Home > 8. The Dragons of Grammar, West Virginia > Shawnee: Martinsburg, RT, and the Fourth Person

Shawnee: Martinsburg, RT, and the Fourth Person

File:1872 Chiefs Cornstalk Logan and Red Eagle from Frosts pictorial history of Indian.jpgThe truth pursues us, wherever we are. Take, for instance, Martinsburg, where RT has resided these last five or so years. Truth to tell, the town does not have the best reputation. Drugs, prostitution, drifters, abandoned buildings, vacant storefronts: a down-and-out place. Be that as it may, RT has been discovering more about himself here than he would have imagined, say, two years ago.

For starters, one of RT’s grandfathers, his father’s father, to be precise, was born here. In 1906, at least according to the census records. And now RT has been able to visit the house where he was born. No mean feat, since he grew up knowing virtually nothing about him. It turns out, moreover, that granddad was not born in the shining house on the hill, but on a working-class street that is now rather run down and not exactly safe. But charming, all the same.

As RT’s mother has commented, his feelings for Martinsburg have changed. You could say the same thing about RT’s self-image.

But as important as that is, this post has more on its mind than finding granddad. This post is concerned with family roots in general, hidden roots in particular, and Indian roots most of all. Because, as it turns out, RT does have a feeling that something is missing in Martinsburg, and that something is its Indian foundations.

Here is the problem. Although West Virginia’s Wikipedia page reports the state’s population to be 98% white, RT keeps running into people who, in his view, clearly have Indian blood. Some of the tip-offs: long, lustrous black hair; reddish/brown skin; short, stocky women; and the famous eagle nose. Using these strictly unscientific criteria, RT estimates he has encountered 13 people in Martinsburg who are Indian descendents, though he thinks that only one of these is full-blooded. That individual is also the only one who clearly self-identifies as Indian, wearing his hear in a ponytail, with a silver-and-turquoise hair ring. Of the other 12, three admitted to RT that they had Indian blood: two men and one women. And then there was the lady who told RT that she had learned from her grandmother that she had Cherokee blood on both sides of her family–but her grandmother advised her to never tell anyone, because Indians had been badly treated in her grandmother’s day.

Why might these encounters (and their anecdotal evidence) be important? Because every place, even a down-and-out old railroad town, has something sacred about it. The roots go down deep (and sometimes less deeply, too), to the first person to discover the place, the first word spoken there, the first breath drawn by a living being, the first touch of water. And in these first memories, the human experience belonged to the Indians, to their languages and lifestyles and sensitivities. Just how different were they?

They were different, but in surprising ways. Take, for instance, their languages. The Shawnee, as it happens, were the largest tribe in pre-European West Virginia–their lands extended east from the Ohio River far into the state. Now, lest we be tempted to think that there was anything simplistic about the minds of the Shawnee people or their language, consider one of the grammatical quirks of their tongue: namely, the fourth person.

What? RT, during his peregrinations while growing up, encountered several languages and certainly became familiar with the idea of three grammatical persons: first (I), second (You), and third (He). But a fourth person–who might that be? Well, answering that question had RT googling and checking Wikipedia and generally giving himself a crash course in advanced grammar. And the answer turns out to be: the fourth person is a special kind of third person, namely, one other than the principal third person being discussed. Or, in other words, third person (principal He or They); fourth person (secondary or more distant He or They).

The uses of the fourth person can be subtle: a landowner will generally be understood to be in third person, but one who owns no land, in the fourth. Similarly, a member of nation will be marked in the third person; an outsider or foreigner in the fourth. Or again, a human will be marked in the third, an animal in the fourth, person. Or the distinction can be as simple as “A lady gave her friend a gift, and she [fourth person–the friend] went home.”

File:SunWatchVillage.jpgThe social and political implications noted by this grammatical distinction are significant and universal: every society distinguishes between more or less “important” persons. But the degree of distinction is telling. Consider the difference between referring to a horse as “it” or as “he [fourth person]”. Rights are attached to person-hood, and perhaps the Shawnee understood that these extended even to animals, an unmistakably civilized attitude. Taking this into account, we should not be surprised that the Shawnee are associated with the mound-building culture of the Ohio River (the Fort Ancient culture).

There is much in Martinsburg that is beautiful (and, sadly, little noted): the wonderful old buildings, the beautifully designed gardens and graceful side alleys. Even the street where my grandfather was born has always been full of life and dreaming, and the effort made by city residents to preserve and add to Martinsburg’s charm is impressive. At the same time, RT isn’t sure that an important resource, the area’s Indian heritage (and population), is being adequately studied or integrated into the town’s self-image and life. It could be a key to giving this remarkable place the recognition it deserves.   RT

Images: Top: Chief Cornstalk (Shawnee, 1872); Bottom: Sun Watch Village, restored Indian Village, Dayton, Ohio. Both images: WikiCmns, Public Domain.


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  1. December 11, 2012 at 7:52 pm
  2. June 3, 2013 at 5:23 pm

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