Corbett Mack: The Life of a Northern Paiute by Michael Hittman

The history of the American expansion in the 19th century is often glamorized. Either that or it is rationalized by the specious reasoning of “manifest destiny.” But American expansion was a conquest; it was brutal subjugation. We should not forget that. Reading biographies such as Michael Hittman’s book, Corbett Mack: The Life of a Northern Paiute, gives us the chance of reflect on that time and the effects it had on the people who lived after it.

The Northern Paiutes (who refer to themselves as nuumuu, according to Hittman) inhabit lands in California, Oregon and Nevada. As the title of the book indicates, it is about Corbett Mack. This book was written by Michael Hittman but it is really an autobiography. Mack, a Northern Paiute man who lived in the Mason Valley of Nevada, related his life story to Hittman through a series of interviews. Hittman transcribed them into this narrative. Fortunately Hittman includes notes that clarify many of Mack’s utterances. The book is partitioned into eight parts and 159 sections. It took me a while to read for it is not prose; it’s transcribed conversation.

In the “Acknowledgements” Hittman reveals why he published this book. He was chided for writing about Mack, who was called “plain ordinary Indian drunk” by some relatives. Hittman responded with: “That is precisely the point.” We are presented, then, with an important historical document. The life of an ordinary man.

While telling of his work, his wife and his family we learn about conditions in the West. Chinese and Italian immigrants flooded into Indian lands bringing with them work – and opium and homemade wine. Hittman’s endnotes make clear that addictions to these substances became an epidemic among the people of the Mason Valley. Another consequence of incursion into Indian lands was half-bloods. Mack was one such nomogwet, and it was a source of contention between he and his father who barely claimed him as a son. He talks regularly of this troubled relationship.

Family is important, no matter who you are, of course. They lend identity to a person. Mack centers his story, as any of us would, on the family and friends he had. He casually speaks of all these family ties and you must pay attention to follow all the links. Hittman’s endnotes are again helpful in this regard. While Mack is this ‘ordinary’ man, some of his relations were well known figures in Native American history: Wodziwob and Wovoka, both Ghost Dance prophets.

He also tells of going to the Stewart Institute, a boarding school that opened in 1890. It was there that “he learned something,” he said. That expression returns again and again throughout the book. It seems sad to me, that he only felt that he knew anything because of the education he received there, a (white) education at that.

Of course, we should also always remember that every tribe, tongue and nation has at some time or another in its history oppressed and subjugated and dominated another people. Corbett Mack’s story tells us this: taivo or, we are all people, with the same needs, the same failings and proves that “oppression makes even the wise act mad.”


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