When an email from the High Plains Book Awards arrived on June 6, 2019, with the first word “Congratulations,” I was ecstatic. My memoir “Petting Tigers” had risen to the top as a finalist in the creative non-fiction category. Each of the 13 categories accepts entrants from seven high plains states and three provinces. My first thought was, “Who are the other finalists in my category?”
Scrolling through the other finalist book titles, I immediately surmised that “Bitterroot: a Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption” was going to be tough competition, even if only based on the subject. I ordered the book and sped through it in short order.
As expected, the story evoked feelings and memories of my own childhood in Montana where racial prejudice was commonplace. My father of East European descent had no problem with his prejudice against anyone who was black, brown, red or yellow. He had derogatory names for them all, even Italians and Portuguese.
I could understand the kind of prejudice that “Bitterroot” author Susan Devan Harness felt growing up in a white home in Montana after being taken away from her Salish mother and adopted at age 18 months. Native Americans called her “an apple:” red on the outside, white on the inside. She so wanted to meet her Salish family and learn about her culture, which is the crux of her memoir.
Arriving in Billings on Oct. 10, still full of anticipation and hope that my book could possibly win this prestigious award, it quickly became apparent once the numerous High Plains BookFest events were underway that “Bitterroot” was receiving extraordinary attention. The author was on two panels, gave the keynote presentation, spoke at the women’s prison, and was featured in a half-page spread in the Billings Gazette on the day that the awards were to be presented.
It was no surprise that Susan won in two categories: creative non-fiction and woman writer. Congratulations to her! We actually have some things in common: Her husband has the same first name as mine, she drives the same make of car, and she first met members of her Salish family at The Mustard Seed restaurant in Spokane, which is owned by a classmate of mine — who is also in my book!
Prolific Montana author and award winner Thomas McGuane, who lives near my hometown, noted in his acceptance speech in the short story category that all of the finalists should consider themselves winners to have reached that level. I took that as good advice.
Less than an hour drive from Billings is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Even though I grew up in Montana, I had never been there. Continuing to realize the significance of Native American culture, history and issues in Montana, we arrived there on a spectacular sunny fall day with big blue skies and a warm breeze. For that I was thankful, as the whole experience was sobering.
As far as I can tell, nothing good came from the battle on June 25–26, 1876. Custer’s men were an average age of 22, mostly from immigrant families, who had joined the cavalry looking for adventure and a paying job. They were unprepared and ill-equipped for an overwhelming battle with 1,500–2,000 warriors. They died fighting and were humiliatingly stripped and mutilated by their conquerors.
The Indian warriors — Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho — were even younger. Their tribes had left the large reservation they had been given by treaty in South Dakota in search of better hunting grounds. The U.S. government wanted the tribes to give up their nomadic lifestyle, stay on the reservations, and actually wanted to purchase the Black Hills back from them after the discovery of gold in the hills. The tribes that pushed west, in turn, encroached on the territory of the Crow.
Most of the government declared “hostiles” surrendered within a year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Black Hills were taken from them without compensation. As Susan Harness said, “It was always about the land.”
The other casualties that struck me were all of the horses. Each company of the 7th Cavalry rode different color horses for identification. Custers’ men rode sorrels. Other companies rode bays and grays. The soldiers shot their horses in order to provide breastworks for the last stand. The horses were all buried in a trench on the top of Last Stand Hill. Only Comanche, a bay gelding, survived. Nothing good.
The history of the Indian Nations, indigenous peoples, of the High Plains runs deep and is stained with blood from the clash of cultures with the white man.
Photos by Shelley Jones
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument holds tributes to the deaths of many who fell during the battle on June 25 — 26, 1876.
Next up: Trees, friend or foe?