Infobox Book |
name = Shell Shaker
cover_artist = Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
language = English
Aunt Lute Books
pub_date = September 2001
media_type = Print (
pages = 223 pp
isbn = ISBN 978-1879960613
"Shell Shaker" is a
novelby writer and playwright LeAnne Howe, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The novel is notable for the way it interweaves two tales of murder involving flawed Choctawpolitical leaders set over 200 years apart in the mid 18th century and 1991, connected through the peacemaking Billy family. According to the author, "Shell Shaker is a book about power, its misuse, and how a community responds. It's not for Indians only." [Howe, LeAnne. "Choctalking On Other Realities." Grinnell Magazine. Winter 1999: 46-51]
Explanation of the novel's title
A "shell shaker" is a woman who participates in a specific
Choctawceremony in which empty turtleshells are tied around the dancer's feet. The purpose of the dance is to pray to spiritsto carry out a request. The Billy family featured in the novel is descended from the first shell shaker, Grandmother of Birds.
Shell Shaker links two generations of the Billy peacemaking family through increasingly similar circumstances. The early tale, beginning in 1738 in pre-removal Choctaw
Mississippi, tells the story of Red Shoes, a historical Choctaw warrior. When his wife of the Red Fox clan of the Chickasawsis murdered, his Choctaw wife, Anoleta, is blamed. Her mother, Shakbatina, forfeits her life to save Anoleta and avert a pending war between the tribes. Anoleta and her family attempt to move on as their tribe spends the next decade deciding what actions to take against Red Shoes as he plays both sides in what would become a war that devastates the people of Yanàbi Town and Anoleta's family.
The later story follows the descendants of Shakbatina, now living in Durant,
Oklahomain the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in 1991. As a fire destroys the land around them, Redford McAlester, Chief of the Choctaw Nation, is murdered, and his former lover, Assistant Chief Auda Billy, has been blamed. Her mother, Susan Billy, confesses to the murder while her uncle, Isaac Billy, brings together their scattered family to help in the investigation. As the family gets closer and closer to the truth, involving tales of embezzlement, rape, money laundering, contributions to the Irish Republican Armyand Mafiainvolvement, their lives become increasingly parallel to that of their ancestors. They begin to feel the involvement of spirits long gone, complicated by a strange old woman claiming to be Sarah Bernhardt, who just may be more than she seems.
Characters in "Shell Shaker"
*Shakbatina: Granddaughter of the first shell shaker and her warrior husband Tuscaloosa, she is the mother of Anoleta, Neshoba, and Haya and wife of Koi Chitto. The leader of the peace clan, she gives her life to save her daughter and avert impending war. Her character narrates sporadically throughout the novel.
*Anoleta: First daughter of Shakbatina and Koi Chitto, she is accused of the murder of her husband Red Shoes' other wife. She later remarries and gives birth to Chunkashbili, who's name would go on to be the surname of her descendants. She feels that Red Shoes' actions are her fault, as she often vouched for him against her family and therefore feels that she must be the one to kill him.
*Red Shoes: Once thought to be the Imataha Chitto, the "greatest giver" who would supposedly reunite the scatter Choctaw people, he has since become known as an osano, bloodsucker. He consistently makes and breaks ties with every tribe and invading nation, eventually leading to war with the
*Koi Chitto: "Big Panther" is the father of the family. A warrior, he leaves after his wife's death, but must return to carry out the Bone Picking Ceremony and eventually lead his family and tribe in the war with Red Shoes.
*Nitakechi: Brother of Shakbatina, he feels torn between his hatred of Red Shoes and his life as a peacemaker. Shakbatina tells him before his death that the one to reunite the tribes was likely a woman whom Nitakechi should find and marry.
*Jean Baptiste Bienville: From
Quebec, he is the founder of New Orleansand a friend of the Choctaw, especially Shakbatina. Although he alternately returns to France and back again to the colony, he remains close with her family after her death as he has been adopted by the tribe.
*Neshoba: Meaning "she wolf," Neshoba is the second child of Shakbatina and Koi Chitto. She falls in love and runs away with Father Renoir, a
priestsent to the tribe.
*Haya: The youngest daughter, she sees the good in most, including Bienville, the priests, and even Red Shoes. She and Anoleta join their male relatives in the war with Red Shoes.
*Elsley: English trader and friend of Red Shoes, he is one of the few to stand by him in war. While his presence is felt throughout the earlier tale, he appears only at the end once the war has begun.
*Auda Billy: A former Choctaw historian, Auda has studied many of the characters of the earlier story. She is sure of her own guilt in Redford McAlester's murder and is increasingly visited by spirits and dreams slowly revealing the truth of both her own past and her family's history.
*Susan Billy: Mother of Auda, Tema, and Adair, she has spent her life helping those around her, both in boarding school and in Durant. When she confesses to McAlester's murder, the community begins to fight for her.
*Isaac Billy: Uncle Isaac, as he is called, brings the family together and fights as a modern day warrior to protect them. He feels guilty for his lack of action both against McAlester and in his personal life and resolves to make up for it in any way possible. After a trip to a mysterious woman named Divine Sarah, Isaac begins to connect his family's history with its current situation.
*Adair Billy: The youngest sister of the modern family, Adair is a high paid New Orleans securities investor who is obsessed with the
macabreand is known around the Wall Streetcommunity for hearing voices that lead her to good decisions.
*Tema Billy: The middle sister of the family, she is an actress who has lived in both
New York Cityand Londonwho has moved to Texaswith her son and husband to be closer to her family.
*Redford McAlester: Chief of the Choctaw Nation and builder of the Casino of the Sun, he gained his position by making empty promises to his tribe and gained power by changing Choctaw traditions. Once the love of Auda, he has pushed her away with his corruption, eventually leading to his rape of her the night before he is shot.
*Hopaii "Hoppy" Iskitini: His name literally means "little prophet," a position to which he lives up. He is very close to Isaac and makes a mysterious trek with him to see Divine Sarah where she is very impressed with him. Tema's teenage son, he is the member of a rock band called the Chocozombies and has recently dyed his hair green.
*Borden Beade: Tema's husband, Borden is an Englishman, a fact he feels makes her uncle distrust and dislike him. While at first very skeptical of Tema's stories of spirits, he eventually leaves his job in a
Dallastheater to be with Tema and her family.
*Gore Battiste: A member of the Alibamu Conchatys tribe, (which had been brought in to resolve the dispute between tribes in the earlier story)he is Auda's lawyer, brought in by Adair, with whom he had a one night stand nine years before. While skeptical early on, he begins to uncover the truth in Auda's stories while falling in love with Adair.
*Dovie Love: An eccentric "aunt" of the family, she, along with her older sister, has lived an adventurous life complete with boarding schools,
Hollywood moviesand yoga studios, which has earned her a reputation as something of a Choctaw folk hero and celebrity. While the younger of the sisters, she is quite clearly the more dominant of the two.
*Delores Love: Much like her sister, Delores has lived an exciting life. She has a complicated history with Isaac and has become known, in an update of the Bone Picking Ceremony, as a funeral singer of traditional songs.
*Grandmother Porcupine/Divine Sarah: A mysterious old woman, she is seen by many characters (and has seen many more) before Isaac, Hoppy, and Nick go to her home where she leads them on a vision through parts of their history. A
trickstercharacter, she makes many wild claims which, at first unbelievable, become increasingly realistic.
*Nick Carney: A local artist and friend of Hoppy's, he assists in any way possible, including being part of the vision quest of Divine Sarah. He is the owner of one of the novel's most comical and memorable
*James Joyce: Joyce is the
pseudonymof the Irish gangster with a connection to the late chief. Like his namesake, Joyce speaks in stream of consciousness, which Gore, using tools he's learned as a lawyer, must translate to Adair. Like Elsley, he appears only as the story ends after having been all too present in the preceding sections.
*Carl Tonica: The financial manager of the tribe, he becomes acting chief when Auda is accused of murder. He promptly takes away the tribal status of the family and works to find McAlester's hidden money before the federal government or the mafia. His girlfriend, Vergie Reagan, makes an attempt on Auda's life.
*Nowatima: Grandmother of the Billy family, she is a survivor of the
Trail of Tears. She teaches Delores the traditional songs and gives heirlooms of their ancestors to the women of the family.
*D'Amato Brothers: Hector and Vico are the representatives of Shamrock Resorts, financier of the Casino of the Sun, who are sent to watch out for McAlester. After the murder, the dangerous brothers race to find the money McAlester has stolen from them by any means necessary.
* Connection of spirits: As evident in the novel, if the body to whom the Shilombish (now considered a soul) belonged had been troubled in life or was murdered, the outer shadow would remain around the family until the problem was solved. The burial ceremony popular before Americanization allowed time for the spirit to become accustomed to their new world, also allowing them time to stick around. Koi Chitto is afraid that if the Bone Picking Ceremony is carried out too quickly, Shakbatina may not be able to fully learn her role as a spirit.
* Circular notion of time and nature: Past and present are not words that can describe parts of the story accurately. Those things in what could be called the past are ever present in the later tale, abolishing any differences. Everything returns and everything remains. "Do not forget that the dead are helping the living" Red Shoes is reminded (171). [Howe, LeAnne. "Shell Shaker." ]
* Connection to land: Choctaw legend tells of the earth as their birth place, more specifically, the Nanih Waiya, or mother mound, in modern day Mississippi. The novel consistently maintains the connection to land that the Choctaw hold. Burial practices, like the Bone Picking Ceremony, are built around this, as the body must be returned to the land as it was given up from the land.
* Bloodsuckers (Osano)/Cannibalism: "It is used in this book to describe an individual leader's desire for personal power, his simultaneous desire for power for the tribe, and how all this power overtakes him. He becomes corrupt and commits hurtful, destructive acts. He devours human life. Howe takes readers into the minds of the corrupt so that they may be shocked into an understanding of how corruption occurs, and that they may be incited to take a critical look at the actions of their own leaders." [, Carolyn. "Review of "Shell Shaker" http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Critique/review_fiction/shell_shaker_by_leanne_howe.html] Howe herself connects this to corruption in American society today, saying the osano are "everywhere. Since 9/11 within our own country, corporate America leaders, men and women in Congress, people who feed off the blood of others are becoming embarrassingly visible." [Howe, LeAnne. "Choctalking On Other Realities." Grinnell Magazine. Winter 1999: 46-51]
* Importance of women: "the contemporary Billy sisters in Shell Shaker are "real" Indian women, exercising autonomy in successful careers as a history professor, a stockbroker, and an actor, not oppressed and marginalized figures without power or romanticized Indian princesses, as Indian women are sometimes portrayed by non-Native writers" [Hollrah, Patrice. [https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_indian_quarterly/v028/28.1hollrah.html "Decolonizing the Choctaws: Teaching LeAnne Howe's "Shell Shaker"] , "The American Indian Quarterly" 28.1&2 (2004) 73-85 (hosted at muse.jhu.edu, accessed 12 April 2008).]
* Power of words: Traditionally, words have the power to become real if spoken, especially if done carelessly. Tema, in her first appearance, displays this when she explains to her English husband why she must suddenly leave home because a spirit called her a mankiller. She describes her fear at the words, being spoken, becoming real.
* Closeness of family/tribalology: The events of the novel do not just draw together the separated Billy family, they also draw together the community in Durant and, eventually, the eastern and western divisions of the Choctaw. Howe herself has mentioned that she has used this novel to show the tribal propensity for bringing things together. Her view of native literature states that: "Native stories...seem to pull all the elements together of the storyteller's tribe, meaning the people, the land, and multiple characters and all their manifestations and revelations, and connect these in past, present and future milieus." [Howe, LeAnne. "The Story of America: A Tribalography." "Clearing a Path: Theorizing the Past in Native American Studies". Ed. Nancy Shoemaker. New York: Routledge. 2002. 29-48. ]
* Americanization of Natives: From the priests present in the early story to the boarding schools Susan and her aunts attended in the later tale, the attempt to Americanize Native Americans is present. While little focus is placed directly on this, it is always present in the background, especially in Auda's lecture. Recounted from memory by Adair, this scene overtly points out the novel's take on Americanization and removal as Auda is violently opposed by the white supporters of the Historical Society. Of further importance in this vein is Father Renoir's power over history. He is often seen keeping a sort of diary of his experiences with the Choctaw, but before he leaves he takes out a great deal that he feels may be embarrassing to his family and his church. His ability to change history and make it something more acceptable to the dominant society is representative of the greatest power held over Native Americans by white society.
* Autumnal Equinox: Both murders take place on the Autumnal Equinox, the day of women and Susan Billy's birthday. Called Itilauichi in the Choctaw language, its importance is especially important in the earlier story.
* Birds: Grandmother of Birds is said to have turned into a bird to punish the Spanish invaders when her husband is killed. They are continually mentioned as flying around whenever the characters are outside and are the form the spirits of Koi Chitto and Shakbatina take when they are reunited in death.
* Smoke: Smoke is used as a screen between times, becoming thicker as the stories begin to meet, culminating in Auda's final dream that is filled with smoke and half-answers. The town of Durant itself is enveloped in the smoke of a fire, suggested as a punishment from the spirits. Adair, a smoker, describes it as a screen to hide behind, much like the truth hides behind the smoke in dreams.
* Burial: Burial is paramount in both times as the Bone Picking Ceremony and Delores's own burials connect as one of the most important Choctaw rituals featured in the novel.
Literary significance and reception
* The novel has been commended for the way it stresses the importance of history in the current lives of a Native American group as they struggle in the quest of decolonization. Taos Pueblo scholar and critic P. Jane Hafen said of the novel in 2002: "Howe seamlessly integrates a history of desperate and gruesome fights for survival with modern Faustian pacts with materialism and wealth. At the heart of the story are generations of Choctaw peoples who preserve with ritual gestures of 'life everlasting'" [Hafen, P. Jane. Review of "Shell Shaker" by LeAnne Howe. "MultiCultural Review" 11, no. 2 (June). ]
* Shell Shaker furthermore stands out as one of the few novels to focus on Choctaw history from the point of view of a native author. Ken McCullough has said of the novel "Although there has been significant scholarship on this historical period in the southeast, between the arrival of De Soto and Removal, no one has written a work of the imagination (of this magnitude) set in this period" [McCullough, Ken. "If You See the Buddha at the Stomp Dance, Kill Him!: The Bicameral World of LeAnne Howe's "Shell Shaker"." SAIL 15, no. 2 (Summer): 58-69.]
* The novel presents characters separate from the ideas present in American culture. "The variations in voice among the protagonists show that Howe knows how to imagine different characters, and those figures confirm and challenge stereotypes about Native Americans in a way that can only be productive for all readers." [Schurer, Norbert. "Shell Shaker: Women hold the key to tribe's survival in an ambitious work." http://www.hanksville.org/storytellers/LAHowe/WinstonSalem.html]
Writing Style and Literary Techniques
The story opens from the point of view of Shakbatina who narrates the story of her own death. Apart from two later chapters, the rest are not explicitly listed as being told by her, but they are all from a third person narrative. This change of point of view maintains the storytelling aspect of Choctaw tradition while giving voices to the characters themselves, not to one describing them.
Repetition is used throughout the novel, in both situations and quotes, to establish connections between the generations. An example of this is the often repeated "ten thousand feet of intestines hanging from trees in Yanabi Town," the explanation of which is only given at the novel's end. Articles such as the porcupine sash and turtle shells pass down through generations as their imagery passes through the novel. The repetition of the images connect generations to enforce the overreaching themes of time's circular nature and the connection of people.
flashbacksare also used to establish connections. They become increasingly long and common as the story develops, as the Billy family attempts to piece together the story of the past. Writer Lucy Maddox sees the importance of memory as one of the major purposes of the novel, as it "alternates scenes from present and past, conflating ancestral lives and contemporary ones to produce stories about the ways in which identity is both constructed and understood in a tribal context that makes memory more relevant than chronology" [Maddox, Lucy. "Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race and Reform". Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005. ]
The Choctaw language is heavily featured throughout the novel, but never without translation. This allows those with no knowledge of the language, regardless of their native status, to fully appreciate the storyline. The importance of the language is established from the beginning, as the novel's opening lines are in the Choctaw language. From there, the novel's important themes are illustrated by the language, including that of the bloodsucker (osano) and the search for the greatest giver, or Imataha Chitto.
The classical trickster character is also used. Grandmother Porcupine serves as both a comic relief while imparting necessary knowledge to those she wants to have it, namely Isaac, Hoppy, and Nick. She claims to be an animal spirit, over 400 years old and a protector of the family. Fitting with the Native American trickster idea, she represents "an openness to life's multiplicity and paradoxes" [Franchot Ballinger, Gerald Vizenor Sacred Reversals: Trickster in Gerald Vizenor's "Earthdivers: Tribal Narratives on Mixed Descent" American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, The Literary Achievements of Gerald Vizenor (Winter, 1985), pp. 55-59]
* One major criticism possible with the novel is the corrupt portrayal of non-Native people. While the French have a favorable portrayal in the character of Bienville, the English are constantly listed as an enemy (the Inklish okla). It is important to note that the only British character, Borden, is a positive one, and is accepted by his wife's family at novel's end. The stereotypical images of the Italian mobsters and Irish gangsters are also questionable. It can be argued, however, in the book, "corruption [is not] necessarily a condition of Americans and American society overall, and if it is, then American Indians are participants, not exempt" [Steeves, Carolyn. "Review of "Shell Shaker" http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Critique/review_fiction/shell_shaker_by_leanne_howe.html]
* The novel is also extremely graphic in its representations of sex and violence. There are scenes of rape, war and cannibalism that may prove difficult for some readers. The novel, however, has not reached mainline success and has not been featured on any banned book lists.
Allusions and references
Allusions to pop culture
A Doll's House
The Conference of the Birds
Will to Power
Royal Shakespeare Company
Allusions to actual history and geography
*Hernando de Soto: Spanish explorer who was the first European to set eyes on the
Chief Tuskaloosa: The historical Tuscaloosa was a Choctaw chief from Alabama who led the Choctaw against Hernando de Soto in the Battle of Mabilia, which is represented in the novel. On October 18, 1540, De Soto entered Mabilia where he was welcomed, fed, then attacked in a battle that led to the end of his movement through the Southeast. He, along with 2,000-6,000 of his warriors, died in the battle.
Smallpox: Believed by many scholars to have been intentionally introduced to many Native tribes, it is a popular image in Native American literature, here having greatly devastated Shakbatina years before the novel is set.
*Choctaw Lighthorsemen: The
Lighthorsewere a mounted police force used by the Five Civilized Tribesbefore removal.
*Native American Casinos: The Choctaw have, in recent decades, allowed casinos to build on their land, including the Pearl River Resort in Mississippi. It was in 1987 that the supreme court ruled to allow such casinos on Native land, four years before the novel is set. Choctaw Casino Bingo, the original Choctaw casino, was built in 1987 in Durant - where the novel's later portion is set - likely making it the inspiration for the novel's Casino of the Sun.
*Native American Rights Fund: Founded in 1970, NARF is a nonprofit law firm whose purpose is to defend the rights of Native people.
Irish Potato Famine: During the famine, a group of Choctaw pulled together $710 to send to the starving Irish people in memory of what they had suffered during removal less than 20 years before. On the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears.
*Warrior women: Women and men had little division in early Choctaw culture, with women performing many of the tasks of men, including protecting their tribe in war. The women sometimes accompanied their husbands to battle, standing beside them, handing them arrows, and exhorting them to fight bravely. ["The Choctaw of Oklahoma" http://www.chataimponna.co.uk/histleg.htm]
Trail of Tears: The Choctaw, along with the Cherokee were removed from their Eastern homelands of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana from 1831-3 after signing away most of their homelands in The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.
*Natchez War: The Natchez, another Mississippi tribe, were enemies of the French and were dispersed after many defeats at their hands.
*Choucououlacta: Opposed the historical Red Shoes in his support of the English. He, along with the Eastern band, led attacks against the Chickasaw, Red Shoes' allies. He and Red Shoes got caught up in a quickly escalating series of assassinations of envoys and messengers leading up to the battles with the English and Chickasaws. [Reeves, Carolyn Keller. The Choctaw Before Removal. University Press of Mississippi. ]
*Stung Serpent: Known by the French as Le Serpent Picque. A chief of the Natchez, led a group to negotiate with Bienville, who had been sent to punish them for the deaths of three Frenchmen in 1713. He was also a translator to the French and headed off many battles with them by punishing his tribe when they attacked the French.
*Chépart: Commandant who led a French occupied fort in Natchez territory in the late 1720s who ordered the Natchez out of land called White Apple Village.
French and Indian War: The French had intimate dealings with the Choctaw, who were highly present in their region. Their relationship was complicated when Red Shoes, as portrayed in Shell Shaker, allied with the English, who asked lower trade prices. This lead to a battle where the English were defeated in 1750.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville: The real life "father of New Orleans," his final of four stints as governor of French Louisianawas complicated by battles with the Chickasaw in the late 1730s. [Mississippi Historical Society. Accessed through Google Books 14 April 2008. ]
*Red Shoes: Red Shoes the war chief was assassinated in June of 1747 after the sun went down to start the summer solstice. A Choctaw civil war followed. [Sargento, Golda. "An Interview with LeAnne Howe." http://www.auntlute.com/h-interview.html.]
*Yanabi Town: Generally spelled Yannubee or Ayanabi or Iyanabi,it means ironwood and is one of the oldest Choctaw towns in Mississippi. It is in current day Kemper County, Mississippi.
* Nanih Waiya: The "mother mound" in Choctaw history, it is the place where life begins and ends in tradition and in the novel. Its literal meaning is "protective mound." The mound and the land around it are protected lands and remain as a tie to the homeland for those Choctaw forceably removed. It was legally returned to the Choctaw in 2006.
Allusions to Choctaw Traditions
* Bone Picking Ceremony/Choctaw burial: Usually performed by men, sometimes women, this ceremony was intended to continue the circle of nature by returning the body to the earth. After a given time post death (anywhere from one to six months depending on local tradition), the remaining flesh would be removed from the body of the deceased and thrown into a nearby forest or field. The bones would then be put in a box to be buried, the skull having been painted vermilion. The bones would be carried through town with much wailing where a feast was held with the unwashed bone picker presiding. For the months between death and the ceremony, the bodies were placed on a scaffold with their earthly materials and a companion, often a dog, but later ponies to ride in the afterlife. [Debo, Angie. "The Rise and Fall Of The Choctaw Republic" University of Oklahoma Press: 1934. 4-5.]
* Matrilineal naming: Choctaw consider women the head of a household, therefore, names are carried down through the mother, including the Billy surname of the novel.
Green Corn Dance: Performed by many Native American tribes, it is held several weeks before the main harvest of corn. The purpose of the dance is annual renewal and purification and was (generally) dedicated to the god of corn. In the southern tribes, this was a time to obtain new materials and get rid of older, worn out possessions.
* Stickball: The stickball game played by Tuscaloosa and his warriors was a favorite among the Choctaw. According to Howe in a speech she gave at the
University of Georgiain April 2008, stickball was a way to settle disputes without warfare.
* Choctaw religion/gods: According to most theories, the Choctaw worshiped the sun spirit Hushtahli, who is referenced in the novel. Some believe that prayer was introduced by missionaries, but that Choctaw prophets, hopaii, prayed while facing the sun. [Swanton, John. Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. The University of Alabama Press. 1931.]
Allusions in other works
This work has yet to be referenced in another work.
Awards and nominations
American Book Award(2002) from the Before Columbus Foundation.
*2004 finalist for Prix Médicis Estranger under its French translation "Équinoxes Rouge"
*Finalist for the 2003 Oklahoma Book Award
*Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year in Creative Prose: Fiction,
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
No adaptations have been made to this time, although Howe herself is a playwright.
*2001, USA, Aunt Lute ISBN 978-1879960619, Pub date September 2001, Paperback
ources, references, external links, quotations
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