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Know the West

The many ways to see a story

Acclaimed Indigenous author Debra Magpie Earling returns with a new novel.

“Do not trust anyone who tells you you cannot tell your story. Do not trust anyone who tells you there is only one story. If there were only one story / Or one way of seeing things all stories would die,” Debra Magpie Earling writes in her new novel, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea. Old Woman’s advice to the Lemhi Shoshone woman known as Sacajewea could also apply to Earling, a Bitterroot Salish author whose lyrical and inventive works strive to give voice to Indigenous women like Sacajewea.

 

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea marks the long-awaited return of this critically acclaimed, immensely talented writer, whose career was hampered by the shuttering of her first publisher, BlueHen, shortly after her award-winning first novel, Perma Red, was published in 2002. In early February, I drove to Missoula from my home in Kalispell to interview her. The western Montana landscape of the Flathead River Basin — home to the Flathead Indian Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes — is also the dramatic setting of Perma Red, and I recalled the poignant, intense moments when the main character, Louise White Elk sets out on foot, fleeing dangerous, obsessive men and her own forced attendance at boarding school.

Earling’s mother was raised on the reservation, where her maternal family held allotments; Perma Red’s protagonist, Louise White Elk, was modeled on her Aunt Louise. Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, grew up in Spokane, but dropped out of high school at age 15, and at 17 earned her GED with her mother. She moved to the reservation to work for the tribal justice system as a public defender when she was 18 years old, despite having less than two weeks of training and no formal education in law. After a couple of years in the tribal justice system, she returned to Washington to study English at the University of Washington, eventually obtaining master’s degrees in English and fiction at Cornell University in New York. But Missoula would become her home. She joined the faculty at the University of Montana, where she served as the first Native American director of the creative writing program and taught both English and Native American studies. Earling is now in her mid-60s, recently retired from the university, and her long-overdue writing career appears poised for a resurgence, backed by a new independent publisher, Milkweed Editions, which reissued Perma Red last fall. Milkweed is known for representing Indigenous women and writers of color, including bestselling author Robin Wall Kimmerer and U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón.

“I’m trying to work my way through a story that is powerful in our mythology, and that tends to erase people, and then there’s no complexity in their lives.”

When Earling first moved to the state, she told me, “Nobody wanted to be in Montana. You wouldn’t even see a car on Highway 93.” Now, a steady stream of cars buzzes along the stretch of U.S. Highway 93 between Kalispell and Missoula. Montana has become a very desirable place to live, largely owing to the pandemic, which inspired people to leave the cities and relocate to Western landscapes known for their storied open spaces and dramatic big skies. Popular television shows like Yellowstone are just another repackaging of the mythology of the American West and its frontier ethic and rugged individualism. As a storyteller, Earling pokes holes in those glossy, narrowly focused tales, highlighting the truth of what this encroachment has done to the state’s Indigenous population and confronting the dominant narrative of how Native women are represented on the page.

Both Perma Red and The Lost Journals of Sacajewea are works of fiction, but they reflect real-life experiences, and they draw attention to the epidemic of disappearances and murders that continues to stalk Indigenous women. The Lost Journals of Sacajewea initially began as a response to the 2005 celebration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The prose poem, told in the voice of Sacajewea after she encounters Lewis and Clark, evolved into a four-year collaboration between Earling and master printer and book artist Peter Rutledge Koch. Together they created a limited-edition work of art they called “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling felt compelled to continue unearthing young Sacajewea’s life, and she drew on that extensive research to expand her collaboration with Koch into her new novel, also titled The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.

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“I’m trying to work my way through a story that is powerful in our mythology, and that tends to erase people, and then there’s no complexity in their lives,” Earling said. “I felt comfortable writing about her because she doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. She’s become mythological in scope, and that denies her humanity in every single way possible.”

Earling acknowledges that her novel is not the definitive story of Sacajewea, but she hopes that it will allow for a new perspective on the legendary expedition, which drastically altered the lives of Indigenous peoples and led to the decimation of tribes and the bison herds they depended upon. “There’s so many threads within a story. There’s so many ways in which to see, to experience a story, to think differently about stories. This story in particular,” she explained, “just adds to the immense literature that’s already out there.”

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea begins in Sacajewea’s seventh winter before her village was raided, her parents killed, and she was captured by an enemy tribe. Earling wrote the journals in what she calls “shattered prose,” using line spacing, typographic effects and punctuation to give the story a physical, poetic and kinetic feel. More so than in Perma Red, Earling “shatters” conventional form to create a movement that is akin to poetry but much more dynamic. Earling bends and slants words, electrifying Sacajewea’s attempts to comprehend and describe what is happening in her often violent and unstable world. Strike marks represent her struggle for the right words. In the chapter titled “Night too soon gone,” which takes place after the raid, she records her brother’s disappearance by writing, “We. They move on. Too Ott Lok’s body drums, drums Enemy’s riderless Horse.” But Sacajewea has not moved on from the tragedy, so those who have become “they” instead of “we.” Throughout the text, two dots are used to symbolize either a drumbeat or a heartbeat; Earling explained that the beats mark places in the story where Sacajewea needs to pay attention or where a sacred moment is about to unfold.

The Lost Journals of Sacajewea is more experimental in form than Earling’s debut novel, Perma Red, though both stories bear the hallmarks of her inimitable style. Perma Red received critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the Western Writers Association Spur Award for Best Novel of the West, a Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Award, a WILLA Literary Award and the American Book Award. Within a year of its publication, however, the publisher was out of business and the novel was out of print. But Perma Red, a harrowing and complicated love story set on the Flathead Reservation in the 1940s, continued to resonate deeply with readers. In 2019, it was named Montana’s “Best Loved Novel” by the Great Montana Read program, beating bestselling classics like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It

Earling creates immersive landscapes where women like Sacajewea and Louise Yellow Knife are given an opportunity to speak; she writes with distinct, unflinching attention even as her characters suffer brutal physical and sexual violence. “Even though I love writing, the stories themselves are really hard for me to write,” she said. But challenging though the process may be, Earling has made it clear that she has many more stories still to tell.

Maggie Neal Doherty is an opinion columnist, freelance writer and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian,
L.A. Times, Flathead Beacon and more.  She lives in Kalispell, Montana.

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