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SamBlowsnake'sConfessions: Crashing Thunder and the Historyof American Indian Autobiography H. David Brumble Ill Ihaveelsewhere suggested that the history of American Indian autobiography willbe found to recapitulate the history of Euro-American autobiography. 1 Theearliest autobiographical writings in the European tradition, for example, arethe resgestae, the stories the Greeks and Romans wrote about their great deeds;2 this kind of writing corresponds quite closely to the coup tales and thehunting tales among the Indians. 3 Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, unassimilatedIndians were quite capable of telling stories about their victories andtheir daring and their pain. But where the Indian's sense of identity is still tribal,where the ancient's sense of identity was still tied to the gens or the polis,wedo not find what Karl Weintraub has called "genuine autobiography," that·'form of autobiography wherein a self-reflective person asks 'who am I?' and 'how did I become what I am'?"' (p. 1). Some of the ancients wrote memoirs,narratives about great events which they had witnessed, and here againwefind American Indian equivalents. Sometimes the Indians themselves wrotememoirs; more often their memoirs were taken down by historians andanthropologists. 4 But in these memoirs of ancients and Indians, again, wedo not find the inwardness of "genuine autobiography." With Augustine's Confessions, however, we find a very different kind of autobiographical writing. The Confessions articulates an individual sense of theself. As we read the Confessions, we are in the presence of a man with a CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 1985,271-282 272 H. David Brumble III lively sense of other selves that might have been, in the presence of a man who is carefully trying to account for how he came to be the Christian thathe is. And we read the Confessions with an awareness too that Augustine wrote a book which was without predecent in his experience. The book wasan innovation. Here as well, I would like to argue, we find a parallel in the history of American Indian autobiography. A Winnebago Indian, Sam Blowsnake, alias Crashing Thunder, wrote a book of confessions. Blowsnake too, wrote a book the like of which he had never seen - and he wrote hisbook as he did for many of the reasons which drove Augustine. Before we discuss the confessional form of Blowsnake's autobiography, however, it is important first to consider just how much of the book is his own, since Blowsnake's autobiography, like so many Indian autobiographies, comes to us via an intermediary, in this case the anthropologist Paul Radin. We must remember as well that Radin issued Blowsnake's autobiography in more than one form. Crashing Thunder (1926)5was based upon an earlier book, The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920).6 Radin wrote inhis Introduction to the latter that it was simply a translation-with very little editing-of a text written in the Winnebago syllabary by Blowsnake himself. Radin states as well that "No attempt of any kind was made to influence [Blowsnake] in the selection of the particular facts of his life which he chose to present" (p. 2). Crashing Thunder is a reworking of the Autobiography. Radin fitted in excerpts from material which he collected from Blowsnake over the years. Where Blowsnake mentioned in the Autobiography, for example, that he had prayed at a certain time to the spirits, Radin interpolated an appropriate prayer, which he had at some time taken down from Blowsnake's dictation. As Arnold Krupat has demonstrated in his Introduction and Appendix to Crashing Thunder, Radin was not above changing the wording and the style in places, but the pattern of the two versions is the same. Radin did no reordering of the narrative sequence. Given· all this, Ruth Underhill's comment on Crashing Thunder is of considerable interest: "Crashing Thunder is not strictly an autobiography, although every word of it came out of the Indian's mouth. Rather it isa drama, centering around a religious experience. From the jumble of reminiscences which anyone pours out when talking about himself, one feels that the ethnologist has selected first, those bearing on religious education and myths, then the fall to drunkenness and murder, and finally...


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