An interview with Paul ...
why did you write this book?
I get a warm up question? I need to work up to that one.
Who were the most significant influences on your writing?
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...
Warrior is an epic story set in a huge landscape. What was the
most difficult challenge in writing this book?
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.
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.
would you describe Coyote Warrior, in a sound bite?
A: In a sound
bite...it’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,
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.
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.
was Santa Clara Railroad?
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
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.”
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.
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.
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...
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
none of that is in the book.
A: Oh, yes
it is...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.
this book unique, or does it follow in a tradition?
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
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.
you warmed up?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
have spent years researching the story, speaking with the members
of these and other tribes. It must have had a big impact on your
A: In ways
I couldn’t have known.
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
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.
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.
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
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