“Fugitive Puppets”

by Gerald Vizenor

          Truman La Chance, an orphan at four, Big Rant Beaulieu, abandoned at birth, and Bad Boy Aristotle, shamed and abused by a drunken uncle, were the first native runaways surrounded by the mongrels and counted as stowaways in the silent gestures of native irony, mercy, and the sway of liberty with the spirit of hand puppets at the Theatre of Chance.
          Master Jean Bonga, an audacious child of adventure and visionary justice with the ironic first name of a slaver, lord and master of the ancient fur trade, and Poesy May Fairbanks, the gentle poet of whispers, were the last native runaways to arrive at the ramshackle cabin of the mute puppeteer, Dummy Trout.
          The five mongrels, Hail Mary, an elusive spaniel, Trophy Bay, a mongrel coonhound, Tallulah, the beagle and husky with a contralto bay, George Eliot, a racy mongrel with the blood of a greyhound and retriever, and dinky Dingleberry, a fidgety black and white smooth fox terrier mongrel, snuffled the runaways that crossed the threshold of chance and then one by one the mongrels bumped and nudged with favor each of the natives selected to stay as stowaways.
          Master Jean arrived at the Theatre of Chance with Daniel, a loyal black spaniel mongrel with the first name of Captain Daniel Robertson, a slaver and officer in the British Army.  During the colonial wars in the late eighteenth century the colonial slaver was named commander of Fort Michilimackinac in the Province of Canada.  The captain owned and then emancipated several slaves, including Jean Bonga, a surname of colonial servitude in Martinique.  Master Jean was told by a priest at the mission school that the word bonga in Zulu, a Bantu language of Southern Africa, could be translated as praise, or gratitude.
          Nagamo Trotterchaud, a tiny native woman, was born in a cold wiigiwaam, a wigwam, on the Ash River Trail near Sullivan Bay.  She met George Bonga at a Métis summer dance, and they were married a few months later at the mission on the White Earth Reservation.  Nagamo craved for more time to praise and appreciate her son Master Jean Bonga, but slowly she lost her strength, and withered with fevers, fatigue, and slight pains in her chest, and after several years she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  She was sent straight away to the Ahgwahching State Sanitorium near Walker, Minnesota, and the Leech Lake Reservation.
          George Bonga had enlisted in the United States Army and served in a segregated company as a truck driver for the Red Ball Express during the Second World War and was not aware of the ancient disease, ozosodamwaapinewin, or the curse of tuberculosis in the language of the Anishinaabe.
          Master Jean was a solitary child and desolate without his gentle mother.  He was always hungry that summer of his sixth birthday, and alone for more than a month he learned how to carve the curve of a bow from green ash and make arrows from a juneberry bush as a native hunter.  Yet the wait in the brush to sacrifice an animal for his survival was cocky and clumsy, and wisely he turned to honor animals and birds as native totems.
          Master Jean never forgot the lovely voice of his mother as she sang “Only forever,” and “I’ll never smile again,” every morning as the sun slowly moved through the great maple tree near the tiny cabin.  She learned by heart the popular songs of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.  Nagamo, her only native name, means “she sings” in Anishinaabe.
          Bad Boy, Big Rant, Poesy May, and Master Jean first met at the mission school and later became close friends in the ruins of the Library of Nibwaakaa.  The reservation library was burned to the ground by an arsonist and the books smoldered in silence for several days, and then faint sounds were heard from the gray hazy ruins of the library, the sound of wounded words at the scene of a despicable crime.
          Bad Boy grazed the ashes of the library and found burned copies of King Lear, Hamlet and other tragedies by William Shakespeare, Poetics by Aristotle, and the brilliant essays of Michel de Montaigne.  Big Rant sifted and searched to recover Light in August by William Faulkner, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and other novels.  Poesy May found poetry books in the ashen ruins by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, John Keats, and Walt Whitman.  Master Jean poked the ashes and rescued two burned books about the coureurs de bois of the fur trade, Caesars of the Wilderness and The Voyageur by Grace Lee Nute, a badly charred edition of the History of the Ojibway Nation by William Whipple Warren, and a scorched copy of Hiroshima by John Hersey.
          Bad Boy arrived at the Theatre of Chance with body bruises and a camouflage backpack with two shirts, a pair of black socks, one silver dollar, a pocket watch, a small knife, and burned books.  That first secure night as a stowaway he created a scene of native presence with a few burned pages from the chapter “Of Fear” in the Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne.  The grateful stowaway created stories and trickster scenes from the scorched margins of the book and then interrelated the created scenes with the actual seared remains of the essay on the printed page.
          Bad Boy read the selected scene out loud that first night at the Theatre of Chance.  Such as have been well rubbed in native trickster stories may yet, all wounded and bloody as the beaver in the fur trade brought on again the next day to charge in the ancient tease of shamans as have once conceived a good sound of demonic curse and fury of the enemy, will never be made so much as the last traces of temper and fear in the face.  Such as are the immediate causes of native chance and misery losing their estates, of banishment, or the cruel separation of treaty reservations and plantations, live in perpetual anguish, and lose all native memories of natural motion, heart stories, and dream songs, and repose, whereas such as are actually poor ironic banishment of natives or exiles, ofttimes live as merrily as other deserted cultures of resistance. And the many people who impatient turned to provocateurs of the enemy way with perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or pretended to ridicule and punish themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces only later to rage and convince us sufficiently to understand that fear of old churchy promises of salvation are more importunate and insupportable than death of the poseurs and tricksters of a crafty future.
          Master Jean created heart stories about his ancestors and more from the burned pages of the History of the Ojibway Nation by William Warren.  The author, a descendant of native relations active in the fur trade, was born at La Pointe, Madeline Island, Wisconsin Territory, in 1825.  He died at age fifty-three and before the first publication of his book by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1885.  Warren was fluent in French, English, and Anishinaabe and served with distinction as an interpreter for explorers and federal agents during the late fur trade and later he was honored as a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Minnesota Territory.
          Master Jean leaned forward and read out loud the ironic episodes that he had created and then cleverly related the scenes to the remains of the original pages of the History of the Ojibway Nation.  Take notice that the explorer Jacques Cartier Bonga first made his appearance as a bold native of two continents in the early sixteenth century, and that occurred in the third generation, and after many adventures had passed away since that great union of native liberty in their history.  The elderly native was about sixty years of age at the time he properly celebrated this plate of copper, which he said had been given to him by a shaman of the great winters, direct through a long line of ancestors.  Then, after many years since, and his death has added the secret of the copper plate indentation thereon; making, at this point, nine native scenes and stories of liberty since the Ojibways first resided at La Pointe, and many other heart stories of native totemic generations since their first intercourse with the first continental slavers arrived after the ironic and portentous calculations of navigation by Christopher Columbus.  The Indians were more than nine thousand nautical miles from the island named Guanahani by the native Taino of the West Indies.
          Master Jean turned Jacques Cartier, the predatory explorer who bumptiously claimed the entire continent of North America and thousands of native cultures, trade routes, and geographic mappery in the name of La France, into an ironic character with the second great surname of Bonga.  Master Jean Bonga was the master of new stories of continental liberty.  Nagamo, his late mother, recorded the birth names Master Jean Bonga with a sense of ironic favor and native romance, and in turn the arrogant favor of Jacques Cartier was created with a second surname of ancient slavery in Nouvelle France.
          “The Zulu explorer in my native heart stories might have celebrated the natural motion of the continent with the word Bonga, a place of honor, gratitude, reverence, and with the daily tributes of native liberty,” declared Master Jean Bonga.
          Jean Bonga and Marie Jeanne Bonga were emancipated by Captain Daniel Robertson at Michilimackinac in 1787.  France allowed colonial agents, priests, military officers, and others to liberate their slaves.  Jean and Marie Jeanne married and later established the first hotel and tavern, and raised four children, Pierre, Etienne, Rosalie, and Charlotte on Mackinac Island.
          Etienne was a voyageur in the fur trade for the North West Company, and later for the American Fur Company.  Pierre was a fur trader and a translator at Fond du Lac and he was named the makade wiiyaas, a black person, by some of the natives.  He was a fluent speaker of Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe in colonial nominations, and easily understood that makade was the word for black, wiiyass was meat, and makwa was bear.  His wife was native, and his son George was educated in Montreal, and Stephen studied for the ministry in Albany, New York.
          George Bonga was a translator for Louis Cass, the Brigadier General, noted Freemason, politician, slave owner, graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Governor of Michigan Territory.  Stephen Bonga was the primary interpreter for federal agents and the Wisconsin Territorial Governor Henry Dodge at Fort Snelling.
George and his Anishinaabe wife lived near Leech Lake and established a hotel after the decline of the fur trade.  The beaver, muskrat, and many other animals, and some totemic associations, were close to extinction as mere peltry after more than a century of greedy hunters and heart of stone traders.  The voyageurs carried out the custom of erotic camp songs and stories about long portages and native women after the daily decimation of furry animals.
          George, the amateur hotelier, was a memorable storier, and his twentieth century namesake, the obscure decorated veteran of the Red Ball Express in World War Two and distant descendant of slaves, had inherited nothing more than the easy cut and run stories of native traders and a perceptive and estranged son who became a stowaway and puppeteer at the Theatre of Chance.
          “Jean Bonga was a domestic slave, and there would be no me without slavery,” said Master Jean.  “Curious, strange, even spectacular that a successor of colonial slavery becomes a native stowaway and puppeteer with a military bugle on a segregated treaty reservation.”
          “The slave masters of irony,” said La Chance.
          “French Jesuits were crafty slavers,” said Bad Boy.
          Master Jean wrote to his mother once or twice a week with lively stories about the nuns and students at the mission school and told her in every letter how much he was touched as a child by the sound of her beautiful voice every morning.  Nagamo responded to every letter from her son with memories of their time together, and never once mentioned her condition or disease.  Master Jean received a short notice that winter from the Ahgwahching State Sanitorium that Nagamo Trotterchaud died peacefully in her sleep on Sunday, January 7, 1945.
          Master Jean wrote only four letters to his father in the past twenty years.  The first letter, short and printed on the side of a brown paper bag, was about his hunger, but the letter was never delivered to his father during the Second World War.
          The second letter was written on white lined paper and posted from the mission boarding school.  “Good place with new friends, and every meal is a celebration, and the big priest wants me to become an archer and take part in state competition as a mission student, but the practice targets are not for me because nothing anchored or permanent is ever real to me.  My heart is a natural motion, and everything in the natural world is in motion, but history, social studies, sermons, and targets are printed on dead paper and with no natural motion.  The nuns at the mission school tried to distract me from the natural motion of my heart.”
          Master Jean wrote a third letter to his father when he quit the mission school and became a stowaway at the Theatre of Chance.  “My letter is the chance in natural motion, you know, the same as the seasons, and every season is never the same.  My good thoughts about chance and motion were not accepted at the mission school, and then the priest told me that the hand puppets and parleys are wicked, as wicked as my thoughts about chance.  So, the reason for my escape from the mission school was the easy stories and teases of chance in the company of other stowaways.
          “The Theatre of Chance is now my heart story, and the wild puppet parleys are the most creative mockery of the old mission play of providence.  That probably bothers you, but chance is my time, my place, and my adventure of natural motion, and chance saved me from the fakery of confessions as the way to salvation.”
          Master Jean wrote the last letter to his father George Bonga from a converted school bus that was parked near the Iron Pergola at Pioneer Square.  The stowaways had traveled on the Theatre of Chance to the Seattle World’s Fair in the late summer of 1962.  George was always on the move, but no one considered his moves to be natural motion.  He married a practical nurse, and they lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
          The last letter was written on proper stationary with the faint watermark pattern of natural scenes. “The Second World war lingers here, and everywhere, and with every raspy sigh and overnight shouts and nightmares of wounded, lost, and deserted veterans.  They barely sleep under threadbare military blankets and some veterans are covered with nothing more than a few pages of a newspapers in abandoned buildings and at every den and doorway near Pioneer Square.
          “Atomic 16, for instance, has taken part in the puppet parleys.  He is a wounded veteran and a new friend of the stowaways.  Other veterans gave him the deadly nickname for the scent of sulfur because he was exposed to radiation during military clean up duties at Hiroshima.  Yesterday we presented a puppet parley between Edward Teller, the physicist who created the horrible thermonuclear bomb named Castle Bravo, and the Japanese survivors on a fishing boat named the Lucky Dragon.  The hand puppets played out the irony of a lucky tuna boat and a nuclear disaster that destroyed Bikini Atoll.  Why would anyone want to test the most wicked and deadly weapon in human history?  Why?  The war ended almost ten years ago.  Teller lied about Robert Oppenheimer and now he’s honored as some sort of evil genius.  Does that mean that nuclear poison is the outcome of science and civilization?  You were lucky, and by chance, as a truck driver, even though your unit was segregated.  You only had to worry about the cannons, machine guns, enemy aircraft, and not about a slow and painful death caused by exposure to nuclear radiation.
          “Dummy Trout and the stowaways return to the reservation in about two weeks, and after a puppet parley between Samuel Beckett, the French playwright, and Sitting Bull, the Lakota visionary.  We plan to stage the parley on a crowded street in San Francisco and later at the campus of the University of California in Berkeley.  The title of the puppet parley is Waiting for Wovoka.”
          A few months after the last letter from the Theatre of Chance was delivered, George Bonga and his wife Hiraya had vanished, and later the post office hearsay on the reservation circulated the sketchy story that the secretive couple had moved forever to the Philippines.  The best contrivers and artists of native hearsay were hardly ever revealed, and there were no obvious traces to uncover the source of the grapevine move to Southwest Asia.
          Dummy Trout, the silent puppeteer, carved distinctive hand puppets only from fallen birch trees, created ironic parleys, and traveled last year in a converted school bus christened the Theatre of Chance with five stowaways, six loyal mongrels, and four relations who had served with La Résistance in France during the Second World War, Basile Hudon Beaulieu, the writer, and his brother Aloysius Hudon Beaulieu, the native fauvist and expressionist painter, By Now Rose Beaulieu, a résistance nurse during the Nazi Occupation of Paris, and her marvelous man Prometheus Postma.      


“Fugitive Puppets” is a chapter form Theatre of Chance, an unpublished sequel to the novel, Waiting for Wovoka, by Gerald Vizenor.   


Gerald Vizenor is a prolific writer, literary critic and storier. Throughout his career, he has written over 40 books in a variety of genres, including 12 novels, several critical and historical works and numerous essays. These include Manifest Manners, Fugitive Puppets and Native Provenance, along with BearheartThe Heirs of ColumbusHiroshima BugiFather Meme, and Favor of CrowsBlue Ravens and his latest novel, Waiting for Wovoka. He is a citizen of the White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabe in Minnesota and Professor Emeritus at University of California, Berkeley. Vizenor has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including the American Book Award, Mark Twain Award and PEN Oakland’s Josephine Miles Award. He was a delegate and principal writer of the new constitution of the White Earth Nation, ratified by native citizens in 2009.