Hopkins’ ‘Carlomagno’ imagines the life of a Native American pirate


Career journalists always have a book in their belly. Most dream of writing the investigative story that will change the world for the better.

John Christian Hopkins, an award-winning reporter (and a Free Press columnist) who formerly wrote a nationally syndicated column for Gannett News Service, dreams, too, that his book, “The Pirate Prince Carlomagno,” will shed light on native culture. His tale is a swashbuckling Native American story based on little-known tribal history to which he is personally related.

“As a child I slept clutching books to my chest and dreamed of becoming an author,” says Hopkins. “I even traded a rocking horse to my brother for a set of wooden alphabet building blocks when I was only 3. I’ve never wanted to do anything but write.”

After 20 years editing and writing for eastern news media, Hopkins moved to Gallup, N.M., to freelance as a writer/correspondent for Dine’ Bureau, Indian Country Today; News from Indian Country, The Gallup Herald, The Westerly Sun, South County Independent and Native Peoples Magazine.

Hopkins, a member of the East Coast Narragansett Indian tribe, is a descendant of King Ninigret, patriarch of the tribe’s last hereditary royal family.

Such distinguished lineage influences his avid love of history and, subsequently, his obsession with reading and journalism.

But he strayed far out of the canon of typical Native American literature to tell the story of, Carlomagno, published this year by Wampum Press.

It is a fictional 17th century story of a Native American pirate riding the high seas in the Caribbean heading back home to his people, the East Coast Wamponoag tribe.

At book-signings (including two at the Spruce Tree Coffee House in Cortez last spring) Hopkins’ voice resonates with the spirit of the tall tale he sees in his head. It is obvious that he is mesmerized by his own storytelling and his enthusiasm for historical research, writing and sharing it with others.

“I am proud of my native community and the excellent native writers in this country,” he said. “We are naturally great oral storytellers, so it will flow over into writing.”

However, Hopkins is determined not to be pigeon-holed as a native author. He sees himself as an author who is Native American. “I want to break the bonds and go out on my own, tell a story that challenges people’s concept of what is native life.”

The details, he says, make the characters come alive, and, “I can visualize the story. I write the scene I see, like watching a movie in my head. It’s an adventure, a romance story, but it’s also a boatload of history,” the kind kids of all ages can sink their teeth into for a great escapist read.

At the beginning of the book, Hopkins takes up the story of King Philip’s War, 1675–76, the most devastating war between the colonists and the Native Americans in New England.

Other tribes, the Nipmuck and the Narragansett, joined the Wampanoag in fighting against all the New England colonies. In 1676 the Narragansett were completely defeated; the Wampanoag and Nipmuck were gradually subdued.

King Philip, the Wampanoan tribal chief, was killed after his hiding place at Mt. Hope (Bristol, R.I.) was betrayed. Philip’s wife and son were captured.

The war was extremely costly to the colonists, but it was even more devastating to the native peoples, resulting in the virtual extermination of tribal life in that part of New England.

There is no record of the name of Philip’s son. The last recorded information about him says he escaped death at the hands of the pilgrim colony victors only to be sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Fictionalizing the son’s life after the war that memorialized his father, Hopkins named his 7-year-old hero “Carlomagno,” a name he fell in love with in his ninth-grade Spanish history class.

“ ‘Carlomagno’ was a name from a region and period of time that stuck with me and I always knew I would use it for a character. Twenty years later in my mid-30s, King Philip’s son needed a name. It fit, just like a crossword puzzle.”

Hopkins breathes life back into his own tribe’s history by creating an adventure for the prince who longs for his tribal home — a hero based on Wampanoan culture.

The story is rich with history. At the time Carlomagno is enslaved in Hispaniola, piracy was a flourishing business in the Caribbean and Europe.

“Imagine being a little boy taken away from everything you know, with no resources and a long, long way from home in distance and culture. All he wanted was to go home, and piracy offered the only reasonable way back.”

According to Hopkins, piracy, in truth and glorious legend, was one of the first democracies. Anyone could vote on a ship; everybody was equal. “There were rules and abeyance and a share in the bounty. The success of the ship is based on everyone doing his job.”

For Hopkins, the research was fun, a natural part of his profession as a reporter.

“Even in journalism I like to write from front to back. After I get the facts, the story rolls and breaks and lives on its own. I get so absorbed in the story because I know the history. If the next scene pops into my head I just get up and write it.”

But it was not always easy.

Hopkins developed glaucoma in his 20s. He lost all vision in his left eye and his right eye was growing hazy. He underwent five operations in three years. “I got scared. I didn’t want to lead the rest of my life wondering if I could ever write the history and stories I wanted to tell.”

Later, after the operations returned most of his eyesight, Hopkins took time away from his journalism career to commit fully to the process of writing and finishing the book. He worked eight hours a day until the book was completed. “It took almost four months to write but I’ve been thinking through the story and the research for many, many years.”

Hopkins’ adventure saga is doubly fascinating because the character names jog stereotypes, making the reader work a little to keep all them in their place — a device that mirrors absorption and relocation strategies employed against native tribes to remove the people from the tribal lands.

Hopkins plunks us down in the heart of heroic pirate culture, as well as Jamaican and Haitian places, people and tribes.

At first it’s hard to imagine a native tribal leader named King Philip, or a son named Carlomagno. It is even slow going to learn how to pronounce Wamponoag. But, the beauty in the book is exactly that. We are more informed by the end of the read than at the beginning.

“I always want to incorporate native characters,” Hopkins says. “Most readers only know about Apaches, Cherokees, Navajos, Hopis and other Western tribes. I want my native characters to be multidimensional – some are good, some are bad guys just like everyone else, and I want to put them in places people wouldn’t expect. I want the reader to wonder like I did as a kid, ‘Was the world really like that in those days?’ For me it is the ultimate compliment if readers are curious and do research on their own, just for the love of it.”

Western writer Louis L’Amour was Hopkins’ greatest influence. His stories piqued Hopkins’ curiosity, causing him to research the places and incidents he read about in L’Amour’s writing.

Hopkins fell in love with the West and accepted an offer in Gallup to cover Native American government and natural-resources issues.

There he met a like-minded and equally accomplished journalist, Sara Begay. She had worked in public broadcasting all over the country, but returned to Tuba City, Ariz., to manage KGHR, the public radio station at Greyhills Academy. Hopkins began to drive the standard Navajo dating commitment – 4 1/2 hours between Tuba City and Window Rock.

During their courtship, “she became the inspiration for the true love Carlomagno finds in Hispaniola,” says Hopkins. More practically, he says he couldn’t have published without her help.

“I am so lucky to be married to Sara. She’s the only woman who understands why I needed to concentrate on my work when I said, ‘I’m crashing a deadline’.”

After many successful years in print and broadcast journalism covering tribal news from Tuba City and Page, Ariz., the couple moved back to New England in July. Hopkins has returned home, to a place named Hope Valley, and, like Carlomagno, brings back many stories about his adventures in the Southwest, a mostly mysterious region to an East Coast native.

“I couldn’t imagine putting this many desert miles on a vehicle, and loving every minute of it. I’m glad I did.”

His book is available in Kindle format at Amazon, or in hardcover at Amazon and Barnes & Noble or by contacting him directly at hopins1960@hotmail.com.

From Arts & Entertainment, August 2011.