Photograph by Loren Coffman
For our November Reading into History Book Club, we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month and discussing the novel In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. We chatted with author Joseph M. Marshall III about his tale of a young Lakota boy on a road trip with his grandfather as he rediscovers his heritage through tales of the great, 19th-century Lakota leader Crazy Horse. We were delighted to learn a bit more about Marshall’s inspiration and sources for the book. Read on for his advice to young people facing discrimination, as well as some personal anecdotes about his own childhood.
We’re looking forward to discussing even more with Marshall and you during Reading into History on Sunday, November 8, at 2pm. Please join us via Zoom to chat with him yourself!
What inspired you to write this story?
Crazy Horse has been my hero since I heard stories about him as a child, and I came to like him because he was a lot like my dad, my uncles, and my grandfathers. They were good men like him. I also wanted to portray a glimpse of life on my home reservation of Rosebud, in what is now South Dakota, and into the life of a Lakota family. I also wanted to show how the wisdom of elders and history have lessons to offer, i.e., how the grandfather taught his grandson to deal with bullying by giving him confidence in himself.
While writing this book, did you draw on your own experience as a young Lakota growing up at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation?
In writing this book, I drew entirely from my experiences growing up there. Fellow students who were white often criticized, threatened, or ridiculed me for some shortcoming they thought I had, such as shyness. Sadly, some teachers did as well. I was raised by my maternal grandparents, and the love and wisdom of my grandparents—both paternal and maternal—is personified in Grandpa Nyles.
Grandpa Nyles relays the story of Crazy Horse’s life to Jimmy, making his storytelling a form of oral history. What is the significance of this method of relaying history in the Lakota culture?
For most of our history, until the U.S. government and Christian missionaries invaded our lives, the oral process of passing information from one Lakota generation to the next was the only way. Instructions, life lessons, stories, and family, community, and national history were passed on in that manner. To many very traditional Lakota-speaking elders, it still is.
What sources did you find most useful in the writing process?
The stories I heard from my grandparents and their friends and relatives. I consulted documented, non-native sources for that side of the story as well.
We’ve picked In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse for our book club not only for the history it tells, but also for the perspective on the past created by setting the book in the present. Could you explain your choice to set the book in the present?
I set the front story or the main narrative in the present-day because I wanted to show young people—and anyone who reads the book—that that history does really have a connection to the present. I wanted to show that all the issues we face as people, no matter our culture, were faced by our ancestors as well and they found ways to face and mitigate them; and therein are the lessons for us now.
You have worn many hats in your life! Aside from your writing career, you have also taught high school and college, as well as developed Native studies curriculum! Has this experience benefited your writing? If so, how?
All life experiences can benefit a writer because of the accumulation of experiences and information. As a teacher, I saw first hand how American history tiptoed around many issues regarding the realities of the interaction between native peoples and the invading white people. As a reader I could not find realistic and positive stories and novels about native people, so I decided to try to fill that void.
Jimmy is bullied by his peers at the beginning of the book because his eyes and skin color make not a “real” Lakota? What advice do you have for young people who have experienced similar bullying and have been told they “should” look a certain way to be themselves?
My father, who was one-fourth French, had blue eyes, as did two of his sisters. One of my grandsons has blue eyes and light-colored skin. My paternal grandfather’s advice to my dad and his sisters, whenever they were picked on for their blue eyes, was to tell them that opinion is not the same as fact; i.e., anyone who thinks you should look a certain way to fit in is only expressing an opinion and not stating a fact. Furthermore, my paternal grandfather, who had blue eyes as well, told my dad that most people act out of jealousy. Over time, all of my grandparents taught us that how we act and how we treat others is much more important than how we look.
What is your favorite fact about Crazy Horse?
My favorite fact about Crazy Horse is that he respected his elders and always saw to their welfare.
Thank you Mr. Marshall!