- That Guy Wolf Dancing by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
Dakota Sioux author and educator Elizabeth Cook-Lynn intends her novella That Guy Wolf Dancing to be tribal art contributing to the survival of her people in contemporary America. By addressing her story to this limited Dakota audience with its unique cultural and historical background, Cook-Lynn uses a narrative convention more characteristic of oral storytelling than of written fiction. Also common to the oral tradition are her barely elaborated references in the text to Dakota myths and history; her inclusion of untranslated Dakota words; her tying of the human story to features of the sky, water, and land; her circular narrative style employing reoccurring images whose interconnections and meanings become apparent through their repetition; and the way her voice comes through in the thoughts of the main character. At base her novella follows a classic plot of Native American traditional stories about a beleaguered young man who leaves his village, receives counsel that helps him vanquish people-killing monsters, and returns with gifts that promote the village’s survival.
None of these oral conventions, however, need prevent non-Dakota readers from finding That Guy Wolf Dancing rewarding. Its valuable contributions to Western literature include its realistic, insider’s portrait of Native life in South Dakota, its nuanced depiction of the societal oppression faced by tribal members in the state, its understated humor, and its elucidation of how aspects of Dakota life remain linked to geography and history. [End Page 90]
That Guy Wolf Dancing continues the extended-family story Cook-Lynn began in her novel Aurelia, set in the second half of the twentieth century on the Crow Creek Reservation in central South Dakota. The novella focuses on the experiences in the early 1980s of its first-person narrator Philip Big Pipe, a Dakota man in his twenties who has recently fled Crow Creek in grief following the bloody suicide of his uncle Tony. By chance he finds work as a nurse aide at a care center in a town to the southeast of the reservation based on Vermillion, South Dakota.
Feeling purposeless and beset by bad dreams, Big Pipe fills his nonworking hours with reading about Indian history and politics. Unlike his friend Kevin Horse Looking on the reservation, he neither drinks nor uses drugs, but his reclusion in the white town does not shield him from encounters with death and violence. A wealthy white drug addict at the care center dies in a mercy killing at the hands of her husband. Big Pipe then learns that the woman, who always referred to him as “the Indian,” has left him a family heirloom in her will. Town police called in to the psych ward to prevent the escape of a Catholic boarding school classmate of Big Pipe’s with the DTs throttle the patient and leave him on the floor to suffocate, a death covered up as accidental. The addict’s grown children from a previous marriage murderously attack her widower, believing that they, not he or Big Pipe, should inherit her money and possessions, even ones their great-grandfather robbed from a Dakota grave.
The bequest Big Pipe receives consists of a red-striped war stick and a buckskin shirt painted with a snake, lightning, and stars—the kind of garment worn in the nineteenth century by highly honored warriors. These items remind him of the Dakota warriors hanged following the Minnesota conflict of 1862, of traditional stories told about snakes, and of a snake-shaped earth mound he has heard exists on the surrounding prairie.
Big Pipe takes the items to the reservation where his grandfather leads a communal scaffold-building ceremony to return them to their ancestral owner. As well as a means of healing group trauma and grief, the ceremony and the scaffold constitute Dakota art, as do the stick and shirt, the tribe’s oral stories, the earth mound, [End Page 91] and Cook-Lynn’s novella. Big Pipe comes to see making such art as a way for...