Monsters of Contact: Historical Trauma in Caddoan Oral Traditions

Monsters of Contact: Historical Trauma in Caddoan Oral Traditions

by Mark van de Logt

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A murderous whirlwind, an evil child-abducting witch-woman, a masked cannibal, terrifying scalped men, a mysterious man-slaying flint creature: the oral tradition of the Caddoan Indians is alive with monsters. Whereas Western historical methods and interpretations relegate such beings to the realms of myth and fantasy, Mark van de Logt argues in Monsters of Contact that creatures found in the stories of the Caddos, Wichitas, Pawnees, and Arikaras actually embody specific historical events and the negative effects of European contact: invasion, war, death, disease, enslavement, starvation, and colonialism.

Van de Logt examines specific sites of historical interaction between American Indians and Europeans, from the outbreaks and effect of smallpox epidemics on the Arikaras, to the violence and enslavement Caddos faced at the hands of Hernando de Soto’s expedition, and Wichita encounters with Spanish missionaries and French traders in Texas. In each case he explains how, through Indian metaphor, seemingly unrelated stories of supernatural beings and occurrences translate into real people and events that figure prominently in western U.S. history. The result is a peeling away of layers of cultural values that, for those invested in Western historical traditions, otherwise obscure the meaning of such tales and their “monsters.”

Although Western historical methods have become the standard in much of the world, van de Logt demonstrates that indigenous forms of history are no less valuable, and that oral traditions and myths can be useful sources of historical information. A daring interpretation of Caddoan lore, Monsters of Contact puts oral traditions at the center of historical inquiry and, in so doing, asks us to reconsider what makes a monster.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806161099
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 06/21/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Mark van de Logt is Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University of Qatar and author of War Party in Blue: Pawnee Scouts in the U.S. Army.

Read an Excerpt


Caddoan Storytellers and Storytelling Traditions

One cannot overstate the significance of tribal traditions. They are not dead relics of supposedly vanished civilizations; nor are they "childish" accounts, as nineteenth-century audiences tended to believe. These stories form the most complete record of a tribe's religious ideas, values, collective memory, and history. As long as these stories are told, the people and their culture live on. The men and women who shared the stories to preserve them understood their significance. When they were published in books, the tales that the elders wished to pass on to subsequent generations became fixed on paper. This chapter details the significance of the art of storytelling for the Caddoan nations.


Folklorist John Miles Foley wrote that oral traditions "dwarf written literature in both size and diversity." Foley added that oral traditions are more accurately performances that often include dramatic narrative techniques, such as humor, intonation, irony, facial expressions, silent pauses, and gestures. Mythographer Dennis Tedlock explained that the "speaking storyteller is not a writer who fears to make use of the shift key, but an actor on a stage." As these performances are committed to paper to satisfy Euro-American "print-oriented" and "text-determined" audiences, such subtleties are inevitably lost. Indeed, as texts are translated for publication, they are also edited and interpreted, with the possible result that important elements from both performance and story are lost. To recapture some of the original flavors and meanings of storytelling performances, many folklorists today recommend close collaboration with Native communities. In such research, both parties should act as equal partners rather than reducing Native collaborators to "performers" and turning academics into authoritative "interpreters."

Apart from mutually beneficial outcomes from collaboration, scholars should cooperate with Native communities for another reason. In many cases, non-Native scholars failed to credit the work of Native collaborators. Anthropologist Ralph Linton, for example, committed intellectual robbery when he published five scholarly articles on the Pawnees without ever mentioning James R. Murie, upon whose field notes the papers were based. Because of such abuses, many Indian tribes demand to exert some control over how their oral traditions are represented. Collaboration, therefore, is now considered an essential part of the research process.

However, the pendulum swings both ways. Scholars might now run into Native prejudices suggesting that only Natives are equipped to conduct this kind of analysis. Barre Toelken, one of the leading scholars of American Indian oral traditions, rejected this notion categorically: "I do not subscribe to the notion that Indian DNA carries any built-in cultural depth or ability to articulate complex cultural meanings," he wrote. Yet Toelken believed that scholars were culturally indebted to Native people and that showing sensitivity to what they believed was appropriate: "This kind of serious attention and propriety requires respect, not adulation; it requires us to share, not intrude and plunder; it requires us to listen for Native voices, not trumpet our own assumptions." Whenever possible, I tried to follow Toelken's advice and asked Native people for their input and comments. Regrettably, few were able to provide me with answers to my queries. I suppose that centuries of colonialism are largely to blame for the erosion of knowledge among the Caddoan peoples.

The stories told by George Dorsey's Native collaborators belonged to various genres, and they were important for many different reasons. Surely, many were told to provide entertainment on long fall or winter nights. But even those told for entertainment contained important cultural messages. As Toelken points out, such stories "dramatize ritual and social order; they record and maintain cultural values, providing moral examples, giving instruction, and imparting culturally important information; they express and embody artistic values; [and] they preserve historical records with an eye for culturally significant detail." As mentioned earlier, this study is less interested in the artistic-ceremonial quality of these stories and more concerned with their historical content.

Although oral traditions often reach far back into time, folklorists like to point out that they are not "fossil records." In fact, they are living works of art. Stories are only (re)told if they continue to be "relevant" and understandable to the people. "When an orally transmitted story ceases to make sense or be interesting," Toelken writes, "people simply quit telling it, and it is no longer there."

One way stories retain their relevance is that their meanings or interpretations shift to reflect present-day concerns. To the ethnohistorian who mines these oral traditions for historical information, this poses a major problem: if the meaning (and content) of stories can change, how does one determine in what ways they have changed? The answer is both simple and unsatisfying: without different recordings of the same story over time, one probably cannot. At the same time, the optimist in me believes that many of these stories were preserved fairly close to the originals over the ages. They were recorded when the tradition of storytelling was still strong, so the stories were still close to their original meanings. To be sure, this is a major assumption. Ultimately, though, we have little choice in this matter: we can work only with the texts that have survived. Furthermore, while my findings may be unapologetically interpretive, the assumption that the stories have changed beyond recognition is equally unsubstantiated and presumptive.

Incidentally, the Greek word mythos means "word" or "story," not "error," the meaning that is often used nowadays. Indeed, many mythographers believe that "myth may constitute the highest form of truth, albeit in metaphorical guise." However, because the word "myth" is now often associated with falsehood, I try to avoid it in this book as much as possible. In any case, folklorist Alan Dundes distinguished between three types of stories or, as he called them, "prose narratives": folktales (narratives that are regarded as fiction), myths (truthful accounts of things that happened in the remote past), and legends (also considered true but set in a less remote era, "when the world was much as it is today").

The study of myths has a long history, and mythographers and folklorists have suggested many theories over the centuries. In the nineteenth century, scholars suspected that myths were allegories of natural processes or spiritual qualities, or that they resulted from biographies of human beings who were deified in the process (a theory called euhemerism). Others suspected that myths were fabricated by elites to control the masses. In the twentieth century, scholars believed that myths had either historical, sociological, psychological, or structural causes. Depending on the school of thought, myths explain enigmatic phenomena, are forms of symbolic expression, are projections of the subconscious, are attempts to integrate people into social systems, are forces that steer human behavior or legitimate social institutions, or are forms of religious communication. Freud argued that they reflected unconscious desires and dreams. Jung believed they were expressions of a shared human unconscious determined by archetypal patterns of thought and symbol. Anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn reasoned that myths helped people cope with changes and anxieties. Ernst Cassirer thought they were excited responses to special aspects of the world. Alfred Radcliffe-Brown maintained that they were mechanisms of the social order. Mircea Eliade suggested that their function was to temporarily reinstate the creative past and allow people to revisit and reconnect with the world of the ancestors. Claude Lévi-Strauss revolutionized the field by suggesting that all myths reproduce a common structure of mind and society. Bronislav Malinowski proposed the theory of functionalism, which gave myths distinct functions: they expressed, enhanced, and codified beliefs; safeguarded and enforced morality; and vouched "for the efficiency of ritual and [contained] practical rules for the guidance of man." Generally, in the twentieth century, myths were no longer treated as representations of the past but as keys to understanding present-day cultures. Historical and euhemeristic explanations (the theory that the gods of myths were actual historical persons who had been deified) had lost ground.

I must clarify that I am not a folklorist; nor do I have a desire to trespass on the venerable field of folklore. Still, in the process of writing this book, I had to familiarize myself with folklore theories on oral traditions. I found much of value there, but also much that I found too constricting for my purposes. Therefore, in this book I do not rely on certain theories dear to folklorists, especially tale and motif type indexes that emphasize similarities between oral traditions from around the world. Although I recognize that such similarities exist, I emphasize the distinctiveness of the Caddoan monsters. For example, while it may be true that the Pawnee Flint Monster story has parallels with the Old English Beowulf saga, I do not believe that they are different versions of the same story or that they describe the same archetypal processes. For similar reasons, I largely ignore Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist approach. Although I recognize the ingenuity with which LéviStrauss analyzed American Indian myths, I feel that structuralism ignores the fact that real historical events are at the basis of the Caddoan monster stories.

More recently, scholars have emphasized the cultural context in which oral traditions are performed as well as the ways they have been (or should be) preserved. They quickly point out that myths have a kind of plasticity that allows them to change over time to remain relevant. By changing itself, a myth "is adapted to a new situation, armed to withstand a new challenge." As Th. P. van Baaren phrased it, "The character of myth is opposed to disappearance, but not, in view of what we said about its plasticity, to change ... as a rule it is the myth which will change. ... In this situation the invention of writing has wrought havoc, because this invention has made it possible to fix the text of a myth more or less permanently."

Modern scholars such as Barre Toelken, Dell Hymes, Dennis Tedlock, Brian Swann, and Arnold Krupat therefore pay close attention to the cultural context in which oral traditions are produced. They argue that oral traditions should be analyzed emically, meaning "from inside the originating culture, beginning if possible with the Native language itself, and drawing on ethnographic data." Wherever possible, I used emic sources and commentaries. Unfortunately, in the case of the Caddoan stories, no original recordings exist; nor have the Native-language texts survived. Only in a few instances was I able to get emic explanations for the events described in this book. In most cases, I had only interpretation to fall back on.

Hymes and Tedlock pioneered ethnopoetics, the idea that storytelling is a performing art and that the character of the storyteller, the audience, and the occasion of the performance must be considered when analyzing the oral tradition. They criticized the way in which past storytelling performances were collected, translated, and written down. (One of the early collectors, anthropologist Franz Boas, already lamented the "loss of spirit" when an oral tradition was committed to paper.) Although their approach promises more accurate results, it is difficult to apply with oral traditions that have survived only in written form, such as the Caddoan monster traditions discussed in this book. What makes matters worse in the case of the Caddoan traditions is that we do not really know in what context and circumstances these texts were produced. For this reason, some ethnopoetic scholars dismiss older publications as useless because of their limitations. I, however, concur with William M. Clements, who warned that to use the older published traditions indiscriminately is "foolish" but that "not to use them at all seems foolish also."

Although I respect the work of Toelken, Hymes, Tedlock, Swann, Krupat, and other scholars of oral traditions, I do not emphasize performance here because of the simple fact that such performance contexts were never recorded. Furthermore, I might offend these scholars by viewing symbols slightly more literally than they do. Although many of the events, characters, and phenomena in the stories under consideration here are symbolic, metaphoric, or idiomatic, I try to link the symbol to real persons or very real things. I am not content to simply assume that because a character in a story is named Coyote, he is automatically some kind of archetypal trickster figure. In such cases, I searched the historical sources to see if there once lived a person by that name who matched the person in the story (see chapter 3, for example). Theorists and ethnopoeticists might find this approach strange, because they claim that their theories provide sufficient explanation for these characters. However, because I try to show that these myths are in fact histories of a different kind, I had to search other sources for corroborative evidence. Likewise, I was not content to accept blindly that the hero in one of the stories presented in this book simply transformed into a "red bird with black streaks running down its eyes" (seechapter 4). Rather than accepting that this person magically morphed into a cardinal, I looked for other explanations. While my hypotheses may require more imagination than the reader is willing to exercise, I nevertheless believe that my explanations fit the Caddoan tendency to use symbols that physically resemble the original. In short, in some cases my interpretation of symbols tends to be less abstract and more literal.

I wish to pause here to remind readers that the principal purpose of this book is to explain the presence of tribe-specific monsters in Caddoan traditions. It is, first and foremost, a book of history — more specifically a history of Caddoan monsters. Next, it is aimed at historians who, until now, have viewed American Indian oral traditions as subsidiary historical documents only, rather than as actual histories in their own right. For these reasons, anthropologists, archaeologists, and folklorists will find much to criticize in this book. Anthropologists will decry the lack of emic or tribal perspectives. Archaeologists may question my tendency for speculation. And although I often borrow from their work, folklorists will be frustrated with my lack of attention to theory. Indeed, finding theories too constricting in historical research, I am not at all interested in presenting a theory on the nature of American Indian oral traditions, even though I am aware that my conclusions may have consequences in this area.

Of course, Native ways of "doing history" are different from those of non-Natives. Indeed, most non-Natives call these stories myths, not histories. Arnold Krupat observed that Western historiography "fetishizes" fact: "We neither accept Their historical criteria as consistent with truth, nor do we translatively mediate between Their language and our own." Indeed, Krupat is willing to accept some oral traditions as forms of history:

It is unlikely that anyone trained in Western modes of thought will accept accounts of "mystical happenings" as factual and accurate. But that is not necessary. What is necessary is that we stop using terms like "myth," "anecdotes," and "mystical happenings," as standing in simple and subordinate opposition to "history" — a category that We think cannot exist apart from empirical, factual accuracy.

Thus Krupat firmly believes that Native peoples preserved history in their oral traditions. However, their understanding of historiography is different from that of non-Natives. According to Krupat, American Indians favor truth over fact. In Native historiography, "the interpretative truth of the narrative is what determines its historicity." This viewpoint may be hard to accept for most mainstream historians, but it at least introduces them to the idea that some of these oral traditions are histories, albeit a different kind of history.


According to Caddoan sources, telling stories not only brought the past back to life; stories could literally lengthen the life of the storyteller. At least that was the message from Roaming Scout, a Pawnee priest, when he passed on sacred stories that he had learned from elders to interpreter James Murie. "That is what one old man — one of those who used to live here — wanted," Roaming Scout told Murie, "that his stories, that these stories that I am giving you, be carried on to ensure long life."

Old-Man-That-Chief, also a Pawnee, expressed a similar view. To Old-Man-That-Chief, who was known as a prolific storyteller, stories were not just a source of vitality; they literally provided him with the means of living. "A story is like a little seed," he told anthropologist Gene Weltfish in the 1930s:

From it all sorts of other stories branch off for you. A story gives you life. Now that I am old, people invite me to come and eat good things with them and then they ask me to tell stories. So these stories keep me alive.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Different Tribes, Different Monsters,
Part I. Storytelling,
1. Caddoan Storytellers and Storytelling Traditions,
Part II. Oral Traditions as History,
2. "The Whirlwind Is Coming to Destroy My People": Smallpox and the Arikaras,
3. "The Spiders Who Recovered the Chief's Grandson": A Wichita Tale of Encounters with the Spanish and French in Texas,
4. Death of the Flint Monster: A Skiri Pawnee Story of Post-Contact Warfare,
5. The Old Man with the Iron-Nosed Mask: Caddo Oral Tradition and the De Soto Expedition, 1541–42,
Part III. Oral Traditions and Ethnohistorical Analysis,
6. From "Monster" to Savior: Scalped Men, Pahukatawa, and the Pawnee Trauma of Genocide,
Conclusion: "We Na Netsu Ut" (Now the Gut Passes),

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