Hyemeyohsts Storm’s 1972 book Seven Arrows is a very unusual work, a cross between historical fiction and an exegesis of the religious beliefs of the Native American people we now think of as being the tribes of the northern high plains of the United States, specifically the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Crow. Storm takes pains at the beginning to provide the names these tribes used for themselves: the Painted Arrow, the Brother People, and the Little Black Eagle. (These names may not be in the same order as the first list.) The only book in my experience that similarly combines a historical record with religious philosophy is the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, Seven Arrows weaves the two together, while the Bible’s historical parts are largely in the Old Testament.
Seven Arrows begins with a series of short pieces which introduce the reader to essential religious concepts: the Medicine Wheel, the Circle, and the Seven Arrows. “Medicine,” in the usage of the Native peoples, means far more than the limited way it’s used among whitepeople, as Storm calls those of European descent. I admit I have not even begun to really grasp the full depth and meaning of the term.
The circle is a fundamental symbolic figure, also endowed with many deep and varied meanings. The seven arrows point to the four cardinal directions, up, down, and to the individual. The cardinal directions in particular have special and specific religious meanings and associated colors and animals: North—wisdom, white, buffalo; East—illumination, yellow, eagle; South—innocence, green, mouse; and West—introspection, black, and bear. Taken together, these form the philosophical core of these peoples’ beliefs, but to say that only scratches the surface.The bulk of the book tells the stories of people of these tribes as they deal with the encroachment of whitepeople, told from the perspective of the Native people themselves. Storm could have taken a polemical approach, especially given when the book was written. Instead he tells the story simply, revealing the conflicts within and among the tribes as they try to understand and deal with this new, powerful, and technologically superior force, which has so upset their previous way of life. Some argue for sticking to their peaceful ways, the Way of the Medicine Wheel and the Sun Dance, while others argue that force must be met by force.
Storm employs a clever technique when describing conversations between his people and whitemen. It’s the whites whose speech is represented in pidgin dialect, which from the Native point of view, makes sense. It’s the whitemen who are speaking the natives’ languages incorrectly, when they do, and the dialect reflects how the Natives hear what the whites are saying. To take one example, “Jesus” is written as “Geessis.”
Storm uses the concept of Teachings to introduce the religious elements of the book. While these three tribes spoke different languages, they shared a common sign language, so many times Storm’s protagonist of the moment or teacher will tell a story to other characters by signing it. These stories are always parables, and Storm capitalizes important Words to indicate to the Reader that they have special Meaning, beyond not only what appears on the Surface of the Story but across the Peoples’ entire religion and Teachings. This technique allows him to introduce the philosophical elements of the story without creating jarring interruptions.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with over a hundred archival black-and-white photographs of the Native people and of the animals that are important at each moment of the story. It also includes well over a dozen color illustrations of various shields. These circular objects were hung on the outside of a family’s lodge and served to identify the residents. They also had deep philosophical meaning, as they represented the man’s “true” name, the one he had learned during his “Spirit Walk,” a kind of solo coming-of-age exploration each boy (and perhaps girl) went on as they approached adulthood. The cynic in me says these photographs and illustrations were publisher Ballantine’s way to pad the length of the book, but they do integrate with the story, so this interpretation may be both wrong and unfair.
The book ends awkwardly, without truly finishing. That’s fitting, as the story of the Native people and the whitemen is unfinished too. In the final scene, the last protagonist, Green Fire Mouse, now an old man, is taking his grandchildren fishing. He and they now speak English, and he drives a pick-up truck. The children are being taught Christianity, which Green Fire Mouse has not adopted. But he seems to have accommodated himself to his new reality. Accommodated himself, nothing more.
I originally purchased this book as one of several that were going to be texts for a Native American Literature class. The class was cancelled due to lack of interest—a sad irony given that it was at a university in Oklahoma—but I’m glad I decided to keep the book. Seven Arrows provides a fascinating look inside a culture which is, to the whiteman, foreign, even while being all around us. It is religious without being heavy-handed, and the Teachings often only hint at the deeper meanings they hold under their surfaces.