Part One: Legend
In 1905, Stanislawa Okulska, a young Polish patriot, is exiled by the Russian government to the barren wasteland of Siberia. With the help of the locals, she escapes and eventually makes her way across the Bering Strait and into the Northwest Territories. Near death from the cold, Stanislawa is rescued by Tall Eagle, chief to a tribe of Indians living deep in the forest. Stanislawa marries the handsome chief and bears him three children, the youngest of which, Sat Okh, inherits his mother's blond hair.
In the 1930s, upon learning that Poland has at last achieved independence, Stanislawa decides to visit her homeland, taking the teenage Sat Okh with her. Mother and son are swept up in the turmoil of World War II. For his participation in the underground resistance movement, Sat Okh is arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. On the way to the extermination camp he escapes and joins a partisan unit. Courage, resilience, and the skills he had acquired in the Canadian wilderness earn Sat Okh the admiration of his comrades and several medals.
Such is the "incredible but true" story of Stanislaw Suplatowicz (192? - 2003): recipient of the Cross of Valor and the Home Army Cross [H, KK]; celebrated author whose books about his "Indian" childhood captivated several generations of Eastern European teenagers; and one of the biggest “defenders, propagators and glorifiers” [W] of Native American culture in the world. From 1958 to present day, nearly all newspaper articles [RR] (and later blog posts [F]) dedicated to Suplatowicz start by recounting his incredible story. Even when the ultimate goal is to cast doubt on elements of the legend or even to dismiss it entirely as a hoax, few can resist the opportunity to tell it in their own words.
American author Stephen Glantz, who first heard the story of Sat Okh "over a campfire on a bluff overlooking the Berezina River”, puts it this way: "A story of great love. The love of a boy for his people, his family and a way of life. A young man's love for his mother and the pain of seeing her lose her way. And the love of a warrior for his fellow soldiers who become his friends and brothers; for the ideals they share; for his adopted country and for a lovely woman who fights by his side." [SG]
Sat Okh’s first novel, The Land of Salt Rocks (1958), was an instant hit. Quickly translated into Russian, German, French and a dozen other languages; it produced millions of young fans eager to learn more about their idol. In a rare demonstration of supply meeting demand, Communist press obliged. Dozens of newspaper articles were followed by two biographical novels, both written in Russian [BB].
Secure in the knowledge that their readers lacked the ability to verify their facts, Sat Okh's Soviet biographers often made up details as they went along, guided by their own imagination or political necessity. Thus, in Listen to the Song of the Feathers [V] Nikolai Vnukov has Sat Okh's mother teach her son about the "three great chiefs": Marx, Engels and Lenin. Vnukov also gives a detailed account of Sat Okh's activities at the partisan camp, except instead of being part of Armia Krajowa (the Home Army, supported by the Polish government in exile) as we now know to have been the case [H], the unit is part of the pro-Communist Armia Ludowa and is headed by a Russian army officer. Biographers [I,H,R] are also careless with the details of Stanislawa Okulska's journey through Siberia, and her birth year is alternately given as 1877 [KA], 1881 [F] or 1885 [R].
The 2004 dissertation of Lublin University student Katarzyna Krępulec “Stanislaw Suplatowicz:: the Unusual Story of Sat Okh” [KK] is the first attempt to condense all the sources and separate, to whatever extent possible, fact from fiction. However, as one of Sat Okh’s disciples and a proud member of the Friends of the Indians movement, writing about her teacher and idol just months after his death, Katarzyna herself is hardly an unbiased historian.
Combining records from the Radom census book and a notarized statement Stanislawa made in 1958, both quoted by Krepulec, and ignoring, for the time being, the inconsistencies between the two, the following story emerges. Stanislawa Okulska was actually born in 1880, into a family of Polish gentry. She married Leon Suplatowicz, a chemist, in 1903. After Leon, a member of the social-democratic party, was arrested by the Russian imperial government in 1905, Stanislawa followed him to exile in the village of Alekseevka near Kirensk.
Multiple post-1991 sources agree on the date when Stanislawa made her daring escape and started her long journey East: 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. However, it is easy to see why Soviet-era accounts either left out the date altogether or gave the much earlier (and far less probable) date of 1908. An escape in 1917 would not only disprove the existence of Sat Okh’s much older brother Tanto, featured prominently in his novels; more importantly, it would call into question Stanislawa’s sympathies towards the Bolsheviks.
Sat Okh has always maintained that his tribe had no use for calendars and that the only thing he knows for sure about his birthday is that it happened in spring. However, his earlier biographers generally stuck to either 1920 or 1922. In her 1958 statement, which coincided with the release of "The Land of Salt Rocks", Stanislawa claims that Sat Okh’s official birth certificate (which listed, as his birthplace, the above-mentioned village of Alekseevka; as his year of birth, 1925; and as his father, Leon Suplatowicz) was issued based on her testimony upon her return to Poland. She changed her son’s age and gave him her late husband’s name, she says, in order to avoid attracting too much attention when she enrolled the non-Polish-speaking, illiterate teenager in a parochial elementary school.
Could the birth certificate have been genuine? Thousands of Poles were left stranded in Siberia after 1917. Some managed to make their way home through Russia in the midst of a civil war. Others traveled to China and languished in Shanghai, waiting for Polish government and charitable organizations to provide passage. [S] Some were helped by the Japanese. [JP] Finally, in 1924, a treaty was signed between Poland and Soviet Russia which allowed those remaining in Siberia to return legally to their homeland. [S] Were Stanislawa Suplatowicz and her son among them?