Have you ever lived so completely in a novel that you felt you could walk right into a scene? For thirty groupies of Margaret Coel’s 20-book Wind River mystery series, that fantasy became reality last week. As we drove under the cottonwood arch onto the grounds of St. Stephens Mission, we fully expected to be greeted by Walks-on-Three-Legs, the mission dog, and Father John O’Malley. Surely Vicky Holden would pull up any minute from her law office in Lander. We were primed to listen in while she shared with Father John some new development in the latest case on the reservation.
Instead, we spent four days immersed in Shoshone and Arapaho culture with Margaret Coel and Father Drew Duncan. The group’s early birds started the morning with mass in the mission chapel, and I’m proud to say I made it one day out of four! This gorgeous church is the very heart of the mission.
Each morning, we engaged in a deep-dive discussion of one of Margaret’s books. We covered The Spirit Woman about Sacajawea, The Drowning Man centered around the theft of a sacred petroglyph, Wife of Moon exploring the work of photographer Edward S. Curtis, and Killing Raven about the first casino on the reservation. Each afternoon, we traveled to the specific location that was the setting for that day’s story. We spent evenings with our generous native hosts, learning their history and experiencing their culture.
Wind River Indian Reservation
Before getting into the retreat details, perhaps a little background would be helpful. Covering 2.2 million acres in west-central Wyoming, the Wind River Indian Reservation is one of the largest reservations in the United States. Originally designated by treaty to the Eastern Shoshone tribe in 1868, it would also become home to the Northern Arapaho tribe 10 years later, somewhat by accident. Shoshone Chief Washakie agreed to give temporary refuge to the starving Arapahos in 1878, in spite of bad blood between the tribes. As often happens, the temporary became permanent a few years later when the U.S. government declined to allocate separate land for an Arapaho reservation.
No other reservation is governed by two sovereign nations, and the arrangement is not without conflict. The Arapaho outnumber the Shoshone by more than 2-to-1 today, and intertribal marriages face cultural challenges. Still, they manage to make it work, for the most part.
Both tribes welcomed the help and education provided by white missionaries. In 1883, Rev. John Roberts established an Episcopal mission to the Shoshone people, on land given to him by Chief Washakie on the west side of the reservation. In 1884, Chief Black Coal welcomed the Catholic Jesuit priest John J. Jutz, who established St. Stephen’s mission to the Arapaho on the east side of the reservation.
Our nation’s history with indigenous people is often troubling. Nineteenth century policies of forced assimilation led to atrocious treatment of native children at boarding schools, the truth of which may never fully be known. It is also true that missionaries like Rev. Roberts and the Jesuits at St. Stephens built strong ties of mutual respect with the Shoshone and Arapaho people. Roberts in particular resisted government efforts to erase native culture. Today, students study their native language in school and practice their traditional customs and ceremonies with pride. Our group felt honored to be so warmly welcomed by our native hosts.
While it’s hard to pick a favorite item out of our retreat schedule, the book discussions topped my list. In my lifetime of reading, I’ve never had the chance to talk to a favorite author to get the inside scoop on how she crafted her characters and stories. What an opportunity! And boy, did we have questions!
Margaret never aspired to write fiction, but after publishing five non-fiction works, she decided to give it a try. After researching the Arapaho tribe for five years to write the biography of Chief Left Hand, it was only natural to draw on that expertise and network for her fiction.
She chose to make her protagonist a priest, someone trustworthy and invested in the people. Father John is an Irishman from Boston, and a recovering alcoholic. When she submitted her first manuscript to her agent, however, he didn’t like the priest-as-protagonist construct and asked for a rewrite.
After struggling for some time with the revision, Margaret said she ultimately decided she liked the priest better than the agent, so she ditched the agent and kept Father John! Good call! Our group could not fathom this series without our beloved Father John. In fact, Father Drew admitted that when he is faced with a difficult situation on the reservation, he sometimes thinks “WWFJD” — “what would Father John do?!”
Margaret’s fictional stories are tightly woven around actual events, and her attention to historical accuracy sets her books apart. It was fascinating to hear the lengths to which she went in her research for each book, including riding a Harley, learning how to play blackjack, visiting a women’s prison, doing a photo shoot with a vintage camera, and having an FBI agent on speed dial.
Of course, she also went all over the reservation to gain a deep familiarity with the sites in each story. One book included a scene from a particularly sketchy part of the reservation. She insisted on seeing it firsthand, against the advice of her native friends, and ended up getting shot at!
Her husband, George, accompanied her on many of these research trips. George joined her at the retreat, along with her two daughters and two granddaughters. Oh, and her editor came, too! Clearly, Margaret’s strong support network has contributed mightily to her success.
Father John’s crime-solving partner is Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney. Margaret wanted a strong Arapaho character to avoid the impression of a white man coming in to fix everything for the Indians.
The most important aspect of Margaret’s research is how she writes the Arapaho people. She spent many hours in conversation with her Arapaho friends, including Virginia Sutter, great granddaughter of Chief Sharp Nose, to get it right. Virginia read every draft manuscript for accuracy and sensitivity.
Scott Ratliff, former state senator, was another key advisor. When she was preparing for a meeting with the tribal council, he gave her a critical piece of advice. “Zip your mouth, Margaret,” he said. “They will tell you what you want to know when they trust you.” Her inclination as a former journalist was to come into the meeting with a list of questions. Nevertheless, she took Scott’s advice. She credits him with helping her gain the confidence of the tribe.
Our Father’s House
John Washakie, great grandson of Chief Washakie, was our guide for the afternoon. We visited Our Father’s House, the church built by Rev. John Roberts at his Episcopal mission. Although it has been moved and slightly expanded, it’s the original log structure, with pews made from Aspen trees.
In a remarkable legacy, Rev. Roberts ministered among the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes for 66 years. Chief Washakie and Chief Black Coal held him in highest esteem, calling him “White Robe” and “Elder Brother.” To honor his life of service, the Wyoming state flag flies above the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Reverend Roxanne Friday, the first indigenous female Episcopal priest, continues Rev. Robert’s mission today. Rev. Friday is Shoshone, and her husband, Aaron, is Arapaho. They are engaged in an extensive project to restore many of the early buildings on the mission.
A woman who radiates peace, Rev. Friday is deeply committed to the spiritual well-being of her people. She incorporates many traditional native customs into worship services, including smudging, drums, and prayer songs. She has also adapted some of the liturgies to include native content.
Some people consider the burial place of Sacajawea to be controversial, but the Shoshone know with 100% certainty that she is buried at Fort Washakie, Wyoming. After accompanying Lewis and Clark on their expedition, she left her tribe and lived in various places for 60 years before returning to her sons, Baptiste and Bazil, at Fort Washakie.
She lived with her adopted son, Bazil, until her death in 1884, at approximately age 100. Baptiste was the infant she carried on her back during the expedition, and he has many descendants on the reservation. Baptiste and Bazil died of old age within a few years of their mother.
Rev. John Roberts knew Sacajawea and her sons well, and he officiated at her burial. Dr. James Irwin, Indian agent at the reservation, also knew Sacajawea well. His wife had heard the stories of her trip to the great waters toward the setting sun, and of seeing a fish as big as a house. Mrs. Irwin recorded the stories, but they were destroyed by fire. The idea that there may yet exist some written documentation of Sacajawea’s testimony was the premise behind Margaret’s book, The Spirit Woman.
But we do have documentation, in the official records of Rev. Roberts and Dr. James Irwin, as well as numerous contemporaneous letters. In a letter, Rev. Roberts wrote:
“I knew Sacajawea well. There is no doubt in my mind that she is the Shoshone woman who guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I, as well as other white men on the reservation, was reluctant to believe her story until she told of many aspects of that trip that would not have been known to anyone who had not participated in it.”Walk Softly, This is God’s Country: Letters and Journals of Reverend John Roberts. Page 139
Whereas her people might once have considered her a traitor for helping the white man, they honor her today. Her bravery and spirit exemplify the values of the Shoshone.
The Drowning Man is about a stolen petroglyph from the Dinwoody area. The roads to that site were too muddy for a bus, so we went to Castle Gardens instead. Fortunately, there are many petroglyph options on the reservation!
Darius Tillman and his sidekick, Austin, were our guides for the afternoon. On the way there, Darius talked about Shoshone culture and history. Once there, they led us in a prayer ceremony that included smudging and two prayer songs with drums. “Smudging” is a purification rite that involves burning sacred herbs or resins. Castle Gardens is a sacred site to the Shoshone; hence the purification rituals. They also asked that we not take photographs of the petroglyphs or the prayer ceremony.
Just as we parked the bus at Castle Gardens, our phones started blaring tornado warning alarms! We watched the sky nervously during the prayer ceremony, but fortunately it blew over quickly. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place. Easy to see why the Shoshone chose it as a sacred site.
Thermopolis Hot Springs
Wife of Moon features the fictional Evans Ranch, located near Thermopolis, Wyoming just outside the northern boundary of the reservation. The healing hot springs for which Thermopolis is famous were once a part of the reservation. In 1896, however, economic necessity prompted the tribes to sell 10 square miles encompassing the hot springs to the U.S. government for a combination of cash and cattle. Chief Washakie and Chief Black Coal negotiated one final condition: that people always be able to bathe at the springs for free.
The drive to Thermopolis winds through the scenic Wind River Canyon, with several tunnels through the mountains. A geologist’s dream, road signs identify millions of years of rock strata visible on the canyon walls.
As if the beauty were not enough, Jackie Dorothy, a Thermopolis historian, kept us entertained with wild west stories on the drive. Butch Cassidy and several other outlaws were regulars in Thermopolis and engaged in some pretty outrageous misadventures. Our first stop was the Thermopolis Museum, where we saw the cherry-wood bar where Butch and his cronies downed their whiskey.
Next stop: a soak in the hot springs at the Bath House, where the water is always 104 degrees. Those who opted not to soak strolled the boardwalk around Rainbow Terraces to the suspension bridge overlooking the Big Horn River.
In addition to the free Bath House, there are two other commercial pools, the Tepee and the Star Plunge. Father Drew and I reminisced about swimming at the Star Plunge when we were kids. In the era before modern water slides, we risked our lives on something called the “Screaming Mimi.” We would lug a heavy ore cart to the top of steep incline. The attendant would hold it in place while we got in, then release it down a rail track into the water below. It was a thrilling ride, not for the faint of heart! The Star Plunge has been a Thermopolis fixture since basically forever. My mother swam there as a child in the 1940s.
One interesting landmark at the park is known as “Tepee Fountain.” It was built in 1909 to vent steam from hot mineral water that was piped throughout the park. As the water cools, it deposits layer after layer of travertine, similar to the formation of the terraces throughout the park.
We wrapped up our Thermopolis excursion with a visit to the One-Eyed Buffalo for a round of the local brew. Happy chatter filled the room!
Wind River Dancers
A performance by the Arapaho Wind River Dancers proved to be the cherry on top of a fabulous week. What a delight! Darrell Lonebear introduced and explained each dance, and having that context made the performance more meaningful. I’ll let the photos tell the story.
I haven’t fully processed all I gained from this retreat, but I have a new appreciation for native culture. My family roots in Wyoming go back to 1880. My great grandfather was a buffalo hunter, so my people had a direct hand in driving the tribes from their land. Oof. It was surreal — and hopeful — to share a meal with lovely native people and to find common ground in our shared humanity. When we learn from the past, we make room for a better future.
On behalf of the whole group, thank you Margaret and Father Drew for an unforgettable week! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we will treasure the new friendships and happy memories for a very long time.