- The Teller and the Tale:History and the Oral Tradition in Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's Aurelia: A Crow Creek Trilogy
In an interview given before From the River's Edge, the first novella in Aurelia: A Crow Creek Trilogy, was written, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn said that she "wanted to find out what the past has to do with the present, what oral tradition has to do with what you're doing today in literature," and went on to say that more Indians from traditional backgrounds should use the old story forms in their writing.1 Later, in a 1995 article, she posed the question, "How do we generate Indian (native /tribal) history within the structure, style, and plot of the novel?"2 I suggest that in writing Aurelia Cook-Lynn was taking her own advice and responding to her own questions. The trilogy actively links past and present, weaving them into a story that also points the way into the future. The "old story forms," the myths and mythic characters, appear throughout the novel, which, like the old stories, can be interpreted on multiple levels: physically, socially, intellectually, and spiritually. The result is a "tribal history" that reads like a novel but takes into consideration what Dakotah tradition has always acknowledged but what European and Euro-American historians have denied or ignored until very recently: that history is always story, never any kind of absolute truth.
In Aurelia, Cook-Lynn has connected political history with everyday tribal stories and traditional myths. In "telling" her readers this story, Cook-Lynn seems to be taking up the role of tribal Dakotah storyteller as political advocate, keeper of tradition, and carrier of culture. Aurelia, then, becomes a story that affirms the past, both ancient and recent, and moves toward finding a mythic form that will support the survival of the Dakotahs politically as a people and spiritually as a culture.
James Stripes and Kathleen Danker have written historical and political critiques of the first novella in the trilogy, From the River's Edge.3 Cook-Lynn herself has stated that From the River's Edge is political in intent.4 In the second and third novellas, The Circle of Dancers and In the Presence of River Gods, Cook Lynn interweaves these historical themes, contemporary political stories as [End Page 203] they happen to and around the characters in the novel, the family lives of the characters themselves, and mythical tribal stories.
Cook-Lynn notes that in From the River's Edge the political message is embedded in the story of the relationship between John Tatekeya and Aurelia Blue, who "share the crisis of spiritual loss caused by the massive destruction of their environment."5 The title of the novella points to one specific kind of destruction: the drastic reshaping of the "river's edge" by the construction of dams along the Missouri River and subsequent flooding of fertile farmlands in Dakotah territories. As Michael Lawson describes in Dammed Indians, the flooding forced the relocation of Indian homes and disrupted communities that had already had to adjust to changes in lifeways in response to ever shrinking reservation boundaries.6 As Kathleen Danker points out, the legal nightmares that accompanied the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Dam Project are paralleled by John Tatekeya's legal battles over his stolen cattle.7 The personal story of a court case "won," not only without any real victory but with significant personal loss, is a metaphor for the experience of the Dakotah tribe and the U.S. government.
In a similar analysis, this time focusing on the legal battles over the Black Hills, James Stripes also notes that when the Dakotah Nation comes up against the United States, the situation always seems to get turned around so that the Dakotahs themselves are put on trial and have to prove not only their "innocence" but their very existence as a nation. The United States has consistently ignored issues of First Nation status and sovereignty, just as Tatekeya's Euro American attorney seems blissfully ignorant of the irony in the "justice" he "wins" in court and of the incongruity of his enthusiasm for General George Custer.