When I was invited to contribute a monthly column to the East Oregonian, Tim Trainor suggested I follow the lead set by other columnists — Matt Wood’s “From the Tractor Seat,” J.D. Smith’s “From the Headwaters of Dry Creek,” Lindsay Murdock’s “From Sun Up to Sun Down.” Since my column would be about writing, I named it for the place stories can take us — “From Here to Anywhere.”
The question is, where are we? And where do we hope to go?
I’ll be exploring this question at the June 21 First Draft Writers’ Series. My novel “All Coyote’s Children” — a story set on the Umatilla Indian Reservation — has just been published by OSU Press, and I’ll be the featured writer this month.
In some ways the idea for this book was born at a June wedding ten years ago when I heard a Umatilla spiritual leader say, “We’re not just joining two people here today. We’re joining two families.” My son, wearing a ribbon shirt and moccasins, looked as happy as I’ve ever seen him; the bead and shell wedding veil he was lifting from his bride’s head was one he had made especially for her. His own heritage is mainly Celtic and Northern European; the bride, who is Umatilla-Cayuse and Apache, was a former student and my own longtime friend.
Could it be this easy? Was this the answer to the question that has troubled me all my life — the story most Americans don’t talk about because, as one of the characters in “All Coyote’s Children” puts it, “it cancels all our mythologies. No wonder we can’t face it?”
Well, no. But it was a joyful day, and the spiritual leader’s words felt extraordinarily generous. That day, healing seemed possible.
To heal, though, we must first acknowledge our sickness. And how do any of us face the fact that the indigenous peoples and cultures of North America were dehumanized, seen as obstacles to be eliminated as others “tamed a continent” (a phrase used by our president in his recent Naval Academy graduation address) and then all but erased from national consciousness? What do we non-Natives do with this knowledge of how and why we are here? And what do Native people do with the silencing of this story in so much of American history, not to mention its ongoing pain?
Where do we go from here? It’s the question the characters in “All Coyote’s Children” are asking, too.
Writing a novel was a first for me. I wrote much of it in the community room of our public library, surrounded by homeless people trying to stay warm. There were students, too, job-seekers, readers, people researching genealogy. And one man who, we would all learn later, had murdered a much-loved young woman as she worked in the motel across the street.
A library is a good place to think about your neighbors.
Discovering the characters in “All Coyote’s Children,” Native and non-Native neighbors on the reservation, felt a bit like magic. With every revision of the manuscript I thought, “Great! I get to be with them some more.”
But it feels even better to finally send them out into the world with the help of the folks at OSU Press. I can’t say enough about their wisdom and kindness. They even recognized the perfect book cover. The bride at that wedding, my daughter-in-law Cecelia (Sheoships) Husted, took the photo that inspired it. The view is one she sees every day from her family home at top of Thorn Hollow grade where she and my son were married.
Racism has been with us for a long time. It’s a subject most of us find hard to talk about. But the fact that people have to insist their lives matter — and that this insistence is seen by many as a threat—tells me that something is deeply wrong. Is healing possible? I have to believe it is. But only if we find the courage to tell our stories and listen carefully enough to hear each other’s.
That’s what writing is about: trying to stay open, receptive to the human stories that connect us. And the place to start, it seems to me, is where we are.
Bette Husted is a writer and a student of T’ai Chi and the natural world. She lives in Pendleton.