It’s a Highly Prized Commodity
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
A remarkable event in the 25-year history of this publication recently took place. Over the past 10 months, we published an excerpt in every issue from Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, by Fanny Kelly, otherwise known as Taken By the Sioux. We published virtually the entire book.
Kelly’s misfortune, it turned out, worked to our advantage, yours and mine, and proved that reports of the demise of the American attention span were greatly exaggerated. Each month, since Febru-ary 2013, we published in excess of 6,000 words per issue excerpted from Kelly’s story. Yet the advice of mentors had rung in my ears, who once admonished that articles must be kept fairly short in order to maintain readership. Favorable response from the public to Taken By the Sioux, though, was unprecedented. People approached us on the street, and by phone and email, telling us how captivated they were by the captivity narrative, the story about the woman taken by Indians.
I recently had a workman on the premises, a capable and perceptive man, and upon entering an area where stacks of paper were stored for mid month distribution, he immediately requested a copy so that he might read the next installment of Fanny Kelly’s ordeal. And that occurrence was hardly exceptional.
Kelly’s account was not merely suspenseful and intriguing, it gave her, and us, particular insight into the reality and lives of the Ogalalla and Blackfeet. She lived with them, ate with them, traveled with them, and was brutalized and tormented by them. She learned to both admire and despise the Ogalalla, while finding the Blackfeet more merciful and friendly.
She witnessed and described the mobilization of a Sioux village of several thousand individuals, who, on a moments notice, had been forced to pack up everything they owned, all their possessions, tepees, dogs, horses, and of course old men, women and children, and quickly vacate the area—as Sioux warriors battled the United States Cavalry in eastern Wyoming, and as the Cavalry approached the village. Kelly’s description, and her involvement in that teeming exodus, took us there in history, to a place and an event that we otherwise could never have imagined happen-ing, in all its grandeur, primitive-ness, practicality, and hardship.
Imagine, if you can, gathering and moving several thousand people in a moments notice, with gravity and efficiency, all bundled into one organized parade of humanity—and Kelly was there.
Such descriptions and Kelly’s life threatening circumstances compel attention, now, in the year 2013. I, myself, reading her narrative before publishing it, could not put it down, and finished the story in two sittings. My intention, having been taken by her account, was to merely print an excerpt or two in this publication for the edification and entertainment of our readers, locally and online (the totality of which amounts to a substantial number of people in this country and around the world). People began asking how they might obtain the book, long out of print, but available as an e-book, and soon began requesting back issues of the Montana Pioneer to read parts of the story they had missed.
The consistency of that reader response spoke volumes regarding the willingness of local readers and people elsewhere to digest and involve themselves in a protracted narrative. In a word (or two), such a dynamic requires a prolonged attention span a sadly vanishing trait among the general populace, especially those who are younger, what with the advent and deluge of technology and media that tends to subvert extended concentration. And this seems an all but deliberate strategy perpetuated by media producers of all kinds intent on exploiting the minds of viewers and participants. Just look at Twitter—a medium reflective of, it would seem, atrophied neural pathways in the human brain.
Given the fact that social media predominates more thoroughly among those of a younger age, we’ve wondered just how many out there might sit down and read a 6,000 word article. Our opinion is, ultimately, that if the material is irresistible, they will. Even so, neural pathways needed to sustain concentration must be forged (if we are to live as conscious people with capacities for critical thinking who can adequately assess issues).
Attention span and force of will blaze those neural pathways, deeper and deeper into the brain, accessing dormant potentials. The more one stays with a train of thought, in other words, or focuses the mind on a single pursuit without diversion, the deeper one reaches into and accesses capacities of consciousness, that, in certain disciplines, for example, avail abilities of perception other-wise left untapped.
Attention is therefore a precious commodity, as evidenced by the antics of Reality TV, the price of advertising on Super Bowl broadcasts, the existence of Google, and, yes, our alluring December cover. It’s all about attention.
Fanny Kelly, then, has taught us a lot, as we endured with her for almost a year. Her writing style alone impressed many, her ornate, descriptive, and eloquent prose of the 1800s, long lost to lol and how r u? In fairness, Hemingway had much to do with that, but his lean style was never meant to foster the dumbing down of readers.
We did not actually publish the entire text of Kelly’s book. Left out was documentation she provided supporting her story and experi-ence. We could not of course account for every word she wrote, but there’s little room for doubt, given the breadth of witnesses, including Indian chiefs and generals who participated in her capture and rescue, and President Lincoln himself issued an order that Kelly’s freedom was to be secured.
Almost undoubtedly though, liberties were taken in the composition of the narrative, most likely in consultation with a publisher who saw a need to guess as to what must have been the words spoken by Indians that Kelly recorded in her book. She tells us she became well acquainted with the Sioux language over the course of weeks and months, but we are not so sure that her proficiency would have been as it seems to have been represented, given the discourses recorded that were reportedly spoken by Sioux Indians.
We do not know, however, the extent to which these Indians spoke English. Red Cloud, then Chief of the Ogalalla nations, and a great orator, seems to have mastered the language, in that he spoke before officials in Washington D.C. on Kelly’s behalf, insisting reparations paid to his tribe first compensate Kelly—the chief, according to a source among the Lakota, having been quite the wily politician. Self-serving rhetor-ical devices though are to be expec-ted in both the political and publishing worlds, in 1872 and 2013. Focusing and holding attention is, after all, prerequisite to success.