OK, American Southwest, You Win

I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.

Betataki cliff dwelling at the Navajo National Monument

Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)

Bought at the Navajo Cultural Center gift shop in Tuba City, AZ. They had many of Hillerman’s novels and I’d have bought them all if I could.

Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.

Petroglyphs on Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Park, Southern Utah

And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.

Dinosaur prints near Tuba City, AZ

So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.

Kachina Bridge

I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.

Paintings of landscapes like this one.

And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.

The other side of Kachina Bridge. Can you spot the petroglyphs?

Book with the “Best Diverse Cast” (Calendar Girls Tag)

Whenever I see “Calendar Girls” I think of the hilarious British movie by that name, but in this case, it means a group of (girl?) book bloggers who treat a different bookish theme during each month of the calendar.  (So we will not be posing. I am sure you are relieved.) And this month, December, I was actually able to think of a book that fulfills the theme! 

Calendar Girls is hosted by NeverNotReading, who says of this month’s theme, “What I really like about this theme is it allows you to interpret diversity in whatever way is meaningful to you. Racial or ethnic representation, LGBTQ diversity, neurodiversity, whatever you’re passionate about, we want to read it too!”

Picking a book with a diverse cast felt somewhat arbitrary because so many of my faves have casts that are diverse in one way or another. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women springs to mind, as do Ursula le Guin’s novellas set on the planet of Yeowe (navy-blue colored upper class, grey-blue colored underclass, red-brown foreigners with a very different culture coming from distant Hain).  Even the very Nordic Lord of the Rings has a main cast of four different species and minor characters that are even more diverse (Ents, anyone?).  And then there’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which features Neanderthals as main characters.

But here is the book I have settled on: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman.

 Clowns is part of Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. It’s a mystery/police procedural series set in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, which straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Chee and Leaphorn both work for the Navajo Tribal police. Because of the way jurisdiction on Indian reservations is handled, they frequently have to work on their cases with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or Utah State police and/or with the FBI.

Books in this series usually take place on the Navajo reservations and the plot often turns on Navajo culture. That’s already “diverse” to an outsider like me. But it quickly gets deeper.  Chee and Leaphorn have each had a different experience of being Navajo. Leaphorn was of the generation that was sent away to boarding schools right around the time their adult vocabulary would have been developing. Consequently, his grasp on the Navajo language is a little shaky, and he thinks like a modern, secular white man. He doesn’t, in his bones, believe in Navajo cosmology. Chee, a younger man, was raised at home and enculturated, as per tradition, by his mother’s brother. He is a fully spiritual Navajo and wants to become a haatalii, or traditional healer, like his uncle (though Leaphorn, and others, feel the demands of being a hataalii would not mix well with a policeman’s schedule).

Sacred Clowns is even more diverse than the average Leaphorn and Chee book because in this case, the mystery takes place in Hopi culture, which is different from Navajo culture.  (For example, Navajos tend to invite everyone to their religious ceremonies, whereas Hopi ceremonies are held in secret and never talked about.)  In the opening scene, Chee is attending a Hopi cultural event that features clowns, which are supposed to show people their own folly. At one point, a Hopi clown mimes selling cultural artifacts to an outsider for a lot of money. He is clearly criticizing this practice, but Chee senses “there’s something I’m missing.”  When the clown first drags his little wagon of artifacts out into the middle of the square, the Hopi crowd falls silent. Chee wants to find out why, and this will get him digging into local politics and ultimately solving the case.

Chee isn’t at the top of his game during the event, however, because he is also there sort of on a date with Janet Pete. Janet’s father was Navajo, but she was raised on the East Coast by her Scottish-American mother. Chee really likes Janet, and he spends most of the book trying to find out whether it would be OK for him to get involved with her. The Navajo have an elaborate system of incest laws which prohibit you from marrying anyone whose clans have a historical connection to your own clans. Janet doesn’t know her father’s clans, and anyway the maternal clans are considered more important.

Meanwhile, Leaphorn, a widower, is planning a trip to China with his lady friend, who is a white anthropologist (Lousia Bourbonette – a French name: more diversity, and a romance between older people!).  He wants to visit Mongolia, because he’s read that his ancestors probably originated there.

And cramming in as many cultures as possible, there is another tribal cop, Harold Blizzard, who is Cheyenne.  About halfway through the book there’s a great scene where Chee and Janet Pete are at a drive-in movie, and Blizzard is there, sort of as a third wheel. The movie is an old Western called Cheyenne Autumn, which is a cult classic among the Navajo because the “Cheyenne” characters in the movie were actually played by Navajos. When they are supposedly speaking Cheyenne in the movie, they are actually speaking Navajo, and of course saying crude and saracastic things that were not in the script.  Chee, as the only person in the car who speaks Navajo, has to translate for Janet and Harold so they can understand why certain supposedly solemn lines are funny and why all the other (Navajo) moviegoers are laughing and honking their car horns. It’s this experience that gets Chee thinking about how much outsiders to a culture miss, and wondering what he was missing at the Hopi gathering.

Finally, when Chee consults some elders about Janet’s father’s clans, he gets an earful from them about how young people aren’t traditional enough. They are referring to the way that hataalii of Chee’s generation will sometimes break up the weeklong Navajo healing ceremonies over a couple of weekends so that people who work 9-to-5 jobs can attend them. According to the elders, this is not acceptable, but Chee will probably have to do it if he becomes a healer. He must struggle with how much he can adapt his ancestors’ culture and still remain Navajo.

All of Hillerman’s books do a great job exploring themes of culture and identity, but in this book he really outdoes himself.

The I Dare You Tag, a.k.a. “I Am Easily Guilted”

I was tagged to answer these questions by author of the wonderful blog The Orangutan Librarian. You should definitely go over there and check out her posts. Number one, she’s an orangutan, and number two, she has some great satirical pieces.

What book has been on your shelf the longest?

I was going to show a Bible picture book that I’ve had since I was 3, but it turns out it is not on my shelf any more as I have passed it on to a niece. So, here …

What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?

What book did everyone like, but you hated?

OK, this is the question that calls for courage. 

There are several that everyone agrees are great, and they probably are, but I’m avoiding them.

The Hate U Give, The Help, and The Secret Life of Bees.

I even have two of these on my shelf, but I haven’t cracked them open. 

Reason? I’m super easily guilted.  I don’t want to read a book that is going to call me racist, because even though I know I’m not, I’m going to feel responsible for all the bad stuff that happens in the book.  I will go around hanging my head just that little bit lower.  Then I’ll be angry that I am being blamed for segregation or for a police shooting in a city I’ve never been to, and … well, you get the idea.

What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t?

The Brothers Karamazov.  I’ve started it, and it was super good, and I know it has amazing writing and a ton of spiritual insight, but I’ve heard so much about it that I feel like I already know the ending.

What book are you saving for retirement?

At this rate, what I’m saving for retirement is probably my entire career as a novelist.

Last page: Read it first, or wait ‘til the end?

Wait, definitely. Unless you’ve read everything that came before, the last page won’t make much sense and, even if you can sort of figure out what is going on, it certainly won’t have the same impact.

That said, I have been known to skim ahead a page or two in a book, just to break the tension, when I sense that something really awful is about to happen.

Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?

Ok. I have lots of thoughts on acknowledgements.

In general, I like them. They are sweet.  I love it when the author thanks their spouse for all the sacrifices they made.  Also, the acknowledgements can be a way to find out the name of the author’s agent, which is helpful if you write similar kinds of books and want to query the agent.

But I’m not fond of acknowledgements that fill 1 – 2 pages and, seemingly, list every single person who had anything to do with bringing the book to print.  First of all, I can’t pay attention to all those names and my eyes glaze over, and then I feel guilty because clearly all these people deserve to be thanked.

Secondly, these long acknowledgement sections can be discouraging to a fledgling author.  If a dozen people are listed, and every one of them is thanked for their “invaluable edits and corrections,” and is a person “without whose work this book would never have come to be,” we get the impression that it’s impossible to write a book (at least, a decent book) without a team of at least a dozen at your back.  Which means that our current WIP is probably trash, which makes us doubt ourself since we know it’s not.

Also, I once saw a long acknowledgment section by Nicholas Sparks that was nothing but a bunch of puns on the titles of his previous books, none of which I had read. I didn’t end up reading that one either.

Which book character would you switch places with?

Bertie Wooster.  Who wouldn’t want to have Jeeves on hand?

Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life (place, time, person)?

Yes, all of them. 

(I once told a Medieval Lit professor that because of a certain past friendship I had “issues” around the entire corpus of Arthurian legends, and added, “I guess that makes me a real literature dork, right?”

And she said, “I don’t know, I think most people have issues like that with different works of literature.” I think she was right.)

Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.

A Meeting at Corvallis by S.M. Stirling. I read the first book in this series (Dies the Fire) by checking it out of the library. But I couldn’t find the second one in the library, though they had later books in the series. (What are you thinking, librarians?)  So I was forced to go online and order copies of the missing books.

This shows the value of authors getting their books into libraries, by the way.

Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person?

Only all the time.  It’s called “forcing books on people.” It’s my social handicap (one of many). Apparently I communicate by giving, lending, and recommending books.

Which book has been with you the most places?

This is a tricky one. In my youth I was a world traveler, and I am one of those people who always have to have a book with them, so I have dragged many different books to some very remote places. But it’s never always the same one. I remember reading an Indonesian version of The Two Towers while on a canoe, and reading How Green Was My Valley (in English) sitting on an ironwood porch in the jungle.  Little House probably wins, though, since I re-read that one on the ironwood porch as well. 

Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?

No. I liked To Kill A Mockingbird when we read it in high school, and loved it even more later.  I hated 1984 so much that I’ve never gone back to it.

Used or brand new?

Library.

Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?

I can’t remember.  I have read one by another person in a similar genre, and reviewed it here.

Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?

The Great Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio version). The film made the characters sympathetic and the story poignant, which the book didn’t do for me.

Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?

I don’t need a book to make me hungry.

I am easily guilted (is a theme developing here?) by books that feature starvation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy stars a 9-year-old boy who is always hungry and includes many detailed, sensuous descriptions of food.  Man, that boy could put away the pies! Of course, he was nine years old and was out ploughing all day.

Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?

Not sure this person exists.  Even people I respect greatly have different thresholds than I do.

Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was out of my comfort zone and I avoided it for several years because I got the impression that it demonized missionaries as evil colonialists who don’t bother to learn anything about the cultures they enter.

Eventually, when I’d made some culture crossing mistakes of my own and been through some difficult personal stuff, and I had accepted myself as a flawed person and life had calmed down a bit, I felt ready to read it.

It is brilliant. 

I still think it demonizes missionaries to some extent, but it is such good literature that even the Baptist pastor villain is portrayed in a complex way. It does a great job of showing the huge learning curve faced by Westerners when entering a West African culture.  It deals with white guilt, parenting guilt, and more. At least three of the characters made me go, “This is me!

Also, the sections narrated by the pastor’s oldest daughter Rachel are hilarious because they’re filled with malapropisms.

Now it’s my turn to tag you.

Tag! You’re it. If you want to do this tag, go home and do it, and let me know. Or answer randomly selected questions from this tag in the comments.

Setting: Beringia

Here’s the setting for my second book: Beringia circa 10,000 BC.

As you can see, at this time the sea levels were lower (coastlines are a guess). Volcanoes were active in what is now the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The area that is now the Bering Strait is believed to have been a vast plain that somehow, despite being so far North, supported a great variety of game, including different varieties of mammoth.

Meanwhile, weirdly, North America was still covered in ice sheets. No one knows why this should be, but here is a guess. Anyway, the ice sheets were beginning to melt, creating an ice-free corridor down into the Americas. When exactly this corridor became passable is up for debate. There may also have been a coastal way to access North America (not shown on this map). Meanwhile, there could also have been people migrating to America from Africa via the Atlantic, and from Asia via Polynesia.

The corridor could also have been the route that Gigantopithecus took to get to America.

Late in the book, my characters discover mountains of ice. The ice is south of them and lies between them and the sea. They are just as confused by this as you are.

It’s Time to Talk about Bigfoot

Yes, Bigfoot.

Cryptids Large and Small

Bigfoot is a cryptid, which means “hidden animal,” i.e. an animal whose existence has not been proved. Cryptid is a big category. Some cryptids, when researched, turn out not to exist (for example the Loch Ness Monster, as far as we can tell). Others eventually get moved from the category of cryptid to that of actual animal. (Europeans did not believe in the existence of gorillas until the corpse of one was brought to Europe.)  Other cryptids are 100% hoax (the Fiji mermaid, constructed by sewing a preserved monkey torso onto the preserved tail of a large fish). This post will argue that Bigfoot is in the gorilla category. In fact, he is almost exactly like a gorilla: a large, elusive primate native to the deep forests of North America.

My Sources

Obviously I did not research all this stuff myself. My source is the research done by Jeff Meldrum, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. He has written a lot of stuff, but the source I am using is his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science (Tom Doherty Associates, 2006).

By the way, I had already read the book, but last month I got to attend a Bigfoot conference in Pocatello (home of Idaho State University) and hear Meldrum give a talk. Turns out he’s a very nice guy, with none of that defensiveness that we might expect from a cryptid researcher. The pictures in this post are from that event.

It’s hard for a blog post adequately to cover a scientific topic like this one. (And yes it is scientific: detailed analysis of footprint casts, human and primate gaits, fossils, local legends, and more.)  I’ll just try to summarize some of Meldrum’s main arguments, but obviously, if you want to delve deeper, you can buy the book yourself.

Many Casts of Prints

Bigfoot is often reported in places that are conducive to taking casts of footprints, such as a muddy forest floor at a logging site. Many casts have been taken of footprints in such places. Some are up to 17 inches long.  None of them match the stiff, narrow, 15-inch wooden fake feet supposedly used by Ray Wallace and his family to fake all(!) of the Bigfoot tracks in the Northwest. Some have a step length of 50 – 60 inches and a depth that indicates whatever made them weighed more than 800 pounds (Sasquatch chapter 2).  There is even an instance of a very large club foot (page 238), a few knuckle and hand prints (105 – 111), and a hilarious butt print where the sasquatach apparently sat in the mud, then leaned on its left forearm to reach for a fruit (111 – 115).

Large, deep tracks with a 65 – 70 inch stride have also been photographed in the sand on the Oregon coast, after a sighting the previous evening (190).

“Patty,” the Lady Bigfoot

The famous October 1967 Patterson film “was shot during the day, in full sunlight, out in the open on 16mm film.  Independent researchers examined the location immediately after the encounter, and footprint casts and countless measurements and photos were taken … and yet this film remains controversial, written off as an obvious hoax by many” (134 – 135).  

Not surprisingly, the star of the video, dubbed “Patty,” has had everything about her analyzed, from her gait, to her saggital crest, to the speed of the film, to the color of the soles of her feet. The book covers this in more detail over several chapters.  The upshot is that experts, when asked to view the Patterson film, tend to be very impressed at first, then panic, back off, and start thinking the film is a fake is because if it isn’t, they would have to “believe” in Bigfoot. One typical protest is that this film is suspect because it was shot by someone who was specifically looking for evidence of Bigfoot.  It’s hard to imagine, though, how we could get such a film from anyone else.

It’s also hard to imagine how the creature on the film could have been faked. Consider:

The Bigfoot in the Patterson film appears to have breasts, and as it walks, you can see its muscles moving underneath the hair.  An experienced Hollywood costume designer who has designed many ape costumes opined that it does not look like a man in a suit. He felt that instead of a suit it would have to have been a minimum ten-hour makeup job in which the hair was glued directly to the actor’s skin (158).  (The actor would then have to have been delivered to the film site and just as quickly spirited away, without leaving any vehicle tracks.) A computer graphics animator adds that “the boundaries of the human form do not even fit within the form of the creature” (176).  Six-foot men have tried to re-create “Patty’s” walk in the same spot, and have found it difficult to match her stride and impossible to make footprints as deep as the ones she made.

Native American Knowledge of Bigfoot

Many Native American tribes, all over the continent, have Bigfoot legends. This is particularly true in the Northwest, where you can see stylized carved stone heads, masks, and statues of the buk’wus (a Kwakiutl word), or his female counterpart, the dsonoqua. Their faces look ape-like and distinct from similar carvings of bears.  (In the picture below, some of the souvenirs are adapted versions of this native art.) The Northwestern tribes seem to have more zoological detail in their legends about Bigfoot and have testimonies of sightings right down to the present day. They also, of course, ascribe spiritual qualities to the creature, as they do to other animals.

The earrings, which do not look like Native art, are based on “Patty” from the Patterson film.

As we move farther East, Bigfoot becomes a more purely spirit-like figure.  This may imply that the creatures died in out first in the eastern part of the continent, where they are remembered only as a myth. 

On Painted Rock, in central California, there is a large (2.6 meter high) pictograph of Hairy Man with tears streaming from his eyes. According to the local creation story, Hairy Man is crying because people are afraid and run away from him. 

At any rate, these legends definitely pre-date Ray Wallace, who supposedly “created” Bigfoot all by himself. The descriptions of Bigfoot’s behavior in the Northwestern native traditional knowledge match well with what has been reported in sightings and surmised from the behavior of other great apes.

Great Ape Behavior

Much of the Bigfoot behavior that is sometimes reported in sightings has parallels in the intimidation behavior of other primates.  This includes grimacing, throwing things, banging wood on trees, pushing snags of dead branches at an intruder, hair bristling, emitting a pungent stink when agitated (male mountain gorillas do this), and vocalizing (chapters 9 and 10).  There are also behaviors that resemble that of other primates but are not intimidation behaviors, such as making sleeping nests from branches.  Of known primates, the one that Bigfoot most seems to resemble is Gigantopithecus (89 ff).

But Isn’t It Really Just a Bear?

A page from Meldrum’s “Sasquatch field guide,” showing differences between Bigfoot and bears

Bigfoot’s range, as determined by footprints and reported sightings, overlaps almost perfectly with the range of the bear.  To a believer, this means the two animals share a similar habitat: temperate forests and rainforests. To a skeptic, this means that all “Bigfoot” sightings are actually bears.

This was the subject of the lecture by Jeff Meldrum that I attended.  It is certainly true that photographs of black bears have been put forward as photographs of Bigfoot, only to be exposed later. Meldrum showed a series of bear photos which, at first glance, can look surprisingly humanoid, especially if the animal is skinny and is standing on its hind legs.  However, he went on to point out, telling the difference between a bear and a huge, bipedal ape “isn’t rocket science.”  Bears do not have a clavicle, so when standing, they don’t have protruding shoulders. Their legs are much shorter in proportion to their body. And, of course, there are the prominent round ears.  

Bear tracks don’t resemble Bigfoot tracks at all, except in cases of multiple, overlapping, unclear bear tracks.  A bear’s inside toe is its shortest, their feet are shorter and very narrow at the back, and they leave claw marks.  Their stride is, of course, very different, although when a bear is walking quickly its footprints can overlap, “giving an impression of elongated footprints spaced in a two-footed pattern.”

Skeptics have also raised the question of whether two large animals can fill the same niche. Bigfoot, if it exists, is probably a fructivore like the other large primates and like Gigantopithecus, whose jaw and teeth are designed for grinding, not for predation. Bears, while also ominivores, have a very different shaped set of chompers. So even if the two animals share a range, they would not be occupying exactly the same ecological niche.

(Fun near-fact: based on his estimate of how many Sasquatch compared to bears a given region of wilderness can support, Meldrum estimates there could be as many as 175 individual Bigfoot in the state of Idaho.)

Bigfoot Outside the Great Northwest

It turns out that, despite usually having much less wilderness than the Great Northwest, nearly every state in the Union has its own version of the Bigfoot legend. I’ll let you make up your mind about these on a case-by-case basis. In Ohio, until recently my home state, we have “the Grassman.”  Here is a Hubpages article about him.  If you follow the link and read the comments, you will no doubt see many personal testimonies about Grassman sightings.

Update: another WordPress blogger, The Traveling Maiden, had an experience while camping in the Great Northwest that may have been Bigfoot. Read about it here.

Maybe They Had a Tram

Today is Columbus Day, and also Native American Day. I know this because I have a wall calendar that was sent to me by St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. If it’s Native American Day, they ought to know.

So, thanks to them – and the kids who attend the school – for this post.

Since we are honoring Native Americans today, let’s return to a common theme on this blog: ancient people were a lot smarter than we think.

“An island grave site hints at far-flung ties among ancient Americans: Great Lakes and southeastern hunter-gatherers may have had direct contact 4,000 years ago”

Serpent Mound, Ohio

Body of the serpent seen from the viewing tower, looking North

Ohio’s serpent mound was first discovered by white people in about 1846.  It was difficult to survey or even to find due to being covered in trees and brush.  When the brush was partly cleared, it became obvious that the mound, perched on a cliff at the confluence of a creek (which cliff itself resembles the head of a serpent), was a really remarkable earthwork and was designed to be visible from the nearby valley.

The following article will draw on the book The Serpent Mound by E.O. Randall, published in 1905, which is a compilation of maps, surveys, and speculation about the mound by archaeologists of the time; and on my own visit to the mound. One advantage in using these older sources is that we get a variety of voices, we can learn what the Mound looked like when it was first (re)-discovered, and we get an archaeological perspective that is different from the modern one.  For example, one source in Randall’s book says the mound appears to be “not more than 1,000 years old, nor less than 350 years” (p.50).  This is not very precise, but I actually prefer it to a super-confident proclamation about the mound’s age based on dating methods and assumptions that might be suspect.  In fact, the uncertainty of this early source is echoed by the informational video in the mound’s museum.  It features an archaeologist saying that we could get “a million different carbon dates” from the mound because the earth was that used to build it was already old and had been through multiple forest fires, etc.  He adds that it’s basically impossible to carbon-date earthworks.

On the Road to Serpent Mound

Walking south along the serpent (viewing tower in background)

To get to Serpent Mound (at least from where we are), you get in your car and head south over the Ohio highways.  You leave behind the urban build-up and progress into farm country.  Eventually, the landscape becomes less Midwestern and more Appalachian. Hills and hollers take the place of open farmland.  Finally, after hopping from one rural route to another, you find yourself winding through thickly wooded hills in southern Ohio.  You approach the Mound from the South.  Though it stands on a bluff overlooking Brush Creek, the area is so heavily wooded that you can’t catch a glimpse of the Mound on your way in.

Large burial mound some ways south of the serpent

This land was purchased in 1885.  At that time, the land was owned by a farmer and the Mound was “in a very neglected and deplorable condition” (Randall 106).  To save the Mound from “inevitable destruction,” a Prof. F.W. Putnam arranged to have it bought by the Trustees of the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, where he was Chief of the Ethnological and Archaeological Department.  Putnam later worked to have a law protecting it passed in Ohio, the first law of its kind in the United States (Randall 108).  Today the Mound is a National Historical Landmark.  Besides the Serpent itself, the area includes some additional burial mounds, a picnic shelter, and a tiny, log-cabin-style museum.

You disembark in the parking lot.  The heat, the humidity, the strong sweetish green smells, and the variety of insect life remind you of your Appalachian childhood.  They also remind you why you are planning to move out West.

The Serpent Mound Itself

An old drawing of the serpent as it would look if there were no trees around it (Randall p. 8)

Serpent Mound is difficult to describe in words, so please see the associated maps and photographs.  It is 1335 feet long (winding over an area of about 500 feet), varies from three to six feet high, and slopes downward from the spiral tail to the jaws and egg which stand on the tip of the overlook.  The head faces West towards the sunset at Summer Solstice.   The body includes three bends which may sight towards the sunrises at Summer Solstice, Equinox, and Winter Solstice (short lines of sight and the gentle curves of the Serpent make it difficult to tell whether these alignments were intended for astronomical viewing).

Archaeologists have discovered the serpent once had a fourth coil near the head, which was deliberately dismantled.

It was made apparently by hand on a base of clay, followed by rocks, more clay, dirt, and then sod.  Though it cannot be carbon-dated, there is evidence that it is not as ancient as some megaliths elsewhere in the world.  The bluff it sits on and the creeks that surround it cannot be older than the retreat of the glaciers.   The burials near it date to the Adena period, which runs 600 B.C. to 100 A.D., though there is no way to tell if the burials are contemporaneous with the Serpent or were added later.  There has even been speculation that the Mound could have been built by the Fort Ancient culture, which flourished around 1000 A.D.

The “egg” which the Serpent contains in its jaws (or, the Serpent’s eye) used to have in its center a stone altar which bore traces of fire.  (In the largest burial, too, the corpse was placed on a bed of hot coals and then covered with clay while the coals were still smoldering.)   We assume, then, that the Serpent was the site of ceremonies, but we have no way of knowing anything about their nature.

A close up view of the oval “egg.” It once contained an altar.

The Serpent, despite its name, does not give a spooky or “wrong” feeling.  The scale of it is very human and does not overwhelm.  The shapes and proportions of the curves are pleasing and give a sense of calm and beauty.  The Serpent is, in fact, inviting to walk on.  One is tempted to walk along the curves, climb down into the oval of the egg, step into the middle of the spiral tail.  One cannot do this, of course, as it is strictly forbidden.

The only problem with Serpent aesthetically (if this is a problem) is that it’s impossible to view it all at once.  This is mostly because of the bend in the tail.  In modern times an understated observation tower has been placed next to the Serpent, right near the tailmost curve.  But even from the top of this tower it is impossible to take in the entire Serpent with either eye or cellphone camera.  Looking to the left, we get a view of the spiral tail.  Looking to the right, we see the undulations stretching off into the distance and falling away with the slope of the hill, but even then we cannot see the entire head because it takes its own slight curve and is blocked by trees. 

Approaching the tail spiral. In the background, the cliff drops away into a wooded vista.

I can’t help but think this effect is intentional.  This monument is not designed to be taken in all at once, looking along a line of sight, and to overwhelm the viewer.  Instead, it’s apparently designed to draw us on, tantalizingly offering small charming vista after small charming vista.  There is no one best place to view it.  Perhaps the architects among us can explain what this says about the minds and intentions of the people who designed it.

Fort Ancient, another hill-and-plateau complex in southern Ohio, is also sprawling, hard to view, and offers the same “please explore me” effect.

Fort Ancient is a plateau surrounded by man-made hills with gaps in them, overlooking the Little Miami River, Ohio. It has man-made mounds on it as well.

“Effigy Mounds” in North America

The Serpent is definitely not the only large animal-shaped mound in North America.  There are many of them, called by archaeologists “effigy mounds” (not the usual meaning of the term effigy). 

“The effigy mounds appear … in various parts of … the Mississippi Valley.  They are found in many of the southern states; many appear in Illinois, but Wisconsin seems to have been their peculiar field.  Hundreds of them were discovered in that state … In Wisconsin they represent innumerable animal forms: the moose, buffalo, bear, fox, deer, frog, eagle, hawk, panther, elephant, and various fishes, birds and even men and women.  In a few instances, a snake.  In Wisconsin the effigies were usually situated on high ridges along the rivers or on the elevated shores of the lake.  Very few effigy mounds have been found in Ohio – though it is by far the richest field in other forms of mounds.” (Randall 31) 

There are, of course, large animal-shaped terraforms in other parts of the world, such as the Uffington and Westbury White Horses in Britain and the Nazca Lines in Peru.

So Ohio’s serpent mound is not unique.  It is, however, impressive and well-done, and tends to strike people as mysterious and significant.

The Serpent Mound is a Giant Rorschach Blot

Map of the serpent found in the museum

Whatever else it might be, the Serpent Mound reliably functions as a giant Rorschach blot.  It appears significant but ambiguous.  Everyone who is not content to admit that we don’t know its purpose tends to bring their own interpretation.

Here are four examples.

One example, roundly mocked in Randall’s book, is the “amusing and ridiculous” “Garden of Eden fancy” (p. 93).  This theory, put forward by a Baptist minister of the day, is that the Mound was built by God Himself to commemorate the eating of the forbidden fruit and to warn mankind against the Serpent.  The oval object, which many people take to be an egg, is on this view the forbidden fruit itself, which the Serpent is taking in its jaws as if to eat or offer.  Furthermore, the three streams that come together nearby represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  “Pain and death are shown by the convolutions of the serpent, just as a living animal would portray pain and death’s agony … America is, in fact, the land in which Eden was located” (pp 99, 101). 

Now, here’s another interpretation, based on the accepted anthropology of the day: “Students of anthropology, ethnology and archaeology seem to agree that among the earliest of religious beliefs is that of animism or nature worship.  Next to this in the rising scale is animal worship and following it is sun worship.  Animism is the religion of the savage and wilder races, who are generally wanderers.  Animal worship is more peculiarly the religion of the sedentary tribes … Sun worship is the religion of the village tribes and is peculiar to the stage which borders upon the civilized.  ‘Now judging from the circumstances and signs,’ says Dr. Peet, ‘we should say that the emblematic mound builders were in a transition state between the conditions of savagery and barbarism and that they had reached the point where animal worship is very prevalent’” (pp. 37 – 38).

This theory of the slow development of man’s religion as they rise out of “savagery” into “barbarism” and finally into “civilization” is reported with much more respect than the Baptist pastor’s theory, but it is in fact just as fanciful.  It is based on an overly neat-and-tidy and, frankly, snobby view of the history of religion that was popular for many years but that actual history does not support.  But, again, Rorschach blot.

Many other observors have linked the Mound with its oval to the “egg and serpent” origin mythology that crops up in many places in the world, including Greece and India. This theory receives many pages in Randall’s book.

We got rained on while at Serpent Mound. Coincidence? I think not!

To take just one more out of many other examples, on this very blog we learned from a book review that Graham Hancock’s latest book prominently features the Serpent Mound as part of his latest theory that North America is, in fact, the source of the Atlantis legends.  He believes that the Mound is meant to represent the constellation Draco and was built during an era when Draco was ascendant.  Or something like that.

I, too, have taken the Serpent Mound Rorschach test and here is what I see.  I see more evidence that serpent mythology (with or without eggs) and the strong motivation to build large, long-lasting religious monuments are both universal in human culture.  I personally think that these things didn’t arise independently in every corner of the world but were carried distributively and that they represent distant memories of certain events in human history, which are hinted at but not fleshed out in the early chapters of Genesis. However, I am not fool enough to think that the existence of Serpent Mound “proves” any of this.  It is, as I said, a Rorschach blot.

Other Serpent Mounds Around the World

Otonabee Serpent Mound sits on the north shore of Rice Lake, not far from the city of Toronto, Ontario (Randall 114). It is 189 feet long. The head faces “a few degrees north of east,” with an oval burial mound in front of the head which could represent an egg (115). 

In Scotland, there is the stone serpent of Loch Nell:

“The mound is situated on a grassy plain.  The tail of the serpent rests near the shore of Loch Nell, and the mound gradually rises seventeen to twenty feet in height and is continued for 300 feet, ‘forming a double curve like the letter S’ … the head lies at the western end [and] forms a circular cairn, on which [in 1871] there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since wholly disappeared, thanks to the cattle and herd boys.  … The mound has been formed in such a position that worshippers, standing at the altar, would naturally look eastward, directly along the whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake to the triple peaks of Ben Chruachan. This position must have been carefully selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible.  General Forlong … says, ‘Here we have an earth-formed snake, emerging in the usual manner from dark water, at the base, as it were, of a triple cone – Scotland’s Mount Hermon, – just as we so frequently meet snakes and their shrines in the East.’” (Randall pp. 121 – 122)

Speaking of Mount Hermon.  This large, lone mountain sits at the northern end of the Golan Heights in Israel.  It is so high that it is home to a winter ski resort.  In ancient times, this region was called Bashan.  It was known for its large and vigorous animals (the “bulls of Bashan”), and for its humanoid giants.  Down to Hellenistic times, Bashan was a center for pagan worship (the Greek god Pan had a sacred site there).  And guess what else it has?  A serpent mound.

“The serpent mound of Bashan has ruins on its head and tail.  The ruins are square (altars?) on top of small circular mounds” (Van Dorn 144).  

The Ohio serpent’s spiral tail, which evokes a stone circle. Viewing tower in the background.

This serpent mound is less than mile from a stone circle called Gilgal Rephaim (“Wheel of the Giants”).  (Stone circles, as sacred sites, are also found throughout the world.)  “The Wheel contains some 42,000 tons of partly worked stone, built into a circle 156 meters in diameter and 8 feet high on the outer wall.  It is aligned to the summer solstice.  The area is littered with burial chambers … If you go due North of the Wheel, [sighting] through the serpentine mound [and proceed] for 28 miles, you will run straight into the summit of Mt. Hermon” (Van Dorn 145).

Serpent, altar, circle, and sacred mountain.  I don’t know about you, but the site in Golan sounds a lot scarier to me than Ohio’s Serpent Mound. However, it also makes me wonder whether people in Ohio – and Scotland – were trying to re-create this arrangement.

Sources

Giants: Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, Waters of Creation Publishing, Erie, Colorado, 2013.

The Serpent Mound: Adams County, Ohio: Mystery of the Mound and History of the Serpent: Various Theories of the Effigy Mounds and the Mound Builders, by E.O. Randall (L.L., M., Secretary Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society; Reporter Ohio Supreme Court), Coachwhip Publications, Greenville Ohio, 2013.  First published 1905.  This book is a compilation: “The effort has been made not merely to give a description, indeed several descriptions, of Serpent Mound, but also to set forth a summary of the literature concerning the worship of the serpent. … It is hoped that this volume, while it may not solve the problem of the origin and purpose of the Serpent Mound, will at least add to its interest and give the reader such information as it is possible to obtain.” (page 5)

A Quirky, Personal, Annotated Reading List about Native Americans

Do You Get “Culture Crushes”?

I admit it: I get “culture crushes.”

My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture.  This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five.  By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover.  That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it. 

Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and then later, as an adult. 

This is an incomplete list on two counts.  First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read.  Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic.  I can think of at least six seven eight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down. 

As A Kid

  • North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977.  This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me.  It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book.  For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated.  The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes.  It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs.  What could be more fun?
  • Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book.  It featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.”  It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes.  He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own.  He has to climb over a rock slide.  At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan.  It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown.  But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty. 
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963.  This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave.  This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander.  It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians.  Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians.  He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek.  He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family.  He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree. 
  • Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one.  The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room.  The bed is too soft and uncomfortable.  Finally he sleeps on the floor.
  • The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.  An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him.  The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees.   The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read.  The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.  
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  I don’t remember this one very well, but I think my second-grade teacher read it aloud to us. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island.
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better.  This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
  • Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life.  When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own.  This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category.  I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company.  It rises to the level of literature.  Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia.  My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong.  He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying.  He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.

As An Adult

  • The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards.  His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”  — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009. Update: Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, is now continuing the Leaphorn and Chee series. I just finished Cave of Bones (2018) by her. It’s really good. Chee has married a fellow Navajo police officer, and Leaphorn is living with a white woman since his wife died of cancer earlier in the series. Anne Hillerman incorporates even more Navajo terms into the books than her father did, and the greeting (Ya’at’eeh) is now spelled with even more diacritic marks.
  • The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988.   Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor.  He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
  • Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006.  Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia.  After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.”   In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture.  This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
  • Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.  Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe.  At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness.  He did not share this vision with anyone for several years.  He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs. 
  • Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
  • Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.

Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult

I also love Little Runner’s mom.
  • Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962.  Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
  • Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012.  This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one.  It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.”  Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders.  “I will make it snow!  A-zi-ka-na-po!”
  • A Salmon for Simon by Betty Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario.  Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon.  When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it. 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Genetic Evidence

Genetic evidence about ancient populations is cool. Sometimes it tells you things that are fairly intuitive, like that the early Native Americans peopled the continent very quickly, and that at some point they got a visit from some Pacific populations.

The Extremely Fast Peopling of the Americas

Were There Two Routes into North America?

At other times, genetic evidence (or the way it is interpreted) tells us some things that make sense and others that don’t. Take this article for example:

Traces of Mystery Ancient Humans Found Lurking in Our Genomes

On the one hand, the genetic evidence presented here is said to indicate that there was once a lot more genetic diversity among humans than there is now. That makes a ton of sense, especially if you believe in a bottleneck such as the Flood.

On the other hand, this article also asks us to believe that these distinct human populations stayed away from each other for up to 700,000 years (!) and then met up again and interbred. That is really hard to swallow. How in the world did they manage not to bump into each other for that long? The world isn’t that big, is it?

One of the human (or “vaguely human-like,” as the article so flatteringly puts it) populations mentioned in the article above is the Denisovians, apparently a very hearty Central Asia population that was well adapted to high altitudes. For those who believe historical evidence that giants once walked the earth, the following article might be suggestive:

‘Spectacular’ Jawbone Discovery Sheds Light on Ancient Denisovians

But, back to my ambivalent relationship with genetic evidence. Every once in a while, your world gets rocked by a “fun fact” like this one:

We share 50% of our genes with bananas.”

The “fun fact” has now become a “confusing fact.” Waitaminit! If that is true … then genetic analysis tells us basically nothing about the nature of a thing … then all of this is … worthless?

No, not really. It has helped me to remember that genes are not words or sentences, they are libraries. It is easy to imagine two vast libraries which have a 50% overlap (encyclopedias, dictionaries, and the like) but diverge wildly in the other 50% (one is all philosophy and ancient history; the other is all Dave Barry). That helps. Some. But it’s also a reminder that even the experts have “read” only a few volumes from any given library.

Sometimes genetic evidence tells a different story than that told by archaeology (with its many assumptions) or linguistics.

Divided by DNA: The Uneasy Relationship Between Archaeology and Ancient Genomes

I am not the only one troubled by this.

I guess it’s just one more reminder of just how much we don’t know.