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On "Purple"


Matthias Schubnell

Section seven, "Purple," relates the transgression of the sacred rules which regulate the relation between man and the animal world. A man has slaughtered a buffalo, the animal representation of the sun, for no reason other than sport. His fellow people witness the sacrilege with shame and grief. The moral implications of the story are amplified by its etiologic character. The buffalo's hump and spine are transformed into a mountain on the western horizon, and its blood, bright and purple, colors the setting sun, darkens, and creates the night sky. The results of these metamorphoses are permanent reminders of the sacrilegious act in the people's physical environment.

from N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Copyright 1985 by the University of Oklahoma Press.


Ryan Cull

N. Scott Momaday has explained that the buffalo "stands for the many elements of the sacred. . . which have been lost to Indian peoples." In response to this trend, he began The Buffalo Trust as "a place, on sacred ground, where Indian people can come immediately into the presence of sacred matter." By establishing this kind of cultural preserve, he hoped to stem what h  perceives to be a gradual and tragic erosion of spirituality from the lives of Native American youth. As a poet, Momaday also has focused on finding ways to preserve some of these nearly forgotten traditions. The buffalo slaughter described in one of his early poems "Purple," however, reveals Momaday taking a step back and powerfully allegorizing the moment when this this "theft of the sacred" began.

The brevity of this ten line poem is made all the more potent by its mythic, almost epic gestures. As if appearing out of timelessness, or more likely out of a seemingly timeless oral tradition, the poem begins, "There was a man. . ." In a manner not unlike Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, this man offends Nature by killing a sacred creature. Whether it is for sport (as Matthias Schubnell suggests) or just for sheer spite is not clear. Unlike the Ancient Marriner, however, this man feels the lifeblood of a great creature on his hands, and then he seems to move on as mysteriously as he came. He is not held accountable for his action. Instead, as the buffalo gradually expires, "the people" assemble "on the edge of night," expressing and accepting a collective "grief and shame" on behalf of an act they did not themselves commit.

The final five lines of the poem offer a change of perspective, for what had been merely a frivolous display of power to the hunter is in fact a far-reaching emblem to these people. The carcas of the "huge beast" is more than an example of wastefulness; it becomes a part of their land's geography, a kind of new dividing line, indicating that the "edge" of their world now has been crossed. Momaday's poem, thus, can be read as a kind of highly concentrated anti-colonialist allegory. For the buffalo represents not only Native American culture and spirituality; it is, more specifically, the "animal representation of the sun" (according to Momaday in his "Vision Statement for the Buffalo Trust"). The death of this great buffalo, thus, brings these people both to the "edge of night" and to the "edge of [their] world." Such a slaughter, at once, defies their deepest spiritual beliefs, while it also indicates the first of many trespasses upon the land where they live.

The tragic revelation of these transgressions ironically produces the poem's aesthetic triumph. For it is here that we finally discover the color that the title of the poem promises in the deep purple of the sunset that is elided with the drying blood of the dying buffalo. The title "Purple," thus, is not merely an abstraction seemingly at odds with a work so steeped in myth and history. The penultimate color in the visual spectrum serves as a semiotic nexus intertwining the people with their land and spirituality just before nightfall.

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull


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