During the eighteenth century, America’s indigenous tribes lived on Pennsylvania’s western frontier—no debate. But when I began writing my novel, The Scattering of Stones, I made every attempt to ignore them. It was denial at the highest level—born of respect and a profound sense of inadequacy to the task of representing them. But how can you write the story of a man and woman who settled on that frontier in the 1770’s and migrated into Ohio in the 1800’s without addressing a simple fact: western migration happened because of treaties the US government made with tribes. Expressed more accurately, the treaties happened because settlers wanted (and squatted) on the desired land.
I live in a community with three reservations. In California we call them Rancherias. As an elementary school principal, I was intimately involved in the lives of people living on those Rancherias. I unearthed the old mascot t-shirts featuring a bigheaded, big-nosed cartoon “warrior” wielding a tomahawk. I made my little version of progress by replacing the image with a feather as the graphic (though the warrior mascot remained and returned, in more acceptable ways, as soon as I retired). I made trips to the Rancheria with a teacher whose family came from the Rancheria. And I’ll admit, I was nervous—even with her standing by.
I regret my fears. I met a wealth of wonderful people whose history had created some serious problems and who deservedly mistrusted people like me. So who was I to give voice to these original settlers in a fiction based on my infiltrating ancestors?
Historical fiction is a version of a world that once lived, with a nod to the worldview of the time. I needed to understand that world. My research spoke to the flashpoint between two competing cultures—scalpings on both sides, pleas for protection and records of attacks on both sides, one-sided trials, and treaties, lots and lots of treaties.
My story gave notice—these peoples, particularly the Shawnee, would not be ignored. They became a thread in my story line, integral to the plot.
Of all my research, the records of treaties made provided the most unbiased evidence of—no polite way to say this—abuse. Check out this site, aptly called the Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784-1894. As they explain, the schedule “comprises 709 entries with links to the related map or maps for each entry.” (My bolding.) The records do not include any treaties negotiated before the United States formed, of which the number is substantial.
So, treaty after treaty we moved west. How could I in good faith ignore that? And how could I NOT wash my story with my own perspective?
Speaking of perspectives, the Washington Post reviewed an exhibit of the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit. It addresses the lies and romance surrounding the image of the Indian, a perspective of which we should all be aware. Check it out here.
- The Scattering of Stones , available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, comes out February 15, 2018.
- A Bookbarn located in Clovis, CA, a business supporting all things books, new and used, is hosting a signing celebration February 28th from 6 to 9.