St. Francis and the Feather
Arnold Krupat, a literature faculty member since 1968, has a special interest in Native American literatures. He recounts a visit with anthropologist friend Donald Bahr to a reservation in Arizona, and a Papago Indian called A.C., who had become known for his “dream songs.”
“He wasn’t drunk, but you could see he’d had a couple of beers.
“Bahr said, ‘My friend’s come a long way to hear some of your songs.’
“‘Where is he from?’
“Bahr lied and said, ‘Paris. Ever heard of it?’
“‘I’ve heard of it,’ A.C. replied. ‘I’ll sing, but I want him to sing first.’
“I didn’t want to sing. I really can’t sing.
“‘Have him sing in his language.’
“I said I didn’t want to sing.
“‘Tell him to sing, or I’ll kill him.’
“He didn’t seem completely serious, but I thought I’d better sing. I remembered a French folk song and warbled a few lines.
“A.C. asked, ‘What does it mean?’ and Bahr told a bawdy story. A.C. laughed and wagged his finger at me.
“Suddenly, he left the room and came back with an owl feather. In many Native American cultures, an owl is a harbinger of death. A.C. had found the feather on his doorstep, and he was clearly concerned about what it meant.
“He looked at me and said with a smile, ‘Maybe what I should do is kill him.’ He had a big knife.
“I didn’t really feel danger, but I did think he might not be joking. He and Bahr went back and forth in Papago and English. I was holding my breath. I didn’t know what was going on.
“A.C. said again, ‘Maybe I’ll just kill him.’ He raised the knife, then suddenly dropped it and exclaimed, ‘Dios mío, San Francisco!’
“He thought I resembled the image of St. Francis hanging on his wall; maybe, with my beard, I did. Now that the saint was in his house, with power over him, and the owl, all was well.
“This story is not typical of my working life. What occurs to me is the degree to which the tables were turned: I usually interpret other cultures, or at least their literatures; here, I was the one being interpreted. A.C. was trying to work my unexpected visit into understanding of matters important to him. There’s no question that on some level he was thinking, ‘This man has unexpectedly come. Maybe the owl meant his death.’ Death was on his mind until he suddenly decided I looked like St. Francis.”