She was as bold as her namesake bird, the Magpie. She did not retreat from cold and snow when her family needed firewood. She did not hide in shyness when Big Hawk showed his interest in her. Young Magpie spoke out when she saw the tracks of soldiers near her village at Sand Creek. And in the face of fear, she protected her small sister, Cricket.
In Kimberly D. Schmidt's novel, Magpie's Blanket, we follow the fictional Magpie, a Cheyenne Indian girl who is related to historical figures, such as Black Kettle and White Antelope. These men were peace chiefs among the Cheyenne, and Medicine Woman Later, Black Kettle's wife, also appears as a woman of great influence in the tribe. Kimberly D. Schmidt has blended fact with imagination in order to illustrate more clearly several important events that still influence the Cheyenne people today.
She engages the reader first with details of daily life in Magpie's camp, children's games, shared meals, the glow of white tipis lit from within by small fires. Schmidt tells the story from a woman's perspective, and does not focus much on the men who were military and tribal leaders. Yet at an after-dinner gathering where tensions run high, she allows men to articulate the tribal conflict generated by increasing pressure from white settlers. The argument is whether to fight or keep trying for peace.
A diplomatic female calms things down. "Medicine Woman Later spooned stew onto skillet bread. 'Today we eat. Tomorrow some of us may fight but better to bring peace. Starting here. Starting with White Antelope and Big Hawk we will eat together and bring peace. We need all minds.the wisdom of the elders and.the energy of youth. No one's talents shall be wasted.'" Meanwhile young Magpie watches, listens, and dreams of being one of the women in her tribe who hunt. Her father says of her, "This one will never show weakness....She was born with flint in her bones."
The very next morning, Magpie needs every bit of that strength, as 700 troops descend on the small village, killing and mutilating as many Indians as they can. The rough mix of soldiers and volunteer Indian-haters burn every tipi and all the household goods. Of the roughly 200 natives who die, most are women and children. Magpie loses her parents but manages a dramatic rescue of her little sister. This was the Sand Creek Massacre, and Schmidt tells the story as she heard it from Cheyenne descendants, adding some facts from the historical record.
Black Kettle and Medicine Woman Later escape with their lives, though she is badly wounded. They lead the survivors, and in Schmidt's story, they take in the orphaned Magpie and Cricket. Four years pass, and Magpie becomes a young woman of character and beauty. Big Hawk grows into a charismatic warrior and hunter. The courtship customs of the Cheyenne are slow and careful, and Schmidt convinces us of the strong bond that develops between the two young people without imposing modern American expectations or action.
Yet the ongoing war on the Indians, and their fierce efforts to preserve their lands and lifeways, make for insecurity and survival is precarious. The band has moved to a camp along the Washita river in Oklahoma, with other bands camped in large family groups some distance upstream. With a more mature perspective, Magpie is cautious. She watches over Cricket constantly, and sleeps in her moccasins, ready to flee.
Schmidt moves swiftly to the next event, the Washita Massacre. Once again, the people are overwhelmed by a surprise attack, and once again, the results are devastating. Schmidt does a masterful job of linking historical outcomes with her created characters, and brings the story to a close with one more event, again based in fact. A century later, a re-enactment of the Washita Massacre goes awry, but also creates the beginning of some healing for the descendants of both sides. It makes a hopeful ending for Magpie's Blanket.
Styled for a Young Adult audience, Schmidt's powerful and moving novel is suitable for any interested reader. The details of Cheyenne culture will be new information for many. Dialogue and customs reveal a different way of living, yet the fundamental concerns are ones we all share, and Schmidt broadens the scope of history to acknowledge the contributions of native women. I hope many readers find this book, enjoy the well-told story of Magpie's Blanket, and are freshly reminded that the native peoples of this country are still with us, and still awaiting the recognition and fair dealing that has been denied to them for so long.
Kimberly D. Schmidt graduated from Bethel College in Kansas, and received her Ph.D. in American History from Binghamton University in New York. She is a professor of history and director of the Washington Community Scholars' Center at Eastern Mennonite University, and co-editor of Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History. She has two children and lives in Washington, D.C.
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