Paul VanDevelder
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About Paul

About Paul

An interview with Paul ...

Q: So, why did you write this book?
A: Could I get a warm up question? I need to work up to that one.

Q: Sure. Who were the most significant influences on your writing?
A: Cartier Bresson, Donald McCullum, Natchway, and a lot of my contemporaries in the world of daily photojournalism, have had the biggest influence on my internal sense of narrative. I learned about narrative as a press photographer covering wars and natural disasters and presidential campaigns. I learned about language from Hemingway, Didion, Mailer, Michael Herr, and guys like McGuane and Harrison. I’m indebted to them all...

Q: Coyote Warrior is an epic story set in a huge landscape. What was the most difficult challenge in writing this book?
A: There were many. Doubts dogged me the entire way. It wasn’t the length that was so daunting, or the time line, or the cast of characters...the challenge was to find a way to integrate the human narrative about this family with the intellectual narrative about the American experiment in federalism. The family became the lens through which to pull focus on that larger landscape. The day inevitably arrives when you realize that you’re never going to know enough to overcome your doubts, but you have to start writing.

Q: And the writing poses its own problems...
A: Oh, indeed. I tried to imagine my voice being like the river it was describing, carrying the reader downstream through the riffles, through slack water and rapids...always moving with the current through new country, from our origins as a nation to the present day. The biggest challenge was to keep the narrative under control and to stay detached. Many times I had to get up and walk away from the screen until I could find my way back to a place of detachment.

Q: How would you describe Coyote Warrior, in a sound bite?
A: In a sound’s the long awaited Roots for Native America, the two hundred year story of the Mandan/Hidatsa family that welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Knife River Villages, in 1804.

Q: What did you learn from writing Coyote Warrior?
A: I can’t answer that in a sentence or two. The answer is the book, and I suspect the learning will go on and on.

Q: Is there a way you can distill some of those lessons?
A: The spine of this story, like the the bone and sinew of our entire enterprise in representative democracy, is the law. Of all of our founding thinkers and visionaries, the two who had the greatest influence on the formation of this republic, and the day-to-day operations of federalism, were James Madison and John Marshall. These guys knew we were on shaky footing from the start. Neither one of them believed that a representative democracy could survive the accumulation and concentration of wealth, or governance by the common man. Both were convinced that the common man was incapable of defending higher principle at the cost of abandoning his own self-interest. That failure of conscience, Marshall believed, would eventually undermine the legal foundation on which he and Madison erected our house of democracy. Santa Clara Railroad would validate his darkest fears.

Q: What was Santa Clara Railroad?
A: Santa Clara Railroad. This was the Supreme Court decision in the late 1800s that coaxed us past the point of no return. Some of the same justices who told the slave Dred Scott that he was not a human being, that he didn’t possess inalienable rights like other citizens, that he was mere property, would now extend the very rights they had denied a slave, to corporations.
You can argue that the Santa Clara Railroad decision marked the end of the American experiment in democracy. From that point forward, our oligarchs were protected by an impregnable legal fortress. After Santa Clara Railroad, corporations enjoyed all the rights of individual citizens, with none of the responsibilities. Now they could maim and deceive, even steal and kill, with immunity from judicial recourse. You can’t charge a corporation with a capital crime because it’s not a human being. You can’t charge the board members because they’re merely agents of the corporation. This is why a Unocal, for example, can form a partnership with the military junta in Myanmar to build a gas pipeline, in the 1990s, when they know darn well that child slaves are being used to build it. American, British, and Australian corporations are engaged in these kinds of activities all over the world. For the last hundred and thirty years, we’ve been locked in a struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable differences between representative democracy and a ruling oligarchy.

Q: How does the Santa Clara decision effect the battle over resources?
A: Researching ‘Coyote Warrior’ showed me that our larger society was able to sustain the illusion of a free market economy, the illusion of a representative democracy, for a century or more, because we enjoyed unfettered access to an enormous expanse of land and a treasure chest of natural resources. In order to take advantage of those resources, as the legal scholar Robert Williams points out, the federal government had to launch a campaign of genocide against native people that masqueraded as federal Indian policy. As soon as those resources started running out, the big lie began to sit less and less easy on our shoulders, and deTocqueville’s remarkable insight became, in effect, the mirror on our wall: “the European is to other races of men what man is to animate nature...when he cannot bend them to his use he will little by little eradicate them from the earth.” Of course, we’ve had just enough bright spots along the way to keep the mythology, the promise, alive. If you take away the accidental visionaries, the Lincolns and Roosevelts, and take away the cheap land and easy resources, you have to look at the history of representative democracy as a lovely notion that has been under assault, by us, from the very beginning. The French philosopher, Michele Foucault, commented that democratic governments found it necessary to invent the language of madness in order to cover for the fact that they no longer had any intention of living up to their founding principles. I personally like the way the great Crow chief Plenty Coups put it: “The white man fools no one but himself.”

Q: Would you say that your objective in writing the book was to change all of that?
A: Oh, heavens no, not at all. One writer, one book, isn’t going to change a course set by two hundred years of history.

Q: Then, what would you say was your main objective?
A: My objective was to restore some realism to this thread of the American narrative, and to help to restore some measure of dignity to the lives of the people, dead and still living, who battled the withering onslaught of that overwhelming force called westward expansion.

Q: How do you see it playing out?
A: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I love that little story in the Introduction, where the group of architects were asked by the Department of Energy to come up with a fool proof way to tell people 10,000 years from now that the nuclear waste stored at Hanford was still lethal. The Yakima tribal chairman tried to put their minds at ease by saying, “Hey, not to worry, we’ll tell them.” The great karmic wheel goes around and around...

Q: Before you started writing Coyote Warrior, did you have an idea of what you’d wanted to accomplish?
A: Yes and no. When I started researching the background material ten years ago, I set out to document the conflicts taking place all over the world between cultures fighting to the death over the ownership and allocation of natural resources. The more I studied these conflicts, the more I was convinced that the great battles for survival in the 21st century, particularly those conflicts masquerading as holy wars, will ultimately be about the ownership and distribution of ever dwindling supplies of natural resources.

Q: But none of that is in the book.
A: Oh, yes it’s the part of the ice berg you can’t see. To make the natural resources story work for a larger audience, I needed to give it a human face that was sufficiently like us to suspend our apathy. Suspending disbelief is one thing. Suspending cultural apathy, stepping out of the abstract into the real, through the rabbit hole of our cultural myopia, is quite another.

Q: Is this book unique, or does it follow in a tradition?
A: I’ll let the lawyer who vetted the book answer that question. He was one of the first people to read it, and the first thing he told us was that he’d never read anything like it; he learned things about the law, about American history, and Indian Country, that he’d never known before.
Because the narrative spanned an era from Lewis and Clark to the present, it seemed to us that Coyote Warrior was beautifully set up for a much wider audience. The story transforms our distant past, as a nation, into the living history of a complex, pluralistic society in the 21st century.

Q: Are you warmed up?
A: Sure.

Q: Why did you write this book?
A: Once I began to see the story in all of its intricate complexity, I was pretty much a gonner. I was living to tell it, the way the French live to eat. Yet, every step that took me deeper into the narrative landscape took me deeper into my own insecurities. The story grew by leaps and bounds after we sold it to Little,Brown. To her credit, my editor, Deborah Baker, just kept telling me to stay with it, follow it out, don’t despair. I didn’t. But at some point I had to stop researching and start writing. I dreaded that moment. Both of us knew there was no blueprint for this story, no map to follow, no clear path through the wilderness. This was a new version of the oldest story we know, the human struggle for justice and dignity, and while its face was human, the bones that held it together and gave the narrative dramatic shape, were animated by the law. This had to be a human story about the law, not a legal story about human beings. So, like two blind people hacking their way through the jungle, Deborah and I had to learn to trust each other as we set off across uncharted country. The challenge was to turn all of that sprawling material into a focused narrative. When that moment finally came, I was paralyzed.

Q: How so?
A: So many people had entrusted me with their life stories. I suddenly felt the weight of that responsibility, all at once. The thought of weaving all those stories together seemed overwhelming. I didn’t how to get ahead of my own self-doubts, so, eventually, I took the chicken’s way out and started in a place that was familiar to me. I wrote two hundred pages in a month, and I remember walking those pages out to the dumpster and dropping them in and walking back to the cottage where I work and facing the screen. Select all. Delete. Poof, just like that. Gone. I had reached my moment of truth.

Q: What did you do?
A: I called Amtrack, bought a ticket to Minot, and went back to North Dakota. I needed to walk the ground again one more time, without distractions, to pace up and down the siding where Martin Cross boarded the train to fight for his people, to sit under the oaks at the Knife River Villages, and to sit alone in the room where Martin died, one more time, and face that awesome vastness of the prairie. I spent ten days in Parshall on that trip, and when I climbed back onto the train in Stanley, North Dakota, I knew I had the thread. Now, all I had to do was follow it all the way out to the end, and pray.

Q: Let’s go back for a second. How did you prepare the material?
A: I took notes on a template that I printed out as three by five cards. I started with more than a thousand of those and added more as I went. Each card was given a code from my bibliography, or interviews. Also, I had the good sense early on to start building a timeline, which ended up being longer than the book. Anything and everything went into that time line. At one point I was getting overwhelmed with characters, so I started another file for thumbnail bios of everybody on my list. Then of course, there were the interviews, which were a separate challenge.

Q: Did you imagine your reader?
A: I didn’t worry about that too much, though my dad continually reminded me what his editor told him...think about your reader at the beginning of each paragraph. That’s great advice, and an excellent habit to get into. Another one is rank your favorite metaphors, A,B,and C, and throw away the A’s.

Q: You have spent years researching the story, speaking with the members of these and other tribes. It must have had a big impact on your life...
A: In ways I couldn’t have known.

Q: What do you come away with, looking back over this vast diorama that you lived in for so long?
A: In so many words, those of us with ancestors who came across the big pond to these shores were inducted into the lucky sperm club at birth. The societies of people that met us were better people than we were. Had the roles been reversed, we would have killed anyone who dared take away what was ours, and we would have done it without a second thought. They, on the other hand, were willing to share, even when they had the upper hand in the early going.
George Washington knew that the colonists could beat the British, but they didn’t stand a chance against the native nations. So we acquired what they owned, their land, principally, through deception, attrition, greed and thievery, and once it worked once, we never stopped.
You have to give a General William Harney his due. At the end of his career, in the 1880s, General Harney made an address to Congress in much the way General McArthur would some seventy years later. What he told Congress could not have sat well with them. After reminding them that he had never known a native leader to go back on his word, he said: “Gentlemen, I have lived on this frontier for fifty years, and I have never known of an instance in which war broke out between us and these tribes that the tribes were not in the right.
That’s pretty courageous.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the book to write.
A: The most difficult writing was explaining the arcane complexities of federal Indian law, without losing its intellectual beauty by dumbing it down. Those passages are ten percent talent and ninety percent craft. You have to give the reader every opportunity to follow you out of the thicket. I knew I was asking a lot, but that’s usually a gamble I’m willing to take because the pay-off is the the high country.

Q: What do you mean by ‘the high country?’
A: I mean, that elevated vantage point from which you can see the confluence of events, ideas, and the influence of personalities, in a way you’ve never seen them before. Isn’t that why we read books, what we love about them. I live for that moment in a narrative when I come around a corner and suddenly the country opens up all the way, all around me, and suddenly I realize that the author knew exactly where he or she was taking me, and why. It was to get me to that point where I could see how all those disparate events were converging into this extraordinary landscape. In the case of Coyote Warrior, we call that landscape America...

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About Coyote Warrior
Little, Brown and Company. New York, Boston
 © 2004-2009 Paul VanDevelder