LINCOLN, Neb. - A winter count was an American Indian memory device passed down from one generation to the next. Each winter count was a "calendar" composed by pictographs on tanned buffalo, elk or deer hides that recorded the noteworthy events of tribal life that took place each "winter" or year. Turtleheart, the protagonist of "Winter Count," receives both his tribal band's winter count as well as a smaller personal calendar after his "grandfather's" murder.
"Winter Count" by Dallas Chief Eagle is a historic novel that accurately follows the chronology of events from 1875 until the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. Although the novel depicts historic events such as the Battle of Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and includes actual historic figures such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, Dull Knife and George Custer, the book centers around the adventurous, and often tragic, lives of the fictional warrior Turtleheart and his beloved wife Evensigh. Both characters were orphaned at birth, like the author, and are adopted and raised by Sioux elders. Evensigh, a white infant, was rescued by a Sioux family at the same time Turtleheart, a Sioux baby, is found near his slain parents. As the novel was written at the beginning of the Native literary renaissance and emerging activism of the late '60s and early '70s, Chief Eagle was determined to communicate the Native perspective of important American Indian historical events.
Interestingly, in a 1970 interview, Chief Eagle reported that an eastern publishing house refused to print his novel unless he agreed to remove his depiction of Custer's death as a suicide. Following a Sioux account, the characters of the novel report that "Yellow Hair" took his own life. Instead, the author published through a small Colorado company knowing he would limit his audience, but maintain the integrity of his work. Furthermore, in his introduction, the author summarizes the history of the so-called "peace treaties" that the Sioux signed that were subsequently violated by the U.S. government.
The novel opens with the interracial wedding of Turtleheart and Evensigh. As they begin their new life together, they are ambushed by a Santee Sioux working as a scout for cavalry deserters hunting for gold. The couple attempt to escape and Evensigh is kidnapped after the men brutally whip Turtleheart. Evensigh is sent to St. Louis to live with a white family. The novel primarily follows Turtleheart as he searches in vain for Evensigh as she "assimilates" into white culture, is cared for lovingly by a white family and eventually even attracts a white suitor. During their four-year separation, Turtleheart commits a vow to perform the Sun Dance, fights alongside Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in the Battle of Little Big Horn and reluctantly settles on the reservation as a member of the Indian police force. The author writes about their lives in parallel leading up to their reunion and the stunning conclusion of their story.
The author aptly created a narrative that allows the reader to understand the Native perspective of his own culture, the white culture and the historical events and conflicts between the two. The saga of these two lovers is a fast-paced and historic adventure that will captivate any reader.
For more information about "Winter Count" contact Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 233 North 8th Street, Lincoln NE 68588-0255 or visit their Web site at www.nebraskapress.unl.edu.