October 23, 2013, 67th Anniversary of Seton’s Death
In his short mystical essay, The Buffalo Wind (1938), Seton considered his own passing:
The swift years have gone – the urge becomes a lash. I am going now – I am going with all my strength. So have I sought a homeland under the white Snow Peaks – where Trail meets Trail – and far away, flashing and bright, the Red Man’s River seeks the open sea.
Seton arrived at this level of understanding only after experiencing several spiritual storms during his lifetime. In each case, he gained insight about the esoteric part of nature. The main section of my book Ernest Thompson Seton, the Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist concluded with a consideration of these experiences. In some cases he heard voices, but in one case he did not. He wrote:
A friend loaned me a book, The Shades of Shasta, much of good picture and much of sordid meanness in it. But always when the writer told of Shasta, it was noble. In the end, the Indians of Shasta were massacred – massacred by the Christians – all their love and dreams of the Great Mountain were forgotten. And the writer stood alone on the high shoulder, to look before leaving it all. There was no human sound – the quail whistled in the grass, and the wind moaned in the cedars and the grass, and moaned farewell. My eyes blurred. I knew that he had heard it. The book dropped from my hand, for “The Buffalo Wind is blowing!”
The account of the Shasta Indian’s tragic tale triggered a spiritual storm in Seton, an important moment of existential insight. In this case, however, Seton’s words have given rise to a literary mystery. We have not found a book with the title, The Shades of Shasta.
Intrigued by this, Seton researcher Bob Hare found a different book: Unwritten History: Life Amongst the Modocs by Joaquin Miller, published by the American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut, 1874 and dedicated “To the Red Men of America.” Miller gave an account of his times among the remnant Modoc people. He titled his first chapter, “Shadows of Shasta.” Here are a couple of relevant quotes from Miller; note how close Seton came to remembering the original:
Captain Wright proposed to meet the chiefs in council, for the purpose of making a lasting and permanent treaty. The Indians consented, and the leaders came in. “Go back” said Wright, “and bring in all your people; we will have a council, and celebrate our peace.” The Indians came in great numbers, laid down their arms, and then at a sign Wright and his men fell upon them, and murdered them without mercy. Captain Wright boasted on his return that he had made a permanent treaty with at least a thousand Indians...The mountain streams went foaming down among the boulders between the leaning walls of yew and cedar trees towards Sacramento. The partridge whistled and called his flock together when the sun went down; the brown pheasants rustled as they ran in strings through the long brown grass, but nothing else was heard.
Miller finally met up with a few survivors, although none of those known to him from earlier years were still alive. He quoted one of them:
All along the shores stood deserted lodges, and the grass grew rank and tall around them. They had been depopulated for years... “Once,” [said one of the few survivors] “we were so many we could not all upon this hill; now we are all in one little cawel,”* and here he made a solemn sweep with her arm, which was very grand.
Seton likely read Life Amongst the Modocs decades before writing the Buffalo Wind essay just before his 78th birthday. The power of the experience created by Miller’s words had not diminished. The 1874 book is in digitalized format at www.openlibrary.org.
*I could not find a definition for this word.