Red Prophet and the Noble Savage

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In the novel “Red Prophet,” there is a woman weaving history on her loom. She is part of an unbroken line of women, who sit and weave white thread which dyes itself, on a cloth that seems to have no beginning and will never have an ending. She came to America from Europe, when one of her ancestresses saw the fabric of the loom branch off. Her daughter is half-Native American, and her daughter weaves from the Native stronghold on the far side of the Mississippi. Because someone must be there to weave that history.

This family literally embodies history. So what of America before they came? By the logic of this magic, there was no history in America before these white women came to weave. There were just people in some fuzzy, vague past.

It can be tough for white writers to do a good job representing Native American culture. Many writers who want portray Native Americans in a positive light, like Orson Scott Card in “Red Prophet,” end up frankly botching it by falling into the trap of the “noble savage.”

Card’s Native Americans and mystical “noble savages,” literally at one with the land because they can hear the land in a way white people can’t. The Native American characters are either victimized drunks or perfect warriors. The tribes of the Native peoples, with the exception of the peripheral alternate-history Iroquois, are interchangeable. That is a far cry from the portrayal of the French, who are at all times clearly different from the Americans.

White civilization and Indian civilization are portrayed as intrinsically opposed because the white seek to subjugate nature, while the Native Americans seek to live in harmony with it–never mind the vast agricultural apparatus of native peoples, or the ancient cities that several tribes built over the centuries in Missouri and Arizona.

This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t play with some interesting ideas. Spoilers from here on out:

William Henry Harrison, most famous in real American history for not wearing a coat and catching fatal pneumonia at his inauguration, leads a massacre of a Native American city. 9000 men, women, and children die in the massacre. It turns out that they knew their fates, and that they were led to death by their Prophet. The Prophet foresaw the possible path of our history–Native Americans on reservations, their culture diluted and lost–and bartered their lives to escape it. Their one great massacre was exchanged for the various smaller massacres that litter the history of Native Americans and white Americans. Their blood bought testimony, bought magic that forced the truth of shame on the men who murdered them. It’s a strange idea, and fascinating.

Card could not portray these massacres while holding to the more dualistic principles of “Seventh Son.” After all, the men who do the murdering aren’t evil. They’re the very family we spent the previous novel growing to love. And Armor, who allied himself with the devil in the first book, is the only white man to argue for the Native Americans, and who did not participate in the massacre.

The book asks interesting questions about history and human nature–the magic of alternate history lives to perhaps its fullest potential in flawed masterpieces like “Red Prophet.”

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