Book 9 Chapter 7
Summary: Latour reflects on the injustices perpetrated by the American government against Eusabio’s people, the Navajo. Latour’s own “misguided friend,” Kit Carson, helped the federal government expel the natives from their own land (in a military campaign that culminated in “The Long Walk” of 1864). At Eusabio’s behest, Latour had met with Eusabio’s son, Manuel, now leader of the tribe; “Manuelito” wanted Latour to plead the Navajo case in Washington. Unfortunately, feeling restricted by his status as a Roman Catholic priest in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, Latour did not feel he could intervene. At any event, the government rethought its actions and, after five years, allowed the Navajo exiles to return to their sacred, ancestral lands. Latour will die believing that God will preserve the Native Americans.
Analysis: Cather recounts one of the many dark periods in the American government’s dealings with (or, more accurately, abuses of) native peoples. In what has come to be known (although not in Cather’s text) as “the Long Walk” of 1864, “thousands of Navajos were forced to leave their land and travel on foot to a reservation at a place called Bosque Redondo [mentioned by Cather in her text]. Some of them had to travel more than 450 miles by foot, and many died along the way from cold, starvation, or murder” (Museum of New Mexico Office of Statewide Programs and Education; http:reta.nmsu.edu/modules/longwalk/default.htm -- an excellent educational site about these events). Carson’s role in the Long Walk has led to conflicting judgments about his place in history—not all scholars have been as mild in their assessment as Latour, who thinks of the guide and scout, apparently, as only his “misguided friend” (p. 291) and seems to excuse Carson of serious guilt because he “was a soldier under soldier’s orders, and he did a soldier’s brutal work” (p. 292). Latour’s assessment of Carson seems the kind of thinking that often brings Christian views of vocation and social status under criticism: namely, the (in this particular case, unspoken but arguably implicit) idea that one must do one’s duty in the station where one has been placed by God. Readers may be reminded once more of Latour’s interactions with Sada in VII.2, in which he comforts the Indian slave woman but fails to effect any lasting change in her social situation. Taken together, the two situations make any unambiguous proclamation of Latour’s beatitude questionable at best.
Latour’s interest in the Navajo people’s suffering may seem, at first glance, an odd element to introduce so late in her book. Although it has been touched on from time to time, here, in the book’s penultimate chapter, we face it most directly. Still, the language in which Latour recalls the Navajo exile and the Long Walk can offer some insight. Readers should pay attention to the particular turns of phrase that Cather chooses to employ. The expulsion of the natives “seemed to [Latour] an injustice that cried to heaven” (p. 291)—a phrase that echoes God’s judgment on Cain’s sin of fratricide in Genesis: “What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10, KJV). Latour has no doubt that the government’s action is sinful, nothing less than the murdering of a brother. His overall impression of the Long Walk is more than reminiscent of the latter verses of Hebrews 11, in which the suffering of God’s people is described: “And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:36-38, KJV). Compare Cather’s language: “Hundreds of them, men, women, and children, perished from hunger and cold on the way… None ever went willingly; they were driven by starvation and the bayonet; captured in isolated bands, and brutally deported” (p. 291). And note the way in which Latour recalls Manuelito’s lament at being forced to leave the sacred ancestral lands: “How… could they go three hundred miles away and live in a strange land?” (p. 293) The language here may allude to Psalm 137, the psalm of lament in which God’s people cry out, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4). By casting the plight of the Navajo in often explicit biblical language, Cather is perhaps showing us that Latour thinks of the Navajo as a contemporary analogue of ancient Israel. They, too, are God’s people, with their own promised land (see the creation myth that Manuelito relates to Latour—“wherever it sank to earth was to be their land,” p. 293), their own precious relationship to the sacred, their own history—and their own exile, their own time of captivity at the hands of a foreign oppressor; and their own release and restoration—when they return to the Canyon de Chelly, the text describes it as “like an Indian Garden of Eden” (p. 295), a return to innocence and uninterrupted fellowship with each other and with the divine. They, too, are God’s people, and thus the recipients of revelation—no small part of why Latour has befriended and served them as well and as faithfully as he has during his missionary career. It is with great sincerity that Latour expresses his satisfaction, as he is near death, that he has lived to see this “great wrong righted” (p. 290): “God has been very good to let me live to see a happy issue to those old wrongs. I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him” (pp. 295-96). At the end of his life, as throughout it, Latour has seen the providential hand of God at work in the New World, and has striven to serve it as best he can—even if he is, as are all people, at times limited in his ability to do so.