THE PEACE CORPS WAS SEEN by its founders as an actual development agency a potentially large (25,000 Volunteers perhaps) and an important one. In 1961 no one involved in the start-up of the Peace Corps would have thought that by late 2004 a fine new book by Scott Zesch (Kenya 198284) about nine German-American children snatched from the Texas Hill Country by Comanche and Apache warriors between 1865 and 1871, would finally bring Peace Corps Third Goal full-circle, and home.
What is really neat is that this RPCV book isnt about Zesch falling in with foreign natives while asking not. It tells what happened in old Comanche country when he accidentally discovers a faded tombstone with his name all over it. We learn in sometimes harrowing detail what happened to his Great Uncle Adolph Korn when he was kidnapped by Apaches while herding sheep for a neighboring farm on January 1, 1870. After a few days Adolph was traded to a bellicose band of Comanches for a sorrel horse, a pistol, and a blanket. After proving his mettle in several trials, Adolph then lived with them as a plains horse Indian for twenty-some months. Thats just one story. There are many more.
Discovering his great uncles lost gravesite, Zesch follows a trail back to a time on the Texas frontier where roaming bands of Indians were losing land to his immigrant German ancestors. The Indians, for their part, abducted the German children for political and financial ransom, and to replenish their diminishing ranks of warriors. After an apprenticeship of merely nine months," writes Zesch, "the fourteen-year-old white boy had developed a taste for raids and battles.
So Zesch, in The Captured, has done for abducted, stolen white kids and their Indian host country nationals (HCNs) what a thousand or so Peace Corps writers have done for the Third World: contribute to the education of America.
Oklahoma readers of this book will know that if they find themselves standing in line at Wal-Mart behind a big red guy with black braids, that he comes from a culture that once-upon-a-time hands-down, in head-to-head, one-on-one competition, beat ours. For, as Zesch writes, Captivity had clearly been the high point of their lives, a part of them would always belong on the other side. This book is a humbling read.
Zesch catches up with his Great Uncle Adolph Korns Indians in the same moment as we 1960s Volunteers found Africa: a colonized, rapidly westernizing culture slowly falling to pieces in, as anthropologists coldly define it, a cultural interpenetration zone. But because he is a thorough and scholarly researcher, Zesch also entered as far as now possible from this remove Adolphs cultural and psychological mazeway: an individuals own complex mental image of nature, society, culture, personality, and body image. From the books, court house records, libraries, and family memories, concluding with a visit to the Comanche Reservation in Oklahoma to get a reading on his research which, in fact, held up to elders memories and oral traditions. Out of all of this, Zesch pulled six persisting features about the white Indians after their Indian wars were over and they returned home:
- They couldnt stay cooped up indoors.
- They couldnt settle in one place.
- They couldnt hold a regular job.
- They couldnt stay married.
- Consciously or not, they held fast to their Native American teaching.
- Eventually, some of them drifted back to the Indians.
Sound like any RPCV we have known?
I have only two quibbles with the book. First, lets call them Indians, not Native Americans. (Indians call themselves In-din.) Covering all bases, several times Zesch uses both terms in the same sentence.
Secondly, the final chapter wherein Zesch visits the actual scene of Great Uncle Korns capture by the Apaches 133 years ago, is disappointing to even him. He drives to the bleak, nondescript place in Mason County on the banks of the Llano River where family memory tells him the incident took place. One suspects Zesch was himself looking for that transfiguring moment when the shade of Adolph this poor kid who later spent years estranged from his embarrassed family, reverting to his Comanche ways and living as a hermit in a cave in the hills near where he grew up would somehow come to him, make himself felt. It is a let down.
As Cayuse Indian horse elders say, Want to In-din-up? Get on a horse. What Zesch should have done at this moment was follow his own tracks back to where he himself grew up, a cattle ranch not far away where, as a kid, he rode his own horse past old Indian camps, finding arrowheads, cave paintings and such. These white kids had not become mere Indians. They had become horse warriors, a breed apart and thats why they never settled down. His Great Uncle Adolph Korn became a daredevil, juvenile horse thief who wasnt content to play it safe if he could set off a hair-raising chase or a little gunplay. He rode their best mounts; he was sent on reconnaissance missions; he even commanded a band of Comanches in battle.
Find Adolph? Hell, Scott, you should have just gone home, saddled up, checked the cinch, and then took off at a flat-out, hell-bent-for-leather gallop. And like a long ago Plateau Indian, singing out: My horse is swifter than the shooting star, he can outstrip the wind. Your uncle, young Adolph Korn (18591900), would have been right there stirrup to stirrup grinning and whooping it up!
A horseman, Tom Hebert lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation just outside Pendleton, Oregon where he is consultant to the Confederated Tribes (the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla) on tribal cultural affairs including a horse program. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org