“Okla Hannali”

R.A. Lafferty spins a yarn

by Keith Purtell

Ray Lafferty

Ray Lafferty

Consider yourself very lucky if you have found and read this book. Only a few thousand copies were printed. Best known for science fiction grounded in the tall tale tradition, Lafferty in 1972 produced this astonishing historical fiction about a Native American named Hannali Innominee, The Choctaw Giant. “Okla Hannali” is a boisterous, eccentric tapestry studded with the language, history and customs of the various cultures who competed for early North America.

Into this pageant steps Lafferty’s giant.

The author brings his character to life with bold declarations worthy of Paul Bunyan. Innominee is described as a farmer, fiddler, tanner, distiller, ferryman, blacksmith, boatbuilder, philosopher and frontier maverick who out-gambled Southern gamblers, who made a Kiowa horse speak and who married three women from three races in three days. He had a “big Choctaw chuckle” that always started deep in his belly. Innominee walked with one foot in the virgin forest and the other in the White Man’s city streets. He was an ugly man, though “not as ugly as his cousin John T,” and he took 30 years to build his Big House.

Innominee is not only a remarkable fictional character, but he also serves as a representation of several real Native Americans who absorbed and transformed great chunks of European culture to become self-taught polyglots; renaissance men in buckskin. There is also much of the author in frontier eclectic Innominee, which I know from having been acquainted with Lafferty when I was younger.

“Okla Hannali” is mostly a detailed history of a crucial period in early American history, with a remarkable semi-fictional thread. You could even argue that it is barely fiction, since the narrative is consciously assembled from a wide assortment of real people and events rather than springing primarily from the author’s subconscious. So, its persuasive capacity as a fictional tale is that it contains something of the power of our literal lives.

While Hannali Innominee’s real-life counterparts — like Chief Quanah Parker — were blasting gaping holes in white racist assumptions, the Founding Fathers were solidifying a new nation based in large part on the example of the Iroquois Nation. Everything is connected.