Hillerman had better watch out

Mardi Oakley Medawar has crafted one of the best murder mysteries to come from an emerging author in recent years. The central character and narrator is the Kiowa lay doctor Tay-Bodal, an unpretentious man who uses his extensive knowledge of traditional healing arts and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning to unravel a mystery set in 1866. This is one of the last times the Kiowa, Tay-Bodal says in the opening chapter, lived life as a free and independent nation.

Our narrator tells us that the Palo Duro is a canyon where his Rattle Clan has encamped under the leadership of White Bear, a chief and warrior of great renown. The canyon had been the site of a fierce battle in the recent history of the Rattle Band; many had died in batttle, their ghosts believed by most to linger in the place they fell. White Bear camped his clan in the in the Palo Duro as a demonstration of his courage as part of an effort to sway less influential chiefs to support him over his rivals. Despite the aid and support of a psychic "Owl man," or medicine man, called Skywalker, this is where the immediate problems of the Rattle Clan began.

Skywalker has a vision that ghosts had indeed begun to plague the clan and that they were set upon it by a witch. Tay-Bodal learned that the witch is a practitioner of the Dark Way, a malevolent cult amongst the Pueblo people. Skywalker disappears, livestock gets mutilated, a young girl is murdered, mass hysteria and paranoia ensue and the reader is on his way to a gripping and entertaining read.

There is more to Palo Duro than a great mystery. Medawar makes a sustained effort at examining the daily Indian life of the period. Issues are addressed as far reaching as coffee addiction, regional history, interaction with White settlers and soldiers, Kiowa class structure, culture and inter-tribal conflict, and even the dangers associated with walking in the winter on the Southern Plains without being properly dressed. These all demonstrate the depth of Medawar's research, for which she is to be applauded.

One of the more interesting themes in Palo Duro is class structure in the Kiowa nation. Tay-Bodal, as a doctor, explained how he was considered to be the equivalent of a modern middle-class professional. Skywalker and White Bear as a holy man and a chief were considered to be upper class. The lower class was said to be populated with servants, captives and miscreants who, generally speaking, did not even have their lodges in the main camp. Tay-Bodal's wife was from the upper class as a blood relative of White Bear, which increased Tay-Bodal's social standing unofficially. There are acts of deference based on social status from waiting to be seated to keeping quiet until asked to speak by a higher-ranking individual.

Far from being boring, this is fascinating stuff that helps set the novel apart.

If Palo Duro has a weakness at all it may be the use of the witch as a plot device. It has been abused in American Indian literature and film and in some instances is quite tired. To her credit, however, Medawar is not totally dependent on the device and skillfully evades revealing the true antagonist as long as possible.

Medawar's body of work, including the previous Tay-Bodal mystery "Death on Rainy Mountain," is significant for more than its quality. Her books reflect life in Indian country as it was and how it is for many. More importantly it shows that American Indian authors can write books in genres in which you might not expect to see them and, at the very least, go head-to-head with non-Indian writers.

Young American Indian writers that are considering fiction writing careers should look to Medawar for how things should be done.

A book review of Mardi Oakley Medawar's "Witch of the Palo Duro: A Tay-Bodal Mystery." Published by St. Martin's Press, 1997, St. Martin's Press, New York, N.Y. Reviewed by Robert Taylor, Indian Country Today correspondent.

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