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Fredrick W. Boling -- Writing Western

Author of novels, short stories and articles about America's Frontier

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Writing A Balanced Story

Fredrick W. Boling

Published in August 2007 Western Writers of America ROUNDUP Magazine.


The hardest thing to do is write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn. So said Ernest Hemingway in an article published by Esquire in 1934.

    The writer of historical fiction bears an awesome responsibility - the construction of a balanced story. To do this one must be knowledgeable about the time, places, people, customs, mores, and religion of which he or she writes. Write about what you know is a proven adage passed from experienced to inexperienced writers. To write what one knows requires a combination of experience and research. Writing from experience is relatively uncomplicated; however, anything outside of experience makes research necessary. I have found research to be complicated, at times expensive, often mundane, and it requires a lot of time and perseverance. It is always compelling since any historical illusion must be structured upon verity. The appropriate blending of facts with fiction produces a believable story. To paraphrase Roberta Gellis, a noted author of historical fiction: If it isn't believable, it probably won't be published; and if it should be published, it will not be successful.

    The writer of historical fiction assumes a perilous task: while he or she must remain true to history, there are the demands of fiction pressing the writer to pace, dramatize, capsulate, and omit. So wrote Terry Johnston, a contemporary writer of Western historical fiction.

    There are numerous sources for historical research. To list some of the more important: 1. Library aids, i.e. books; microfilm; newspapers; interlibrary loans. 2. Federal plus state archives, and governmental records, such as military and naval records. 3. Museum exhibits, e.g. books, paintings, period displays, and battlefield displays such as cycloramas and accouterments. 4. Letters, diaries and scholarly biographies. 5. Film and video documentaries.

    I have found that there is no substitute for visiting the historical sites involved in my stories. I want all of my senses - taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight to be attuned to those places. I want to learn about the climatic conditions, military forts, towns, ranches, geography, topography, the people and the mores of their time of which I'm writing.

    My novel, Wakan Man, required a great deal of research. The story's setting is in Dakota Territory between 1866 and 1868. The Sun Dance religion of the Lakota (Sioux) and Crow Indians is an integral part of my plot. In my research, I found five sources that addressed this topic. 1. Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, published by the University of Nebraska Press. 2. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, published by Holt Rinehart Winston. 3. Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov, published by Viking Penguin Books. 4. Yellowtail: Crow Medicine Man And Sun Dance Chief by Michael Fitzgerald, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. 5. The Plains Indians by Colin F. Taylor, Ph.D., published by Crescent Books and distributed by Random House Value Publishing, Inc.

    Christopher Columbus recorded in his diary a strong conviction that he had been chosen to carry Christianity to the inhabitants of the new world. His discovery of the Americas was soon followed by Spanish monks sent to convert all of the Indian savages to the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. Following the Protestant Reformation, dissident sects seeking religious freedom began to colonize North America. They brought with them many differing viewpoints of Christianity. Many of these denominations began to send missionaries to convert the Indians to their tenets of Christianity. The result was mind boggling for the Indian. Consequently, many decided that they wanted no part in the white man's religion. Red Jacket, an Iroquois, expressed this sentiment quite well when he lectured a missionary from Boston. "Brother!" he said. "You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do you not all agree, as you can all read the book?"

    The attitude of the white immigrants was one totally biased against the idea that Indians had any substantive religious beliefs. They considered them to be like children, uneducated in the truths of God. This prejudiced attitude along with the Indians' growing perception that whites were deceitful and not to be trusted turned many Indians away from Christianity.

    Like all Plains Indians, the Lakota and Crow believed in a Supreme Being. The Lakota called him Wakan-Tanka. He was Acba-dadea to the Crow. Thomas Yellowtail, a Crow medicine man and Sun Dance chief, records the following prayer to Acba-Dadea in his book published in 1991 by the University of Oklahoma Press: Acba-Dadea, Maker of All Things Above, hear my prayer. Now we have filled our pipe and offered our smoke to the Heavens Above, to Mother Earth, and to the directions of the Four Winds. Guide my thoughts and words. Give me wisdom to present Your religion -- that our religion was given to us Indian people long before our time.

    The Plains Indians' attitude toward the universe was one in which they stood in fear, awe and veneration. Their philosophy recognized man as an integral part of nature and not outside it. Black Elk, a Lakota (Sioux) shaman, affirmed this tenet when he said, "This truth expresses the oneness of all things."

    The Sun Dance religion was practiced by most of the Plains Indians. Each tribe held similar views relative to their understanding of the components of the universe. They believed that a spiritual element resided within all things visible, animate and inanimate. Outside of the visible universe is a greater one that is invisible to the eye, but can be tapped into through revelations such as visions. This tenet led the practitioners of the Sun Dance religion to be diligent vision seekers.

    Holy or mysterious in the Lakota language is called wakan. The Power emanating from the Supreme Being is called medicine. One who is perceived to be a holy man by his tribe is set aside as being a wakan man. The Lakota call him a wicasa wakan (medicine man). In my research, I have not found a single medicine man whether he was Lakota or Crow that did not experience a vision of profound significance. I give you two examples: First, that of Black Elk, a Lakota wakan man who was thirteen years old at the Battle of Little Big Horn. At the age of nine while eating one evening, he heard a voice loud and clear say to him, "It is time; now they are calling you." He felt compelled to go wherever the voice directed him. As he walked out of the tipi, both of his thighs began to hurt. Suddenly, he felt as if he were awakening from a dream. He did not hear the voice again at that time. He returned to the tipi wondering what he had experienced. Within three days Black Elk was very sick. During that illness, his father believed Black Elk would not survive. He called in a medicine man to seek the curative powers of Wakan-Tanka in hopes the youngster could be spared. Before he recovered, Black Elk had a vision. The vision revealed prophesies relative to the Lakota Indians, which all ultimately came true.

    The second example is the vision experienced by Plenty Coups who was a Crow chief. Born in 1848, Plenty Coups became one of the most famous chiefs of the Crow nation. Similar to Black Elk, he experienced his first vision at the age of nine years. Following the death of his brother at the hands of the Lakota, Plenty Coups sought spiritual power to avenge his death. He prepared himself in the tradition of the Sun Dance by taking a sweat bath in a sweat lodge. He then climbed to the top of the south Twin Butte in the Little Rockies in northern Montana. He made the traditional bed of sage and cedar. He rubbed burnt alumroot and sage on his body, its purpose to mask any human odors. During the first night of his vigil, a voice called his name. He described it as coming from behind and back of his head. "Yes," he answered. The voice said, "They want you, Plenty Coups, I have been sent to fetch you." In his vision, he was taken to a holy lodge. There he encountered an assemblage of ancient warriors whose headdress feathers displayed evidence of many coups. The Chief of the assemblage proclaimed that Plenty Coups could be a Chief on his own powers. He was directed to cultivate his senses, to use the Powers that Acba-Dadea had given him. He later, as the vision foretold, became a great Chief of the Crow nation.

    The Sun Dance religion encompasses a myriad of components. They believe in a single supreme being, The Great Spirit called Wakan-Tanka by the Lakota -- Wakonda by the Omaha, Ponca and Osage -- Tirawahat by the Pawnee -- Puha by the Comanche -- and Natojewa by the Blackfeet. These different names are primarily due to language differences, but their understanding of The Great Spirit is the same.

    The Great Spirit is the Maker of All Things, the Heavens above, the Mother Earth and the directions of the Four Winds.

    They believe that Medicine Fathers reside in the four directions, i.e. North, East, South, and West. These spirit powers can assume the form of any bird or animal or inanimate object when they enter the tangible world. The Sun Dance follower seeks from the Medicine Fathers the power to heal sicknesses, to be successful in battle, experience a bountiful hunt, and any other situation calling for supernatural strength.

    A part of their ritual is to smoke the medicine pipe. The components of the sacred pipe convey meaning to its use. It consists of an L-shaped bowl of Catlinite (pipestone), which represents the earth, and a wooden stem representing all that grows on the earth. It may be enhanced with eagle feathers representing the winged creatures of the air. Kinnikinnick is packed into the bowl for the smoking ritual. It is a mixture of tobacco, dried sumac leaves and the inner bark of the willow or dogwood. When the pipe is smoked, the kinnikinnick's smoke carries the prayers to the Four Winds and to The Great Spirit. The ritual is practiced in the following manner: First, after the pipe is lit, the stem is pointed upward toward the Great Spirit, then pointed down toward Mother Earth, and then toward all four directions of the winds. Then while taking puffs on the pipe, prayers are said. The smoking of the medicine pipe is an integral part of daily as well as other times of worship. Strict rules are followed in the making, use, care, and storage of the pipe.

    They hold a strong belief in a life hereafter, where their lives are continued on another realm in the spirit world. In my research to date, I have not discovered any beliefs in a literal hell. It seems to me that punishments for whatever reason are carried out in the same realm of the hereafter. Examples are that scalped enemies have no hair and mutilated enemies carry their infirmities with them into the hereafter.

    The sweat lodge is very important to the religious life of the Sun Dance. It is a ritually constructed lodge where hot stones are used to convert water into steam. The experience is divided into four sessions. Each session is begun with prayers, and each participant prays during the session. The bathers enter the lodge nude, sit in a circle, and swat themselves with grass switches to promote sweating. Visions often come to the participants during this experience, which exerts a profound influence upon them. Following the fourth session, each participant takes a plunge into a stream or pool. Consequently, the lodge is usually set up next to a river or lake.

    Each year toward the end of summer, a Sun Dance Lodge is built according to rigid requirements. It is large enough to accommodate many dancers. The door of the lodge faces the east in order to capture the first rays of the rising sun. The rite of the Sun Dance lasts three days. It begins at sunset on Friday. The participants dress in clothing that expresses their humility to stand at the center of the universe. The men are bare-chested and wear skirts from their waist to their ankles. Women wear simple dresses. All dance barefooted. They carry and blow on a whistle made from the longest bone in an eagle's wing. The Sun Dance is a torturous experience. Three days of self-denial is carried out. Many fall prostrate and experience visions before the dance ends.

    About a dozen years following the Battle of Little Big Horn, a Paiute medicine man by the name of Wovoka proclaimed himself to be an Indian messiah. He claimed to have talked to the Great Spirit in a vision. The Great Spirit told him how to save the Indian peoples, make the white man disappear, bring back the bison and people who were dead and create a new earth. The new world would come like a cloud in a whirlwind out of the west and would crush out everything on this world. In the new world would be plenty of meat just like old times. In that world all the dead Indians were alive, and all the bison that had ever been killed would be roaming around once again.

    According to the Great Spirit's direction, Wovoka began to teach a new dance called the Ghost Dance. Its performance was supposed to bring about Wovoka's prophesies. Many tribes were converted to its performance. It grew, actually mushroomed in popularity among most of the Plains Indians. Ghost Dances were happening everywhere it seemed. Their enthusiasm and devotion instilled fear of an imminent uprising in the minds of military leaders of the U. S. Army. They outlawed the Ghost Dance, but to no avail. The Indians continued to dance, their devotion to Wovoka steadfast.

    The U. S. Army moved against this fearful uprising of wild dancing. The final blow came at Wounded Knee when many of the Lakota under Chief Big Foot were massacred. There was to be no new world for the Indians.

    One thing we must remember when writing is that each character is a complete individual, a composite of body, spirit and mind. The native peoples of America held profound spiritual beliefs, which influenced them in their daily lives. The tenets of their religion were an integral part of everything they did. Consequently, when telling a story about them, the writer must insert this ingredient into the mix of characterizations, scenes, tensions, climaxes and resolutions. To do this one must be knowledgeable either through personal experience and/or research. The writer of historical fiction bears an awesome responsibility - the construction of a balanced story. To do this one must be knowledgeable about the time, places, people, customs, mores, and religion of which he or she writes. Write about what you know is a proven adage passed from experienced to inexperienced writers. Keep writing!

Copyright © 2002 Fredrick W. Boling. All rights Reserved.