For two months in 1928, Edward Hunt recounted his people's story — the creation myth of the Acoma Pueblo in western New Mexico — to scholars of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Sixty-seven years earlier, in an ancient ceremony in the mesa-top pueblo, he had received his Acoma name: Gaire, or Day Break. Later, as a featured performer in Wild West shows throughout the United States and Europe, he would be known as Big Snake, appearing as a ferocious Plains Indian because that's what those audiences wanted to see.
With his son, Wolf Robe, translating, Day Break told stories in the language of his youth: the underground place called Shipapu, where the first humans were born, and the spirit Tsichtinako, who gave them seeds and images of the animals that would share the world with them. The spirit said they were gifts from their father, Uchtsiti, who wanted them to take the baskets up into the light.
Day Break's epic narrative, reproduced this year in conjunction with Peter Nabokov's book "How the World Moves," wasn't published until 1942, two years after he died, and it didn't name him as the narrator. But describing such sacred practices and beliefs to outsiders was heresy to traditionalists at Acoma and other pueblos, who soon learned of it. Their hostility was part of the difficulty that Day Break faced the rest of his life as he tried to straddle tradition and modernity.
Nabokov, professor of American Indian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, alternates between the remarkable personal story of one American family and the great changes and forces of history that made them choose what to believe, what to do and who to be. He tells of Day Break's travels to Europe as part of the Wild West show phenomenon that captivated audiences — especially in Germany, where the mythical Old West Indian-themed novels of Karl May were bestsellers.
"Simply by being themselves, whenever Indians traveled outside their home communities they often felt onstage," Nabokov writes. "It was never enough that they were Indians, they also had to be them as well. That meant satisfying old preconceptions and stereotypes. For many self-described progressive Indians, that presented a problem. They … were insulted to be expected to deck themselves out in feathers and furs, or to have to explain why they didn't feel like doing so."
This is the story of the American Indian, defeated and dispossessed, who strives to understand and accommodate a new reality. It also suggests the immigrant, suspended between old and new, never quite feeling "at home" again. One can look into the face of an elderly Hmong man in St. Paul or a Somali man in Grand Forks, N.D., and see Day Break.
Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, lives in Grand Forks, N.D., where he teaches media writing at the University of North Dakota.