Contractions: Henry Standing Bear's Ethical Code

I recently finished watching the last season of Longmire, a show that I believe only got better when it moved to Netflix. A & E cancelled it, despite good ratings, because it did not directly appeal to the 18-35 age demographic. The writing and plot development improved as the show started focusing more on major themes and story lines and not story-of-the-week subplots. While the show's general premise is typical cop show fare, the strong characterization and settings give the show a primacy over similar procedurals.

While I enjoyed the show, I never got around to reading the books even though I watched dutifully for six seasons. Once I started reading The Cold Dish, I realized how hard it will be not to binge the book series. The books are a treat. Craig Johnson's prose is punchy, and the characters are even better realized. Walt Longmire's love for Rainier beer and obscure literary metaphors, as well as other character's predilections and habits, become crystal clear. The setting of Absaroka county, a fictional Wyoming county named after a proposed state that wanted to secede from parts of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, is finely detailed, and he effectively represents the Native communities of the area. In fact, his treatment of the communities and people, particularly Henry Standing Bear, are as effective as Tony Hillerman's depictions of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, in his Leaphorn and Chee series. But that will be the focus of another post.

Here, I want to discuss the character, Henry Standing Bear, and how he does not use contractions because I find this character trait fairly compelling. It works literally and metaphorically as a choice that is beyond diction. It says something about Henry's personality and code of ethics that is not easily tangible. If only the rest of us could use language in such a concise way to order our world and express ourselves to others. As a word nerd and an academic, I think about the use of contractions quite often, especially because I have to grade first year papers that are often inundated with contractions, despite the fact that I tell my students not to use them. Henry seems to not use contractions for a much different reason that is connected to his moral compass, and he wants to make sure people clearly understand where he stands.

I perused the internet discussions surrounding Standing Bear's decision for clarity. There is much discussion of Henry's odd predilection, ranging from the manner in which native populations speak to Henry's need to be direct. Creator Craig Johnson endorsed one possible reason according to a fan who attended a book signing: "He mentioned a scene that got cut that he really wish had been included. In the scene Branch and Henry are conversing. Finally at the end of the conversation this happens (paraphrased): Branch: 'Why don't you ever use contractions, anyway?' Henry: 'What is the hurry?' Johnson also endorsed Lou Diamond Phillips' portrayal of the character, telling Wendy Wilkinson that "Lou was the only one who auditioned for the role of Henry Standing Bear who dropped all the contractions from his scenes,” Johnson said. “From that, I knew he’d read the books.” 

Either way, the character talks like most of Johnson's native characters, yet refuses to use contractions. I contend that it also has something to do with his straightforward, ethical code. He is very precise and wants to make sure that he gets his point across so no one can misconstrue what he is saying. He shows that he understands what they tell him, but he also wants them to know that he is a fastidious and dedicated individual who will stand by his word and stand by them. He effectively explains himself clearly and concisely without the need for shortcuts. This is something all too rare in this soundbite world where people are using contractions and shortcuts to get their tweets out in 140 to 280 characters. 

Further reading:

Wendy Wilkinson's Interview with Lou Diamond Phillips: 

The Straight Dope Discussion of Henry Standing Bear's Diction:


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