Perpetuating an American Stereotype

Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill Doubleday, 812 pp., $14.95

FIRST THERE WAS Custer Died For Your Sins. Then there was Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Now there is Hanta Yo. American Indians, especially the Plains Indians, have long fascinated Americans. With their feathers, beads and war cries the Sioux, Cheyenne and Blackfeet have epitomized the noble savage for over a century. But the image of the hawk-nosed, bonnetted warriors is a romanticized stereotype of the Plains Indian. In fact, they are no more American or native than the colonists or conquistadors. It was the coming of the French, the Spanish and the English--their wars and their horses--that transformed certain long-since-forgotten tribes into the Indians Americans have come to view as really Indian.

Before the Spanish lost their first horses in the Southwest and before encroaching white settlers and wars on the coast sent Eastern tribes westward, few Indians roamed the plains. Those who did were poor and, by later standards, unimpressive. Population pressure increased, forcing some tribes into grasslands. At the same time, Indians realized the horse offered the speed needed to hunt buffalo extensively. Not until then did any Plains tribes begin to prosper, let alone thrive. Only then did the buffalo hunt, made feasible by the horse, become the tribes' mainstay. Only then did the cultures undergo rapid adaptation and change. As warring and raiding became increasingly important, horses, wives and scalps signified wealth and success. The stereotypical Plains Indians came into being.

If not the largest and most powerful tribe to emerge with this new lifestyle, the Sioux certainly have become the most well-known. They and the Cheyenne rode down Custer; Sitting Bull and his entourage performed in Wild Bill Hickcock's Wild West Show and West Point cadets studied Crazy Horse's tactics. It is not surprising, then, that what is being hailed as the new American Indians Roots is a novel about the Sioux.

Hanta Yo, billed as an American saga, is really the tale of one man, Ahbleza. Although the book traces Ahbleza's grandfather's and father's lives before him, it is clear from the outset that the father, who surpasses the grandfather, will have a son who will outshine them both.

Olepi, Ahbleza's father, is the tribe's greatest warrior; Ogle is the tribe's greatest hunter. It is no coincidence that Ahbleza saves the infant Tonweya, Ogle's son, from burning himself. Just as Olepi's life parallels Ogle's, Ahbleza's will parallel Tonweya's Despite the fact that Ahbleza is several years older, the two boys become 'brother-friends', and like their fathers, both are marked for distinction. Tonweya becomes a great scout while Ahbleza strives to become leader of the Mahto band, and, eventually, the entire Teton (Sioux) Nation.


Wanagi, the tribal seer, watches over the two boys. Nothing surprises him; he knows everything that will happen before it happens. He knows that the bond between Ahbleza and Tonweya is sacred. He also knows that Ahbleza is destined for great things. He duty is to prepare the boy-turning-man and the man-turning-leader for leadership, and to ready the tribe to accept him.

The plot has no new twists. Instead, it is the age old maturation story. Ahbleza faces countless tasks, which, one by one, he overcomes. As in any epic, he has visions he strives to fulfill. Even the story line is old: the coming of the white man portends ill; the heroes devote themselves to preserving the old Mahto ways. Nor is the book's message a new one. Ahbleza's last prophecy for his people, the Mahto band of the Teton Nation, is to recognize there are good white men as well as bad white men. Ruth Beebe Hill echoes this statement: there were good Indians as well as bad Indians.

Hill spent two years thrashing out Hanta Yo, or what was to become Hanta Yo. According to her collaborator Chunksa Yuha, a full-blooded Sioux, she read over 1200 ethnographies and wrote over 2000 pages. Beginning in 1967 the two translated all 2000 pages into pre-reservation Mahto only to retranslate back into English. They wanted to transmit the style and flavor of the ancient language as much as they wanted to depict the Mahto culture. They succeeded. Not only is Hanta Yo the best researched noyel yet written about an American Indian tribe, but it is also written in a unique style.

The writing is spare but flowing, with no set tense. Common nouns are idiomatic; a digs-with-mouth is a badger and a cloud-bird is an eagle. Mahto terms appear regularly, pta for buffalo and itancan for leader. And although the style at first seems ponderous and tedious, it soon becomes soothing. Like the book, it is steady and predictable. Also like the book, however, it is not for everyone.

Hanta Yo is not for readers looking for another Roots or Holocaust despite the booksellers' claims. There are far too many Indian tribes for one to be representative. The Cherokee were no more like the Sioux than Malaysians are like Japanese.

Nor are their histories, despite their common sufferings, comparable. Unlike Roots, Hanta Yo does not span centuries in American history. It covers an 85 year period, a time when the Sioux increased while other tribes diminished and disappeared.

Nor is Hanta Yo fast-moving. Just over 800 pages long, Hill's epic is hardly suspensful. Rather, it is sagalike, but the reality is Siouian. The ethnography can be tedious if the reader is not interested. On the other hand, for readers who are familiar with American Indian history, Hanta Yo is just another well-written novel that does not work as well as it should.

Few ethnographies, let alone novels about native Americans, have been written by women. Rarer still are those that focus on women. But Hill does not offer a fresh perspective. By being true to the Mahto, a male-dominated society, Hill tells her tale through primarily male eyes. Her women, though they win sympathy and admiration, are secondary characters. They are either treated as such by their men or, if not, two out of three times they end up dying. Their deaths--Wanagi's and Ahbleza's wives die--only strengthen the men's resolve to be pure and unselfish; neither takes a second wife. This attitude indicates the novel's Hollywood morals; the good guys get better and win while the bad guys worsen and lose.

In addition to these minor flaws, Hanta Yo is disappointing for another reason. Hill tries for something that she cannot achieve; by starting off well she promises more than she can deliver. The Mahto men: as philosophers, fathers, warriors, hunters, and leaders: face questions that all humans face: is my son's bad behavior my fault? As leader of the people, should the people follow me or should I follow them? Is there a God? But her protangonist's quest--self-control and the meaning of existence--she never fully answers.

HANTA YO'S value, then, does not lie in its greatness as a novel. Rather, it is important because of its authenticity, subject matter and message. But in choosing to write a novel about the Sioux, Hill has perpetrated the Plains Indian myth. She has not shown Americans the real, native American, the Indians who were the same in 1750 as they were in 1410. Instead she has only given Americans what they have idolized since they helped create him: the scalp-wielding, horse-riding savage.

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