John Joseph Mathews (Osage) (1894-1979)
Contributing Editor: Andrew O. Wiget
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The principal issue in Sundown is the notion of progress. Students frequently identify progress with material improvements in life-style or increasingly complex technology. This selection questions whether those are the true marks of civilization. To see this, however, students must realize that this selection comprises two parts, each of which portrays a different moment, widely separated in time in the life of the principal character, Chal Windzer. Chal (short for "Challenge," so named because his father wanted him to be a challenge to the new generation) is a teenager in the first section, still closely identified with some element of his traditional Osage life-style. Note, however, that he is moving rapidly toward accepting the values of Anglos, as is suggested by his distance from the group of Indians he encounters during the storm.
The second section of the story occurs over a decade later. Chal has gone off to the University of Oklahoma, where he has been exposed to prejudice, bigotry, and romance. Falling in love with a white girl, he comes to despise his Indian appearance and later tries to pass himself off as a Spanish (not Mexican) gentleman. During World War I, he serves in the Army Air Force as an aviator and develops a passion for flying, which fulfills his need for a career. He loves the excitement, the danger, the thrill of flying. After serving in the Army Air Force, he returns home where he falls back into an indolent life-style, marked by long periods of drunkenness. He is just coming out of one of these periods, referred to in the last section of this selection, when he attends the hearings at which Roan Horse speaks.
In addition to providing background plot information, I also certainly call attention to certain literary devices. For example the oil derricks symbolize both the march and retreat of "progress." I'd also remind students a little bit of the history of this period of time. Osages were exempted from the provisions of the Dawes General Allotment Act, along with the Five Civilized Tribes, because they held their land under patented title, not by treaty. The surface of their reservation land had been allotted and much of it alienated through sale, but the mineral rights were retained by the Osage tribe in common and leases were given out. In the 1920s, royalties from these leases brought the tribe up to 20 million dollars per year, divided equally, amounting to around 25 thousand dollars per capita. A county court in Oklahoma had declared the Osages incompetent to manage their estates and had appointed guardians who charged a fee to manage these estates. Between exorbitant fees and the malfeasance of these guardians, much money and land was lost to the Osages.
In 1925, Congress transferred supervision of these mineral rights from the county court alone to the county court working in conjunction with the Osage agency. The federal investigators referred to in the last section are not only members of Congress but agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The so-called "Osage Oil Murders" are a historical event of great notoriety and served to establish the credibility of the FBI as a law enforcement agency. As Mathews indicates, a conspiracy evolved to murder people who owned rights to oil land so that their inheritors would receive those rights. By murdering the inheritors, the conspirators planned to channel those rights into the hands of one person, an Anglo man who had married an Osage woman. She was the last person on the hit list, which today still leaves a trail of twenty-four unsolved murders and bombings.
The Osage oil boom needs to be understood in the context of the free-for-all capitalist economy of the 1890s and the first two decades of this century, during which the excesses of the Robber Barons were finally curbed by the creation of federal regulatory agencies. From the point of view of Indians in Oklahoma, however, the real question that needs to be asked is this: What happens to a community of people who go from a subsistence economy, based on communal land, barter, and credit, to an excess of cash, in the neighborhood of 25 thousand dollars per person per year (at the value of the 1920s dollar), all within the space of one generation? How does such a change affect people's values, beliefs, and behaviors?
Students seem concerned about the ambivalence of the ending, especially about whether or not Chal is really capable of being a challenge to his generation, as his father had hoped. After reading about Chal's life of indolence, it is difficult for students to believe that he will make such a bold move, requiring such a commitment of effort, especially if that move is motivated only by observing the very brief appearance of Roan Horse. On the other hand, Chal has shown the desire to be a warrior, and he has great ambitions. Does the ending mark a real turning point in his life?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
I would highlight the structure of the boom town society that appears in the beginning of the selection. I would indicate the characters' attitudes toward the upcoming storm (bad for business, dangerous) and contrast that with the attitudes of some of the older Indians, such as Black Elk. In between we have younger Indians, such as Sun-On-His-Wings and Chal.
The various attitudes that each of these people takes toward the onset of the storm and toward the damage that the storm does provide a keen insight into the different sets of values that are coming together under the pressure of "progress" and assimilation in this reservation community.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
I would point to the oil derricks as a symbol of "progress"; I would also look at the change in Chal's character between the first section and the second section. It's especially important that students try to understand Chal's apparent indifference and his drunkenness as a response to an excess of easy money in the absence of compelling community values. The recognition of this, on Chal's part, is what moves him to respond so affirmatively to Roan Horse's brief speech.
This book was published in the 1930s, where it met a receptive audience of people in the middle of the depression, who understood the tremendous personal cost and human devastation that was brought about by the unchecked exploitation of natural resources and poor people. In this context, especially, American Indians were highlighted as an oppressed minority within the United States. In 1928 the Meriam Report, commissioned by the U.S. government, found that Indians had a mortality rate twice as high as the white population, an infant mortality rate three times as high as the white population, and that in spite of all this, the government had been spending only fifty cents per year on the health care of each Indian. Statistics like this shocked the nation, and Indians became the object of renewed federal attention. Under the Roosevelt administration, the U.S. government took a number of important steps to redress these failures of its trust relationship, though many of them, such as the Indian Reorganization Act (1934), which allowed tribes to form their own governments with written constitutions, were controversial. Nevertheless, Mathews's work needs to be seen as speaking to the notion that the major difficulties on Indian reservations come from what today we would call a "culture of poverty." And that these can be remedied by government treatment.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Insofar as Mathews gives us a good picture of the transition on Indian reservations, he can be compared usefully to Oskison and Bonnin. Lynn Riggs's play The Cherokee Night also gives a good picture of the deculturation that has been visited upon American Indians as a result of the abuses in the trust relationship that they had with the U.S. government.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. How do the oil derricks mark the changes in the life of the Osages and also in the personal history of Chal? Why is Chal impressed by Roan Horse's speech?
2. In the first section of the story a young Indian comments about Black Elk: "His body is here but his mind is back in a place where we lived many years ago." How does this observation reflect the forces that are creating the conflict in this story?
3. At the very end of the story, Chal says that he is going to go off to Harvard Law School and become an orator. What do you think is the likelihood of Chal fulfilling this stated goal? How would you support your judgment?
Wiget, Andrew. "Modern Fiction." In Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Wilson, Terry. "Osage Oxonian: The Heritage of John Joseph Mathews." Chronicles of Oklahoma 59 (1981): 264-93.