Authors: Frederick Manfred
This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products
of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictional setting.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental
Source acknowledgments for previously published material appear on p.v.
© 1959 by Frederick Feikema Manfred
Foreword © 1983 by the University of Nebraska Press
Introduction © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved
First Nebraska paperback printing: 1983
Reprinted by arrangement with the Manfred Literary Committee.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Manfred, Frederick Feikema, 1912–
Conquering horse / Frederick Manfred; foreword by Delbert E.
Wylder; introduction to the Bison Books edition by Charles L.
Woodard. — Second edition.
-13: 978-0-8032-4524-2 (paper: alk. paper)
-13: 978-0-8032-5588-3 (electronic: e-pub)
-13: 978-0-8032-5589-0 (electronic: mobi)
1. Dakota Indians—Fiction. I. Title.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Charles L. Woodard
The afternoon of October 1, 1994, is gray in my memory, although I don’t discount the possibility that the sun was out for at least part of that day. I was at Roundwind, the hillside home of Frederick Manfred just east of Luverne, Minnesota, for the “memorial celebration” of my friend, who had requested “a cheerful memorial gathering” there. The memorializing was for the most part cheerful and it was celebratory, with articulate people speaking expressively and informatively from their hearts, but after a while Ted Kooser and I went for a walk, and we ended up at the garden across the lawn behind the house. What we saw there turned into this poem, titled “Fred Manfred,” which Ted sent me later:
It’s not at all like you to have left
your watering can to rust in the rain;
or to let your garden go to weeds,
the soft tomatoes sagging brown;
or to leave your good dirt-turning-fork
stuck into the ground by the open gate
(a morning glory has climbed the handle
and put out a single pink bloom).
And then for you to have let somebody
fool with your hands, arranging them,
and to have lain there slack and silent
while they covered you over with earth;
that’s not like you. Fred, not at all.
Fred Manfred’s love of life was extraordinary, and in the time when I knew him well, the last twenty or so years of his life, I never saw any evidence that age was diminishing that love or his great enthusiasm for the work he was still planning to do. At the end of Kazantzakis’s
Zorba the Greek
, his narrator, Zorba’s friend and confidant, reads a letter from the schoolmaster of the village where Zorba died. The letter concludes with Zorba’s final words: “I’ve done heaps and heaps of things in my life, but I still did not do enough. Men like me ought to live a thousand years. Good night!”
Such enthusiasm for life was evident in Fred Manfred’s storytelling, and in the characters that he portrayed most vividly.
is an especially good example of that. The people of this story have a life way almost unimaginable in these techno-dependent and sedentary times. Their lives are intensely physical, based on the knowledge that who and what they are has everything to do with the processes of all of creation, and that immersion in those processes—indeed, strenuous investment in them—is the only way to achieve understanding and eventually wisdom. Much is made of traditional American Indian philosophies of “earth relationship,” but that term can be misleading, as it can be heard as implying some degree of separation from the entity that is “earth.” In the traditional tribal way of thinking, we so-called humans
earth—which is why some tribes’ names for themselves also mean “earth.” This oneness is summarized in
in the description of the ceremony during which No Name’s friend Strikes Twice receives his name: “The drummers beat in an ecstasy of exultation…. The drumbeat became the heartbeat of all living things: the rooteds and the wingeds, the twoleggeds and the fourleggeds. The drum beat the tempo of their common origin.”
The young protagonist of
, although obviously very different from his creator in culture and tradition, is nevertheless one of the most fully realized characters in the Manfred canon. No Name is, of course, evidence of his creator’s as-always conscientious research, this time into the traditional culture and philosophies of the Yankton people, but even more than that, he is an act of the imagination of a writer for whom the first truth was always that there is wisdom in the flesh. Fred Manfred was a man who believed with Nietzsche that “there is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
One of the framed pictures on my desk, taken by our mutual friend Kevin Woster, is of me with Fred in the South Dakota Badlands. We travelled together through the years, to places where some of his novels are set, for community hook discussions, and we almost always took side trips as well. On that trip, we had been to nearby Kadoka to discuss
The Golden Howl
, and Fred wanted to go to the Badlands to see if we could spot the bighorn sheep herd there. Not seeing anything from the road, we decided to do some climbing; Kevin and I were surprised at and challenged by the vigor Fred demonstrated and at how high he climbed, despite his age and his limited lung capacity, the consequence of his near-death experience with tuberculosis. I thought of his Badlands climbing recently when I re-read his vivid description of No Name’s arduous ascent of the Butte of the Thunders to seek his vision: “He climbed, dark glittering eyes fixed on the rimrock, up, up. The work of it warmed him. His heart struggled loud in his chest. His heart pumped him up the hill.”
Related to this way of thinking and being is the traditional tribal understanding of the importance of ancestral landscapes, which
also dramatizes very vividly. In the traditional tribal way of thinking, all of creation is pervaded by spirit and is therefore sacred (a Lakota holy man once told me that
should not be translated as “great mystery” but more literally as “that which moves”), but there are specific landscapes that are especially invested with meaning through shared experience, and some of those are places in which the power of creation moves most strongly. Those places are to be encountered ceremonially, which is to say prayerfully, so that the people can be truly at home on this earth.
is strongly grounded by such encounters, in the climactic scenes at the Place of the Pipestone as well as in the vision quest sequence at the Butte of the Thunders.
Underscoring all of this is the D. H. Lawrence quotation at the beginning of the book, which is obviously placed there to emphasize the essential importance of place relationship and the consequences of failing to achieve that relationship. Lawrence’s inflammatory rhetoric about indigenous spirit presence is indicative of what that English visitor failed to learn here, but what he says about white America’s tenuousness and endangerment as a result of that tenuousness is clearly a main concern of the author of
. Paul Shepard, in an essay titled “Place in American Culture” in the
North American Review
in the fall of 1977, echoes and amplifies that concern:
The landscape is a kind of archive where the individual moves simultaneously through his personal and tribal past, renewing contact with crucial points, a journey into time and space refreshing the meaning of his own being…. The crucial point is that the child must have a residential opportunity to soak in a place, and that the adolescent and adult must be able to return to that place to ponder the visible substrate of his own personality. Place in human genesis has this episodic quality. Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.
Shepard might have added “on this earth” to that last sentence for emphasis, and a belief in the truth of that statement is everywhere evident in
. In fact, this book and many of the other books in the Manfred canon can be read as chronicles of the author’s experiential discovery of America’s aboriginal northern plains landscapes and as his commitment to sharing that discovery with his readers. In
especially, via evocative multisensory descriptions, the author values those landscapes and makes them come alive.
Also understood and believed and dramatized throughout this book is the idea that words at their best are original and originative. At their best, we are shown, words
action, and they precipitate the gifts of the earth. This idea of language is embedded in Western tradition as well—in the beginning was the word—but over time it has been devalued by commerce-driven peoples for whom words and actions are separate entities. In this milieu, words are usually relegated to the status of mere descriptors of so-called actions, and those actions are thought of as speaking louder than words. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
House Made of Dawn
, the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday has one of his characters summarize this more recent attitude toward language and the dangers of it. “In the white man’s world, language, too—and the way in which the white man thinks of it—has undergone a process of change…. He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in upon him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language—for the Word itself—as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word.”
In an essay titled “The Native Voice in American Literature” for the
Columbia Literary History of the United States
, Momaday explains his tradition’s contrasting attitude toward language: “At the heart of the American Indian oral tradition is a deep and unconditional belief in the efficacy of language. Words are intrinsically powerful. They are magic. By means of words can one bring about physical change in the universe. By means of words can one quiet a raging weather, bring forth the harvest, ward off evil, rid the body of sickness and pain, subdue an enemy, capture the heart of a lover, live in the proper way, and venture beyond death. Indeed there is nothing more powerful.”
The Laguna Pueblo poet Paula Gunn Allen has this to say on the subject (in
Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back):
“Language, like a woman, can bring into being what was not in being.” In “Song/Poetry and Language—Expression and Perception,” the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz speaks to the source of such word power thusly: “Language is more than just a group of words and more than just the technical relationship between sounds and words. Language is more than just a functional mechanism. It is a spiritual energy that is available to us all.”
These traditional tribal ideas about language are pervasive throughout
. For example, early in the narrative, No Name sings his horse-catching song as part of the process of roping and subduing the black gelding Lizard. He is “making powerful horse medicine talk,” presaging his methodology’ in his eventual encounters with the white stallion. Also, at crucial junctures in the narrative, he acquires the power he needs to persist by singing a “song of encouragement” to himself; his “helper” also speaks to him when his need is great, as do the grandfather stones when he is feeling most lost. Finally, of course, the whole narrative is driven forward by the young protagonist’s urgent need to acquire his name, the essential words through which he will fully realize and become himself.
Also throughout the narrative, No Name must articulate what he hears and observes from creation, in order to know how to act and react. Some of the best descriptive passages in the book are of No Name closely observing the processes of creation so he can think of and say what he must do, the word act then initiating the completion of the sequence. This is especially the case during the vision quest and in the aftermath of the ordeal of the sun dance. As No Name journeys toward his destined encounter with the white stallion, his receptors are heightened by the intense physicality of that ceremonial experience. Journeying so purposefully, No Name observes and names many things, all of which speak to him of who he is and of what will be and of what he must do. Most vivid in that sequence is his close encounter with the enemy Omahas, during which he must remain motionless and observe the drama of the deerfly and the spider unfolding only inches from his face. This experience triggers the recollection of other unforgettable events, one word leading to another, understanding building upon understanding, guiding him eventually forward.
Also dramatized throughout the book is the understanding that words contextualize and complete meaningful experience. No Name speaks gratefully to the cow and the bull calf as he kills them, and he speaks gratefully to the waiting wolves with whom he shares his kills. Shortly thereafter, scattering tobacco on the wind, he explains his need and apologizes to the redwing blackbirds whose eggs he must take from their nests. This reflective and inspirational use of language is foundational to traditional tribal thought and philosophy, and it is artfully and believably imagined by an author who grew to admire and appreciate a cultural perspective that is in many ways different from the society from which he came.
Another great strength of
is the extent to which its author understood and appreciated traditional tribal philosophies of human relationship. The understandable animus between No Name and Circling Hawk over the love of a woman is convincingly described, but so is the resolution of their conflict, which is born of their understanding that the common good is more important than individual needs and desires, and their reconciliation is believably and even touchingly portrayed. Even more dramatically, the reader is shown that courage in anyone is valued even more highly than is enmity between sworn enemies. The audacious courage No Name demonstrates in entering the village and then even the lodge of Sounds the Ground, the leader of the hated Pawnees, is rewarded by not only the sparing of No Name’s life but also by his being given the assistance he needs to continue his quest. Significantly, Sounds the Ground is also motivated by his memory of the courage displayed by No Name’s father, Redbird, who spared Sounds the Ground’s life when he was a prisoner of the Yanktons.
It is significant that in the Academy Award–winning film
Dances With Wolves
, a film that in other ways is arguably progressive in its portrayal of one tribal group, the Lakotas, the Pawnees are merely caricatured. In the majority society, in portrayals of wars and in wars themselves, the enemy is almost always dehumanized and even demonized by pejorative language, underlining the belief that one’s enemy must be obliterated to achieve the ultimate goal, which is “victory.” There is demonization and hatred on both sides of the Yankton and Pawnee conflict in
, too, but on a higher plane are courage and honor and commitment to the common good, demonstrated most conclusively by No Name’s eventually being able to address Sounds the Ground as “Father.” Counting coup is another manifestation of this idea. As No Name says to his father before the honoring of Strikes Twice, “Killing does not count for much. It is the coup that comes first.” In his
The Way to Rainy Mountain
, Momaday says that for his Kiowa ancestors, war was “sacred business,” demonstrating most importantly courage and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the people. Therefore, he adds, “they never understood the grim, unrelenting advance of the U.S. Cavalry.”