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About Coyote Warrior


Into the Looking Glass

Into an Unmapped Wilderness

by Paul VanDevelder

Before the first word of COYOTE WARRIOR was written, my editor and I shared a secret. We knew we were stepping off a well-traveled path into an unmapped wilderness.

As the story began to shape itself out of the research, I realized that I was looking at a 'mother lode' of Americana. This was ore that had never been mined and brought to the surface of our collective consciousness. Yet without it, our story, or collective narrative as Americans, was less than whole. After all, since many of us were school children, we have taken Lewis and Clark to be the beginning of the larger American narrative, the one that had dictated our history for the past two centuries. But who knows more about that story than the Cross family, the people who were there when the canoes and priogues came up the river. And what does their story sound like?


By using the Cross family as a lens, we could pull a new thread through the tapestry of the American narrative, a thread that changes the entire look and sound of everything that had happened since that fateful October afternoon, in 1804, when Cherry Necklace welcomed Lewis and Clark ashore at the Knife River Villages. Yet the point of origin for that narrative was not 1776, or 1787. To tell it properly, I had to start it way earlier than that, at a time when the European story, and the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara story, were still far apart.

That time of beginnings was the first years of the 13th century. As the Mandan were establishing their first semi-permanent settlements on the upper Missouri river and becoming master horticulturists, seven thousand miles away, Pope Innocent III was pacing the hallways of the Vatican with a vexing problem. Muslims had taken over all the principle holy sites of Christendom in Palestine. He needed to come up with a legal principle, based in Natural Law, that would allow him, as the anointed keeper of Christ's earthly flock, to raise a secular army to cast out the Muslim infidels and reclaim their land holdings. That principle, which launched the 4th Crusade, came to be known as Quod Super His.

As the Mandan's expanded their trading territory to Meso-America and continued to thrive on the upper Missouri, scholastic thinkers in Discovery Era Spain reasserted the primacy of Quod Super His as their justification for genocide among indigenous peoples in the New World.

Quod Super His would be adopted by courts in Elizabethan England to establish the Crown's prerogative over discovered lands. Two hundred years later, in the village of Philadelphia, this Doctrine of Discovery, the direct descendant of Pope Innocent III's Quod Super His, would become the legal fulcrum for dispossessing tribal peoples of their lands west of the Appalachian's under the new republic's assertion of eminent domain.

When the U.S. Federal government invoked eminent domain in 1949 to build the massive Garrison Dam in hopes of taming the Missouri River, the two story lines met. The land the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations had lived on for nearly a thousand years, disappeared beneath the rising flood waters of Lake Sakakawea. Standing at the point of intersection of those two stories was a young Mandan, Hidatsa tribal chairman named Martin Cross.

From the beginning, I saw this as a 'people story' about the law, not a legal story about people. COYOTE WARRIOR explores the architecture that supports our republic's most sacred laws, foundational laws that were put in place to hold the most powerful citizens of society accountable to a code of morals which, from time to time, would run counter to their economic self interests.

When conflicts inevitably arise between the protection of civil liberty and the acquisition of wealth (or the consolidation of power), which of our most sacred founding principles are at stake: Equality? Personal Freedom? Pursuit of happiness? What price tag do we put on these, and what is given up for the unborn generations when the deal is struck? Certainly, over the past fifty years, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes, the Sioux and Cheyenne and Crow and Arapahoe, and the people of North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana have researched that question first hand.

Ultimately, the Cross family story gives us a way to examine events on an ethical battlefield where world views collide in mortal conflict; where the founding principles of nationhood are pitted against the politics-of-now and quick profits. The 2003 bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark's expedition came at a time when battles over natural resources and endangered species are more expensive, more culturally threatening, and more fiercely fought, than ever before.

Coyote Warrior book cover. Click to learn how to buy the book.

As an author, and friend, and student, and listener, my most enduring memories of this journey will be those made by people whose grace and generosity pointed the way through that unmapped wilderness. I stepped into their lives a stranger and was sent on my way as a member of their families. I loved walking the hills with the elder women, digging wild turnips and picking berries in early summer, and hearing the stories of the elder men on long winter nights.

It is an unspeakably beautiful land, that short grass prairie of North Dakota. The people who have called it home for the past thousand years will never know how deeply they have marked me. This story is theirs. The unvanquished. I pray that I have been faithful to their trust.



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