The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1996, Volume 42, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Trickster in the Land of Dreams.

By Zeese Papanikolas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Notes. Index. 184 pages. $22.50 cloth.
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Reviewed by Alan Kilpatrick, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University.

Usually, Native Americans react with some apprehension to the appropriation of their cultural symbols by well-intentioned, but uninformed White intellectuals. However, after reading Zeese Papanikolas’ Trickster in the Land of Dreams, a brilliantly inventive and wonderfully written cultural critique, I believe that we can allay such fears. The Coyote Trickster appears to be in very good hands.

Papanikolas’ intention is to explore the two paradigms about the Old West: a White history that “is concerned with dates, with order, with the links between cause and effect” and the Indian version which “is concerned with meaning that flows backward and forward at once on the roads of time” (p.25).

In order to accomplish this, the author must draw the reader deep “inside” a culture, into its “smooth belly” where one can perceive events “tacitly, intuitively, unconsciously. Any other understanding is an artifact, something made up, a fiction, an abstraction, a tool” (p. 157). Thus, the author first transports us into the mind of the mythical Trickster, the Coyote, who unfolds the cosmogony of the Dust People, the Shoshone. From this vantage point, measured against the constancy of the timeless landscape of Native American myth, Papanikolas wishes us to view the disruptive, failed visions of western utopias.

For Papanikolas, the American West is not so much a physical landscape as it is a mental geography where “the dream is self-cannibalizing, it feeds on the stuff of its own illusion” (p.66). In this highly charged realm of failed imaginations, even Samuel Clemens, the prolific creator of Huck Finn, becomes stymied by his own racist demons. Clemens cannot reconcile the image of the Noble Savage he chooses to memorialize in his fiction with those dirty, impoverished Indians he witnesses in his journeys out west.

However, Clemens is not the only victim of his illusions. In the chapter, “Tongues of Fire, Tongues of Gold”, Papanikolas chronicles a number of such troubled dreams: Cabeza de Vaca’s eight year, exhausting sojourn across the American Southwest, Coronado’s mad and fruitless quest for the golden cities, Montaigne’s quizzical encounters with the cannibals of Brazil.

In the chapter, “Dream Mining,” the author explores the “mirage-haunted expanse of salt flat” south of Salt Lake City (p.62). There he finds Mormonism, a millenarian religion no longer caught up in the throes of preaching prophetic doom but of transforming this vast desert valley into their lost land of Zion. Here, in 1894, a Mormon farmer, John Koyle suffers a visitation from the Angel Moroni who transports him deep into the granite heart of the Wasatch mountains where Koyle encounters the golden booty of the Nephites, a lost Hebraic tribe. Driven by this angelic vision and the greed of his investors, Koyle begins a futile mining saga, drilling for generations into the “indifferent heart of the mountain” (p.66).

In the second half of his book, Papanikolas focuses on the theme of the American West as “the true Utopian destination” (p.93). Driven by the specter of cheap land and limitless opportunity, seasonal workers, immigrant laborers, and saddle tramps make their way West, only to have their dreams of easy exploitation become stagnant in this vast, formidable space which is ruled over by drought and famine.

Out of the dust and tumbleweeds, emerges the icon of the American Cowboy, the rugged individualist on the lone prairie, as captured in the horse operas of Owen Wister, the grandiose speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, and the paintings of Frederic Remington. However, Papanikolas views these frontier images as fraudulent tools “for the distortion of historical reality” (p.73) since they neglect the grim, seamy economic deprivation of the day laborer whose sweat and toil will build the towns and railroads for the Eastern industrial establishment. In stark contrast to this romanticized view of the West, the author chronicles the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World whose own utopia is embodied by the dream of the General Strike, sustained by an organized brotherhood of labor.

Toward the end of the book, we are introduced to Frank L. Baum, a “populist, Bryanite, would-be artist… writing under a handful of pseudonyms, cranking out products for a market” (p.103). One of Baum’s more successful products is The Wizard of Oz. In Dorothy Gale, Baum’s adolescent heroine, we find another utopian dreamer, one whose fantasies about a mythical land “over the rainbow” transcends the ugly, flat landscape of Kansas, the prairies of Baum’s youth.

One of the sharpest, most poignant images occurs at the end of the book where we are reintroduced to the Trickster Coyote. Journeying into the modern era, this primordial wanderer is now confused and bewildered, lost amid the streets of Berkeley, California, lost amid the New-Age philosophies, and the enduring inhumanities of our millennium.

What do we finally learn from this remarkable book? It should come as no surprise that a large part of the American past was shaped by such optimistic fantasies and “rainbow-hued” visions as have been outlined here, that these Caucasian utopias largely excluded Indian groups like the Shoshone, and, ultimately, hastened their demise.

What Papanikolas wants us to ultimately realize is that at the heart of such tragicomical struggles, encoded like some flawed gene, is the tenaciousness of our dreams. This is why the Coyote was chosen to be the torchbearer here. For though he may be thief and liar, fool and lecher, the Coyote Trickster is the consummate survivor, the metaphor of our ancestor’s tenaciousness. It is this character trait that is celebrated here, endlessly, in this singularly human saga.

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