The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Okla Hannali


Until the recent effort to make R.A. Lafferty’s works once more available, this was for long years the only one of his books to remain in print. This is because it is both an historical work, as was The Flame is Green, and because it was published by a University Press, OU Press (Oklahoma), who could afford to carry it as a book of significance, as opposed to a purely commercial entity.
Okla Hannali was published in 1973, and is a work about Indian history, a work acclaimed by no less a figure than Dee Brown, author of the seminal Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, who wrote “The history of the Choctaw Indians has been told before and is still being told, but it has never been told in the way Lafferty tells it….Hannali is a buffalo bull of a man who should become one of the enduring characters in the literature of the American Indian.”
Given that Lafferty was a white man, an outsider, that is indeed high praise, though Lafferty himself commented that his childhood, his schooling, his life took place in and around and among Indians, so that he was aware of them and their histories by the most natural study of them all. He is interviewed in this respect in the book as currently available.
Looked at on a technical basis, Okla Hannali is a hybrid of The Flame is Green and The Fall of Rome. Like the former, it is a fiction, surrounding a fictional character, and like the latter it is a history, of the Choctaw Indians in the Nineteenth Century, using the figure of Hannali Innominee as figurehead to a narrative that winds in and out amongst the story of Hannali, a great bear of an Indian, and the story of his tribe and those close to it.
Lafferty makes no bones about it in his account, puts up no defence of his own, of the white men from whom he descends, and there is no defence that can be given. Hannali is strong and brave and intelligent, not merely in what might be thought to be Indian terms, but in terms generally. But he is also an Indian, from head to toe to roots. He is himself and of his people.
Lafferty presents Hannali in broad terms to depict a broad person. A man of three wives, three contrasting wives, married in a quick succession, representing different races: one a white woman, of French stock, one a black woman, one an Indian woman. And all live together in the same household as a single family, without suspicion of each other’s status, well, not on the part of Marie DuShane, that is until she divines the true circumstances.
Maria DuShane insists that Hannali must end his sin by putting aside both his other wives, and Hannali acknowledges his sin but can only attend to it by putting away all three wives, including his French wife and never touching woman again, though children continue to come, nine in total, three of each wife.
Thee are many stories involving Hannali. There is the white man Robert Pike who is taken in by Hannali twice. Once with tall tales of the fearsomeness of other tribes, and once during the Civil War where, in order that neutrality should not be compromised, Pike becomes a ghost that cannot be seen or heard. There is the personal enemy Whiteman Falaya, who attacks at random and with a hidden guile not even Hannali can match, and whose last attack is the trap that destroys Hannali’s home and family. There is Hannali’s death, in his own time, by his own will, by when he is the last Red Indian as Lafferty defines them for his story.
But at the same time there is history here, rich and deep in treachery and greed and lies and these not of the Indians but of the white men that take, and promise not to take more, then come and take more in breach of all promises. It goes back to Andrew Jackson in this book, and it goes forward through the thirty-five years of the civilisation in Indian Territory, until the Civil War: not just one War, between white men, north and south, but the multiple Civil Wars caused deliberately in the tribes by cheating and robbing and manipulation.
And then the destruction of that Civilisation, by way of punishment visited upon friends and allies, to the intent that the Indian should be destroyed, and ended, and how that end came upon them in ways that didn’t involve the death of the body but rather the death of the spirit and the culture, until Hannali alone remains and none beyond him, Indian though they be called by those who only see an other that they cannot stand to share with.
Though the approach is characteristically Lafferty, yet this book is calmer, less wild and joyous than the writings we are more familiar with, for even the fantastic is bound in to the truth and the reality, and the stories that the Indians tell themselves. Okla Hannali is a greatly serious story, and it demands a soberness that Lafferty unwinds for it.
SF fans don’t read historical novels, or they didn’t until steampunk followed cyberpunk, which was to say, not when R.A.Lafferty honoured those amongst whom he grew up. It is their loss. Lafferty’s fans read it as Lafferty. The version we read is at least the third: in his introductory interview, Ray explains that he first wrote Okla Hannali in 1963 when it was bad, and that he rewrote it twice after.
I am not versed in Indian literature, or history, but I do not need those more knowledgeable than me to tell me that the truth lies in here.

6 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Okla Hannali

  1. _Okla Hannali_ in a wildly joyous and deeply sad book at the same time. If you can finish it without both crying and chuckling, you might not be fully human–at least not as deeply affected by it as I was.

    I also think it is one of the most important books published in America. It needs to be more widely read. Perhaps if it were taught in schools, our country would be a better place. While it teaches us unflinchingly about the atrocities, it also shows us great beauty, strength, and resilience. Above all it shows us the Choctaw Nation as every bit as human as the rest of us are, or perhaps as the rest of us could hope to be.

  2. Being English means that I’m not without a cultural heritaage that involves the displacement and degradation of peoples but that there’s a physical remove to the reality: it didn’t happen here, within our sight, and so I can’t appreciate that side of Okla Hannali with the same intensity. It is, nevertheless, a vital book, for depicting the strength, and the wholeness of the Chocaw Indian life, and how much better for us all if that had been allowed to live.

  3. One significant error. Children don’t ‘continue to come’ once Hannali has put away his three wives. All the children his wives bore came before his renunciation.There are no virgin births in Okla Hannali.

  4. I was surprised to find tears in my eyes when I closed the novel. Its historical ‘dryness’ at times tried my readerly patience a little, but it was that same stately, factual quality that bound together the more humorous, folkloric, and adventurous elements into a poignant whole that can only be appreciated by reading the novel attentively to its conclusion. I look forward to reading it again.

    1. Okla Hannali is fact represented in fictional terms where The Fall of Rome is fact cast in fictional form: it’s glorious to see how Lafferty draws no distinction in style. Hannali didn’t exist as himself, but he is composed of truth in his every fibre, including the exagerations.

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