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Sign-Talker begins just after the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson has sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to ...
Sign-Talker begins just after the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson has sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to penetrate the newly acquired territory, journey up the Missouri River, cross the Rocky Mountains, and reach the glimmering sea in the far West. To survive, the two captains need an extraordinary hunter who will be able to provide the expedition with fresh game, and a sign-talker to communicate with the native tribes. They choose George Drouillard. It is Drouillard, an actual historical figure, who becomes our eyes and ears on this unforgettable odyssey.
Drouillard, a metis raised among the Shawnee, cannot fathom what drives the two men. Nor can he help but admire their ingenuity and courage as they tackle the journey into the unknown. Along the way, he watches as they shrewdly shape and discipline their force, adding French-Canadian rivermen--to guide the expedition up the Missouri--and an Indian woman, Sacagawea, who will play a crucial role in negotiations with the Western tribes.
After plunging into an unforgiving land and near madness, the two captains celebrate a triumphant achievement. But the glory will soon be eclipsed by an overwhelming tragedy that will touch not only Meriwether Lewis and the frontier tribes but George Drouillard himself. A magnificent tale told with intelligence and insight, Sign-Talker is full of song and suffering, humor and pathos. James Alexander Thom has created the rarest reading experience: one that entertains us even as it shows us a new vision of our nation, our past, and ourselves.
Arived at Massac engaged George Drewyer in the public service as an Indian Interpretter contracted to pay him 25 dollars pr. month for his services.—Mr Swan assistant Millitary agent at that place advanced him thirty dollars on account of his pay.—
Meriwether Lewis, Journals
Fort Massac, Lower Ohio Valley November 11, 1803
An eagle soared westward above the river bluff against a gray overcast, as if leading the lean hunter toward the fort, though the fort was where he was going anyway. He would see the big mysterious boat moored below the fort, he thought. It should be there by now.
Eagles often seemed to lead the hunter, even though his personal Shawnee name was Nah S’gawateah Kindiwa, meaning Without Eagle Feathers. The name by which he was known was George Pierre Drouillard.
The tawny skin of his face was taut over jutting bone, his mouth wide, thin-lipped. His hazel eyes were paler than his skin, which gave a strange brightness to his gaze that sometimes made people uneasy, as he knew it did. It was not good for a métis—a half-breed—to make white people uneasy, so hunting and trapping alone was suitable work for him, away from the towns.
Drouillard rode a bay horse, and led an army mule that carried the boneless venison of three deer and the meat and fat of a bear, all bundled neatly in their own hides and hung on a packsaddle. He watched the silhouette of the eagle as he rode. Already he smelled wood smoke from the fort: hickory, oak. And he smelled latrine.
He sent a thought up: Without Eagle Feathers follows you, kindiwa. There was a reason why that was his name, and it was a sad and sorry reason, no fault of his. Still, eagles often led him.
Led by Eagles, that would have been a better name. If only there remained a shaman to do a new name ceremony for him, that could be his personal name. One could change to a truer name, with shaman help.
Then another name came into his memory and made him laugh. Once when he was drunk a whiteman had asked him his Indian name and he said, “Followed by Buzzards.” The fool had believed him, though that would be a true name for him too, appropriate for a hunter. He was a good hunter. Not just a tracker and stalker and sharpshooter. In boyhood he had learned the voices and sounds of all the animals and birds, and could call and decoy them in their own languages. He was such a good hunter that Captain Bissell, commander of Fort Massac, employed him to bring game to the fort to feed its soldiers. He was paid for the meat by the hundredweight. He took his pay in gunpowder, lead, soap, and the printed paper that the américains called money. The army provided the pack mule. Followed by Buzzards. He rode along laughing. It was a laugh just slightly bitter, the taste of much Shawnee people’s laughter these days.
He rode the curving path through leafless woods, and the river below was green and wide. The woods opened ahead onto a stump-studded clearing, in which the fort stood massive on its earthworks, log and stone. Originally it had been a French fort, now garrisoned by soldiers of the United States, who had rebuilt it from ruins. From its promontory on the north bank of the Ohio, one commanded a view of some thirty miles of the river, from the mouth of the Tennessee almost down to the Mississippi. It was almost like seeing as an eagle sees. There was a spirit in the place that was much older than the age of the fort. Drouillard knew this would have been a lookout place of the Ancients, those who had built the great, silent hill-mounds everywhere along these rivers, then had died or gone away before white- men came.
But of course the eagle could look down with scorn even at this high, proud place, and see farther horizons.
Out of the woods now, he looked down to see if the big mystery boat was moored below the bluff, and it was. He had seen it yesterday while hunting opposite the mouth of the Cumberland, had stood watching it pass below with four soldiers rowing and one on the tiller and another on the bow. It was a long, black-hulled galley keelboat with a sail mast forward and a cabin in the stern. This was not quite a real ship, he thought, such as the seagoing ships he had seen down at New Orleans, but it was much more like a ship than the usual flatboats and barges that brought whitemen and their goods down the Ohio to the Mississippi. Days before he had seen it, he heard the rumors and the mysteries about it. People all down the Ohio were talking about the coming of this boat. Rumors moved much faster than boats, and made mysteries that had to be figured out.
A rumor said this boat had been sent by the President of the United States, and that its commander was a friend of President Jefferson. Another rumor said that President Jefferson was going to take control of the Mississippi country from the Spaniards. Another rumor, or maybe a part of the same one, was that the américains coming on this boat intended to go all the way west to the ocean on the far side, and make a trading route all the way to the farthest place, called China.
To a solitary woodsman like Drouillard, such rumors were merely curiosities, and he could see no way they would be important to him, any more than the rumors three years ago when all the whitemen had expected strange happenings just because their calendar turned to 1800 and a new century. Whitemen presumed that their ways of counting time had power.
But there were two things about these rumors that made his instincts tingle, like the sound of a growl in the underbrush:
One of the soldier officers on this boat was said to be called Clark, a war name from his childhood memory: memories of shooting, houses burning, women dragging their children into the woods to hide from the Town-Burner soldiers whose leader was the dreaded Clark. The name was still a curse in the house of Drouillard’s uncle, Louis Lorimier, for Clark had destroyed Lorimier’s great trading post in Ohio and ruined him. Was this officer the same Clark, now coming again?
The other thing that gave Drouillard a frisson was that word had come that Captain Bissell at the fort wanted him to come and talk to the américain soldier officers when they arrived at Massac. Why would they want to talk to him?
Drouillard rode through the open gate into the fort. A sentry above the gate nodded to him, which was about as much greeting as an Indian could expect to get from a white soldier. Drouillard knew that particular soldier and sensed that if he weren’t employed in bringing meat, the man would be happy to shoot him, just to be shooting an Indian. Drouillard had hunted, interpreted and guided for the fort officers for years, but many of the soldiers just hated Indians.
The quartermaster, on the other hand, was always glad to see him because the meat he brought was always fresh and well-butchered. They worked together unloading and weighing the venison and bear, and the quartermaster wrote the weights on a slip of paper for Drouillard to give to the paymaster. “Thankee, Drouillard. And by the way, Cap’n Bissell wants to see you. Got some important gents in there he wants ye to meet.”
“So I hear.” Drouillard finished rolling and tying the deer and bear skins, which he would flense and cure to sell at his uncle’s trading post over at Cape Girardeau. He left the horse and mule hitched and took his long rifle off its saddle sling and walked across the parade ground toward Captain Bissell’s quarters. Soldiers were lined up outside the paymaster’s door. Soldiers were always lined up. There seemed to be something in soldier law that everybody had to do the same thing at the same time, which meant that they always had to line up and wait. Apparently, soldiers weren’t allowed to have a notion to go and do something alone and get it done while nobody was in the way. Instead they had to wait until they were all told to go to the same place at the same time so that they were all in each other’s way and had to wait. To Drouillard it seemed like a poor way of doing things, but it did make it possible for soldiers to stand around together complaining to each other, which seemed to be a favorite pastime of the whitemen.
Most of the fort soldiers knew Drouillard by sight as the Indian who brought in meat, and they didn’t pay much attention to him. But today there were new soldiers here, the ones off the keelboat, and they watched him as he passed, and he could feel them watching him. Young men coming down the Ohio from Kentucky and Pennsylvania usually were from families that had been in the Indian troubles, and according to the rumors, the captains of this boat had been recruiting their men from those places.
The flag was stirring in the breeze at the top of its pole. One blue corner contained fifteen little pointed white designs which were said to be stars, and he understood that each star stood for a whiteman’s land called a state, and that as the whitemen kept coming on into the Indian country, they kept making more states. He had heard that the old homeland of his Shawnee people north of the Ohio River was now becoming a state, and he could scarcely imagine what that meant, except that all the woods and fields and hunting grounds were being marked with lines into squares, which whitemen bought for money, putting the Indians off into tight little places and making them live there. It was a faraway and ominous thing going on back there, and he always felt it like the coming of weather.
Most of his understanding of it came from his uncle, Lorimier, who as a trader heard news from everywhere and sometimes told him about it. Lorimier would shake his head with a sad smile and say that it was something that had been going on for many generations, and that many peoples were no longer where the Master of Life had put them. Lorimier, with Chief Kishkalwa’s Shawnees, had been given lands by the Spanish at Cape Girardeau near the mouth of the Ohio, many years ago, so they could stand as a buffer between the old river communities and the américains who kept coming down the Ohio and mov- ing into land where they weren’t welcome. But they kept coming, and were now a large part of the population, and they had army bases on the Illinois side of the Mississippi: here at Massac, and at Cahokia, across the river from St. Louis. When the américain officers of those posts inquired after hunters to bring meat to their garrisons, Louis Lorimier had encouraged his nephew George Drouillard to apply. By passing in and out of the américain forts and getting to know their officers, Drouillard might now and then hear or see things that would be useful to Lorimier and, through him, useful to the Spanish authorities. For a while Drouillard had, in a very minor way, been a spy.
But then just a few weeks ago there had come news that would affect this part of the country in ways that Drouillard, and even his uncle, could hardly comprehend yet: the United States had made a treaty by which all the lands west of the Mississippi would be under its control and governance. The treaty had been made with the ruler of France, whose name rolled like a legend up and down the rivers: Napoleon.
Drouillard, occupied with traces and tracks and streams, and the movements and seasons of game animals, with his gun and his traps, thought little of the doings of men. But there were names that came in news and rumors by the long river courses, a few names, that engaged his thought and made him wonder. Two of those names were Napoleon and Jefferson. They were in every newspaper and every rumor that came from afar. Drouillard had no image of either man, no face or figure to see in his mind when he heard their names. He could no more easily envision them than he could Nanabusho the Trickster Helper, or Kohkumthena the Grandmother Spirit. When he thought of Napoleon, what came to his mind was the French flag of red and blue separated by white; when he thought of Jefferson he thought of this more intricate flag on its pole in the center of the fort: the blue corner with fifteen white star-shapes, and its fifteen stripes, alternately red and white. Often in the last few months, while waiting to see Captain Bissell or to collect his hunter’s pay, he had stood musing on the design and the meaning of the rippling, flapping flag of these américains. As far as he could understand it, it was the dodam, or totem, of their nation, as the redtail hawk was the totem of his people’s nation, the Shawnee.
Now as he glanced up at their fluttering flag, he saw that the eagle that had led him along the bluff had not gone on westward, but was spiraling on the air above the fort. He stood outside the door of Captain Bissell’s house for a moment and gazed beyond the flag to watch the eagle moving upward into the low, gray clouds. Sometimes Drouillard’s spirit could reach that high and bring the eagle’s spirit into a sameness with his own, and see as far as it could see from up there. He had done that sometimes in his life, or had dreamed that he had done it, which was the same.
Posted October 23, 2011
Posted December 8, 2002
This is such a fine book, I can't say enough about it. I have read many non-fiction books on the L&C subject, and I was sceptical at first about this novel, but it proved to be a very engrossing and refreshing read. Thom has interwoven fact and fiction in such a skillfull manner: the fact being the Expedition (with journal quotes inserted); the fiction being the character development George Drouillard and others. The fact the Thom's wife is Shawnee has certainly helped in his development of Drouillard, which genuinely represents a Native American perspective. It is too bad that Sacagawea's contribution has been so exaggerated, and Drouillard's has been largely unnoticed in the media and text books. This book has opened my eyes to the key roll that Drouillard had in history. As Thom contends: without him, the Expedition would have likely failed. George Drouillard was truly an unsung hero, and I dedicate an eagle feather to his spirit.
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Posted June 13, 2012
This was a really good point of view of this great adventure. It bought to light a side of Lesis and Clark I had never known. Most books of the adventure I had a hard time with, but this was good easy reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2012
This is a good read, but I would not rank it as Thom's best. I like all his material -- however, some more than others. I did learn some interesting information and speculation. Definitely worth the time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 12, 2012
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Posted August 1, 2011
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Posted August 2, 2011
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