Last night you and some friends you haven’t seen since last summer’s gathering celebrated your grand reunion, visiting other camp circles, feasting on elk and deer and dancing into the dawn. Then as the sun peeked over the gently rolling hills, you said your morning prayers to Wakan Tanka before you lay down, exhausted, under a cottonwood growing beside the banks of the easy flowing river.
And as suddenly as your heart skips a beat, your peaceful afternoon now is shattered when Colonel George Custer and the wasicu Army’s famed 7th Cavalry under his his command attacks your lodges, your women, your children. You take up arms, and within hours Custer is gone.
Do you believe the threat of the enemy is gone, right along with Custer and the five soldier companies you defeated?
Or is your overwhelming victory in this Battle of the Little Big Horn, as it will come to be called, overshadowed by a realization of the tragic irony that this single event would come to mark the end of your Lakota way of life?
Do you foresee that within two years, most of your friends that you danced with last night and fought with this day, will have been starved into submission living on government reservations?
Imagine trying in vain to find a way to protect your tiospaye and the future of your way of life as your people have always known it. Or even to ensure the truth of their story is not lost among the facts of the wasicu history books to come.
This is the backstory of the story now before you. Released in June just in time for the anniversary of the battle, Death on the Greasy Grass is the third in the Spirit Road Mysteries series.
It’s 137 years ago today, on the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, that FBI Special Agent Manny Tanno and Oglala Sioux Tribal policeman Willie With Horn are on vacation sitting in bleachers overlooking the very ground where the battle occurred, waiting for reenactors to come on the field and present their living interpretation of history. Willie had wanted to bypass the Crow Reservation and visit Medicine Wheel and Yellowstone. But always with the stubborn streak, Manny insisted on seeing the reenactment first.
Big mistake for their vacation plans. For just as they happen to be watching the pageant unfold, one of the players, Crow Indian Harlan White Bird, is killed by a live round apparently inserted in another reenactor’s rifle by accident. When evidence surfaces that the killing was deliberate, not accidental, Manny is assigned the case, and Willie is stuck there with him.
Crow BIA Officer Stumper LaPierre is assigned to assist with the investigation, which causes conflict among the lawmen. Many Crow scouted for the Army during the Indian Wars against the Lakota and Cheyenne, and some animosity exists even today. To complicate matters, Crow matriarch of the Star Dancer clan, Chenoa Iron Cloud, a Montana tourism celebrity, surfaces as a possible suspect, along with her lover, Pine Ridge Reservation rancher and politician Wilson Eagle Bull.
Remember that battle with Custer? Before the battle, Custer dismissed some Crow scouts. One scout, Star Dancer, sits on a hill overlooking the battle. He witnesses Eagle Bull murder his own friend and fellow warrior, ultimately for tribal political reasons. Star Dancer records this scandalous event in his personal journal. Star Dancer is going to marry a woman pregnant by a white French trapper who shared her lodge but left the camp months before. Even though this goes against Crow purity to have white blood enter in his lineage, he records this in his journal as well.
Harlan White Bird, killed at the beginning of the reenactment, owned an auction house. Each year to coincide with the anniversary of the battle, he holds an Indian artifact and antiquities auction. He had acquired Star Dancer’s journal and offered it for public sale, but now with Harlan’s death the journal is missing.
Reputations of present-day descendants of both the Star Dancers and the Eagle Bulls, such as Chenoa Iron Cloud and Wilson Eagle Bull, could irreparably be damaged if certain information in the journal were to become public.
The hunt is on to find the journal before it surfaces with more people being killed looking for it. But is the journal the real reason people are being murdered?
As a writer and lover of research, I have to be careful that I don’t inject too much history into my novels, careful that I give readers just enough to taste the flavor of the events I write about. And to pique interest in folks not familiar with Plains Indian culture. I am often asked what is my favorite thing about writing the West. My answer is always that I get the opportunity to meet American Indians and talk with them, that I am able to visit reservations where so much history about our West exists. It is on these Indian Reservations where you’ll meet warm, wonderful people eager to share their experiences and their own history. I urge readers to consider a trip to any of the places I write about. I think it will be an experience you’ll soon treasure. And on the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn you might, if you close your eyes in the afternoon hours, hear the gunshots and thundering hooves, the shouts and cries of men fighting one of the most significant military battles fought on American soil.
Visit the Spirit Road Mysteries website: http://www.spiritroadmysteries.com/
C. M. Wendelboe is a retired lawman living and writing in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
He entered the law enforcement profession when he was discharged from the Marines as the Vietnam war was winding down.
In the 1970s he worked in South Dakota towns bordering three Indian reservations. The initial one-third of his career included assisting federal and tribal law enforcement agencies embroiled in conflicts with American Indian Movement activists in other towns and on other reservations, including Pine Ridge.
He moved to Gillette, Wyoming, and found his niche, where he remained a sheriff’s deputy for over twenty-five years. In addition, he was a longtime firearms instructor at the local college and within the community.
During his thirty-eight-year career in law enforcement he had served successful stints as police chief, policy adviser, and other supervisory roles for several agencies. Yet he always has felt most proud of “working the street.” He was a patrol supervisor when he retired to pursue his true vocation as a fiction writer.
He now revisits the Pine Ridge Reservation area for research and recreation, including the Black Hills, the Badlands and other “tourist sites” that are sacred places to the Lakota people. The distance of geography and expanse of time has accorded him an appreciation of their culture and spirituality. His developing awareness of their diverse perspectives on historical and contemporary issues is reflected in the themes of his Spirit Road Mysteries.