.


Grace Dove as Mrs. Glass

Such humanized Pawnees are strangely absent from cinema.  Not long ago I noticed a few Pawnees in The Homesman, a 2014 film by Tommy Lee Jones.  When those Pawnees ride into the movie, the homesman grabs all his weaponry.  He wisely hands a gun to the woman he’s traveling with, and he counsels her to blow her own brains out if he doesn’t survive the coming desperate negotiations.  To fall into Pawnee hands… too horrible!  And I haven’t even mentioned the nightmarish Pawnees of Dances with Wolves.

I long ago read a book by John Myers Myers about Hugh Glass and I always felt suspicious of his colorful tale – the part about Hugh Glass living among the Skidi Pawnees.  That particular twist was based on notes made from interviews with a fur trade employee named George Yount.  Seventy-some years later those interview notes were gathered, edited, and published, and I have no idea how those filters affected the story told by Yount.  But the way the account framed Pawneeland has always felt to me like artifice warped for dramatic effect, not like history.

Perhaps Glass knew the Pawnees.  The fur trade was very active in Pawneeland for decades before 1825.  American fur trade corporations centered in St. Louis typically sent expeditions to Pawneeland to set up shop in the different cities.  The association of Glass with the Skidi Pawnees was just a speculative interpretation of the Yount tale – a hyperventilated twist introduced by Myers.  I don’t see how it is trustworthy in any way.  The Yount / Myers tale has Glass as a prisoner who wins his way into the hearts of the Pawnees.  But by the time Glass happened onto the scene, it wasn’t like he could have been held in a secret Pawnee prison for months or years.  Pawneeland wasn’t really a realm that teetered at the mysterious edge of everything else.  It was instead a close-knit alliance of four Pawnee sovereignties that had long before become interlocked in the global patterns of commerce and politics and intermarriage.

It is a shame that The Revenant makes us believe in its exquisitely detailed version of the past, its compelling Mad Maximum narrative truths, the frenzied whiplash thrills of maybe having to chop off a few fingers for good wholesome reasons, the next vastly defining moment of blood lost forever in endless snow.  Despite all this gruesome drama, we are somehow wafted into a haunting world.  And this is the first movie that has ever happened in my lifetime that shows Pawnees as people… And yet, well, it seems a shame.  I find myself wondering… will I ever want to visit that version of the world again?


Forrest Goodluck as Hawk


In the Mythcon Hall of Fire

Hotel Elegante

In my 2013 book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I shared with everyone a strange realization.  I argued that scattered details in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium originated from Skidi Pawnee mythology.  This insight soon led me down another path – I wondered about Tolkien’s attitudes and notions concerning what he termed “Red Indians.”  Eventually I began to investigate the fact that he drew on the traditions of race to colorize his orcs for The Lord of the Rings.

With such thoughts in mind, at moonrise on the last day of July 2015, I set forth for a certain city in the south.  A giant blue moon stood sprinkling silver light down on the eastern horizon.  Arriving late that night, I soon found myself wandering among Gormenghast-like corridors in a sprawling hotel complex.  Here at the edge of the ancient realm of the Pawnees, at the feet of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, the folk of the Mythopoeic Society were gathering for Mythcon 46.

MythCon Aspen RoomThe next day, Saturday afternoon, I read my paper on Tolkien’s racialized orcs.  The Mythcon organizers gave me a small meeting room that overlooked green treetops and a swimming pool full of the dim cries of splashing children.  Twenty or so people attended my session.  They had to forego the other two sessions – a panel on “Reclaiming Tolkien’s Women for the 21st Century,” and a paper by Peter Oas on the making of Galadriel.

The panel emerged from the publication this year of Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan.  This collection of essays was prepared “to remedy perceptions that Tolkien’s works are bereft of female characters, are colored by anti-feminist tendencies, and have yielded little serious academic work on women’s issues.”  I wish this volume had included some detailed consideration of a long letter Tolkien wrote in 1941 on women, sex, and marriage, but the essays shed much interesting light on the women characters in The Lord of the Rings, and I’m sure that the session was enlightening.

I have the impression that the Mythopoeic Society sees itself as a companionable participant in the social agenda of the Tolkien Society – a dedication to “promoting the life and works of JRR Tolkien.”  Pondering Mythcon, the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society, I sense a culture of amiable shared values.  One important shared value has to do with the bonding experience of defending Tolkien and Middle-earth fandom from unwarranted negative criticism.

Given the nature of my paper, I didn’t necessarily think it would be welcome at Mythcon.  In the vast field of Tolkien scholarship, not much deep thinking has materialized on Tolkien’s use of a racial stereotype in modeling his orcs.  This topic has been widely acknowledged.  But much of the commentary I have seen strikes me as shallow and dismissive.MythCon Sessions

The racialization of Tolkien’s Mongol-type orcs stands in apparent contrast with his well-known hatred of racism.  Most commenters seem to think it is impossible to reconcile these polarities, and so it is common for Tolkienists to embrace Tolkien the hater of racism.  My research shows that he sided with his academic peers on race, but he also accepted mainstream British attitudes on race.  The friendly folk who attended my talk seemed plenty energized by what I said, and they were delighted to share their own thoughts.

Kris Swank appeared at my session.  And the first thing she said was that she had attended a marvelous presentation on race that morning.  “If they come here, I’ll introduce you!”  Stephanie Brownell and Sara Rivera very much wanted to attend the main event next door, the panel on Tolkien and women.  But they decided to hear my paper instead.  That morning they had given a paper on race, “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Their program abstract sounds fascinating.  It considers the mythologizing of Middle-earth in the Dominican Republic – the equating of “the despotic Trujillo with Middle-earth’s dark lord…”  And they suggest that mythopoeic literature “has unique potential to create new dialogues bringing minority characters ‘out of Far Harad’ and into the center of narrative and discourse.”  I wish I had attended.  Chatting with them, they said my paper and their paper overlapped in pondering the making of race during the early 20th century.  As we talked, we touched on the groundbreaking research of Dimitra Fimi and Margaret Sinex.

The mention in the Brownell / Rivera abstract of Far Harad is a reference to the sole explicit appearance of racial black people in Tolkien’s novels – a battlefield listing of “black men like half-trolls…”  In my talk I asserted that Tolkien’s black orcs in The Lord of the Rings owe a likely debt to British Edwardian era anthropological reports on the Malay Peninsula.  But as with Mongol-type orcs, the monstrous black folk from Far Harad most often attract a defensive and dismissive tone in the Tolkien community.

I took a blurry photo of Kris Swank giving her paper, “Black in Camelot: Racial Diversity in Historical England and Arthurian Legend.”  She introduced us to various characters identified as “Moors” and “Saracens” in medieval Arthurian literature.  And she surveyed racially identified Arthurian characters in contemporary television and film.  It was a nice introduction to an interesting topic, set forth with wise insights and charming quips.  Coming on the heels of my serious hour, it was great to laugh a little.

Kris SwankI visited with Kris a bit.  She said, “Say hello to everyone at Grey Havens for me!”  And she said she plans to continue developing her research on race.  It will be interesting to know more about the chaotic pre-racial notions of human diversity that ultimately gave rise to the racial social order that so many people today prize so much.  When Kris began her paper, she took a moment to observe that something very special was happening at Mythcon.  Three papers on race.  She suggested that we need a bigger and more inclusive world in mythological studies.

As a newcomer to the doings of the Mythopoeic Society, I can’t speak with much insight about its status quo.  But in my years of encountering such things in various kinds of worlds, I know that the idea of a “status quo” is a cherished and complicated illusion.  The rush of history often washes away treasured boundaries that seem perfectly rigid.

Time may well bring more analysis on various aspects of Tolkien and race.  And Tolkien’s orcs certainly deserve critical study.  People worldwide appreciate Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and a good number self-identify as the modern heirs of old-fashioned racial Mongol-types.  This includes the Pawnees.  I don’t do race in my life, but most Pawnees treasure their racial identities and enact race frequently, and some of them are fans of Middle-earth.

Tolkien declared his rejection of race.  He saw it as a pernicious idea.  But he then went on to racialize his orcs anyway.  We should try to make sense of the fact that JRR Tolkien took various details from a pernicious racial typology to produce monstrous enemies for his heroic mythmaking.


Kris Swank took this photo as I read my paper

That Saturday afternoon, finishing my hour at Mythcon, I knew that no one would object if I stood observing the doings of the status quo in Tolkienland.  But I had done what I went there to do.  Feeling like a guest in the Mythcon house, I decided I had troubled the councils of the wise enough for one day.  I got in my car that afternoon.

Driving away under the lengthening shadows of the mountains, I much enjoyed how the sunset kept breaking free of the clouds, a gentle settling of golden rays among the foothills.  At the darkening edges of Denver, I watched a sudden rose-colored light bloom up from the distant peaks.  In the midst of all that magic, cruising in the far west of ancient Pawneeland, I decided that I did enjoy my visit to the Mountain That Touches the Sky.

August Sunset

The Least Lovely Folk of Middle-earth

Surfing the websites of Tolkiendom, I often encounter negative critiques of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films. The most frequent complaint focuses on Jackson’s lack of fidelity to Tolkien’s texts. To attract a global mega-audience, Jackson and his colleagues extensively re-envisioned Middle-earth, deleting scenes, elevating action adventure over enchantment, amplifying and inserting women, and repositioning textual materials. I have much enjoyed Peter Jackson’s cinematic visits to Middle-earth, but I sympathize with those who find some of Jackson’s revisions debatable and even troubling.

In one respect, however, I appreciate Jackson’s choice to modestly revise Tolkien’s storytelling. This has to do with the characterization of orcs. Tolkien deliberately rooted his monstrous orcs in the social soils of race, as he wrote in 1958: “They are… in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” In contrast, Peter Jackson’s fantasy orcs do not seem much indebted to the real world traditions of race.

On the spectrum of Tolkien critics versus Tolkien fans, a defining divide centers on racial messaging. For those who find Middle-earth little to their liking, the evident manifestations of race offer a ready target for complaint. According to this position, Tolkien’s linkages of skin color and moral symbolism come across as racially insensitive, if not racist. On the other hand, fans of Tolkien know that he despised Nazi racialism. They see his diverse fantasy races uniting to defeat evil in the world, and they appreciate his moral vision of diversity achieving transcendent community. The interlocked circles of fandom and scholarship affirm the idea that Tolkien stood squarely against racism. Except… well, there is the problem of orcs.

In a 2003 study of Tolkien and miscegenation, Sandra Straubhaar mounted a defense of Tolkien, but acknowledged the problem of his slant-eyed orcs: “Tolkien seems to have exhibited a kind of racism perhaps not unremarkable in a mid-twentieth-century Western man[.]” A year later Anderson Rearick proposed that Tolkien might have projected the nature of his orcs through the non-racial lens of biblical references to darkness and evil – a view he would doubtless modify in light of Tolkien’s comment on orcs as “Mongol-types.” In her 2010 book, Dimitra Fimi constructed a rather convoluted logic designed to blur and soften the harsh clarities of Tolkien’s racialized orcs. And in 2012 Michael Martinez asserted that Tolkien simply meant to reference Mongols; but he concluded that Tolkien’s “Mongol-types” may provide “the only clear evidence of racism in Tolkien’s fiction – in that he uses a racist stereotype for one of his fantasy races.”

Some critics similarly point to Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai as overly racialized. But it is also notable that he chose to bestow upon his orc-folk diverse flesh-tones ranging from very white to very dark. In contrast, Tolkien refers to orc skin-coloration as “black,” while his half-orcs are all “sallow-skinned” – none fall at the pale end of the spectrum. Tolkien intended for his orcs to embody repulsive “Mongol-types,” and when we study the evolution of his orcs, we can indeed see what he meant. He meant race. To formulate insights about what this signifies, it is important to contextualize Tolkien in history, to identify the likely cultural influences that illuminate what he meant by “Mongol-types.”

In my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I set forth detailed textual comparisons to show how Tolkien made use of Skidi Pawnee mythological materials. Tolkien would have seen the Pawnee storytellers as “Mongol-types” – as members of the same racial group that inspired him to colorize his orcs. But he wasn’t thinking of Pawnees when he racialized his orcs. It is apparent that he turned instead to Asia for inspiration.

Sitting down to visit Peter Jackson’s version of Middle-earth, I find his cinematic orcs an awkward fit, at best, to the narratives of race. But reading The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to miss the racial tones of Tolkien’s orcs and half-orcs. If we are to understand what race signifies in our world and how it has shaped our lives, we must inquire into the reach of its teachings. And to make sense of Tolkien and race, we must delve into what he meant when he said that his orcs comprised a “degraded” version of the “least lovely Mongol-types.”

Considering how the teachings of race made their way into the making of Middle-earth, I have been fortunate to discuss my work with many interested friends and colleagues – I read an early version of my research in September 2014 before a gathering of the Grey Havens Group of Colorado. On April 25 I will read a new version of this research at Real Myth and Mithril, a special symposium organized by Grey Havens. The abstract of my paper can be found on the Grey Havens blog: The Least Lovely Folk March Into Real Myth

Roger Echo-Hawk at Grey Havens, September 18, 2014

Roger Echo-Hawk at Grey Havens, September 18, 2014