Month: July 2015
I don’t know how it happened, especially at this distance in time from the date of publication. But I just received word that my book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, is on the New York Times ebook best seller list for non-fiction. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.
Like any author I like to see my books sell. It helps pay the bills. But in my case, my thinking is a bit different. I am, at heart, a teacher, and have always looked upon my writing as a way of teaching. Since reading requires a commitment of time, a writer needs to engage readers sufficiently that they will take that time from their fractured lives to follow out a story or a theme or whatever the writer wishes to communicate.
When you are preaching to the choir it is relatively easy: people are there because they are interested in the subject you are addressing. Your job simply is to have something to say and to say it in a coherent or engaging way.
But what if you are writing about something that you think is important, but almost no one cares about? Unless you have a giant publisher with a giant promotional budget that is willing to commit big dollars to your little tome in order to jam it down people’s throats until they find that they like it, you are destined to muck about in your little corner of the world, speaking only to the few who care, and hoping against hope that somehow word-of-mouth brings your book, and the subject you addressed, into some larger arena of consideration.
With novels it’s a different game. People like stories and will happily follow and pass on a story well-told. But with non-fiction subjects, it is a long, and often fruitless, uphill struggle.
The four years and 20,000 miles of travel I put in on my book on Chief Joseph were the most solitary and poignant of my life. By doing the journey entirely alone, I was able to experience the power of the land and enter by imaginative sympathy into the lives of the people and the journey itself. Of course there were limits; there always are. But my strongest emotional skills have always been the capacity for empathy, the ability to divest myself of my own point of view and enter into different spiritual realities, and a deep sensitivity to the power and voices of the land.
By the end of those four years, my life had been changed and I had re-experienced a journey that I knew was one of the most poignant, if least known, in all of American history. I had to tell it in a way that would go beyond the limits of its tiny sphere of interest. I had to tell it as a story.
And so I did. There are wonderful histories of Joseph and Nez Perce journey. There are decent novels. But, to my mind, no one had written their history using the tools of the novel, inventing nothing, but animating everything and bringing the reader along on a ground-level experience, allowing the journey to be understood through the eyes of the participants, both Native and military.
This is what I tried to do.
The book almost killed me. It drained me like no other. At one point I said to my editor, who was a very intelligent and thoughtful man, “If I just wrote Seven Leadership lessons from Chief Joseph I’d have been done a long time ago and we’d sell a lot more books.” His response? “Don’t say that, Kent. Truth hurts.”
But we insisted on a different truth. I needed to write the story, and I wrote it well. When I go back now and see what I accomplished, I can’t believe it came from my mind and heart and hand. As I tell people, I did more work for that book than for my Ph. D. But it was worth it. I have given the world a story that needs to be told, in as many ways and in as many voices, as possible. Mine is now one of those voices, and my telling will appeal to those who have an affinity for my way of shaping and presenting a story.
What this bump up on the New York Times ebook best seller list means, I don’t know. But it does offer me the chance to reach out to you, my readers, and ask you to consider giving your time to this amazing journey. More of you have found Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo. But if you want to learn a part of our American history that will amaze you and touch your heart, as well as to enlarge your understanding of the world in which we live, I hope you will pick up Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce.
Howard Zinn praised it. Robert Utley praised it. Louise Erdrich praised it. C-Span featured it, as did The History Channel. And, most importantly, the Nez Perce liked it.
If my goal as a writer is to teach, this book may be my most important. I am thrilled that it seems to be finding new readers. I hope some of you will be among them.
Ah, yes, Grover. What an interesting transformation he has undergone.
In writing Neither Wolf nor Dog, I changed Grover’s appearance from the actual Grover’s appearance to underscore the fact that not all contemporary Indian men have long braids or pony tails; that many wear their hair short and both look and dress like non-Native men. Especially in ranch country, the cowboy look of pearl-buttoned shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots is every bit as common as any other look for Native as well as non-Native men. I fashioned Grover to look like a hundred Native men I had known or met, though to a non-Native reader unfamiliar with the modern high plains west, he broke the norm and stereotype, which is exactly what I wanted.
Grover’s actual personality in the book, though, was a very fair representation of the man on whom he was based; a man who in many ways was my closest friend in Indian country. There was an edge to our relationship that was omnipresent — he would never stop needling me or pushing me or trying to make me feel uncomfortable. But there was deep love at the heart of that needling. Though many people did not like him, I valued his rough and tumble approach to interpersonal relationships because he deflated me at all turns and made sure I looked at my own behavior inside his culture with a ruthless eye. You could say he was my mentor, though the learning process was not always pleasant. I think this dimension of his character and our relationship is fairly represented in the book.
Now, jump to the screenplay. The early drafts of the script were written under the tutelage of a well-known Hollywood director who was working on a project in South Dakota that included Wes Studi. He had told me that Wes was his choice to play Grover, so I infused Grover’s depiction in the script with the dark, slightly ominous presence that Wes exuded when I met him. He was still the teacher, but there was something other than love at the heart of his character. He was distant and filled with a harsh rectitude. As a result, the relationship between Kent and Grover in the script became much less comfortable than the relationship in the book.
As the project took its twists and turns, eventually landing in Steven Simpson’s lap, the choice of actors for Grover also changed. Steven loved the idea of John Trudell, whose whip-quick intelligence and tightly wound emotional presence would have given a wild-card dimension to the portrayal. But scheduling conflicts derailed that idea.
Enter Richard Ray Whitman. I had never met Rich until I went out to the set for the beginning of filming. To this day I do not know how he and Steven hooked up or how the decision was made to cast him. All I know was that when I met Rich there was something I instantly liked about the man. He had a thoughtful, resolved, gentleness to his character. He was reflective rather than aggressive, and had a current of kindness and understanding at the core of his being. Something about him said, “Respect” rather than “anger” or “grievance.” What I sensed in Rich tapped into the best part of me and reminded me of why I have such a deep love for the people and experience of Indian country. He was, in every sense of the word, a good man. He felt like someone with whom I could have an honest friendship.
At first blush this ran contrary to every iteration of Grover that I had imagined. But then a strange insight hit me: his personality was more like mine and Chris’s (Kent’s) personality was more like Grover’s. It was a crazy inversion, but it had the real potential to work. Chris possessed the righteous anger and tightly strung emotional presence, as well as the physical energy, that was needed in the relationship, while Rich was more watchful and reflective, and inclined to absorb before responding. It kept the necessary dynamic between Kent and Grover, but turned it on its head.
Rich brought another great benefit to the role. For very different reasons than Chris’s, Rich held Dave, who played Dan, in the highest esteem. He was an Indian man in the presence of an elder, and it was in his cultural DNA to treat this elder with deference and honor.
This might seem like a natural response for anyone in the presence of a 95 year old. But that is not the case. In our “white” world there is an often unrecognized but very real tendency to see an aged person as diminished. But in the Native world, a 95 year old is not someone in eclipse, but someone who “has lived long and seen much.” To do anything other than honor that life is to fall short of your human obligation. You look up to them and make yourself humble before them. Rich felt and embodied this, both in his person and in his character, and I believe he did so more naturally and with more authenticity than any other actor could have achieved.
As a result, when he interacted with Dan, this humble deference was honest in a way that no acting job could have embodied. He honored Dave, just as Grover honored Dan. He found a humble place between the two ostensible main characters, and became the bridge between them and the glue that held the script together. Had he not been so completely grounded in his tradition he could not have emptied himself of “self” in the presence of Dan, while keeping the intimacy of their abiding friendship.
Think of it this way: Rich’s Grover is a warrior who has laid down his weapons and devoted himself to the caring service of others. His protection of Dan is a protection born of love, not anger, and the hardness of his stance toward Kent does not come from his core personality so much as from his love for Dan and his desire to keep the old man from harm.
By turning the character toward one of protective compassion, he humanizes the film to a degree that the book never achieved. I defy anyone with any heart to watch Rich’s portrayal and not say, “that is a man I’d like to know.” That’s what I felt when I met him, and I’m thrilled that he managed to keep that dimension of his personality while giving Grover all the toughness and rectitude that the character deserved.