Lone Dog Road — Why the Problem?

No one really needs the “inside baseball” stuff about my job or anybody else’s.  But some of you have asked why I have had such trouble getting Lone Dog Road to the marketplace, given the legacy of the “Dan” trilogy and Chief Joseph.  It’s a fair question that opens up some real issues that are worthy of one-time mention.

First off, to give publishers their due, there is an issue of length with Lone Dog Road.  It’s long.  It will run to well over 400 pages.  Printing books costs money and I was unwilling to cut LDR down by 30 or 50 thousand words.  So one part of the issue of finding a publisher was merely me reaping the fruits of my own stubbornness.  It was going to cost a lot to print this book, and selling it at a reasonable price while still making a profit was going to be a challenge. Add in the fact that I went out with it right at the end of the pandemic, when publishers were hurting financially and no one knew when or if the market for books would rebound, and their wariness was warranted.

But here is the more interesting aspect.  I don’t just have Indian characters in my books, as do my friend William Kent Krueger or Tony Hillerman, both of whom take their share of grief for supposed cultural appropriation.  My books aim to illuminate the Native experience as their primary goal.  I am, and always will be, at heart a teacher.  Though I work hard to make my books readable and engaging, my primary purpose is to open my readers’ eyes and hearts to a world too long ignored or hidden from view.  This casts me, rightly or wrongly, in the apparent role as a spokesperson.

The murder of George Floyd brought to a head everything that had been burbling below the surface in American culture.   Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, a hundred other unknown and previously ignored deaths of unarmed Black people; the disappearance on an almost daily basis of Native women; the frustration of women in general at the glass ceiling, “mansplaining”, and unequal representation in any number of aspects of American life — and a chorus of voices rose up almost organically saying, “Stop talking for me for once as if you understand me.  Just shut up and listen for a change.”

It was, and is, a fair demand, long overdue.

The result was the growth of the “Own Voices” movement where finally we are hearing people speak their own truths in their own words.  The corollary was, “You white men, STFU.  We’ve heard quite enough from you.”  And I am a white man who has tried to give voice to the way of seeing and understanding of a people not my own.  Notwithstanding who I am as a writer and what I have done, or even the quality of my heart or my writing, we have entered a cultural season where my voice is not one that is sought out, or even trusted, by publishers who have to make judgment calls on what the marketplace will accept.

But if that was all there was, there would surely be one or two big publishers who would be willing to fight the headwinds.  But I quite purposely pushed things further.  I truly believe that the “own voices” movement is a season, and not a discovery of a deeper reality.  The essence of the artist is to be able to enter into other realities and give them voice.  If we can only write from within our own experience, however you cut and slice it, we are living in a balkanized reality that is dangerous and self-limiting.  We need to acknowledge everyone’s voice, but we need to reach across and hold hands in the darkness.  This is what I decided to do in Lone Dog Road:  to write from within many voices in search of a common understanding.

And so I not only touched the third rail, I jumped on it and held it.

“You are writing in the voice of an 11 year old Lakota boy?  And a Black traveling gospel singer?  And a Dakota woman?  And a mother who has just lost a child? We’ll put up with the ex-seminarian who has lost his faith.  He’s a white guy.  And the middle aged white wanderer.  You can do that, too.  But these others?  We don’t think so.  We’ll take a hard pass.”

And they did.

So, add it up.  Old white guy.  No history as a novelist.  400 plus page book.  No social media presence other than a faithful but small following on Facebook.  Writing in voices of people whose experience it is assumed I cannot possibly understand. And you end up in the rejection pile of any publisher that keeps an eye on the bottom line.  And that’s all of them.

But that disrespects you as my readers, especially my Native readers, who value my work as a bridge voice.  It devalues my work as a way to draw people into an awareness of a world we all need to both learn from and understand.  And it shows a lack of faith, even a cowardice, on the part of those who should be championing all voices that allow us to see behind the veil of other people’s lives.

As a writer, and, perhaps as a human being, I’m truly neither wolf nor dog.  But I’m nothing if not dogged.  And I continue to bark.  Or maybe to howl.

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My Take on Killers of the Flower Moon

Something is uncomfortably wrong with “Killers of the Flower Moon”.

I had resisted seeing it, probably because of its enormous length and Martin Scorsese’s instruction that it be shown in theaters without an intermission. My bladder, my need for popcorn, and my general uneasiness about a highly hyped film about Native America had kept me away until New Year’s eve. But on a night where I am resolutely committed to being a homebody, it seemed the perfect time to see if I had been denying myself a glimpse of cinematic greatness as so many viewers had seemed to suggest.

I had not.

There are cultural issues and cinematic issues. Let’s start with the cinematic issues.

Here’s a secret. Originally, Leonardo de Caprio was supposed to play the Bureau agent Thomas Bruce White, and Jesse Plemons was to be Ernest Burkhardt. But De Caprio insisted on switching the roles. And the film is the worse for it.

Jesse Plemons (Power of the Dog, the Irishman), excels at playing characters earnestly trying to do right in situations where they are in over their depth, which is exactly what was needed in the character of Ernest. De Caprio, well, he’s one of those actors who is always De Caprio. He doesn’t disappear into a character. It’s one of the perils of stardom, but the great ones can overcome it. Di Caprio just didn’t communicate the dim Golden Retriever earnestness that the role demanded. He had his moments, but he seemed to be acting his character, rather than inhabiting it.

And Robert Di Niro. What was he doing? From the first moment on screen you said, “Ooh, this is a bad guy.” There was no nuance, no sense that he could have tricked anyone into believing that he had their best intentions at heart. He mugged his way through the film with the presence of an oily used car salesman.

But it is the cultural issues that most concern me. Scorsese gave a ton of screen time to Lily Gladstone, a Blackfoot/Nez Perce actress, who played Mollie. And she took good advantage of it, giving a nuanced and complex portrayal of a woman trying to live in two cultures. Her presence went a long way toward mollifying the Native viewers who were torn between cheering that an important story was being told and having to deal with the fact that without Molly, that story was driven by and focused on the white stars.

Say what you will about Dances with Wolves — white hero, embarrassing character of a white woman raised by Indians — it showed the humanity and cultural complexity of Native people and Native life. “Killers of the Flower Moon” threw in gratuitous glimpses of Native life and culture, but it was window dressing, not the ground on which the whole story was, and should have been, built.

Who were the Osage? How did they live? What was the process by which they had reached the state of cultural confusion they found themselves in? Despite its three-and-a-half hour length, “Killers of the Flower Moon” couldn’t find time to delve into these issues. Give us a drunk Indian woman, a dissatisfied Indian elder or two, put some cautionary or aggrieved words into their mouths, and get on with the story. The internal cultural conflicts were embodied in separate characters as exemplars, they were not explored inside of any individual characters.In the end it was a star turn for Hollywood heavy hitters, and a transparent effort to create a big screen epic in the grand tradition of Hollywood westerns.

I have spent my life pointing out that there are two different aspects to the Native American story that must be addressed. The first is that Native history has been effectively expunged from the American historical narrative. “Killers of the Flower Moon” does good service in shining a light on this harsh truth.

The second is that Native cultures and ways have much to teach us all about how to live worthy lives on this common American land. In this regard, “Killers of the Flower Moon” fails miserably.

If the story had begun with Mollie and her family and followed the dissolution of their traditional values and their growing awareness of what was happening to them as their traditional way of life was disappearing under the seduction and inevitability of American capitalist culture, this could have been an insightful, elegiac masterpiece. But instead it gave us Anthropology 1 glimpses of Osage values and beliefs — a shot of burials here, the clumsy appearance of a harbinger owl there — without delving in to the deeper meaning of the power of ritual, the nature of family, the spiritual significance of the land, or a dozen other aspects of Native belief that could have been explored rather than just used as cultural window dressing.

Native ways of thinking, acting, knowing, speaking, sharing, and caring are sorely needed in this current time when America has so clearly lost its way. It’s all well and good to point out, as “Killers of the Flower Moon” does, how Native America has been victimized. But it is more important to explain how Native America can be our teacher.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” squandered a rare opportunity. It worthily underscored what we as a nation have done. But to be the film that it could have been, it should have been equally as much about what we as a nation have lost.

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