Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 55-67.
In 1990, Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan published her first novel, Mean Spirit, a well-received and yet controversial account of the Osage oil boom of the 1920s and the subsequent rash of criminal conspiracies and murders that has come to be known as the "Osage Reign of Terror."2 The story she tells is often grim and violent; it returns again and again to "states of being in the dark" (44), which Hogan depicts as a wide-ranging confusion and uncertainty that afflicts many of her characters and demonstrates the period's turbulence to her readers. But the story is also resolutely and respectfully grounded in her home place, the southern plains. As Cherokee novelist and critic Betty Louise Bell explains, Hogan centers on
the land she knows and loves: the Red Earth of Oklahoma. From chickens to oil, the reader inhabits the land of removal: pickup trucks and stomp dances, rodeos and powwows, family histories and cultural histories in a tight, never-ending weave from one generation to the next."3
Removal and survival: Indian country in Hogan's hands is a physical and historical process articulated metaphorically and characterized by a seemingly infinite continuity across generations, crosshatched by discrete yet dangerously contagious episodes of cultural disruption. Incarnated in stories, Indian country and its inhabitants sometimes achieve a highly valued and spirited connectedness to each other, a rootedness. Historian Terry Wilson points out that in common local parlance, "the Osage" refers both to the place (the county) and to the people.4 Moses Graycloud in Mean Spirit sees Stace Red Hawk as "a good man" in large part because Stace is a "man rooted in life" (367); likewise, a respected Hill Indian's "legs looked rooted to earth" (30). Conversely, the town of Watona (Pawhuska, Oklahoma)" the quick and wobbly world of mixed-blood Indians, white loggers, cattle ranchers, and most recently, the oil barons" (5)-is less grounded and in some ways weaker, structurally. So when Hogan says that "fiction is a vertical descent," she has in mind an exploration of the power as well as the vulnerability of rootedness; she wants to move below and inside the spoken and written surfaces of history. Rather than perpetuating a notion of history as a more or less horizontal, more or less irreversible time line, she defines history as a process that functions as a sort of gateway, an opening to deeper vertical passages and complex, vital circulatory systems. In this sense the storyteller can be seen as analogous to (among others) the heroic Earth Diver who penetrates surfaces, negotiating a vertical passageway and axis that leads to solid yet shifting earth, the stuff that life and home place is made of: removal and survival.5
This "vertical descent" is of course particularly loaded in Mean Spirit, not least because the technological extraction of oil from northeastern Oklahoma, like the genealogical extractions of Indians in Oklahoma, involves a penetration of the surface plains and a close examination of the roots and veins, the body of the place as it both connects to and violently detaches from the bodies of the people who live on and in the place. But this comparison between technology and genealogy must not be nudged too far, for the very violence of Euro-American land abuse sets in motion a terrifying and confusing and wrenching disruption of Indian identity in Indian country. When "fiction as a vertical descent" crashes into a variety of man-made confusions and obstructions, including the obstructions invented and enforced by history itself, tribal identity does not always necessarily or consistently work-even though, as Hogan has remarked of the Osage oil boom stories, "In some way, when you hear something from your family it becomes a part of your cell structure."6
As various literary critics have noted, Hogan's version of the historical events is not entirely "faithful" to the known facts of either Osage culture or the illicit activities of terrorists working against it, most aggressively in the 1920s; she distorts or even falsifies Osage tribal identity. But these critics presuppose that fiction works less as a "vertical descent" than as a progressive, "horizontal," linear narrative, while my argument is that Hogan in effect dives into notions of history not widely recognized as mainstream, seeing these "alternative" historiographies as particularly suited to the resources and arguments of Mean Spirit. Some of the characters she draws, such as the oilman Hale and the Osage hermit John Stink, actually participated in the events, and some of the events actually happened, but many of the details and characters, however vividly drawn, are products of Hogan's politically charged literary imagination.7 In part because many of the crimes are still unsolved and unresolved, she freely combines "fact" and "fiction."8 She fills in some but by no means all of the narrative spaces, exploiting the tensions between a linear-historical imperative and her own resistance to the compulsory linearity and authority of western history; she strategically evokes an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and uncertainty. She also suggests that various Native characters-like various Native people who survived or did not survive the "Reign of Terror"-could not tell their stories about what was happening, for fear of reprisal, and so Osage perspectives on these events are guarded if available at all.