November 2006

Revisiting an American insurgency: ‘Dances with Wolves’ author delves into reality of white/Indian battles

By Connie Gotsch

“Dances with Wolves” author Michael Blake has done many things since he left home at age 17, rented a garage apartment, and started his own life.

He’s been a grocery clerk, poured concrete, served in the United States Air Force as a journalist, and attended Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

He’s run a movie theater, and survived in Los Angeles as a screen writer, and a reporter for the underground newspaper the Los Angeles Free Press.

Michael Blake has twice beaten cancer, and health problems related to radiation and chemotherapy.

But of all his jobs and challenges, Blake believes the hardest is writing. That’s not just because he struggled to make $10,000 a year as a writer until “Dances with Wolves” was published. The difficulty comes from what he has to do before he sits down with a pad and paper to write a first draft of something — longhand.

“I just dive into stuff,” he says by phone from his house in Vail, Ariz., where he lives with his wife and three children.

“I read until I have good thoughts in my head, and feel myself ready to go. Then I start writing.”

He more or less follows his nose into his work, a drastic change from the way he approached his writing at the beginning of his career 35 years ago. Then, he scribbled outlines on butcher paper, and hung them on his apartment walls, so he could be near his stories. Every time he had a new idea, he consulted his pages for a place to put it.

Now, by the time he places his pen at a left margin, he’s done a lot of mental preparation. “The words going on paper are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t cover the thoughts, the readings, and the sleepless nights I’ve spent considering what I’m going to say.”

Lots of experience supports his feelings about and approach to his craft. Besides “Dances with Wolves,” he has written two other novels, “Marching to Valhalla” and “The Holy Road.”

In the 1980s, one of Blake’s movie scripts became a low-budget feature called “Double Down,” starring an unknown actor named Kevin Costner.

Now Blake has a new project: his first nonfiction book, “Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency,” published by Northland Press.

Finding the process of putting a nonfiction work together very different from a novel, he sums up the task of completing “Indian Yell” in one explosive sentence: “What a job.”

First, it was an ambitious job. “Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency” covers the years from 1845 to 1890 in the United States, a period Blake calls “instrumental in forming America in terms of its attitude.”

He sees a link between what Europeans did to Native Americans in the 19th Century, and what the U. S. Government does to other cultures today.

“[Indians] were . . . essentially in our way,” Blake states. “The conflicts were based on wanting to exploit the country. And in blunt terms, greed.”

The idea for “Indian Yell” began coming together in Blake’s mind during the 1980s, when he read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” for the second time. Fascinated with the white/Indian conflict, he began studying everything he could on the subject, including 150 volumes about Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Finally, he thought he was ready to follow his nose into “Indian Yell.” But getting the thoughts he gathered from reading onto paper proved more of a challenge than he anticipated.

“Trying to disentangle a contemporary scandal is hard enough, but what about when everyone [involved] is a hundred years dead?”

Checking facts also proved extremely exacting. “I’ve been spoiled as a novelist, running without a leash.”

Still, Blake created a book that excited him. Native Americans fought each other, and lived in a harsh environ- ment, but their cultures offered much that was good. His voice gathers energy as he gives examples.

“Indians practiced pure democracy. . . in their villages. Tribal councils did not appoint leaders based on wealth or rank. People followed those who could lead.”

Native American cultures also had special spirituality, regarding the world as the sacred work of the Creator. When a hunter killed a buffalo for food, he thanked the animal for dying to feed a human family.

Europeans missed this philosophy as they swarmed over Indians and their territory in the rush to exploit land and resources. Blake sees a lesson in the European mistake.

”I wish that all of us could look at the world as a more sacred place, and take care of our own country in a better way.”

Blake based “Indian Yell” on careful research, spending at least two hours every day working on the manuscript. But he also avoided making the book too scholarly. He wanted all Americans, not just professors, to learn from reading the history of the struggles between Indians and whites.

“It grabs me when someone says ‘I’m not into history, but this is good, and I couldn’t put it down’.”

Believing all who live in a democracy should know about their country, Blake hopes reading “Indian Yell” will help people make better choices about dealing with cultures they encounter in the future.

“Can we change what happened? No, we cannot.” says Blake “Can we look at what happened — and reflect on what happened — and maybe take a little different turn with the way we deal with the world? I think so.”