POLSON, Mont. - Placed firmly in the company of such notable American Indian writers as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko, critically - acclaimed author Debra Magpie Earling should not have been stunned by the announcement that she has just won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. But she was - stunned, and immensely grateful.
''I was really surprised,'' she said. ''Winning the fellowship is someone saying, 'We believe your work is important and we will support it.'''
Guggenheims are awarded on the basis of past achievements and future promise. This year, 2,800 people applied and only 189 won fellowships. Candidates write a proposal to apply, outlining what project they will pursue and how long it will take.
Earling, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Polson, will work on a book she has been thinking about since she was an undergraduate at the University of Washington.
''The project is to write, as historical fiction, the life story of a Kootenai medicine woman warrior who lived in Montana in the mid-19th century. She was a gifted seer and accomplished warrior who trappers wrote about in their journals. She had many names, including Kocomnepeca.
''The story of her death is told in a French fur trapper's journal. It took the Blackfeet all afternoon to kill her. Her wounds kept healing spontaneously. After she was dead, they left her body exposed and two weeks later, when they came back, it was completely undefiled. There was no stench and coyotes hadn't touched the body.
''She was a magnificent, visionary person and incredible woman. I believe it is important to write the stories of Indian women who are powerful.''
Earling has already written the prologue to the book, which begins with the day of Kocomnepeca's killing.
''I finally have the opportunity to write this story, which has haunted me for years,'' Earling said. ''Though I am not primarily a researcher, I was looking through the ethnohistorical section at the Library of Congress and this story practically jumped off the shelf into my hands. It is an amazing gift to be able to write what you're called to write.''
She has collected some of the oral histories about Kocomnepeca and she will review those before she begins.
''I'll go home to write the book and put some distance between me and the university and its demands. I'll go to the coast of Washington state and write in solitude and peace,'' she said.
Earling teaches creative writing to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Montana in Missoula and occasionally teaches Native literature courses, which she enjoys. ''It's good to get away from the mechanics of writing sometimes. At least then when people are upset, it's about the literature, not about what I am saying to them.''
Creative writing, like the story of Kocomnepeca, came unexpectedly into Earling's life. ''At the University of Washington, I was taking an economics class and trying to get into law school. Native American author James Welch taught a class in creative writing that I took. That course really changed my life. I wrote 'Perma Red' as a story, then Welch selected it for an anthology.''
Working as a public defender had always put Earling in an adversarial role. ''I thought that's what it meant to change things, to help. But then 'Perma Red' made it back home before I did. People told me it made them think about my Aunt Louise. And I realized that that story did a lot more to effect change than all my yelling in court.''
Based on the compelling story of Louise White Elk, a Blackfeet woman who died violently at age 23, the novel ''Perma Red'' was two decades in the writing and was published to unstinting praise in 2002. ''Perma Red'' won the Western Writers Association Spur Award for Best Novel of the West in 2003, the Mountain and Plains Bookseller Association Award, WWA's Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for Best First Novel, a WILLA Literary Award and the American Book Award. It was a Montana Book Award Honor Book and is included in Barnes and Noble's ''Discover Great New Writers'' series.
Earling earned her undergraduate degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing. Then she went on to Cornell University's MFA and Ph.D. programs.
''One of my professors there was given to sweeping pronouncements and he told me that I shouldn't write in such a grand Indian voice. He was the most influential professor I ever had. He didn't care if I liked him. He cared that I was the best writer I could be. And because of him I was determined to write in an Indian voice.
''I tend to be tough on my students, too. I expect writing to be their life. I think students respect that I have a toughness, that I believe in writing,'' Earling said.
'Tell them that I was a high school dropout'
Indian Country Today asked Earling if there was anything else she wanted people to know.
''Tell them that I was a high school dropout.
''I dropped out of high school when I was 15,'' she continued. ''I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do the things I'm doing now.
''If you're a dropout, it can be a place of hopelessness and I want people to know it doesn't have to be. Maybe you can still become what you want to be. It doesn't happen for everyone, but there is a chance.
''That's what we hope for in our lives: that when it seems like we don't have any more chances, we do.''
Earling dropped out of high school at 15, got her GED at a community college, was married at 17 and by 18 was the first public defender in the tribal justice system on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Two years later, she went back to Washington state, where she grew up, and started attending college in Seattle.
''I think every individual wants to be of service in the world,'' she added. ''And I believe you contribute by doing the things that you think are important.''