Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review: The Red Chief by Ion Idriess, 1953


The Red Chief by Ion L. Idriess is about a legendary Australian aboriginal chief that lived from about 1650 to 1745, long before any European presence. His life and times were passed down in oral history, from what may have been the last full blood of his tribe, to Senior Sargent John P. Ewing, mentioned in Gunneday in 1886.  (1829-1911) The recounting of the stories about Cumbo Gunnerah were conscientiously written down from about 1890 to 1900.

The narrative shows the overwhelming presence of war, weapons, martial preparation and martial prowess in the lives of aboriginal Australians of the Gunn-e-dar tribe.

The Red Chief is a mild misnomer by Ion Idriess. The original notes refer to the Chief as Red Kangaroo. The Chief was buried in what is now Gunnedah, New South Wales. A historical marker commemorates the spot. The original carvings and skeleton found at the burial site were delivered to Sydney Museum in April of 1891. The skeleton was dug up in 1887.

The source of the stories was a full blood member of the Gunn-e-dar Tribe, "Old Joe" Bungaree.  Bungaree was born in 1817, and told the story to John P. Ewing. Ewing's son, Stan Ewing helped to take the notes with his father at the time. Stan Ewing lived from 1878-1938.

The notes were given to Ion Idriess about 1950, in the hope a book would be written from them. The book was published in 1953.

The story is well done. It is an epic of paleolithic life. In the 1950's it ran against the grain of archaeologists of the time.  Red Chief does not portray a peaceful existence without war. The book shows tribal life as a constant struggle against surrounding enemies, in order to hold the valuable tribal territory. Homicide, raids, and massacre are integral parts of the narrative, taken for granted by the protagonist, Red Kangaroo.

The story is gripping, an exciting adventure tale of intrigue, deception, war, and politics at the clan level. It strikes to the core of human experience.

Red Kangaroo, as described, was a talented, far seeing leader and an imposing physical presence, a sort of aboriginal George Washington of his people. His actions are described as saving his tribe from extinction and imposing a confederation among the language group of the Kamilaroi peoples.  The story in Red Chief consists of his coming to power over a few years, and his triumphant battle to save his people. The action is fast, the word imagery well done; the story, iconic.

How close to historical fact is the oral history? It is impossible to know for certain. The dates make accurate story telling plausible.  Red Kangaroo lived until about 1745, so Bungaree would have heard the story about 90+ years after the events described.

The book is highly faithful to the source notes. Significant speeches given by Red Kangaroo to his tribe and warriors are said to be nearly word for word from the notes.  The technology and weapons in the book match what is known of aboriginal technology of the time, with the possible exception of smoke signals. It is known that smoke signals were used; but no written record has survived to confirm the use described in The Red Chief.

Ion Idriess adds information on aboriginal religious beliefs that seemed suspiciously like bits of Christianity to me. Those came from another source, not the notes of the Red Kangaroo story given to Idriess.

The actual notes are available at this link. In the write up at the link, with commentary by Michael O'Rourke, the claim is made that stone axes were never used as weapons, except in dire emergency. This seems a bit of "pacific savage" nonsense. People use the most effective tools at their disposal for warfare.

In War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley remarks on how archaeologists after WWII often claimed that stone axes were foremost tools, not weapons, and then rebuts the claim.

In the notes, examination of the skeleton found in Gunnedah shows it belonged to a large male, about 6' 3-4". That would have been a giant of a man in the aboriginal culture of the time.

The Red Chief is a superb companion to War Before Civilization. The two complement each other, with War giving an overall, theoretical view, and Red Chief supplying a particular example of paleolithic life in a small clan.

Here is a link to an electronic copy of the book The Red Chief

Instances of aboriginals adopting firearms to fight the European immigrants are very rare. I have not seen any cases of them adopting the horse as a domestic animal, either.  There are many examples of them being talented horse trainers and handlers while working for Europeans.

In New Zealand, the Maori tribes aggressively adopted firearms, which they used to conquer and subjugate their neighbors in a series of Musket Wars from 1818 into the 1830s.

In North America, both the horse and firearms were adopted by tribes as quickly as possible. The plains tribes became legendary mounted warriors. It never happened in Australia.

©2018 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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