Crashing Thunder

 N.B. This story is based on the life of a real Native American figure, who lived during the early part of the twentieth century, and his biographer, who lived from 1883 to 1959, although the content presented here is a fictional interpretation I have imagined consistent with the actual historical events.

I want to express my appreciation to all of you for coming out here tonight to attend this very special meeting of the American Anthropological Society.  As most of you know, I am Paul Radin, and when my mentor Franz Boas, the founder of the field of modern Anthropology, first encouraged me to do the field work for my doctoral dissertation among the Winnebago Indians in Northern Wisconsin, I relocated to their territory in 1908.

In my experience, many people have a tendency to romanticize the lives of these Indians that the original Spanish explorers found here when they first colonized the continent.   Today, the Indian is often viewed as a symbol for the youth and freedom of expression, and for liberation from the shackles of civilized constraint.    In my field research, I endeavored to develop a methodology that would offer a more realistic assessment of the Indian culture than these quaint, sentimental notions.  A significant stumbling block to the achievement of this objective was the cultural norm of quiet humility among the members of the Winnebago tribe, which left me with few eyewitnesses willing to testify about their firsthand thoughts and experiences.   I was able to find one family, however, a Mr. Blow Snake, and his youngest son Crashing Thunder, a man of prodigious memory and extraordinary analytical capability, who agreed to an extensive series of interviews.  And after translating them from the Winnebago language and transcribing them in a monograph entitled Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian, the work was published by the University Press   in 1926.

We are pleased to have Crashing Thunder with us this evening in person to share some of his reminiscences on the important influences that shaped this remarkable man’s life, as well as his reflections on some of these matters.   And now, without any further ado, the American Anthropological Society is pleased to present Mr. Crashing Thunder.


Thank you Paul for that kind introduction.  Ladies and gentlemen and honored guests:  I am pleased to be here tonight to   discuss a variety of issues that my experiences as a Winnebago have taught me.  Many are discussed in the Autobiography, which Paul was instrumental in preparing, while others I have developed in the years since then.

I suppose the underlying theme of my efforts to strive for understanding of both the Winnebago people and my own place in that Indian nation revolves around the idea of the fragility of life.  This notion then informs the activities in which I have engaged, the decisions I have reached, and the actions I have taken to implement those decisions.  Early in my childhood, I remember my parents had acquired two puppies to serve as companions for my sister Mountain Wolf Woman and myself.    We really loved those little puppies, but when they were fully grown, they both wandered off the reservation and were hit and killed by automobiles in a place called Good Hope Road.  Watching my father bury the corpses was the first time I can remember being aware of death’s finality.

This early experience with violent death has lent a melancholy demeanor to my outlook on life.  I wondered whether such death might be a consequence of previous impure thoughts or actions on the part of the victim, unobtrusively observed by some higher power.  And, if so, who is this higher power anyway?  If He is the Creator of the Universe, I have a bone to pick with Him about the way He designed living creatures.    As it is, we are input/output processors, which require daily inputs of food and water to survive. It seems to me that life would be much simpler if we were engineered more as celestial beings without the need to maintain the upkeep of a physical body, susceptible to suffering and death by starvation, disease, or violent causes.

But the explanation is more likely that the world is a risky place, and our beloved puppies were simply unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The role chance or uncertainty plays in our lives cannot be overstated, but paradoxically, its influence is probably underappreciated.  Discrete events that have the potential to adversely impact our lives can occur at any time without our conscious awareness of their existence.  Our reaction after the fact is always that we need to take remedial steps to ensure that such disruptive events never happen again.   But it is in the nature of randomness that disruptive events never disrupt our lives in precisely the same way again, so we are continually refighting the last war.  What is needed to escape this cycle of failure is a paradigm to accurately anticipate future events.

Unfortunately, the record shows that human beings are singularly inept at forecasting future developments.  At a roundtable seminar held for probability theorists and other professional prognosticators at the turn of this past century, none of the participants predicted the technological breakthroughs of the electric light by Thomas Alva Edison, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, or the airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Nor were the political changes of the women’s right to vote, the imposition of prohibition, or the rise of Fascism foreseen.

If we consider the other characteristic of our old friend, the higher power, namely that of Omniscient Being, we may imagine a game-theoretic environment in which we are called to be researchers, where we utilize our skills and our observation of the available evidence to compete with Him for purposes of uncovering the underlying logic of His laws, with the aim of improving our predictive batting average.  Because of the uncertainty intrinsic to the nature of this struggle, though, we must be ever conscious of our potential for error.  Although the world may judge us after some development has occurred by checking whether we had anticipated it, this simple metric fails to appreciate the complexity endemic to our task.  Conceptually, there are actually two distinct types of errors we could commit when we make a prediction about the future:  certainly, we could predict something that later failed to occur, like the economist who predicted 9 out of the last 5 recessions, but we could also fail to predict something which later did in fact occur.  The world tends to view being blindsided by an unanticipated development as being somehow more egregious, but both types of mistakes are equally serious.

I wanted to apply the need for improved anticipation of future events to this theme of life’s fragility a bit further.  The Winnebago tribe is occasionally involved in warfare against other tribes in cases when diplomacy to resolve differences fails to produce satisfactory results for either or both parties.  Whether we are attacking an enemy position or defending our own, the successful prosecution of the conflict depends critically on our ability to anticipate our position relative to that of the opposing tribe.  There are normally four stages in any confrontation:  SIEGE, in which the aggressor lays its foundation that announces its offensive intentions to the defenders; ASSAULT, in which the aggressor launches its well-defined attack on the defensive position; STRANGULATION, in which the defenders, seeing the adverse impact of the aggressor’s assault, proceed to lose hope; and ASPHIXIATION, in which the defenders must choose between death and surrender.

More generally, I mentioned earlier my view that human beings are called to be researchers, to work to understand the complexities of the world in which we find ourselves and to apply our reasoning skills to the task making sense of the phenomena we observe.  In this regard, these same four stages can also apply analogously to our research efforts:  we first lay siege to a problem of interest by identifying it and marshaling our intellectual resources appropriate for the goal of transforming the issue from an unknown quantity into understood knowledge; launching an assault against it is the application of analytical methods in a disciplined way to address the particular problem as mapped out in our research strategy; strangulation involves the specific technical details of solving the individual complexities not necessarily foreseen in the initial strategy;  and asphyxiation occurs at the point where the problem surrenders its mystery and is assimilated into the researcher’s bank of knowledge.

Now, I have struggled with the need to anticipate sometimes-violent conflict in my own personal life.    A random event which had a life-altering effect on my life occurred when my brother-in-law, Thunder Cloud, was murdered.  For a long time afterwards, I became very despondent and attempted to drown my troubles by consuming large quantities of alcohol.  My father, Blow Snake, too, drank prodigious amounts of Scotch, but it was only blended whisky, whereas I much preferred the rarefied taste of single malt Scotch.  I also found that this liquor was favored by young ladies when I would retire to the nearby tavern to buy them drinks for the purpose of getting them inebriated and transporting them back to my apartment to take advantage of their impaired judgment.   I should add that I have always been intrigued with the appearance of the female body and find it interesting that when a woman removes her clothing in a burlesque parlor, it is considered obscene, while the nude sculpture of a Greek goddess in a park is regarded as highly artistic.  I can only conclude that pornography depends on geography.

Not all expressions of intimacy, however, can be characterized as debauchery, and I have found that the most satisfying of these occurs in the context of a relationship based on a mutual feeling of love between the two partners.  Now, in my experience, there have been three different types of love:  false love, true love, and competent love.  While I have made many mistakes in my life, a large percentage have resulted from misjudgments about the individuals in these categories.  False love, for instance, is highly correlated with physical beauty, which can be ambiguously interpreted.  It could reflect inner purity and genuineness, but it could also hide deceptiveness stemming from a selfish inability to feel empathy.  When I encountered false love, I was seduced by the beauty, stubbornly extended the benefit of the doubt in spite of the evidence, and stupidly said yes when I should have said no.  In the case of true love, the beloved communicated a sympathetic identification with her partner, although she lacked the capability to react  effectively to adverse developments in my life and she was not  sophisticated about the finer aspects of life.  In my encounter with true love, I regretfully said no when I might have wanted to say yes.  Regarding competent love, the deficiencies in true love are corrected.  I said yes and I have not regretted my decision.  She does not sugarcoat the truth, however, and she does not suffer fools.

One day in the midst of my life of dissipation, I learned that my brother’s killer was a member of the Pottawattomie tribe living in Nebraska.  This information gave my life new purpose, and I gathered my other bothers together and we went on the warpath, journeying to the offender’s hometown under the cover of night and taking our revenge in a particularly gruesome way.  I mean we really got Medieval on his sorry carcass.  Later, however, we were arrested, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to life sentences in the state penitentiary without hope of parole.

Do you see the irony here?  I had been concerned with the fragility of life and how difficult it is to predict future events without error, and I now found myself in circumstances where there was no chance that my life would be imperiled, but there was also no hope that I could ever experience freedom again.  I began to appreciate that life without hope was more debilitating than facing a death sentence, and the prospect began to stimulate the morose side of my nature.  I began to dream of escape, but all pathways led to the same destination. Like someone facing an incurable disease, I began planning ways to end my own life.  I realized that this outcome would not happen by itself, so that the issue of method was not just a minor detail, but was central to the goal of achieving the result.  I reasoned that the appropriate method needed to possess the properties of certainty, quickness, and painlessness, and in lieu of acquiring a handgun, only a fall from a great height would accomplish the task.

I was eying the exercise yard from our common living quarters three stories above it when word came that our lawyer had discovered a procedural error in how the district attorney had gathered the evidence against us, and we were all being released pending a new trial.  Talk about almost saying yes when I should have said no! I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I realized that if the timing had just been a little different and the lawyer had made his discovery a little later, prisoners might be scraping parts of me off the soles of their shoes during their exercise period in the yard.

On the Sunday after my release, I experimented with the hallucinogen Peyote I had gotten from one of the other prisoners.  After ingesting it, I fell into a trance and found myself in front of a large ornate throne with a deafening sound like rushing water ringing in my ears.

“Mr. Crashing Thunder,” boomed a deep baritone voice, “I am Earth Maker, the higher power I believe you made reference to earlier.  Our records indicate that you wished to deliver some feedback to me about the job you think I’m doing.”

I was quite disoriented by this experience.  In fact, I was shaking in my boots.  I didn’t even have the presence of mind to ask for inside information on His latest laws I might need to research.  I was so intimidated by this encounter, that I lost my courage and believed that a straightforward response was not a viable option.

Well, you see Sir,” I stammered, “I only wanted to tell You that I think You’re doing a great job; that design of Yours to make living creatures input-output processors was a stroke of genius.   And to think You did the whole thing in only six days and came in under budget.  You’ve earned Yourself a well-deserved rest.  I think You should take the rest of the day off.”

“But you indicated there was room for improvement.  Don’t you have any suggestions?” Earth Maker urged.

“Well, on the commandment side of things,” I squirmed, “I thought Your prohibition about graven images was spot-on, but maybe You could also include comparable rules outlawing casting votes for Fascist dictators or buying retail?”

Earth Maker looked pleased.  “I’ll take it under advisement,” He said.  “And now, if you’ll excuse me,” He said, looking at His watch, “I must be off to another appointment.  Earth Maker’s work is never done.”

My audience with Earth Maker marked a significant turning point in my life, as it was after that I began to define myself as a spiritual person.  I can see my flaws in the willingness to compromise my core values, and the awareness of my cowardice has taught me humility.  The experience has also given me some detachment from the ways of the material world, as well as giving me a better handle on the mysteries of beauty in our lives.  I have finally learned that authentic beauty cannot be merely decorative, but it must have a spiritual basis.  As Count Leo Tolstoy once remarked about the nexus between poetry and mysticism, “Mysticism without poetry is merely superstition, but poetry without mysticism is just prose.”



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