Native American

Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce — my proudest accomplishment

I just received this note from a reader:

My wife and I traveled through western Montana this summer and just happened to stop at the Big Hole National Monument. The ranger on duty recommended your book, “Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce”.

I’m halfway through the book and loving the book. I’m disappointed with the treatment of the Nez Perce, but your writing brings the events to life. Great job!

I hear this comment often from readers.  Many of the sites on the Nez Perce trail recommend my book as the one to read, because I wrote it as a ground level experience for the reader with a sympathy for all participants on all sides.  I wanted you to be there as the events unfolded, not watching from some historical perspective.

It took me four years to do that book, and it was the loneliest literary journey of my life.  But in many ways it was the most rewarding.  It reveals the shadow side of the journey of Lewis and Clark and offers a look into one of the most poignant stories of American expansion into the west.  It changed me forever.

It may not seem like a subject that intrigues you.  But I urge you to overcome your resistance.  The Nez Perce are a people quite unlike any other tribe you may have experienced.  And their story and the story of their tragic flight are at the core of our American historical narrative.

If you liked the way the story was told in Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo, you will find Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce well worth your while.  I hope you will pick it up.

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Moving back to Minnesota, with a stop in Deadwood at the South Dakota Festival of Books

It’s a strange feeling to be going back.

House sold, goods packed.  Pushing against what feels to be the flow of history, both personal and cultural.  No one said, “Go east, young man.”  But maybe “Go east, old man” makes sense.

But someone did say, “Look homeward, Angel.”  And, in some fundamental way, Louise and I are going home.

It will be hard to leave the spiritual lightness and mobility of the West Coast for the heavier forces of the Midwest.  Possibility gets supplanted by watchfulness and survival. Caution dominates over optimism.  A greater gravitas descends, along with the inevitable yearning that has always been the lot of a life stuck in the middle.  But we know this world.  It fits like well-worn clothes — functional and comfortable, but slightly frayed around the edges.  It is where we come from.

I lie awake at night.  Will it be a homecoming or a retreat?  A reversion to the norm?

And then there is that other voice:  “You can never go home again.”  Old friends are the best friends, but the new friendships were launched from the shoulders of the old and have taken us to unknown places.  Will we, as we have become, even exist when we go back to a place where the old friends only knew us as people we no longer are?

And so I sit here in Deadwood, at the South Dakota Book Festival, caught half way.  Portland behind me, Minnesota in front of me.

I did not give much thought to this book festival.  It was supposed to be a chance to go with Louise and another couple to the wonder of this unknown part of the country and the pleasures of this delightful, intimate, festival that I love with all my heart.  But things went awry and I am here by myself, contemplating where I am going and what I am leaving behind.  Blessedly, it is a wonderful place from which to do that contemplation.

Deadwood is surely not my country.  It is gambling and cigarettes and Harleys and drooping Wild Bill Hickock moustaches.  And biscuits and gravy slopped on a plate and served by a waitress who calls me “honey.”  No arugula omelettes with eggs from chickens with names.  No SUVs.  Stores expect you to pay with cash.

But it is also the first taste of great open air and capacity for reflection, things that for whatever reason I never experienced in the west — the grand spaces and expansive landscape nothwithstanding.  It has something to do with the lack of possibility and the quality of emptiness.  Your thoughts don’t bump up against objects or ideas here unless you choose to let them.  You live best when you turn your sights inward.

And I am known here — a literary elder, known, sought out, held in an inordinately high degree of regard.  One man drove 6 hours from Minot to meet me, another sought me out to tell me of visiting his friends in France who were raving over their discovery of the wildly popular French edition of Neither Wolf nor Dog.

I was never known in Oregon.  As an author, I never existed.  It was my own doing.  I never raised my head, and I’m not sure why.  I just didn’t feel the need.

Now I’m back where I’m beginning to feel the need.  And maybe it’s because I’m feeling needed.  It has to do with the Indian connection.  Native folks coming up to me and thanking me for what I do and asking me to please keep doing it.  A “cult author” as another author said to me.  Known not regionally or in standard literary circles, but for the way I illuminate and articulate a tiny but important piece of literary earth.

Minnesota, too, knows and values this piece of literary earth.  And that is where I am headed.

There is no doubt this is going to be hard.  But here, half way, in country I begin to understand and that seems to understand me, I can sense a growing sense of possibility and a distant rumbling of an unexpected hope.

Maybe, just maybe, you can go home again.






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