The Story Catcher
The Story Catcher
by Mari Sandoz
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the Great Plains during the 1840s: published in 1963.
After many adventures, a young Oglala Sioux boy finally comes of age, gaining the wisdom and insight necessary to be the tribal historian
Mari Sandoz was born to a Swiss German-speaking family on a homestead in northwestern Nebraska in 1896. As a child, she was exposed to the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes, who lived on neighboring reservations and often pitched their tepees near her house when visiting the area. She later became a scholar of the Great Plains, researching and writing about American Indian history in that area, especially on the turbulent events of the nineteenth century.
Plains Indians during the 1840s
The Story Catcher takes place on the High Plains north and west of the Bighorn Mountains, which cross from present-day Montana into Wyoming. Although many American Indians considered the encroaching settlement of whites a threat by this time, the most serious of the battles against the U.S. military had not yet taken place. There was, however, another threat brought by whites during this period—the smallpox epidemic that struck in 1837. Some tribes lost as many as 80 percent of their population to this devastating illness. The main character of the novel, Lance, has his important dream while sick with smallpox.
Every child in traditional Sioux society had a second mother and father. Lance’s blood mother plays a relatively small role in the book, and he instead turns to his second mother, Feather Woman, during the many trials that he experiences as he grows into adulthood. Often the second parents were friends or relatives of the blood parents. Ideally, the second father was an excellent warrior, hunter, or healer, while his wife, the second mother, was warm-hearted, loving, and able to take over much of the child’s care.
The Sioux believed that by having two sets of parents a person avoided familial conflicts. A mother, for example, would not become overly attached to her sons and incur the jealousy of the father, nor would she feel pangs of resentment against her daughters as they matured. After the age of seven, Sioux boys were not allowed to directly speak to their mother or sisters but could only send messages through a third party. The second mother, however, was free to demonstrate affection directly to the boy, and he generally felt freer in her presence. He could talk and laugh more easily than in his blood home, where such actions were considered improper.
During this period, the Sioux believed that if their young women were not virtuous, the
buffalo would disappear. Thus, the very well-being of the tribe hinged on the behavior of the girls. Sioux maidens lived under the guardianship of the old woman of their lodge, who usually accompanied them wherever they went in order to ensure proper conduct.
Courting was a formal process. Initially, a suitor might tie a “courting horse” outside his sweetheart’s lodge. If the girl’s family favored the young man, they led the horse away and added it to the family herd. This sign of approval, however, was only the beginning. Once the family accepted the courting horse, the youth found an elderly person to act as a go-between. This go-between would communicate with the family to discover what was further required of the suitor in order for him to marry his love. Some men worked for years to prove themselves. In The Story Catcher, Lance ties his mare in a suitor’s offering only at the very end of the book, after he has already won many honors:
In the first morning light he looked out, afraid that the mare would still be tied there, rejected, left for him to lead away. But she was gone, taken to the family herd, and he was publicly accepted as a suitor. Now he had the right to present his formal wooing, try to persuade the girl and her family that he would make an acceptable husband. This might take years, as it sometimes did, but in his gratitude Lance turned his eyes to the sky, the earth and the four directions—to the Powers in which all things are brothers.
(Sandoz, The Story Catcher, p. 174)
Art was an integral part of Sioux life, serving as both a means of adornment and a method for communicating and recording history. Picture-writing was “utilized for messages ranging from love letters to directions to new camp sites to warnings to those who might venture into an unsafe area” (Szabo, p. 7). Anybody was allowed to draw, and throughout the story, Young Lance draws pictures of events. His depictions serve either as remembrances for himself or as signals to others. To draw them, Lance sometimes uses blood, charcoal, or the colorsticks someone had given him. Sioux artists often worked with red, blue, green, yellow, black, and white clay powders.
Despite the fact that anybody could draw pictures, only the official historian recorded the tribal history for everyone. The Oglala Sioux preserved much of their history through art, so the tribal historian filled an essential role in their nation. In the eyes of the Oglala, tribal historians were as important as medicine men and great warriors. Each band had only one historian and this historian chose his successor. It was a very difficult position to attain, as Lance discovers when he tells Paint Maker of his secret desire. Paint Maker replies, “This is not for one who was not given the dreaming and the wisdom.” When Lance protests that he indeed had the dreaming, Paint Maker asks, “That may be the dreaming, but the wisdom?” (The Story Catcher, p. 156).
Tribal historians needed two vital skills. First, they required the ability to observe events objectively, even if they had participated in their occurrence. They had to be able to look closely at what happened and include exact detail, since tribal historians would say, “The picture is the rope that ties memory solidly to the stake of truth” (Blish, p. xxi). Secondly, the historian needed the ability to render the picture both comprehensible and meaningful, to “grasp the action and the meaning, with something beyond the factual content, something broader, more, as the Sioux liked to say, of the sky and the great directions, a meaning more elevated, more profound” (Blish, p. xxi). The pictures recorded hunts, moves, ceremonial rites, and natural disasters, among other events. Including individual participants, the pictures made people distinguishable—by their depicting them in their regalia, for example. Formal histories had to be approved by band leaders and uncontested by anyone involved in the recorded event.
The Story Catcher depicts the adventures and development of a young Oglala Indian named Young Lance who draws pictures of various events in his life throughout the novel. The plot opens as Lance, hovering near a recent battle site, discovers an Arikara (“Ree”) Indian child hidden terrified in the bushes. Lance captures the lost and starving child and decides to take the “little Ree” back to his village and raise him as a Sioux. When Lance returns, however, village members are angry at him for endangering them. They remind him that he is forever responsible for the little Ree’s actions, and that their Ree enemies will probably attack the Sioux upon discovering that the youth is alive.
Many people ostracize Lance for his foolish act. The next day, some leave to hunt buffalo but do not invite him along since he might bring bad luck. Despondent, Lance spots an eagle flying overhead. He leaves the camp, climbs to the eagle’s nest, and captures the bird with his bare hands. This news spreads quickly throughout the village. Everyone comes to see the bird, and Lance gains some respect since, “It was a solemn thing that this Young Lance who was not permitted to go with the hunt today should take an eagle in the old pit, without a vision, a medicine guidance, a leader, or anyone to tell him how it was done” (The Story Catcher, p. 27).
Lance has other adventures: he participates in buffalo hunts and even serves as a war scout. Not yet considered adults, Lance and his friends seek to gain status by capturing enemy horses. Against tribal wishes, the three young boys steal out of the village and travel for five days into enemy territory. All they find, however, are wellguarded enemy camps that are too strong to attack. As they turn back, their Ree enemies discover and pursue them. One arrow strikes Lance in the knee and he hides in a big hole left by a dead tree. Undiscovered, he lays thirsty and feverish for days. Lance spends the entire winter in the hole as his wound slowly heals; occasionally he draws pictures using skin, charcoal, and blood to depict his predicament. “On an antelope skin were pictures telling the winter’s story, drawn in charcoal and blood paint.... They told of the events beginning with the wounding, pictured in the center” (The Story Catcher, p. 72).
THE SUN DANCE
A sacred ceremony, the Sun Dance was performed by male volunteers who sought spiritual help to cure a relative’s illness, for example, or to solve an ongoing problem like the one the novel chronicles when Lance’s brother disappears in a flood. Sacrifice, the dancers believed, would right disharmony in the world and bring favor from the spirits. The Sun Dance, geared around this concept, included torturing the dancers. Their chests and backs were pierced with wooden skewers, which had leather ropes attached to them. Another part of the ropes would be fastened to the top of a Sun Lodge, and the dancers would dangle in the air until the skewers broke their flesh free and the ritual ended.
When Lance finally goes home, his village celebrates his return from the dead. His knee is still lame, and he cannot easily participate in the dancing and hunting. Because of his handicap, he grows shy, especially around the beautiful Blue Dawn, a childhood friend who has become quite womanly.
Lance continues to mature and witnesses many happenings, which he draws on skins. In one instance, his adopted brother, the little Ree, is captured by Crow Indians. Since little Ree is Lance’s responsibility, Lance sets out after him alone, leaving only a small picture of what has happened as a message to others. After capturing Lance, the Crows take him to the little Ree, who cries, “My brother has come!” (The Story Catcher, p. 103). Lance and the little Ree manage to escape when the Crow settlement is swept away in a flood. In the ensuing panic, Lance cannot find his adopted brother. He vows to dance in the Sun Dance if his brother escapes. Eventually Lance discovers the little Ree alive in a washed-out patch of earth.
Lance’s spiritual advisor deems that Lance is not yet old enough to fulfill such a solemn vow. Disappointed, Lance continues to draw and participate in tribal activities such as the annual great council, a meeting of over twenty thousand Indians. At one point he catches smallpox, and dreams of red, blue, yellow, and green figures, no bigger than his fingers, which float down to him. Lance later interprets this dream as a call to become the tribal historian. He also begins to pursue Blue Dawn more earnestly, and on one occasion even tries to convince her to come away with him without following the proper courting procedures.
Lance eventually approaches Paint Maker, the old tribal historian, explaining to the old man how he saw and drew events. When Paint Maker points out that anybody is allowed to draw pictures, Lance replies that he wants to make pictures for the tribe. Paint Maker notes:
A recorder of what has been done is equal to the greatest hunter, the bravest warrior, or even the holy man. To be such a historian, such a recorder, you must learn to see all things, to know how they look, and how they are done.
(The Story Catcher, p. 157)
Paint Maker initially rejects Lance’s drawings. Lance reacts by participating bravely in a battle against the Pawnees, and learning to record the horrors of battle with an objective and keen eye. When his Ree enemies enter the village and offer gifts in exchange for his adopted brother, he wisely allows the little Ree to make his own decision. Lance also overcomes his shyness and offers Blue Dawn a courting horse captured in battle. Eventually both his own father and Paint Maker acknowledge Lance’s abilities and maturation and accept Lance as the next tribal historian. Together they sing his song of praise: “Now he will be the picture maker of the deeds of the people; /Now he will no longer be called Lance; /Now he is the Story Catcher” (The Story Catcher, p. 175).
Individual vs. tribe
Lance often acts according to his personal desires, sometimes imperiling the village. He steals away from a scout camp, for example, placing the entire party in danger. Additionally, instead of killing the little enemy Ree at the battle site, Lance feels for the child and takes him into captivity. Many tribal members, however, do not agree with Lance’s decision. In fact, they are angry because Lance’s action might prompt the Rees to attack if they find out the child is living in the village. Lance’s decision is potentially dangerous to the whole community.
In nineteenth-century Sioux society, the welfare of the community was more important than individual desires. Even infants were not allowed to endanger the village. When newborns began to cry, their mothers would gently pinch the babies’ noses and close their mouths. The mothers would interrupt their hold to let the baby breathe, then close off the air again if the baby continued to make noise. As Sandoz notes:
During the newborn minutes, that newborn hour, Indian children, boy and girl, were taught the first and greatest lesson of their lives: that no one could be permitted to endanger the people by even one cry to guide a roving enemy to the village or to spoil a hunt.
(Sandoz, These Were the Sioux, p. 24)
Throughout the story, Lance struggles with his personal desires on one hand and his tribal obligations on the other. Village elders forbade the boys to steal enemy horses because if the boys are killed, others will be obligated to avenge their deaths, bringing trouble and discord to the community. Yet Lance and his friends attempt to steal horses anyway, in order to gain personal status. Lance also acts on his sexual desire, urging Blue Dawn to come away with him. According to Sioux belief, the buffalo would not come if the young women did not remain virtuous, and so Lance’s desires again imperil the tribe. Luckily, Blue Dawn refuses, and the next day Lance regrets his action.
He wanted to offer his handsome mule to the girl as a gift of apology, an apology for his impulsiveness of last night. His face burned at the thought of the humiliation he would have brought upon her, her parents, and her grandfather... upon his own people too, particularly Good Axe, the honored bearer of the holy lance, and his mother and his sisters.
The Story Catcher, p. 155)
According to Helen Stauffer, who has written extensively on Mari Sandoz, the events and characters found in The Story Catcher stem from a variety of sources, including Sandoz’s earlier writings. The capture of the eagle, for example, derives from an earlier story called “The Birdman,” while other events and characters can be traced back to legend, literature, and history. Stauffer writes, “The influence of Black Elk Speaks (also covered in Literature and Its Times) can be seen in details of the young boys’ training and games, such as burning sunflower seeds on the wrist, stealing dried meat from racks, or the Throwing-Them-off-Their-Horses contests” (Stauffer, p. 245).
Sandoz drew extensively from purely historical events as well. Lance’s winter survival story, for example, appears to be based on an actual happening. Also Sandoz was intimately familiar with the life of Amos Bad Heart Bull, a famous Oglala historian: The Story Catcher is dedicated to him. Amos Bad Heart Bull had another name, Eagle Lance, possibly the inspiration for the protagonist’s name.
Mari Sandoz and the American Indian civil rights movement
Throughout her life, Mari Sandoz took an active interest in the political affairs of American Indians. For example, she fought the 1953 Eisenhower Administration policy of termination, which sought to eliminate reservations as political organizations. As a part of this effort, the federal government encouraged American Indians to assimilate into white society by paying them small sums of money to relocate to cities. That same year, without the consent of native tribes, the government passed Public Law 280, which extended state controls over offenses committed by or against Indians on reservations.
Sandoz wrote to cabinet members and congressmen, including Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. She argued that many American Indians still did not have basic civil rights. In 1961 the federal government agreed with her, its United States Commission on Civil Rights concluding that for the vast majority of American Indians living in the United States, “poverty and deprivation are common. Social acceptance is not the rule. In addition, Indians seem to suffer more than occasional mistreatment by the instruments of law and order on and off the reservations” (Nash, p. 929). In fact, Indians faced obstacles similar to African Americans and other minorities during that era.
In the end, the black civil rights movement affected federal direction. The policy of termination was abandoned in 1961, and instead the government pursued “self-determination” for the American Indians, a concept embracing tribal restoration, self-government, cultural renewal, and self-sufficiency. This approach, along with the Civil Rights Act, desegregation efforts, and the growing youth movement, furthered American Indian political awareness and cultural pride, especially among younger generations. The sitins of the early 1960s, for example, inspired fishins beginning in 1964 among West Coast American Indians who claimed ancestral fishing rights.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964
Passed after almost a decade of direct action (sit-ins, demonstrations, and other forms of protest), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in places of public accommodation and gave the U.S. Justice Department more authority in schools and elections to ensure fair treatment of minorities in both. The act also prohibited discrimination in hiring workers in businesses, and the benefits of the legislation affected all minorities, including American Indians.
Advocate and youth groups were also organized during the 1950s and 1960s. The American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961, for example, outlined a program for Indian affairs that addressed health, welfare, education, and economic issues. Interested individuals sponsored Pan-Indian organizations, which began to lobby Congress, and American Indian groups increasingly sought grant money from the government to achieve their purposes.
American Indian art in the 1950s and 1960s
Conceptions of self-determination infused American Indian art as well. During the 1930s and 1940s, American Indian art grew in popularity, and artists sometimes found white patrons who encouraged their pursuits. Sandoz herself served on the board for the American Indian Society for Creative Artists and sent money to the Northern Cheyenne reservation for the Little Finger Nail Art Award. Often, however, patrons such as the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, advanced a particular style, encouraging romantic, nostalgic paintings depicting buffalo hunts and costumed warriors. Indian painting from these schools of the 1930s and 1940s used techniques that rendered their subjects two dimensionally. Artists portrayed specific events and emphasized detail in ceremonial and warrior costumes.
During the late 1950s, however, new artists challenged the boundaries of these old styles. Oscar Howe, a Sioux artist, as well as other American Indians began portraying emotion and drama in their paintings, and generalizing the subject matter in order to convey spiritual and mystical impressions. Howe, for example, often alluded to ceremonies and customs in his paintings but did not literally illustrate them. In 1958, when the Philbrook Museum rejected Howe’s work as “nontraditional,” he protested. His protest led to a broader definition of traditional Indian art and the eventual acceptance of new subject matter and styles that included cubism and realism.
American Indian arts developed further in the early 1960s, when the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native American Culture and Arts was founded in 1962 on the recommendation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Designed to help develop artistically talented youths, the Institute served to promote the advancement and appreciation of American Indian culture through the arts. The Institute emphasized a contemporary approach to native art, incorporating American and European styles, as well as the inclusion of social issues such as political activism.
Mari Sandoz’s The Story Catcher was well received. Published in 1963, it won the Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award that year and the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best juvenile literature in 1964. A review in the Chicago Tribune (November 10,1963) praised the novel for showing deep knowledge and understanding of the Plains Indians, and for having rhythmic prose that was beautifully suited to the epic quality of the tale.
Blish, Helen. A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Nash, Gary. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. Vol 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Sandoz, Mari. These Were the Sioux. New York: Hastings House, 1961.
Sandoz, Mari. The Story Catcher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
Stauffer, Helen. Mari Sandoz: Storyteller of the Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Szabo, Joyce. Howling Wolf and the History of Ledger Art. Albuquerque: New Mexico Press, 1994.