Last year KILLING CUSTER came out and now is available in paperback. This year’s novel, NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO, appears in early September. Looking at these two very different novels on my shelf, I wondered if the only thing they had in common is the same author. (That would be me.) Which set me to wondering, is what ways are they alike?
Let’s start with setting and characters. Both are set on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming with the Arapahos, one of the Plains Indian tribes. Both feature Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Jesuit missionary priest, Father John Aloysius O’Malley. So, in what ways are they different? Since I work very hard not to tell the same stories over and over again, the stories are different. KILLING CUSTER deals with reenactors, people who dress up like Custer and the 7th Cavalry and fight—again and again—the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place on June 25-26,1876. NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO deals with the birth of a white buffalo calf on the reservation, a sign from the Creator Himself that brings hundreds of pilgrims and changes everything. Both novels are set in the present and yet, what they share, is history.
For KILLING CUSTER, the history that I wanted to write about was not the history found in books. It was the story of Custer as the Arapahos and other Plains Indians remember him. Nobody’s hero, this Custer. No charismatic, Civil War general and possible presidential nominee. Arapahos and other Indians knew a different Custer: the man who attacked unprotected villages, slaughtered warriors, killed horses, and captured women and children. Then gave the women to his men to use as they pleased, kept the most beautiful Cheyenne woman, Monaseetah for himself and turned her out onto the plains when she became pregnant. Whether she would make it safely to her people was no concern of Custer’s, but she did, and her son grew up to become a Cheyenne warrior.
All of this was just the background. In the foreground of the story is the man who reenacts Custer himself and is shot to death during a parade down the Main Street of Lander. When Arapahos are blamed for the murder—why wouldn’t they want to kill Custer again?—Father John and Vicky find themselves involved, trying to protect the innocent. And yet, in this present day supercharged with the past, who is really innocent?
NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO taps into another aspect of history. The birth of a white buffalo calf calls every Arapaho back into the past and into the stories handed down for a thousand years. It is as if the calf himself says, Stop! Remember who you are! Remember where you came from! And come back. Come back to yourselves. And yet, the birth of the calf brings mysterious events. The white owner of the ranch where the calf is born is found shot to death, cowboys working the ranch disappear, and in the confessional, a penitent tells Father John: I killed a man.
Once again Father John and Vicky find themselves caught up in a mystery influenced by the past. In both novels, history is alive. It reaches out, changes people, motivates them to remember and even to seek revenge. Before Father John and Vicky can figure out what is going on in the present and solve the mysteries in both novels, they must reengage the past and try to understand what really happened. And why it still matters.