So, apparently, the book has legs… at least at the local level. Through a lot of help from family, friends, and the awesome folks at Sweetgrass Books, there’s been a little buzz created that seems to be growing. We’ve had a couple readings, there’s a podcast set up with Native America Calling, and (hopefully,) a couple more in the offing. We’re also eagerly awaiting the results of a few award nominations this spring/summer.
I’m amazed since it’s only been out a little over a month. To say that there’s been a learning curve involved would be a tremendous understatement. I knew the process would be challenging, (and it is,) but I knew I would have some tremendous support (and I do.) So now, with volume one on the ground and toddling off toward the arms of its waiting readers. I feel a parental mix of pride and regret. Pride, for the message it carries out into the world, and for how well it has been received, and regret over what I could have done better to help it along. Understandably, I also feel a strong pull to sit down and resume work on volume two. Volume one needs a sibling.
Before I get too caught up in all of that though, I thought I’d step back a bit and put something out there that’s a little different, but still speaks to where I come from as a writer, a Cheyenne, and a mistake-making, lesson-learning human being. This is a poem of mine that had been published in an online journal called, Stones Throw Magazine, which had been produced and edited by past Montana Poet Laureate, Tami Haaland. For some reason the journal was taken offline which left my little creation homeless. For want of a home, here it is.
I held the book in my hands for the first time today. As one might imagine, a flood of emotion raced through me. I felt proud of the accomplishment, grateful for those who had helped me through the long, arduous process, and relieved that this portion of the story was done. Above all though, I felt more connected than I ever have been to those whom I wrote about in the book, those ordinary people who lived during such an extraordinary time and who overcame so much.
It’s important to emphasize that this is their story. True, I researched and wrote the book, but it is not my story. It was their struggle, their suffering, and their blood that knit together each moment of shock, anger, inspiration, sacrifice and fear. I have hope that, by coming to understand and identify with their story, we all might gain a more realistic perspective and a better understanding of our own struggles and our own stories. I believe their experiences can be used to educate, enlighten and inspire.
Granted, few, if any, among us have been driven from our homes in the middle of winter and forced to trudge through the mountains for weeks seeking help, but we have all faced times where we’ve felt, to some extent, attacked, abandoned, and alone. If we can draw any parallels and gain a new perspective from the Cheyenne struggle, we might also find that we can get beyond our own troubles and that all is not lost. I have no doubt that their example can inspire generations to come, Cheyenne or not, who feel lost in their own canyons of despair.
I’ve known about this story since I was a very young boy. I’ve often looked to it for inspiration as I’ve wrestled with various challenges in my life. My contemplation of the desperate straits these people were in has always helped me realize that my own dilemma, however painful it happened to feel at the moment, was actually a bit less difficult than I perceived it to be, and that I would in fact get past it.
Another hope I have for the book is that it might make a small contribution toward helping dispel the popular, but over-simplified, conceptions of the noble savage, mystical warrior or lay-about loafer that have been unfairly hung upon a race to either identify or quantify them in an attempt to suggest one’s own sagacity or superiority. Speaking for myself, an accurate understanding involves undertaking a more patient study of a very complex and nuanced culture. This book is a start but, I feel that it will require me, personally, at least two more volumes to even come close to presenting an adequate picture of those involved.
If I were pressed, I would say that the substance of the story is that all the characters were as human as any reader might be. They were ordinary people who happened to be thrust into an extraordinary time in the evolution of history. They all did their best to follow their own moral compass and to do what was right. In the end, their efforts provided us examples of some of the best characteristics that can result from human effort which include being courageous, heroic and inspirational, while at times also showing our weaker nature by becoming fear-driven, prideful and oppressive. These are attributes we all share and are certainly worthy of being recounted.
As a young boy I once visited an old family cemetery with my father. While there, I asked Dad a typical childish question, “Do I have any relatives who were famous, from back in the old days?” Dad’s response was uncertain. “Well, your Grampa Rowland was supposed to have done something with the army during the Indin wars. He was a scout, or something.” That was it. There was no more he could tell me. The story was one of those old ones that, over time, had started to slip away. It happens.
A few years back, as an adult, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the rich history of an organization I had become involved with. In the process of learning that history, I happened across the names of several friends and relatives who had also been involved with that organization, years before I came along. This inspired me to begin exploring more of my family’s history and heritage which, I have come to find, is exceptional.
It seems I can go back along any branch of my family tree and find remarkable individuals who have contributed great things to their family and their communities. One of the most remarkable was indeed, as my father had indicated, my great-great grandfather, William Young Rowland, a.k.a. To’ėsemotšėške Long Knife.
My initial intent was to discover what role Bill Rowland played in the overall history of our tribe, the Northern Cheyenne. I found bits and pieces of his story scattered around in different publications, which told me that he was one of those integral, behind the scenes, players, who likely never sought, nor was given, the spotlight in any event or developing situation. He had moments though, where it was clear, he was the one people turned to for information or help. I had to learn more.
I am so grateful that I live in a time when access to sometimes very archaic information can be had at the touch of a computer mouse, or via a short email. So much of what I have learned has come in such a fashion. That’s not saying it all came that way however. I have traveled thousands of miles visiting battlefields, forts, and state historical societies, spent days sifting through various repository records including the National Archives, researched hundreds of books, talked with countless historians and relatives, and spent seemingly endless hours scanning, writing, and researching Cheyenne history and Grampa Bill. Most importantly though, I went home and talked with family.
A clearer picture of Bill Rowland emerged in front of me with each click of the mouse, each mile on the road, each step in his footprints. I’ve often wondered, with each turn in my investigation of his life, if he had any suspicion that his involvement in the grave and life-changing events of his time, would someday be of such pressing interest to any of his descendants – even a hundred and forty years later. After learning what I have in this process of discovery, I would venture to say that many of his descendants will be fascinated to learn the role he played in one of the most tumultuous periods in our nations history.
I am also grateful to, Rick Ewig, editor for Wyoming’s history journal, Annals of Wyoming, for publishing the article I wrote on my great-great grandfather, in which I relate the fascinating story of his life. My current project is, The Cheyenne Story, a three volume novel which tells the story of the Northern Cheyenne people, from shortly after the fight at Little Bighorn to the establishment of our reservation. It draws heavily on the research I’ve done for this article, as well as so much more I’ve dug up along the way.
Grampa Bill is a co-protagonist in the story, which provides me the opportunity to explore in greater detail, who he was and what role he played in the amazing story of the Cheyenne and their heroic fight to stay in their homeland. That story has always been a great source of pride for myself and many others. To know that I am a product and beneficiary of that struggle, that heroism, leaves me with gratitude beyond words. By my ancestors brave example I have learned that even though something seems impossible it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.