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.
18 thoughts on “Chief Joseph makes the New York Times ebook list”
Bravo! You deserve the number one spot. I have all of your books on the American Indians, I have re-read several of them. I almost wish I had been in your back pocket when meeting with these very intelligent and beautiful people. I envy your journey.
Wow! Thank you Kent! And congratulations!
I received a “challenge” (for lack of better word) from my Natural Resource History professor in the University of Wisconsin system in the late 1970’s: he said (paraphrased) You won’t wholly understand this continent until you understand the Native people and their history that goes along with it. For one that was in scientific training for studying soils and later to spend nearly 40 years doing this, this was a very edict.
A summer evening with the classic red an purple sunset in the West, after a long day mapping soils, I had the priveledge of sitting in the place marked as Chief Joesph’s teepee at the Chief Joseph Battleground outside of Chinook. MT. It was not a National Park then but a National Monument. Truly this man was a great human leader who tried to take the “higher ground”.
We can only hope to live as courageous a life– yet all of us can in our own way– and there has perhaps never been a time when as much is needed.
Kent, re: your comment above; “What this bump up on the New York Times ebook best seller list means, I don’t know.” Reminds me of a quote by the late Larry Stillday teacher and medicine person from Ponemah. “It’s not about Indians, it’s about people! All the life forces must come into alignment! The Prophesies tell us that we are now in the time of a great healing. It says the four Colors of the human family are once again given an opportunity to bring each Color’s gifts together and create a mighty nation,” ~Gichi-Ma’iingan (Larry Stillday) Obaashiing. Notes to Biidaanakwad
I find myself in a somewhat unique position to write of Larry’s teachings. I have just finished what I’m calling the first chapter of a book working title, “Obaashiing Mikana” (the Road to Ponemah) or the Teachings of Gichi-Ma’iingan. the “chapter” is about my naming ceremony. I was inspired to start with this as I just celebrated the two-year anniversary of my naming on July 23 while at a language/culture camp for youth at the Round House at Ponemah. During that ceremony, Larry told me I was also a “bridge” as you have been described.
Also lIke you, I am a non-Indian who has been attracted to the ways of America’s Indigenous Peoples and have been working with the Red Lake Ojibwe for 21 years. However, I’m winging it, I know nothing of writing books. Are you still living in the north woods? Would you ever consider sharing some of your experience in this regard over a cup of makade mashkiki waboo?
Sorry, Michael, we’re long gone — out in the Pacific Northwest as part of the great grandparent diaspora. I never knew Larry well, though I had met him. I knew Tommy and considered him a mentor and a friend. I wish you well on your venture. Folks underestimate the importance of a non-Native trying to explicate or, at least, honor the Native experience. Sometimes the non-Native reader will be more open to a non-Native author, and our voices have a chance to reach where Native voices are ignored. Thanks for reaching out from the old home country. If I get back there, I’ll look you up.
Pretty Country. Larry would be the nephew of Tommy J. and studied under Tom. Larry was something special even recognized as such by Tommy. My experience confirms what you say about non-Indians writing about Indians. I would enjoy that. I’ll have to pick up your book on Chief Joseph.
dear Mr. Nerburn, I am happy to hear about it! It give us a hope that the world is changing.Thank you for your work!
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy–congratulations–life has this amazing way of opening doors!
Per your commentary on how difficult it is to write non-fiction and how, “You are destined to muck about in your little corner of the world, speaking to only the few who care”, I would like to offer some words of comfort and encouragement. From reading your works, I believe you are a man of conviction and of faith, and I know that your writing was meant not only for some of us out there who care, but more importantly, was done because it was inherently the right thing to do. God and the universal spirit knows this and has rewarded you and will continue to reward you because of your good and generous spirit.
I’m happy to hear that you are doing the “grandparent thing” for your earlier response to a comment here. Have fun!
BTW, I live in New York and would always be happy to share a cup of something with you as well if you are ever visiting. Thanks. Bill
As one who reverences the earth and all life as a non-Indian, I believe we learn much from those who lived here before our European ancestors. Ohiyesa’s ideas challenged my foundational beliefs long ago. I look forward to reading Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce. Congratulations, Kent, and thank you for writings that endure. My grandson now reads your works, too.
It is very likely that the new found,out-of-the-blue popularity of your wonderful book, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, is due to the imminent (tomorrow 7/28) publication of William Vollmann’s novel on the Nez Perce War called The Dying Grass. It’s gotten hugely positive pre-publication reviews and I hope you will review it on your blog right here here. Your book likely puts the book in historical context. That it, of all else that’s out there, has caught readers’ attention has to be extremely gratifying and vindicating to you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are asked to review the book or do an op-ed for the likes of the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and other influential media players. I am looking forward to seeing how all this goes!
This is great news! But I am not surprised. All of your books should be on the number one list. I hope this contributes to the notoriety you so deeply deserve.
You deserve the recognition!! Your stories of Native Americans need to be told. Thank you for your marvelous books. We have given them as gifts to many and haven’t met anyone that didn’t love your writing. Your book on Forgiveness was powerful. Congratulations, Kent!
You journey of miles and time spent will not erase the horror of trails of tears and forced relocation and assimilation, but “spice” to making for a new recipe of living in unity amongst diversity.
Dear Kent, I have all your native American books and read Chief Joseph many years ago and attempting to re-read at this time. I am 85 with a few eye problems and it is not as easy as it used to be to sit down and read through a book. .I am not native American in this life but resonate with their their life experiences and their teachings.. .. love your books and am so looking forward to this movie .ThANK you and I have never sent a letter to anyone except close friends and family via pc AGAIN THANK YOU SO MUCH..joyousjoysabode@YAHOO.COM
I’m honored to be the first person every to receive a letter from you via computer. It’s a wonderful way to communicate, but dangerous in its immediacy. If ever there was a medium that demands attention to the dictum to “measure twice and cut once,” this is it. However, it has the great value of allowing us to get off letters easily and quickly. I know for myself that I would love to sit down and write personal notes by hand and send them by mail, but I simply never do it. My life is littered with letters that were never finished because I wanted to do them right. Somehow, the significance of the communication froze me. But once I accepted and mastered the art of the email response, I found that I communicated much more freely and frequently. In this regard, I feel blessed by the computer age. At 85, you’re a semi-old dog (not a REALLY old dog, like Dave Bald Eagle about whom I just wrote, who is 95), and you might just find that you will enjoy this new trick. I hope so. There are surely many people out there who want to stay in touch with you, and this is the tool that will make it happen. Thanks so much for writing.
Congratulations, Kent, for putting Chief Joseph’s story on an important best-seller list. I’ve just finished reading your book and have to send you a(nother) letter of appreciation. My ignorance of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce is a shameful reflection of our education system’s choice of history chapters. I promptly sent the book to highly educated friends who are recuperating from serious surgery; both had some introduction to Joseph, one in college and the other via a movie, but both are eager to read your book. I also introduced them to the Wolf trilogy and know they’ll be deeply grateful. Thank you for bringing this history (and this wisdom) to so many.
First of all I want to congratulate you on the gift God gave you to write. Reading your Native American books has been an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing your journey.