As this review was written, there was a growing protest by Native Americans in North Dakota, where an oil pipeline was planned for deep beneath the Missouri River, endangering the Standing Rock tribe's only source of water. The pipeline was also set to run through ancestral burial grounds and land traditionally held sacred. The pipeline company had already bulldozed such sites, and the peaceful demonstrators were gaining public support. These current events made it especially thought provoking to read Náápiikoan Winter by Alethea Williams. She imagines the early history of contact between white men (Náápiikoan) and an indigenous Plains tribe, and gives a sense of the cross-purposes and cultural confusions that continue to trouble the Americas.
Williams' story begins with a kidnapping. In brutal scenes that make it clear that native people also have the capacity to exploit others, a Mexican child is stolen into slavery by Apaches. From her captors, the child learns their healing arts and her skill becomes respected. She is traded and stolen many times, but at last finds her place as the medicine woman of the Inuk'sik, the Small Robes band of the Piikáni, a powerful tribe in the Blackfoot Confederation. Yet Buffalo Stone Woman is still a slave. All she owns are her skills, and she lives with uncertainty at the edge of a chief's tipi circle. In her effort to create an enduring place with the band, Buffalo Stone Woman will cause problems she can't solve.
Stirring those problems is a teenaged Welshman, Donal Thomas, who is indentured to the Hudson's Bay Company and bound to follow the Company's instructions. It is the 1700s. The Company sends him with a handful of other men into the unopened territory of western Canada. Their task is to learn the language and foster trade with the Piikáni, who have heard of white men but not met them. As Thomas comes to know the People, his understandings change and his loyalty is tested. But he is fundamentally in the Náápiikoan position of exploiting the resources of native people, and the author offers no facile resolution of that essential reality. She simply shows us some of the difficulties. The Piikáni want the white men's weapons and metal goods, their blankets and trinkets, yet they recognize that these strangers also bring powerful change, and new dangers.
Adding to the drama are Sweetgrass Woman and her stepmother, Makes Rain. They are women of traditional Blackfoot culture, making the most of a mix of powers, strictures, and vulnerabilities. Though highly specific in nomadic details, their work and daily lives are Everywoman's, and Sweetgrass Woman is a figure recognizable anywhere. In rebellion against her stepmother and her own limited options, she does the teenaged-girl thing and falls for the wrong man, the fascinating young trader. Meanwhile, she is sexually coerced by her stepmother's Shoshone grandson, Bear Dog. Like Buffalo Stone Woman, he struggles for acceptance by the Piikáni. He approaches the medicine woman to help him and the tangled inevitability of the story follows. Both Bear Dog and his stepbrother, Owl's Child, are driven by economic and social pressures that any modern man might recognize.
The author treads carefully, attempting to balance the differences and similarities of groups whose interests are still in conflict hundreds of years later. She shows us both sides, though native characters carry the story. (Note for the next edition: a brief historical introduction and a pronunciation guide would be helpful.) She might have come down harder on white colonialism, but this is not a political volume. It's a novel, and a compelling one. The characters have human struggles that transcend differences. In Náápiikoan Winter, Alethea Williams has created a well-written, engaging story, one that helps us to think about the roots of a struggle continuing to plague many countries. Such an author deserves to be read. And the issues raised deserve our full attention.
Alethea Williams is the award-winning author of two previous novels, Willow Vale, about Tyrolean immigrants after WWI, and Walls for the Wind, which details the Irish immigrant experience. Her collection of newspaper columns is titled Boomer Blues Book: Staying Alive and Sane in the Modern American West. An emeritus president of Wyoming Writers, Inc., Williams lives in her home state with an Amazon parrot named Bob. Visit her website.
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