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the seminar

The next morning before the scheduled meeting of the Young History students began, Eddie Fastwolf approached Scott with a personal problem. “I wonder if you can help me Scott,” he asked with a touch of panic in his voice. “My professor has asked me to prepare a report on Native American culture. That’s fine with me. That’s what I want to do. But in all the books and articles I’ve read on the subject, I find only words—just written descriptions and maybe a few sketches.

“There’s nothing emotional, nothing visual in the books,” he explained. “I’m from the TV and internet era, Scott. I need something more authentic. I need to actually see Native American culture in order to understand it and to write about it. So, I’m hoping that there may be a film or two your archive—any moving images—that might be useful for my project.”

To Eddie’s great relief, Scott assured his colleague that he could be of assistance. “I’ve found a few titles that may work for you,” he replied “but I haven’t had a chance to watch all of them.

“But, what a fantastic topic,” Scott continued. “I’ve always been fascinated with Indians and their history and culture. When I organize the movies at the museum, I always look for films that deal with Native Americans.

“I’ll bet that being a Native American gives you an advantage on a topic like this,” Scott added. “You would be much better at that assignment than I,” he added.

Eddie was quick to deny that assumption. “Are you kidding? I don’t know a thing about Native American culture. My parents may be full-blood Sioux,” he said, “but I can’t speak a word of the language. And I sure don’t know how to hunt buffaloes with a bow and arrow.”

“Hey, come on, Eddie,” Scott said in defense of his comments, “I’m not dealing in stereotypes. I just thought that being an Indian investigating Native American history as a Young Scholar, you’d have an edge. You know what I mean, Eddie. I mean that your ancestry could make you more sensitive and insightful than the average guy.”

“Nah, no offense taken. I guess I’m a little panicked because the professor wants a detailed paper in just a few days,” explained Eddie. “To be specific, he wants me to write a report on Native American sign language. If can’t even communicate in a spoken Indian language, I sure can’t converse in sign language.

“Here, let me show you the question he wrote for me to research,” Eddie said. With that, he took a sheet of paper from his notebook, and passed it to Scott. The assignment was fairly straightforward:

Before the arrival of the first European settlers in the New World, Native American tribes developed an extensive sign language that allowed for intertribal communication. When Lakota speakers encountered Cheyennes, for example, they “spoke” through hand gestures. When Arapahoes met Apaches or Kiowa or Blackfeet or Osage Indians, the same hand gestures made communication possible. Write a research paper on the history of this sign language.

“Man, you’re really lucky,” Scott reassured his friend. “Just yesterday I ran across a short film called Injun Talk. With such a politically-incorrect title, I had to look it. Well, was I wrong. It’s an excellent movie. It’s all about the culture of various Indian tribes of the Great Plains and the sign language they used to speak to each other. It may be exactly what you need.

“Until I watched the film, I never realized that Native Americans spoke so many different languages. They’re as different, I guess, as Italian and Arabic and Chinese. But Indians from various tribes were able to exchange information by making signs with their hands and bodies, signs that were understood across language boundaries.”

Eddie grew increasingly intrigued as he listened to Scott’s description of Injun Talk. “Sounds pretty good. It may be exactly what I am looking for,” he said. “But I don’t want that Indian baby talk junk you hear in old Hollywood Westerns. You know, like ‘How. Him heap big chief. No wantum you leave.’ I want real communication—adult communication.

“I really wish I could say my grandfather taught me ‘the old Indian ways,’” lamented Eddie. “It sounds so fabulous to say that: ‘My granddad taught me the old Sioux ways.’ But that’s not me. One grandfather died in the Korean War long before I was born. The other one lives more than a thousand miles from here. And I never see him.

“Everything is against me. I live in a suburban town upstate and attend a public high school. My parents are professional people: my mother teaches fourth grade, and my dad owns a small bakery,” Eddie noted. “I consider myself a small-n native American: born and bred in the United States, a native of America, no less and no more. But I want to know much more about the history of Indians. That’s why I was so happy about studying the subject during this summer program.”

When the morning meeting ended, Scott and Eddie walked to the museum. Because Scott had already entered the title in the museum’s database, he had no difficulty locating Injun Talk among the stacks of movies that filled his workspace. “Come here, Eddie,” he said as he gestured his colleague toward a motion picture projector. “I’ll run the film for you. It should provide some information and insights that written words can’t.

“Mind if I watch it again with you?” Scott asked.

“No, not at all. And thanks for helping me out of a jam,” Eddie replied. “I’m going to take notes on it. Maybe you and I can exchange ideas about the film when it’s finished.”

Before he lowered the lights and turned on the projector, Scott had one piece of information to add. “It says on the film can that this movie comes from about 1946, and stars Colonel Tim McCoy, a popular star of B Westerns in the 1930s and 1940s,” he informed Eddie. “I don’t have any popcorn or soda pop to offer you, but let’s watch the movie and see if it’s helpful to you.”

After a short opening in which a narrator explored the history and culture of the Blackfeet and Blood Indians, Col. McCoy rode into the picture and began his explanation of sign language. By that time Eddie was captivated by what he was seeing.

Despite the quirky title, Eddie quickly realized that this was a serious and informative film about an aspect of Native American culture that was little practiced in modern life. “This Tim McCoy is more than a movie actor,” said Eddie. “He seems totally comfortable among the real Indians. He also knows what he talking about. He uses sign language as well as the chiefs.”

“I think you’re right,” Scott agreed. “You should look him up later online and read about his background. He doesn’t seem to be reading a script. I think he really knows Native American sign language.”

One aspect of sign language that struck both young men was the relationship of the signs to wild animals and natural occurrences. “Just watch how the hand and finger gestures create patterns in the air,” said Eddie. “To me, they’re like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Only instead of appearing on the walls of pyramids, these are manual hieroglyphics that appear before your eyes and then quickly vanish—they’re sky hieroglyphics.”

“Good point,” added Scott. “Written languages may last forever, but sign language is fleeting and unrecorded.”

“It also seems to lack grammar and rules about proper sentence structure,” added Eddie with a smile. “Still, it communicated for centuries.”

By the time the movie ended, both Young History students were in agreement: Tim McCoy was for real. “He knew his stuff,” said Eddie. “I know I’ve learned a lot from him. Look, five pages of notes! This will really help my research paper.

“I even remember a few of the gestures,” he added as he demonstrated the signs for winter, spring, and far away.

“But I have a sign for you,” said Scott. He then held up two fingers and explained, “Two. This is sign language for saying I have two more films to show you—if you have the time.”

“Sounds good to me. All ideas are welcome. And I should add, all ideas are needed,” Eddie answered light-heartedly.

“They’re short movies,” Scott said. “I watched one of them yesterday, and I learned from it. The other one has an intriguing title that sounds appropriate to your research. I think they’ll widen your perspective.”

“What are the films?” Eddie inquired.

“The first one is called Fallen Eagle. I saw it yesterday,” Scott remarked. “It’s from 1952, and it’s all about the Sioux Indians and their culture. Oh, and this will grab you. It’s one of a series of short movies about Indians put out by a cigarette company to honor Native Americans for giving tobacco to the white man.”

“Man, that’s a stupid motive,” said Eddie, “but I still want to see the film. The Sioux are my people. But I hope they’re not pictured standing around smoking cigarettes.”

Scott chuckled a little. “No, they’re not. Don’t worry,” he assured his friend. “Let’s watch it.”

Eddie Fastwolf was not very talkative as the movie rolled through the projector. It was as if for the first time he was meeting his ancestors at work and play in their native environment. He took lots of notes as he followed the action, his eyes alternating between his notebook and the screen.

Henry knew not to interrupt Eddie’s experience, although both students laughed out loud when the announcer explained that the Sioux maidens were considered to be among the most beautiful women among the Indians of the Plains. Eddie confirmed the narrator’s claim. “I knew that much about Native Americans. My dad says that all the time about my mom. He jokes that that’s why he married her.”

When the film ended, Eddie expressed his appreciation. “Thanks a lot, man. I really enjoyed that movie, too. It filled in a lot of blanks in my assignment, and in my personal life,” he said. “However, I don’t agree with all that optimism at the end. Fallen Eagle appeared more than fifty years ago, and there’s still too many Native Americans living hopelessly in poverty.”

“Amen. No argument here,” replied Scott.

“O.K., let’s see if this last movie helps you,” Scott remarked as he prepared the third film. “I haven’t seen this one yet, so we’ll both be watching it for the first time. It’s from 1949, and it’s called An Indian Bible. And according to a written description here in the film can, it’s not about Plains Indians. It’s about Pima Indians who live in the desert in Arizona.

The two students soon understood that this short movie was not even about Christianity. The Pima Bible referred to the Indian hieroglyphs painted on the rocks in a sacred canyon in the desert.

When the film ended Eddie was excited. “What a coincidence, we were just talking about hieroglyphics. But I never knew there could be so much importance in Indian rock carvings,” he commented. “Those carvings are centuries, but they still tell their stories. They almost speak out loud about tribal history, religion, even the ecology of the desert.”

“I think there also may be a relationship between the carvings and the sign language we saw in the first film,” Scott suggested.

“You’re right,” agreed Eddie. “There does seem to be a parallel between rock carvings and sign language. Both are forms of communication that use symbols instead of actual words. The carvings are almost like frozen graphic images of the hand gestures used in Indian sign language. These are preliterate methods of communication, but they were effective. I think I’ll develop that point in my report.

”Thank you so much. These movies were wonderful,” said Eddie. “I was really lost until this personal seminar. The films helped me a lot.

“It’s amazing how much information you can get from viewing old movies,” he added. “I’m really glad you found them. Please let me know if you uncover any others you think may be appropriate for my project.”

“I’m happy to be of service,” replied Scott. “And you have just validated one of my main arguments: that something has to be done to preserve old films. They’re photographs of the way were. They’re our history. They’re all about us. And by ‘us,’ I don’t mean just people in the United States. All over the world people need to save the record of their past that exists in movies.

“Come on, I’ll show you out,” Scott said to his friend. As he walked with Eddie up the stairs and toward the front door, the King of All History felt a lot more confident about this command of history. He realized that he didn’t know everything, and he understood that memorizing dates was not what real historians do.

But just being able to select the proper documents for Eddie to analyze gave Scott a feeling of maturity and accomplishment. He had guided his friend’s thinking, but without forcing his own conclusions on Eddie. Scott was amazed at himself: he was a teacher.

The young men said their farewells, and Scott returned to his subterranean room. “Mr. Tennyson, would you please come into my office,” said Professor Sargon, “I have something urgent to discuss with you.” The museum director had just walked out of a meeting room and seemed pleased to have run into Scott.

Scott followed her to the director’s office. Once he entered and sat down, he soon discovered the purpose of her request. It was something he would never have expected.

“I have a dilemma,” Professor Sargon began, “I am committed to lecture tomorrow before the Young Art students. They want me to talk about the relationship between art and history. I agreed to the lecture a few days ago. Yet I have a problem: the president of the University, Dr. Bachrach, just asked me to accompany him to an important academic conference out of state. That meeting begins tomorrow afternoon.

“So, Mr. Tennyson, because I can’t honor my commitment to Young Art, I wonder if you would be able to replace me tomorrow,” she inquired.

“Wow. I’m impressed that you think me able to speak to the Young Art students,” Scott answered. Actually, he was more than impressed; he was stunned by the responsibility just presented to him. “I suppose I could do it,” he answered hesitatingly. “What will I speak about?”

“Well, with your familiarity with the use of media materials in making historical arguments, I thought you could fashion a lecture on the topic of whether or not art is a part of, or apart from, history. The professor in charge of Young Art tells me that her students are reluctant to accept the fact that art is an important dimension of history. They seem to believe that art is above or beyond history.”

“An interesting argument,” Scott remarked with increasing self-confidence. “I think I can make a good case for the opposite position. I have some ideas I’ve been developing on my own. With a few of the films borrowed from downstairs, I’d be happy to discuss history with Young Art.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Tennyson,” said Dr. Sargon. “I appreciate it very much. I’m sure you can do this. My secretary will give you the particulars of where to meet the students. She will also arrange for a movie projector and screen and whatever audiovisual equipment you need to be there when you arrive.

“Thank you again,” she added.

“My pleasure, Professor, I’m happy to do it,” responded Scott. “I’m also glad that you place such confidence in me.”

As he returned downstairs, Scott felt pretty good about himself. He was still pleased that he could help Eddie Fastwolf gain insights into his ancestry. Now he was given the honor of lecturing to his Young Scholar colleagues. He knew, however, that it would be a great challenge because many of those colleagues were apparently unwilling to accept his argument. By the time he reached his desk, the time for self-congratulation was over. Scott knew that he had a major task before him.

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