David Matheson is part of the new story of what it means to be Native American in the 21st century. A member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, Matheson holds an MBA from the University of Washington; he has served as council leader, tribal chairman and as the manager of various tribal enterprises. He now works for the tribal council, running the gaming operation at the Coeur d'Alene Casino. He moves comfortably in the white world of mainstream America, yet Matheson has always had a strong attachment to the traditional stories of his people.
"As a young man, I enjoyed going around and talking to the elders and recording the stories," he says. Some of the elders felt uncomfortable around tape recorders, so Matheson had to use a different method to get the stories down. "I would listen and remember the stories and then write them down when I got home. Those elders are gone now, but what's left is a treasure."
Now Matheson has gathered that treasure into a novel, Red Thunder, which he published this year under the Media Weavers imprint. He says he chose the path of self-publishing because he didn't want anyone changing the traditional stories for the sake of commercial gain. Although the book took him about a year to write, in between job duties and travel, the project was in formation for far longer.
"It has been on my mind for probably 10 years," Matheson says. "I wished somebody would write these stories of our ancestors, their harmony with nature, and their way of life, and after awhile I decided it would be me."
Some of the characters in the stories, like the great chief Circling Raven, are familiar to those who have heard the stories of the Schee-tsu-umsh people, now known as the Coeur d'Alene Indians. Matheson created other characters and an overall plot line as a vehicle to connect separate stories into a coherent whole.
"The Circling Raven stories are part of our genuine oral history," he explains. "I developed the other characters with the idea that I could use these as a foundation mark and build from there. I wanted to create characters who were believable, who could humanize our ancestors."
The plot of Red Thunder follows a young man, Sun Boy, and his siblings and cousins on their paths into adulthood. The story is set more than 200 years ago, before the Schee-tsu-umsh had any contact with Europeans. Through the eyes of Sun Boy, the reader shares in the mischief, adventures and tragedies of the people who live beside the big lake near the Huckleberry Mountains. But to call Red Thunder simply a coming-of-age story underestimates its scope. Underpinning each activity -- whether hunting, gathering, battling the enemy or joining in marriage -- is a spiritual purpose and a ceremony to dedicate the activity to the Creator, the Kolunsuten. Matheson sees this spiritual component as central to the stories.
"The most important [teaching] was that the Kolunsuten promised no one a tomorrow, or an easy time in life, so we should be thankful for each new day and use it for good," he says. The saga of the Schee-tsu-umsh includes stories of war and violence and sudden death, and these tragedies affect each of the characters in different ways. Stories of war, tragedy and hurt are all part of the fabric of life, Matheson says, and should be interwoven with stories of laughter and joy. "That's all part of it. Especially because of world events now, that makes it more relevant to look at the teachings about enemies and how we have to learn to live alongside our enemies."
As an example, he cites a passage near the end of the book in which Circling Raven is addressing his people just before the warriors go into battle to defend their loved ones. The great chief says: "My relatives, we are charged as a people and as warriors to be ready to protect ourselves and our people. The foundation upon which we stand as a nation has been paid for and preserved by the blood of our warriors... War at just any cost seems insanity; but peace at all costs is slavery! We will not sit by and have our loved ones killed, injured, or captured! With every measure of life and strength we have, we will never allow this!"
After several years working in
tribal leadership, Matheson recognized a yearning for stories about the old traditions that could serve to ground people in the chaotic modern world. "I saw a need among Indian and non-Indian people alike," he says. "The stories might be a benefit to all people looking for peace in their lives. They may help people to have a stronger foundation and to understand the world and our ties to Mother Earth."
Despite his serious intentions, Matheson had a good time with the project. "It's my first book, and I really enjoyed writing it," he says. "I cried and laughed and cheered while writing. Now people who've read it tell me they cried and laughed and cheered while reading it. There's a lot of my heart and soul in the book."
As a self-publisher, Matheson must also handle the details of promotion and distribution.
Red Thunder is not yet widely available in bookstores, but several hundred copies were distributed at the Julyamsh Pow-wow this summer. Matheson was off to BookFest in Seattle last weekend, and on November 14 he'll be at Auntie's in Spokane for a reading and book-signing session. The early response from readers has been positive. "I got a lot of e-mails and letters, and people came up to talk to me about it [at the powwow]," he says. "People are very emotional about it.
"These are stories that need to be told and to get out among all people. This is the legacy of our ancestors. Our ancestors were full of commitment and dedicated to preserving and defending what they believed in, what we believe in. Looking at these stories now causes us to ask: What will be our legacy?"