Captured by Candid Camera in a Rebirth of Interest in Indians, Non-Indians Go beyond Simple Sympathies to Chronicle the Plight of Native Americans in Fact and Fiction

By Frank Waters. Frank Waters, who is of native American ancestry, has written 22 books, many of them on Indian life and religion. He has been nominated five times since 1985. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 1991 | Go to article overview

Captured by Candid Camera in a Rebirth of Interest in Indians, Non-Indians Go beyond Simple Sympathies to Chronicle the Plight of Native Americans in Fact and Fiction


Frank Waters. Frank Waters, who is of native American ancestry, has written 22 books, many of them on Indian life and religion. He has been nominated five times since 1985., The Christian Science Monitor


SHADOW CATCHER. By Charles Fergus, Soho Press, 308 pp., $19.95

THIS is a sometimes confusing but always fascinating novel. It is confusing at first because you don't know whether it's fact or fiction, and the facts seem stranger than fiction.

The novel's factual base is a groundbreaking ceremony on Feb. 22, 1913, with President William Howard Taft wielding the shovel, for a huge museum and statue memorial to be built at the tip of Staten Island to honor the vanishing Indian. Members of 11 Indian tribes sign a Declaration of Allegiance to the government that is hastening their demise, while the band plays the national anthem, and newly minted Indian-head buffalo nickels are handed out.

The factual vehicle that carries the novel along is the Rodman Wanamaker Expedition to the North American Indian - a private railroad car taken to 90 tribes on more than 60 reservations. Its purpose is to persuade the tribes that have not yet vanished to pledge their allegiance and to collect photographs and artifacts for the planned memorial in the New York harbor.

What an array of characters the Pullman car carries! Dr. Joseph Dixon, disgraced former Baptist minister, now educational director for the Wanamaker department stores, an accomplished orator and slick con man, is an actual historical character.

The hefty photographer, Benny Booth, a bully, is fictitious. The portraits he takes are of Indians carefully posed, with expressionless faces.

The Washington Dispatch newspaper, however, shows another kind of photo, unposed and untouched: A picture of a small Indian boy with a bloated belly standing in front of a shack with a splintered door. A landscape of another village, a shanty town standing among piles of cans and garbage. No captions, no credit lines. Nothing to indicate where they were taken; such scenes were common throughout the country.

The commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington and Rodman Wanamaker in New York are furious. Who is taking these damning shots?

James McLaughlin doesn't know. At 71, he is the oldest member of the Expedition, a loyal, brainwashed agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He commanded the tribal police who killed the revered Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1890. Something about this preys on his mind. Mclaughlin, who is based on an actual person, had five children. He adopted Emma Crow King, the daughter of one of Sitting Bull's chiefs. In the novel, she is depicted as Annie Owns the Fire, a fictional character, who is dismissed as a teacher for describing to her young pupils the sacred Sun Dance prohibited by the Indian Bureau.

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