In the late 1800s, post-Civil War, two young Cheyenne sisters are wrenched from a loving family, kidnapped and incarcerated at Rose Academy, a harsh, Indian boarding school established to assimilate native young people, teach them English, and eradicate their knowledge of traditional ways, considered inferior to the ways of the Washita (whites).
Forbidden to speak their native language, the sisters are whipped and punished, however, the school harsh life fails break their spirit. The eldest, Wind Flower, on the cusp of womanhood, excels academically, while continually planning their escape. Time and again she is hunted down and forcibly returned to Rose Academy. There, she watches her beloved little sister’s alarming transformation into a proper Washita girl. At the same time, Wind Flower finds love, with a young Sioux, renamed Caleb Green, by his captors.
A fast-paced, breathtaking tale of courage and romance, Song of the Spirit’s unforgettable characters intersect with historical events of the day, including the devastation of the Wound Knee massacre. Will these three courageous young people find freedom, or lose themselves and their way of life to the relentless cruelty of the Washita world?
A Note from the Author
In writing Song of the Spirit, my first wish was to tell a story—the tale of one girl’s courage in a world filled with unspeakable hardship. While I was not trying to “send a message” through Wind Flower’s journey, I hope I have given my children and grandchildren a different view of our history.
As a novelist, I love telling a story. As a mother, I wanted to give my children and all children, a story of a courageous, young girl (and boy) as they grew into adulthood. When I look back at my childhood—almost idyllic in every respect—I cringe with shame at the hours spent viewing such television programs as “Rin Tin Tin” and “Wagon Train,” with their horribly false and degrading depictions of North America’s native people. The fact that they were allowed to be aired—influencing an entire generation with their heinous lies and slanderous propaganda against the people who truly “belong” on this precious land we revere so highly—is nothing short of criminal.
The Cheyenne were known as the beautiful people, quiet, hard-working, at peace with the earth. While my heroine is a Cheyenne, I knew from the start that I wanted the story to end at Chankpe Opi Wakpala (Wounded Knee) in the year of the massacre, 1890. As I began to research the Cheyenne customs and lifestyle so that I could be accurate in my depiction of their day-to-day existence during that time period, I soon discovered that life, as the Cheyenne had lived it for centuries, had already been destroyed by 1887, when my story opens.
Hundreds, thousands of the beautiful people had already been slaughtered, most of the buffalo were gone, and the Cheyenne had been forced to march from one barren, disease-ridden spot, to another, their children dead or sold into slavery. Those that remained had their horses destroyed, their weapons taken from them, to discourage hunting, making them totally dependent on their white jailers.
I had wanted to set the opening of my story in a “typical Cheyenne encampment.” There was no such thing by the late 1880’s. By that time, all Cheyenne people lived on government reservations, under the brutal thumbs of their white captors, their land taken from them, their freedom to travel curtailed, their pride trampled over to make way for the onslaught that was Manifest Destiny. In the end, to be somewhat accurate historically, I was forced to place Wind Flower and her family on a reservation, and from there, give them what little dignity I could in the face of such relentless oppression (I gave Tall Crow a horse, for instance, when almost certainly his people’s horses would have been destroyed or stolen from them).
This story is a work of fiction, an amalgam of stories and accounts, some a part of history, others from my imagination. Rose County, of course, is fictional, as is the school, Rose Academy. That such schools existed is well-documented in historical records. Not only did the government own and operate such institutions, many others were run by religious groups, occupied in perpetrating their own share of atrocities “in the name of the Lord.” Were there any humane institutions? Perhaps. Were there worse places than Rose Academy? Very definitely. Hundreds of Indian children, kidnapped or otherwise, forcibly removed from their families, died at the Carlyle School in Pennsylvania. I chose to depict one reality, not necessarily the worst.
A person who loves a happy ending, my research for Spirit left me profoundly saddened, for there is no happy ending for the Native American people. Their world and their lives have been irrevocably destroyed. The one thing I could do, was give my heroine a measure of peace and hope as she moved into adulthood. In reality, had she really lived at that time in history, she probably would have died an early death of disease or starvation.
I love the characters in my books, as if they were my children. I could not destroy Wind Flower in that way. I could not allow her fierce, but gentle spirit to be broken. Her survival is my gift—albeit small—as a Washita, to a nation of people with whom my heart and spirit will always lie, in deep and profound apology.