Winter 1999, Volume 16.2
The Stone Babies
Gerald Vizenor is professor of Native American literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of more than twenty books on native histories, literature, and critical studies including The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories, and Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo and Other Reports. His recent books include Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader, and Hotline Healers: An Almost Browne Novel. Gerald Vizenor is series editor (with Louis Owens) of American Indian Literature and Critical Studies at the University of Oklahoma Press.
Madeleine warms her back on that eternal spirit stone in the spring. The stone is a native sense of presence, and a natural tease of seasons. Tricky stories are in the stone, and stories are creation, but she was never a native storier.
Madeleine comes to me in stories, she is created in the stories told by others. The start of this story is that she was the first native to see the little people, those wild stone babies that forever tease the seasons. The stone babies and anishinaabe tricksters were created in the stone, and now their stories are our creation.
She was certain the stone babies were in dreams, because, at the time, the anishinaabe had not created a material separation of the visionary. These spirit stories were in the stone but had not yet been told out loud. Then, a few months later in the summer, she sang a dream song near the great boulders and the stone babies, moved by the lonesome melody, rushed out of their natural seams in the stone. They listened to her wavering voice, and the stone babies painted heart lines to the bears and other totems on the stones. Those stone pictures were the stories of the stone babies. At last she told these spirit stories to nookomis, the grandmother of the anishinaabe and naanabozho the trickster. Many natives have seen the stone babies in their dreams, and some storiers have created a natural presence in the heart lines on the stone. The manidoo, the anishinaabe spirit, is touched in stone and dream songs.
Madeleine has two names in the stone stories. The first is a name given by storiers, and the second is a native nickname. Her given name was earned many generations later, an association with the fur trade, fancy cakes, and the memories of Madeleine Paulmier of France. The moment she told other natives that the stone babies were real she would bear their name, assiniika abinoojiins, or stone babies, an anishinaabe nickname in oral stories. Native nicknames are original stand points and a tease in stories. Stone babies as a nickname is visionary.
Madeleine assiniika abinoojiins earned these names in the tricky stories of creation. She is teased in the many memories of that warm spirit stone in the sun. Some anishinaabe storiers have named her assiniika manidoo, or the stone spirit in creation stories.
Martin Waabikwe, the old man who first told me these stories, could have been my great uncle. His long gray hair sticks out at the sides and bounces when he laughs. Sometimes he laughs over scenes in dream stories, scenes that are not yet in words. Martin is a healer, he has a tricky manner, and teases me with silence, stories, and melody. He lived alone for many years in a tiny cabin near the giant boulders of this story. There, he told me, the stone babies came into his cabin on cold nights, sat around the fire, and told their best heart line stories about the original five totems of anishinaabe creation.
Martin knew exactly how to tease my curiosity. This time he paused over a cereal bowl and told me that the stone babies never knock, they just walk right through the door. "You can do it," he told me, "just cut the picture and move." My relatives never practice his stories as a test of the real, because his stories are the natural teases that create a sense of virtual presence. Yes, the stories of the stone babies are not easy, but neither are the stories of flight. Stones, you see, are the start of our stories.
"Stone spirits start fires with a whistle." He whistled and then laughed over the very idea of his own story. You might doubt that, but there are many natives who have watched him start a fire with a deep gaze, and raise the flames with a slight whistle. Martin was born with a marvelous gaze of creation. Yes, there was a natural heat in his poses, even as a child, but his stories are created in the same voice as my relatives. Some natives are bored, and others hear his stories as visionary. My mother even wonders if his steady gaze might have conceived me. Many native women have told stories about the heat of his deep gaze. You see, the stone babies are in our many tricky stories of creation.
This native man is a mighty teaser. Sometimes, at the very start of stories, he laughs, a natural hesitation, and then plays the bibigwan, the anishinaabe flute. The sound of his flute carries the stories, and the melancholy tones touch my memories in a much more creative sense than words alone. Yet, he has always teased me with pauses and obvious contradictions in stories. He forever turns names around, declares new nicknames, overturns gender, and denies the very scenes he created in the first part of a story.
Martin seems to sense my moods, and my every doubt. His stories were not only in the words, but in his gaze, the sound of the flute, his laughter, and in his natural tease, and, in this way, his tricky stories are forever created in my visual memories. The heat of his deep gaze has become my own performance in stories.
Martin creates the stone babies out of the silence of the great boulders and tease of the seasons. He traces their heart lines to his own in stories, and the heat of the stone heals the cut of winter in the heart and hands.
The stones babies are the marvelous deep gaze of creation, and naanabozho, the anishinaabe trickster, was created right there in the stone. The trickster is a stone, a heart line to the stone. The trickster is a stone, and stones are spirits in stories. Martin is a stone, the very heat of creation is in his stone stories. My heart lines come out of that same stone in his stories.
Madeleine forever warms her back on that stone throne in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. The same stone warms his back in stories, and now the stone warms my back every spring. The stories of nookomis, the grandmother of the ancient anishinaabe and the trickster naanabozho, are in the stone with the stone babies.
George Copway, the anishinaabe author and missionary, was almost tricked out of his conversion by the stone babies. He might have been a great voice, one of the very first native literary artists, but, instead, he lectured about conversions and lost the natural tease of the heart lines to the stone. Actually, the stone babies might have over gazed the scene with lightning and scared him into conversion. Copway writes about the anishinaabe dreams and the manidoo, the native spirit gaze, but he never mentions the stone babies in his book of cultural apologies, Life, Letters and Speeches.
Martin Waabikwe told me that Copway was tricked and mistaken about what happened on the afternoon of his conversion. Copway, as the story goes, was twelve years old at the time of his first monotheistic vision, which was actually the deep gaze of the stone babies. His mother, a convert, had died the year before. The lonesome boy learned new songs about fear and salvation, and tried to bear the words of pain and wrath in his heart and nature. The stone babies heard his songs, and they could not resist a tricky conversion melody. Martin pauses, plays his flute, and then mocks the romance of a wounded native bird in the hands of Jesus.
"I thought the Great Spirit was too great to listen to the words of a poor Indian boy," wrote Copway. Then a thunderstorm rushed over the campsite and drowned out the preacher. "The thunder was appalling, and the lightning terrific. I then tried again to pray, but I was not able. I did not know what words to use." The stone babies created that terrific lightning, but the spectacle of their deep gaze was too much for the boy and he turned to the solace of terminal stories. He thought he had been touched by more than the stone babies and a manidoo creation.
"I saw in my mind, something approaching," he wrote, "it was like a small but brilliant torch." Actually, what he saw was the deep gaze of the stone babies. The torch gaze "appeared to pass through the leaves of the trees. My poor body became so enfeebled that I fell; my heart trembled. The small brilliant light came near to me, and fell upon my head, and then ran all over and through me, just as if water had been copiously poured out upon me." The stone babies created a marvelous gaze, and, at that point, they were certain the lonesome boy would abandon the service of conversion. The heat of their gaze was too much for the boy. Copway, in fact, thought it was the divine work of the other creator by way of the missionary. "I felt as light as a feather," he wrote in Life, Letters and Speeches. "I clapped my hands, and exclaimed in English, ‘Glory to Jesus.’"
Copway was so touched that he went into the woods the next morning to sing and pray. The stone babies heard his song and tried once more to tease him out of his conversion with lusty whispers on the wind, but the boy was so mistaken over the lightning gaze that he was all prayer and no play.
Martin told me the boy was nicked forever by the new demons of salvation. Copway went into the woods with his cousin and sang to the birds. The stone babies whispered wild thoughts on the wind and then doubled over with laughter. "Amidst the smiles of creation, the birds sang sweetly, as they flew from tree to tree," he wrote of that morning. "We sang, ‘Jesus the name that charms our fears.’"
Martin Waabikwe was born and raised on islands near the great granite stones in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Many of his stories are about water, weather, canoes, and stone babies. He told me about a banker who lost his canoe in a fiery crash on Crooked Lake in Canada. Yes, he said fiery.
Wint Miner, a venture investment banker, and Ben Scare, the senior outdoor writer for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune were trying out a new wooden canoe late that summer. The lake was calm when they set out in the morning, but a sudden warm breeze blew them closer to shore. They paddled in the dark water near the great boulders and saw many native rock paintings.
Crooked Lake is a rich site of native stories. The totemic moose browsed on the seams, and a crane might have just landed on the great stone. The ancient hand prints that reached above the water line on the face of the stone might have been my ancestors. Wint stood in the canoe and placed his hand on prints as high as he could reach alone. There, in the moist shadows, they saw a great shaman tree and sweat lodge painted in natural red tones under the delicate veins of lichens.
Martin told me that Wint and Ben were silent, haunted by the warm breeze, the strange whispers on the lake, and by the hush in the shadows of the painted stones. Then, when they saw a painting of a miniature creature with a red crown, they broke into laughter. Ben pointed at the creature, and raised his arms to mock the pose on the stone.
"Indian monkeys," said Wint.
"They took these pictures last month," shouted Ben.
"Right, they must be aliens."
"No, this is monkey evolution."
"The aliens of the stone." Wint guided the canoe closer and brushed the stone with one hand. "Why not, these could be pictures of the first alien landing." Their voices bounced on the stone. Then, as he focused the camera, the miniature creatures moved on the stone. "Wait a minute, hold the canoe." Wint aimed the camera once more, and as he measured the focus, three stone babies ran out of the seams in the stone. "Jesus, did you see that?"
"Never mind," said Wint.
"Listen, the wind has shifted," said Ben. "Waves are cresting, we better find a landing." He pushed away, but a wave moved the canoe back against the stone. The gunnel scraped the rough face of the granite. Again he pushed but the waves were stronger.
"The stone babies are great teasers, and they even teased the old fur traders, but tempers are short over the monkey word," said Martin. "Tricky babies, but not over that word." He told me the stone babies danced in the seams as the canoe bounced on the waves. Wint was overcome by the miniature native scene. He was fated, weakened, lost his paddle, and slumped back in silence. The bow bounced on the great boulders. Ben was frantic, he pushed harder and harder and cracked the end of his paddle. The canoe rose out of the water on the waves and crashed on the stone.
Martin told me the stone babies waited on the ledge for the canoe to overturn. The waves crested, the canoe pitched, turned, and somehow stayed afloat. Ben shouted at the stone babies, but they only mocked his fear and rage. Then he made a fatal mistake, he cursed and shouted, "monkeys, savage monkeys," several times. He shouted the words in various derisive tones, and, at the same time, he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, removed his trousers, and stood naked in the canoe. He stood on the gunnels, one foot on each side, and rose with the waves, closer to the stone babies. Ben reached out, in a natural balance, but the stone babies escaped into the ancient granite seams.
The wooden canoe cracked but would not sink, so the stone babies, bored with the game, turned to their deep gaze and sent a wild bolt of lightning at the canoe. The lighting struck the bow and burned out the side. Fire flashed down the gunnels and the canoe sank slowly in the dark water.
"Wint and Ben?"
"Wint drowned and washed ashore," said Martin. "Ben, now that is a very tragic story." He told me that the writer swam across the lake, climbed on a dock, and shouted that the savages had burned the canoe and murdered his best friend. Later, when a native sheriff asked him to be more specific about the savages, the writer shouted, "the monkeys, the savage monkeys." Ben was bound in a blanket and sent to a hospital for observation. The sheriff recovered the nude body of the banker. Wint died with a strange expression on his face, a twisted smile, and he was covered with hand prints and paintings of miniature monkeys.
Madeleine Stone deserted her condominium and now lives on the streets in Seattle, Washington. She is a tricky storier, and traces a mythic connection to the native salmon cultures. The author of two poetry chapbooks, she was at work on a novel about a native author who contracted with each novel he published, and then the virtual became the actual.
Aristotle Alexia, the native character in her novel, The Indian Novelist, was reduced to a miniature at the very same time that she attended a reading of Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Martin Waabikwe was at the same reading and told me that when he first heard her story about the contracted author he thought she meant the obvious, a literary agreement. Then, as the character in her novel contracted and overturned nature, he asked her if she knew about the anishinaabe stone babies. "Stone babies are not salmon tricksters, but they do get around in stones and stories," said Martin.
Madeleine had heard several versions of the stories about the savage monkeys and the crazed outdoor writer, but now she had her own stories about the stone babies. Martin told me that she actually saw the tricky creatures at a public reading last year in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Sherman Alexie had finished reading from Indian Killer and was sparring with the audience about race, reservation traditions, and the derision of mixedbloods, when suddenly he began to shrink in the same way the virtual author Aristotle Alexia contracted over his novels. Martin learned later that the word "alexia" means "word blindness," a condition the native character overcomes in his novelistic contraction.
Madeleine closed her eyes, worried that she might lose her balance. She listened to both authors, the one in the basement of the bookstore, and the virtual character in her novel, Aristotle Alexia. Their voices were not the same, but the contraction of one seemed to be the actual destiny of the other. Aristotle was seductive, more elusive as he contracted in The Indian Novelist. Sherman was even more bombastic and nasty over "degrees of whiteness" as he shrunk on stage.
Martin told me that she could not bear to see the contractions of the authors, and then she was scared by the sound of their voices. The authors, in her visual memory, became the same character with two separate voices. Madeleine opened and closed her eyes several more times, and tried to envision a reversal of the comic contraction, but the authors remained the same.
The last time she opened her eyes she saw both authors on stage. Aristotle was distracted by two stone babies dancing on his right shoulder. Sherman reached over the tiny podium and pointed at someone in the audience. Just then, as the testy author raised his head, three stone babies painted a picture on his face. Actually, they bleached a stone monkey picture on his forehead.
Martin told me the stone babies use bleach on darker skin and red paint on light skin, but they paint the same ancient pictures that are on the stones at Crooked Lake. Madeleine grieved and lost her balance over the stories and pictures, but could not speak about what she saw that night. Martin escorted her home, a few blocks away. She told him the stone babies were unbearable at the bookstore, but he told her that there has never been a separation of the virtual and the actual in native stories. "The actual is a tricky vision, and the rest is visionary," said Martin.
Madeleine owned a tiny condominium near Pioneer Square in Seattle. That night she worried about the other characters in her novel and decided that tragedy, cultural perversions, and murder, would be wiser ends than contraction. So, she converted the stories in her first novel to serve a tricky tragedy rather than a conversion reaction comedy.
Aristotle Alexia became a master of the coup, the native coup count in the city. He was an aesthetic scalper in her new novel, Alexia Blues. Contrary to the earlier version in The Indian Novelist, the native author never published his stories, and that reversed the contractions.
The strategic coups were executed with courage and grace, the secret capture of a tuft of hair. Aristotle presented his coups, tiny locks of honored hair, on the crown of his blue fedora. Sherman Alexie, in fact, was touched in a coup, and lost a shock of hair as he talked about scenes in his novel, Indian Killer, on a television talk show. Aristotle performed the coup in the mask of the seventeenth century colonist John Smith.
Madeleine wrote several new scenes of her novel that night, and the aesthetic coups eased her terror over the contraction of the authors in the bookstore. Early the next morning as she prepared to take a shower, and opened the opaque glass door, seven stone babies ran out of the enclosure, across the room and into the closet. She moaned, lost her balance, stumbled into the shower and closed the door tightly. She waited there for several hours before she noticed the decorations. The stone babies had painted pictures on the ceramic tiles, pictures of shaman lodges and hand prints around the entire enclosure.
Martin told me he found her late that night, shivering in the shower. The stone babies had painted pictures in every room, but the tiny tricksters were gone by the time he arrived at the condominium. Tiny red hand prints covered the walls and ceilings, and ran wild over the pillows. Madeleine was convinced that she had been cursed as a native author. She was determined to escape the tease and envies of the stone babies.
Martin told her that the stone babies were more curious than vicious, more an absence than a presence, and would soon lose their cues and abandon the city. "Stone babies are never in the same place at the same time, and so the actual is never more than our creation." Martin was a storier, a tricky healer, as you know, and he teases our paranoia as a native reservation, an authentic blood count in the city. So, he tried to distract her with nonsense returns. She might have returned to the reservation, but he told her to move instead to the streets of the city.
"Aristotle never turns back the coups in his stories, so stay with the shamans you created in the city," said Martin. "Pioneer Square, once there, you can turn back to stories, and who cares if the stone babies decorate a park bench."
Madeleine Stone is an eternal native storier, one of the new stone babies, and you can find her hand prints on stone, on every mirror, face, and bench, and in every novel at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington.