FEBRUARY 20, 2019
IN 2015 at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, LeAnne Howe read the first act of Savage Conversations, her most recent play/poem/novel/historical nightmare. She introduced the work by explaining that in 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s widow, was confined to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois. Among other indications of insanity, Todd Lincoln insisted that each night an American Indian spirit entered her room and tortured her, often sawing the bones from her cheeks. In Todd Lincoln’s diary from that time, she wrote, according to Howe, “The Indian […] slits my eyelids and sews them open, always removing the wires by dawn’s first light.”
Savage Conversations features only three characters: Mary Todd Lincoln (“She wears a wrinkled dress with Tad Lincoln’s pistol hidden in the pocket.”), Savage Indian (“One of the thirty-eight Dakota men hanged the day after Christmas in 1862.”), and The Rope (“Both a man and the image of a hangman’s noose used in the largest mass execution in United States history.”). At her reading at the Loft Literary Center, Howe said she envisioned a small, stylized, and stripped-down set for this story — that she saw it being filmed in black-and-white as though for early television. Howe’s earlier books — Choctalking on Other Realities, Miko Kings, Shell Shaker, and more — all experiment with and meld forms. Howe is a genre chemist, mixing disparate textual, visual, and auditory techniques to create singular narrative energy. Savage Conversations, for example, makes the gesture of containing even artwork, though it seems to have been left out, blocking off entire pages with unnerving text: “Artwork of The Rope found at Fort Snelling”; “Artwork of Mary Todd Lincoln and Savage Indian admiring The Rope’s creations”; “Artwork of Mary Todd Lincoln’s hands, up close, making her own noose.”
The context for Savage Conversations is vicious. On December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln, 38 Dakota Indians were publicly executed. This was in retaliation for the Sioux Uprising, and it took place the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. A legally sanctioned execution never had, and hasn’t since, been carried out on this scale. Special scaffolding was built to make 38 simultaneous hangings possible. Four thousand white people cheered and shouted through the event.
Largely ignored throughout much of American history, the memory of this event was partially reignited after President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans on December 19, 2009. No tribal leaders or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the apology on behalf of tribal nations. It was quietly packaged into a larger piece of unrelated legislation. In her 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning poetry collection Whereas, the poet Layli Long Soldier tries to reconcile the dismissal contained in the apology. She reflects that her “unalienable” rights cannot legally be claimed when constructed into the “whereas” statements used throughout the apology. Long Soldier writes, “[W]hatever comes after the word ‘Whereas’ and before the semicolon in a Congressional document falls short of legal grounds, is never cause to sue the Government, the Government’s courts say.” She interrogates the backward-speak of government language and the way it slinks from accountability. She writes, “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe […] in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”
Long Soldier in Whereas and Howe in Savage Conversations both delineate some of the central lines of the dark and twisted path to the execution of the 38 Dakota Indians in Minnesota. As was repeatedly the case across the United States throughout time, it involved aggressive land and resource theft by the US government. It involved tricking and lying to the American Indian people until they were in a bereft and devastated position. There were backbreaking treaty-betrayals preceding the Sioux Uprising of 1862 that led to mass starvation. In Susan Power’s introduction to Savage Conversations, she writes about the trader Andrew Myrick, who refused to extend American Indian people credit, and who is quoted as saying something along the lines of “If they are hungry, let them eat grass or dung.” Long Soldier recalls this same offense. She writes in Whereas:
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
But the day after Christmas in 1862, the white settlers carried out their self-righteous revenge upon the Dakota people — under the guise of justice, which then got installed into the historical memory. In a scene in Savage Conversations, Howe describes The Rope as “seething”:
Flashes of light,
A hissing in the ears, like a locomotive
Rounding a tight curve,
A violent struggle, faces distorting […]
Again and again, the American Indian, silenced.
Among other things, Savage Conversations is an interrogation of the depth and rot of American racism and the way it has always distorted the minds of everyone, even our political icons. Howe channels the horror that bubbled to the surface as Todd Lincoln’s mind deteriorated. Todd Lincoln wears the tattered nightdress she has had on for nearly a year straight — not bathing, not sleeping — in fear also of a “Wandering Jew” who would take the money she had sewn into her dirty pajamas. Pacing around the moonlit room with a revolver in her pocket, Todd Lincoln mutters:
I was the STAUNCH ABOLITIONIST in the Todd clan,
More committed to freedom than the God of Abraham,
More committed to freeing the slaves than the radical wing of the
Republican delegation […]
Now here I am imprisoned in an asylum,
My eyes cracking like egg yolks […]
Howe imagines Todd Lincoln in a sort of terrified ecstasy, longing for touch, unable to escape, unable to close her eyes. At the Loft Literary Center, in the same state where the mass execution took place, Howe talked about how she wanted a giant set of eyes, with the lids sewn open, as the backdrop for the stage and film production. “I just could not imagine this for her, that this is what she believed was happening to her every night,” Howe said. “All of these stereotypes are just there in her consciousness.”
One of the startling undertakings of Savage Conversations is realizing the darkness of Todd Lincoln’s mind and still finding a way to care and worry for her. Though this is what we have always done, especially in regard to the lost Lincoln children. “Trust to it, in the future there will again be a rain of sorrow for me,” Todd Lincoln says in Savage Conversations. “Mother to the dead and dying, that’s what they will say.” Even contemporary cultural tent poles like the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln or the George Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo teach us to empathize with these purely rendered figures. But Savage Conversations operates without sentimental nostalgia; it fixes its gaze on the horror that is omnipresent in American history, even by our favorite figures. “You killed innocent children,” Mary Todd Lincoln shouts at Savage Indian, and Savage Indian shouts back, “So did you!”
In some ways, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln had a close and companionable life together. In the spirit of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, they consulted and advised each other on matters regularly over the course of their lives. Howe even conveys some of the real fire between them. In Savage Conversations, Todd Lincoln reflects upon her late husband:
On occasion I walk the landscape of your smells,
Your crop of thick hair and full lips,
The aftertaste you once left in my mouth.
In other ways, they had dark familial struggles, often extreme. In Susan Power’s introduction, she writes about Todd Lincoln’s desperate need for attention — first from her father as a daughter among 15 siblings, and then from her husband and his brutal schedule and professional obligations. Disturbingly, in Savage Conversations, Howe conjectures that it was actually Todd Lincoln who killed three of the four Lincoln children — via Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Evidence shows that the Lincoln children seemed to revive when they were in the care of people other than their mother but would fail again soon after Todd Lincoln returned to “dose them.” Savage Indian says to Todd Lincoln:
I have seen the ghosts of Abraham, Eddie, Willie, even Tad,
Shrink when you enter a room,
Shadows escaping your burning sun.
What happens next, Gar Woman?
You’ve swallowed all but one of your eggs.
In real life, Robert Todd Lincoln, Mary’s only surviving child, testified against her in the trial that led to her being institutionalized. In Savage Conversations, Todd Lincoln wants him dead for it, or maybe simply because she missed him the first time:
Tell me, Robert, is there a God that can stop me from killing —
My boy — you?
I would like to skin you like a fetid fish,
Feed your conscience to worms,
Poor creatures, they would starve on so thin a meal.
Similar to how Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 movie Pan’s Labyrinth uses 1944 Francoist Spain as a setting for a dark fairy tale, Savage Conversations uses the experience of insanity to reflect on the historical record. Both Pan’s Labyrinth and Savage Conversations make primal use of the contrast between dreamy delight and horrifying violence, and the uncanny territory between the two. Both works feature trapped female characters under the psychological and physical rule of tyrants. Both are deeply, scarily specific.
Fantasy, horror, dreams, and nightmares are useful narrative methods for mining the spiritual violence of oppression. While the Savage Indian of this play is representative of one set of victims, the symbolism bleeds across the United States, everywhere native people have been separated from their land, where they have been robbed and murdered and exploited. In her 2013 essay collection Choctalking on Other Realities, Howe reflects on a story told to her by an indigenous person from Australia, about how the English instigated germ warfare by smearing the smallpox virus on blankets they traded to the Aborigines. Howe writes,
I immediately thought of Lord Jeffery Amherst; how he had allowed the trading of smallpox blankets to the American Indians in 1763. Smallpox wiped out whole tribes. Amherst, Massachusetts, was named after Lord Jeffery, and later Amherst College was named for the town.
It is not just in any one part of the United States where our self-righteous history is actually rotted. It is everywhere. Savage Conversations operates with a savage intimacy that goes beneath the skin, that creeps and bleeds and transubstantiates back into something that haunts us, that reminds us in a Faulknerian sense that the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. In a chilling 3:00 a.m. scene, Savage Indian places Mary Todd Lincoln’s wedding ring on his finger and says, “Who says Abe is dead?”
Regardless of the pathway toward and through death, everything in Savage Conversations ascends back up, as though on the verge of a great reckoning. From inside a coffin, Savage Indian says:
Ten million Natives in the New World in 1492.
Nine million Natives dead by 1860.
Thirty-eight Dakhóta hanged December 26, 1862.
Two hundred thousand Natives surviving in 1890.
Five million Natives alive in the New World in 2010.
Our seven council fires burn undaunted,
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, Poetry Foundation, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, The Millions, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.