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‘Okla Hannali’ is a boisterous tapestry of cultures

RA Lafferty brings Native history to life

by Keith Purtell

'Okla Hannali' cover painted by Western artist Bob Annesley (1943-2018) of Cherokee descent.
‘Okla Hannali’ cover painted by Western artist Bob Annesley (1943-2018) of Cherokee descent.

RA Lafferty's “Okla Hannali” is a boisterous tapestry of early-American history, studded with the language, history, and customs of the various cultures who competed for dominance.

It is a detailed, semi-fictional account of a crucial period in American history, told with Lafferty's signature wit and insight.

Into this pageant steps Lafferty’s giant.

Best known for science fiction grounded in the tall tale tradition, Lafferty in 1972 produced this historical fiction about a Native American named Hannali Innominee, The Choctaw Giant.

RA Lafferty in his library in Tulsa, Oklahoma - photo by Keith Purtell
RA Lafferty in his library

Lafferty brings Hannali Innominee 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.

YouTube video on a related topic

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 Sarah Winnemucca1—were disproving white racist assumptions, the Founding Fathers were solidifying a government based in large part on the example of the Iroquois Nation. Everything is connected.

Consider yourself lucky if you have found and read this book.


1Sarah Winnemucca (c. 1844-1891): A Northern Paiute activist and author, Winnemucca tirelessly advocated for the rights of Native peoples. She lectured across the US and authored the first known autobiography by a Native American woman: "Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims", a book that is both a memoir and history of her people during their first 40 years of contact with European Americans.


"Okla Hannali" in other formats

  1. Audio book sample at SoundCloud
  2. Flip book version at Internet Archive
  3. PDF version at Wasabi Technologies


Postscript

Sharon Scott at a writers meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Sharon Scott

I knew R.A. "Ray" Lafferty via several Tulsa writers and was one day asked to serve as photographer while my friend Sharon Scott interviewed him. The three of us had a leisurely, literary chat in Mr. Lafferty’s parlor. At the conclusion, Ray suggested we do the photography in his office. I’d never seen the rest of the house.

Ray opened a plain door, and I followed him between two long book shelves that towered above my head. They ran most the length of the room, leaving enough space for a left turn near the far wall. The shelves were packed with hundreds of books.

We turned left and I saw another narrow corridor framed by high, full book shelves on the right and several book-lined avenues radiating off to the left, each disappearing into dim recesses. We walked straight along the wall to the far corner and made another left turn, whereupon our final destination was in sight; Ray’s “office.”

He told me this was where he did his writing. He gestured to a rickety little table and a manual typewriter. A simple gooseneck lamp hovered expectantly over the typewriter.

I was dismayed. The thought of the old man working so hard in apparent discomfort. But it was his choice, and perhaps he wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

I took my pictures, but they did not convey the image that has lingered all these years in my mind: R.A. Lafferty, tucked into a tiny space amongst the thousands of books he collected, drawing together ideas and information, adding his creativity and longing for human connection, and weaving the eccentric tales for which he became famous.

Weaving, weaving, weaving words together while bookshelves rise into the darkness beyond the glow that surrounds him.

NOTE: A page about Ray's library quoted him (new tab/window) saying he had 8,000 books.


Link to possible purchase site
Amazon.com

Other Web pages about R.A. Lafferty:

 "Cranky old man from Tulsa" (His Tulsa friends found him kind)

 Library of America "(Re)Introducing R. A. Lafferty"

 2002 Rediscovery Award