This historical novel, which imagines the experiences and contributions of Cheyenne women and children during the 1864 Sand Creek and 1868 Washita massacres perpetrated by the U.S. Army cavalry, has deep precedent in the annals of American fiction. Almost 200 years ago, Lydia Maria Child authored Hobomok (1824), one of the first historical novels written by an American author, and she turned to the historical novel to advance a truth that she believed needed telling, that white settlers and native peoples could cohabit peacefully, even intimately.
In turning to the historical novel in order to imagine a full life and a place for native peoples in the American story, Child was working against the established function of the genre. In the hands of Sir Walter Scott, the historical novel had memorialized the loss of native tribal societies when vanquished by Norman and British invaders. Following Scott’s prototype, the American James Fenimore Cooper, in his popular Leatherstocking Tales, mythologized “the last of the Mohicans,” and thus legitimized the disappearance of native peoples to make way for a single nationalist story of westward settlement and the creation of a single American cultural identity. As Carolyn L. Karcher and other literary scholars have demonstrated, Child put the historical novel to very different use. Fueled by her social reformist sentiment, including advocacy for Indian rights, women’s rights, and abolitionism, Child offered a counter-narrative to that nationalist story and asserted truths silenced by that singular, patriarchal narrative.
Nearly 200 years after Child’s Hobomok, Kimberly Schmidt’s Magpie’s Blanket: A Novel seeks to amplify and enrich the history of a band of Southern Cheyenne, many of whom were massacred at Sand Creek (Colorado) and then again four years later at Washita (Oklahoma), despite their commitment not to fight, forged by their peace chief Black Kettle, and in violation of peace treaties signed by the U.S. government. As noted in the book’s Foreword by Henrietta Mann (president of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal College), Cheyenne pledges to peace and federal government pledges to non-aggression proved futile: both the white flag of peace and the U.S. flag gifted to Black Kettle by Abraham Lincoln were flying in the Cheyenne encampment near the Washita River in western Oklahoma, but that did not stop the Custer and a band of U.S. Cavalry from attacking the Cheyenne encampment, leaving 137 dead, 109 of them women and children. Magpie’s Blanket reanimates that historical event from the point of view of young Magpie, the daughter of a Cheyenne peace chief, then the adopted daughter of another peace chief, sister to Little Cricket, young woman in early courtship with the warrior Big Hawk, and ultimately a survivor whose blanket too survives to play a key part in a 1968 re-enactment of the Washita massacre.
That fatality count of 127 dead from Custer’s raid on the Washita encampment, like so many other facts about these events, has been established through faithful historical work. So why a historical novel? Why create new characters, imagine their lives and their experiences, and intermix with the historical record these “made up” people, in particular the fictional girls, young women, and wise female elders at the center of Schmidt’s re-telling? Dr. Mann offers a cogent answer in her Foreword: “There are many accounts of the massacres and atrocities committed against the Cheyenne at Sand Creek and at the Washita. These accounts are generally written by men and focus on failed treaties, military campaigns and skirmishes, and the men who waged them. Yet none tell the story from a young woman’s or child’s perspective, though it was primarily these individuals who were affected most by the attacks” (vii).
Schmidt, a professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University, is fully aware of the criticism that some might launch against her choice to enlighten a historical narrative through imagined characters, invented dialogue, and narrative tropes. She herself raises that question of authenticity – fidelity to historical accuracy – in the second of the book’s two parts, which recounts the 1968 re-enactment of the Washita massacre by members of the Cheyenne and (in a surprise appearance) by the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry. In one scene, as the leader of the U.S. Army reenactors surveys his cavalry, he sees some men donning sunglasses for their charge, and another with a replica of a Confederate flag on his saddle. Disgusted with these anachronisms, he thinks, “So much for authenticity. . .” (151). Schmidt is well aware that she herself is creating a re-enactment, a narrative spectacle rather than a dramatic one, but a creative venture nevertheless. So what authenticity does she achieve?
To her credit, Schmidt is transparent about her indebtedness to historical sources, and to why and where she embellishes on that historical record with fictive material. Afterword remarks by both Schmidt and her collaborator, Jennifer A. Whiteman, speak to the why. The “Names and Terms” section is forthright in clarifying the where. For example, in the note regarding courtship, Schmidt acknowledges that Magpie’s adoption by Big Hawk’s parents Black Kettle and Medicine Woman Later would have made a courtship between the two youngsters taboo, and thus unlikely. A note about Magpie as a chosen name for the central character offers intriguing links to the historical record, including a male Magpie who lived to fight Custer another day, at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Another note on Ross, a.k.a. Bugle Boy, makes clear this is a fictional character while insisting that activities ascribed to him, such as playing “Garryowen” for a battle charge, can be found in primary sources.
Readers eager to protect the sanctity of historical authenticity might quibble over a few details in this novel. For example, they might quibble that in a scene designed to advance the budding romance between Big Hawk and Magpie, the romance trope seems to trump verisimilitude, having the very young warrior drop two dead deer—“Big Hawk dropped the dead animals” (17)—before her family’s lodge to show her his worthiness as a romantic lead. Some readers might object that the author, in seeking to create a sympathetic white character, places into the mind of the young bugle boy sentiments too progressive for his historical time and circumstance. But these would indeed be quibbles. I found much to commend and enjoy in this historical novel.
I appreciate that this novel has a serious, high purpose (I am reminded of Lydia Maria Child, a proponent of “Art for Truth’s Sake”), yet in its depiction of women and children of the Cheyenne, it is not narrowly earnest. Even living under the terror of another attack at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry, Magpie can still find pleasure in gathering wood along the Washita on a crisp winter morning. Cheyenne children in 1968 can still “stagger and clutch at their hearts before tripping over in mock defeat” as they prepare to reenact their own slaughter. This is not just a story of victimization, but one of living, even in play.
I appreciate that while Schmidt has certainly chosen to honor the peace chief tradition of the Cheyenne, and to esteem nonviolence and reconciliation, she grants complexity to these issues, respecting the integrity of characters who at times feel ambivalent about the efficacy of the peace chiefs, or even oppose the peace chief’s counsel and advocate instead for fighting with the Dog Soldiers. In each of the novel’s three major conflicts – at Sand Creek, then at Washita, then at the 1968 re-enactment – Schmidt very intentionally dramatizes both the calls for peace and the calls for violent resistance. Indeed, the two characters at the center of the novel, Magpie and Big Hawk, both fight and kill, and also choose peace.
I appreciate that via the historical novel Schmidt can embody female voices of the Cheyenne not heard in other histories. Magpie, already as a girl, skilled with ponies, an able rider, warns the camp that she has seen tracks indicating an impending threat. Medicine Woman Later, wife to the man who had signed the peace treaties and assured his Cheyenne band they would remain safe near the Washita, dares to “[break] all the rules” (69) and urges that they move camp to join other Cheyenne for safety. And in the novel’s most dramatic moment, Dolores White Calf, though not a peace chief herself, has the creativity and courage to avert yet another impending battle/massacre, disarm the aggressor and extend hope and healing.
I appreciate Schmidt’s choice to make the 1968 re-enactment an integral part of her novel. Given the research she has conducted, and her personal familiarity with the living descendants of the 19th-century massacres, she could have presented a straight, documentary account of the 1968 event. And that historical account could be fully inclusive of women, since she has drawn much of her material from Peace Chief Lawrence Hart and his wife Betty, as well as many other living Cheyenne women, whose names she lists and whom she thanks in her acknowledgments. So why sustain the fiction? I find a compelling answer to that question in the experience of reading the novel’s climactic resolution in Part Two, in that act by Dolores White Calf. That act unifies the novel by linking the massacres of 1864 and 1868 to the contemporary scene, and it is a fictional creation, Magpie’s blanket, that has the power to enshrine the history of massacre and victimization as well as enact a promise of healing and hope. And that fictional device carries the “real” history of the Cheyenne past into the present, making real the ongoing survival and continuing life of Cheyenne People. That too is a real story, and an “authentic” truth to be told. Magpie’s Blanket: A Novel tells that truth well.