Dr. P. Kelsey
April 6 2006
Making Connections and Finding the Medicine Bag:
A Comparative Analysis of War and Healing in Red Eagle’s Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey.
In Red Earth of Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey, Philip Red Eagle explores the individual and collective experiences of war in relation to a larger human experience through his meditative development of characters and character interactions. Red Eagle explores themes that are specific to the Native American experience in war, but he also explores connections between various experiences that are not specific to Native Americans. Red Earth serves as a template for a depiction of war through which Red Eagle identifies issues of sameness/difference, oppression, struggle, and healing. Healing, in particular, is a central theme in the novella, as it is a process that is a part of war yet is often forgotten or ignored in written, oral and conceptual understandings of war.
Healing should be an integral part of the war experience, but is often an aspect of war that is neglected by warriors, their loved ones, and the larger society. Red Eagle gives attention to this struggle, offering examples of characters that have different relationships with the process of healing. Tom Heidlebaugh describes the manner in which the novellas “initiate that process of healing” as Red Eagle’s major contribution to making public the Native American warrior’s struggle to return to the world and life after war and bridging the gap between the Native American and European American experiences of war (I). The healing process that Red Eagle initiates is rooted in Native American tradition, but it also interacts with worlds outside of that tradition—ethnic worlds (Vietnamese, American), locational worlds (war grounds, home), and spiritual worlds (visions of the future, interactions between Raymond and his grandfather when he is alive and when he is a spirit, movements between places and time periods). Characters from different worlds communicate with one another, and through this communication they engage in a process of healing from war. Red Eagle constructs interactions among various worlds in order to emphasize the importance of the process of healing, as well as to offer readers one possible way of understanding the relationship between war and healing as a collective, unifying force. His construction also speaks to the larger need for healing as a dimension of both war and human existence.
The Healing Nature of Shared Experiences
In Red Earth, the main character, Raymond Crow-Belt, manages to connect with a process of healing through his relationship with his grandfather, a man who is deeply attached to his ancestral roots, tradition, and a spiritual realm. Grandfather Crow-Belt is the tool that Red Eagle uses to communicate the process of healing with Raymond, as well as with readers. Raymond’s grandfather is his link to his past, his self/identity, and his future (the other side of war that is only achieved through healing). Red Eagle constructs Grandfather Crow-Belt as a central figure that embodies one kind of healing, the healing of reconnecting Raymond with his ancestral roots and identity. The relationship between Raymond and his Grandfather fosters a sense of belonging in Raymond that restores and heals him. Grandfather Crow-Belt shares advice and sympathizes with Raymond, and his presence in Raymond’s childhood sets the stage for Raymond’s adult experiences, allowing him to better understand his experiences and make wide decisions. This, in turn, provides the reader with a sense of the collective element that is present in war and necessary for healing (i.e. the sharing nature of Raymond’s relationship with his grandfather through interacting mediums). In this way, Grandfather Crow-Belt is also Red Eagle’s literary tool to connect characters, elements of the plot, places, realities, and movements between time periods (past, present and future).
Raymond’s grandfather is present at various moments throughout the narrative—from beginning to end—but his presence is not always manifest in the same form. At the beginning of the novella, Raymond is a child who interacts with his living grandfather, and his grandfather advises him about war. When Grandfather Crow-Belt describes Wakan, saying, “There is no magic. Just the mystery and power of what is,” he makes a connection with Raymond that is necessary for Raymond’s process of healing (Red Eagle 16). By separating the concept of magic from the spiritual experiences that he considers to be a natural part of life, Grandfather Crow-Belt prepares Raymond for the spiritual interactions that he will share with his grandfather later in the narrative. Through this interaction, Red Eagle prepares his readers to accept the spiritual process of healing as one that is not imaginary or magical, but instead organic and genuine.
Grandfather Crow-Belt’s early advice (for Raymond to understand life experiences as reality rather than magic), carries a literal meaning and is central to development of the plot because the statements inform readers that Grandfather Crow-Belt’s advice is to be accepted as a reliable explanation for the supernatural scenes throughout the narrative. Through spiritual experiences (or visions), Raymond communicates with his grandfather to make sense of his experiences in war and feelings about those experiences, but also to develop a connection to home and find peace in his transition from one world into another: from the world of war to home, from war to the past and the future, from home to the past. The presence of Grandfather Crow-Belt in Raymond’s life is a source of healing that inspires him to re-connect with himself by returning to his grandfather’s house after Nam, and it initiates his healing process by providing Red Eagle with information and resources. Red Eagle’s narrator describes the transition from Raymond’s spiritual experience with his grandfather to his uncovering of the contents that his grandfather had left him in a sugar can and shoe box under the floor boards. He describes Raymond’s transition—that “he began to have good dreams and visions” and “after many hours preparing in the sweat lodge, listening to the elders and years doing research into his heritage, he found his darkness” (Red Eagle 48). Raymond’s connection to his grandfather and identity is maintained by the same processes through which the connection has been signaled (through visions and dreams), but the connection is also maintained through extensions of those processes that require a pro-active approach.
Raymond’s spiritual connection with his grandfather affords him greater wisdom than he would have had on his own, signals his interest in finding himself (the self that is hard to find after war), and provides him with “an opportunity to make things different” by seeking refuge in safe-spaces. Raymond recovers his sense of belonging and finds inspiration in the act of reconnecting himself with his ethnic history by surrounding himself with the comfort of his elders and their stories (Red Eagle 30). Not only does his engagement with his the places and people of his past strengthen and revitalize Raymond’s spirit, but it also allows him a literal and spiritual second chance at making decisions and living life. By spending time with his family, Raymond is engaging in a a process of healing that is both personal and collective.
In addition to receiving support, Raymond also receives direct advice from his grandfather that allows him to make informed decisions about what is in his best interest. For example, upon spotting Raymond’s M-16 rifle (a common tool of war), Grandfather Crow-Belt says, “I don’t touch them anymore, Raymond. Not since my war” (Red Eagle 30). Grandfather Crow-Belt’s comment reveals a choice that he made when he returned from war in order to cope with his own traumatic experiences. His words send a message to Raymond, as well as to readers, about the need to separate oneself from things that may repeatedly trigger emotional responses. The connection that Raymond and his grandfather share as warriors is manifest in each of their relationships with and feelings toward the M-16. Despite having participated in different wars, they are able to connect over a common object. While the M-16 is Red Eagle’s literary tool to connect Raymond with his grandfather, it also provides Raymond with an option for healing. Grandfather Crow-Belt’s decision to separate himself from that particular emotional trigger implies that the M-16 is symbolic, representing the death and destruction of war that causes him so much sadness. The symbolic quality of the M-16 does not, alone, suggest that the experience of death is personal or collective, but the connection that Raymond and his grandfather make by sharing their feelings toward it does suggest that the experience of death, and therefore, war, is both individual and collective. Red Eagle’s construction of this connection implies that there exists a collective experience of war and points to a process of healing that arises out of familial connections.
Common Oppressions: Communication and the Collective Identity in War
Red Eagle’s construction of Raymond Crow-Belt is also a construction of the plot because Raymond’s personal growth and process of healing are the forces that move the plot along. One section of the narrative that reveals Raymond’s process of healing is “Part Three: Jimmy Johnny’s Zippo.” The scene between Jimmy Johnny and Nguyen draws on the collective nature of the human experience in war and its aftermath. Although Jimmy Johnny does not expect it, Nguyen shows compassion to him during his dying moments. Red Eagle does not clearly specify the reason for Nguyen’s compassion, however, several possibilities might be considered. Nguyen shares personal moments with Jimmy, conversing with him in English, calling him by his first name, and asking him personal questions. These gestures imply that Nguyen feels compassion for Jimmy—either as a dying human being, as a fellow victim of war, as a Native American fighting in a European American man’s war, or as some combination of all three. Nguyen asks him, “Why are you fighting for the oppressor, Jimmy” (Red Eagle 69)? This is a key moment for both characters because they share a common experience in relation to European Americans despite being on opposite sides of a war. Here, Red Eagle emphasizes issues of sameness and difference—Nguyen and Jimmy are different because they are fighting on opposite sides of a war, but they are alike because they share a common oppressor and experience with oppression and colonization. They cross the boundaries that wars traditionally create and enforce by sharing in this moment, a moment during which each is able to experience a certain kind of healing through compassion and kinship. While traditionally members of each side of a war act as enemies to the other, Nguyen and Jimmy Johnny bridge the gap between enemies and challenge the strict dictates of war that encourage men and women to depersonalize their actions (forcing them to break away from or ignore their humanity). Their interaction suggest that there is, indeed, a collective experience of struggle in war, and that it is not diminished by the employment of labels or sides.
It is not surprising that in his poem, “My Return from Nam,” Philip Red Eagle addresses issues of the personal and collective nature of one’s experience with war. The poem, which is more direct and personal in style than Red Earth, captures the struggles that ensue upon the journey of return from war towards a place called home. He first describes his return, writing, “One night/ I fell to earth again/ right into mom & dad’s/ front yard/…right onto mom & dad’s/ nicely trimmed yard” (Red Eagle 1). The experience that he describes is personal because it is the experience of an individual, but it is not personal to the point of being exclusionary. Similarly, the images that he describes are rather general, implying that this experience is not simply one man’s experience of coming home from war, but a collective experience of the return. Red Eagle wrote the poem in a first-person narration, but he wrote first of the narrator’s personal experience and then changed the subject to “stranger” and finally to “this guy” (Red Eagle 1-4). Red Eagle maintains a connection between his subjects and does not drastically change the setting of the return, but as he changes his subjects, he does incorporate new images and ideas into the poem (from “mom & dad’s/ nicely trimmed yard” to “mom & dad’s/ home sweet home” to mom & dad’s/ American Pie) (Red Eagle 1-4). By transitioning between subjects, Red Eagle emphasizes the personal and collective nature of the experience of war. When Red Eagle writes about a first-person subject he isn’t as specific as he is when he writes about a distant “guy” who “came home from Vietnam/ and had forgotten/ who he was” and “fell out of the darkened sky/ full of anger, fear/ and hate” (Red Eagle 3).
As Red Eagle plays with the personal and collective experiences of war, he also stresses the emotional and psychological repercussions of war, such as the distance that a warrior feels (upon returning from war) from himself and the concept of home. The poem suggests that there is a great need for healing within its characters, characters that feel dissociation from the homes to which they return. Red Eagle uses extravagant language in some instances (“earth” in “One night/ I fell to earth again”) to emphasize the trauma that a warrior goes through when attempting to move from the world of war to the world that existed before war but no longer exists in the same manner (Red Eagle 1). An experience of war cannot be reduced to one facet of the experience or to one individual’s experience of war; it is the sum of its parts—war is both an individual and collective experience comprised of many events, many voices, many contradictions, and many perspectives. The act of writing war narratives allows writers to explore their own experiences in war, as well as the themes (issues and challenges) that arise in the collective experience of war. War narratives open up the collective experience of war to readers, and at the core of that collective experience lies the collective nature of the human experience. Native American war narratives, in particular, emphasize the important role of healing in the personal and collective experiences of war. Whereas “My Return from Nam” describes the need for healing, Red Earth explores the actual process of healing from war. There is a need for healing in all persons who have lived in the world of war, but it is particularly helpful to examine healing through the lens of a Native American perspective because healing activities are traditionally a “significant element of family, community, and spiritual life” (Gurley 1). Red Eagle’s work is an excellent contribution to society because it brings to light those areas that are most in need of attention yet often receive little if any attention in Western Societies.
Gurley, Diana et al. “Comparative Use of Biomedical Services and Traditional Healing Options by American Indian Veterans.” Psychiatric Services 52:1-6 (2001). American Psychiatric Association. 1 Apr. 2006
Heidlebaugh, Tom. “Preface.” Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey. Duluth, Minnesota: Holy Cow! Press, 1997.
Red Eagle, Philip H. “My Return from Nam.” My Return from Nam 1-4 (1998). Philip Red Eagle. 31 Mar. 2006
---. “Red Earth.” Red Earth: A Vietnam Warrior’s Journey. Duluth, Minnesota: Holy Cow! Press, 1997.