Authors: James Welch
“This is a novel that Robert Louis Stevenson would have approved of.”
“An amply rewarding read.”
“What James Welch has produced, ultimately, is a novel with an expansiveness of heart and mind, an intimate analogue of Indian estrangement worthy of any readerly voyage.”
Chicago Sun Times
“An engaging, pointed, heartfelt examination of culture clash and the debilitating effects of otherness.”
San Fransisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle
just finished reading
I think Jim Welch has written a masterpiece.”
Leslie Marmon Silko, author of
“This moving portrait of an Oglala Sioux . . . has a slow, brooding power that builds majestically . . . a brilliant representation of clashing cultures.”
Andrea Barrett, author of
The Voyage of the Norwahl
is the author of four previous novels, including
Winter in the Blood
(1986) which won the
Los Angeles Times
Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. He attended schools on the Blackfoot and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana, and studied writing at the University of Montana. He lives in Missoula, Montana and is considered to be one of America's most gifted literary writers from the Native American tradition.
“One of the year's best works of fiction, a novel that is universal in its emotional and intellectual implications
. . .
By the last hundred pages I found myself in something like an altered state, reading as fast as I could while at the same time holding on to the hope that the book would never end.”
“A stirring tale of a man's triumph over circumstances, a griping story of solid literary merit and surprising emotional clout.”
“Welch has a natural story-telling ability, equally capable of fine focus and overview.”
“Unbearably moving. Charging Elk is a magnificently imagined and understood character, and his soaring heartsong sounds, in its finest moments, much like an American
Les Miserables.” Boston Globe
âAlready acclaimed as a classic in the US, Welch's book looks set to become one here in the United Kingdom too.”
The Big Issue in the North
First published in the UK in 2001 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE.
This digital edition first published in 2013 by Canongate Books.
First published in the US in 2000 as
The Heartdong of Charging Elk
Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
This novel is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, events,
establishments, organizations, or locales are intended only to give
the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity. Other names, characters,
and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are
used fictitiously, as are those fictionalized events and incidents that
involve real persons.
Copyright Â© 2000 James Welch
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request
from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 84195 229 1
Book design by Chris Welch
t wad early in the Moon of the Shedding Ponies, less than a year after the
fight with the longknives on the Greasy Grass, and the people looked down in the valley and they saw the white man's fort and several of the women wept. The leaders were dressed up and rode ahead of the braves. The women and children and old ones followed, some walking, others riding on the bundles of lodge covers and furniture on the travois. He Dog, Big Road, Little Big Man, and Little Hawk wore their eagle-feather bonnets, their fringed buckskins, their beaded gloves and quillwork moccasins. Their gaunt faces were painted as if for war, but there was no fight left in them.
The leaders stopped on the brow of the hill and watched the two riders gallop up toward them. One was a soldier chief in a blue uniform, much like the ones the people had taken from the bodies on the hills above the Greasy Grass. A couple of the young men even now wore the faded wool tunics above their ragged leggings. It was
a hot day and the tunics itched against their bare skin but it was all the finery they possessed.
The other rider was an Indian who had seen many winters, and the leaders recognized him at once. They had ridden with him when he led the campaign to close down the forts along the Medicine Trail. His name was Red Cloud and he had been a great war chief then. Now he was a reservation Indian and had been one for ten years. Now he took his orders from white chiefs, like the one beside him in the large white hat. Still, in his clean buckskins, with his headdress that flowed over his horse's rump, his thin hawkish face now lined with deep-cut crows-feet, he looked as dignified and powerful as everâa chief.
But the leaders did not register any recognition when the two riders slowed, then stopped less than ten feet before them. Both parties sat their horses for a moment, Red Cloud glancing beyond the leaders to the people behind. He recognized many of them, for they were Oglalas, as he was, and he had been their chief once.
Red Cloud looked back at the leaders and said each name with a small nod. Instead of a greeting, he seemed to be identifying them to the soldier chief. The soldier chief nodded at each leader's name but his face remained expressionless. Finally, Red Cloud looked into the eyes of a man who sat patiently on a small horse just behind the leaders. He was a slight man with light, almost sandy hair which was braided and wrapped in fur. A single golden eagle feather was his only headdress. His buckskin shirt was dirty and without decoration. The repeating rifle across his lap had no brass studs on the stock or feathers tied to the barrel. His eyes were fixed on the pale horizon beyond the valley.
When Red Cloud said his name, the soldier chief glanced quickly at the old chief to see if they were looking at the same person. “Crazy Horse,” Red Cloud said again.
Then the leaders on both sides talked briefly, all but Crazy
Horse, who seemed to be impatient in a mild way. As they talked, a troop of mounted soldiers circled behind the band of Indians. They moved without words, but all the Indians watched them and heard the clanking of sabers and squeaking of leather, the hard plops of the shod hooves on the crumbly earth. The troop split in two, half of them taking up stations behind the Indians, the other half moving back to the horse herd.
A boy of eleven winters sat on the edge of a pony drag and watched the soldiers moving to the rear of the horse herd. It was a big herd, a thousand animals, and it took the soldiers some time. The boy watched them get smaller. Then he looked down at his younger brother and sister, who were huddled in the contours of the bundled-up lodge covering. “Don't cry,” he said. “You are Oglalas. Don't cry.”
Then the horse herd was moving down off the side of the hill toward a large cottonwood bottom. The soldiers drove them slowly, but some of the horses were nervous and shied and whinnied. They were not used to the smell of these white men.
The boy felt the pony drag jerk, then start to slide forward, the poles making a hissing sound as they gouged trails in the dirt. He slid off and trotted up to the side of the horse his mother rode. The horse was a big roan and it pulled the travois without effort. He looked up at his mother and he saw that her cheeks were wet. He had wanted her to lift him up behind her, but when he saw the tears, he stopped. Although the long journey from the Powder River country had been hard, he had not really thought about what it meant. Now, he understood. He understood that these
had made his sister and brother and his mother cry. He understood that his father and the other men would not fight anymore. He understood that his people would not be allowed to go back to the buffalo ranges. They were prisoners. What he didn't know was what would become of them.
As he looked around him at the people moving forward, some riding, some walking, some young, some old, many horses of many colors, the dust kicked up by the hooves and the travois poles powdering the air, he felt very small and he wanted to cry too. And just as he had decided to let himself go, his ears picked up a strange, small sound. It came from the front of the band, from the leaders. And he recognized the sound. Soon the braves began to sing. And gradually the people around him began to sing.
He ran forward and caught up with his mother. He looked up and saw her lips moving and suddenly his heart jumped up. It was a peace song they were singing, but to the boy it sounded more like a victory song. As he walked down the hill he could feel every pebble, every clump of grass, through his thin moccasins and he could feel the hot sun on his bare shoulders, but now he was singing.
He looked down at the fort, at the log buildings, at the red and white and blue flag of America that hung listlessly from a pole, at the rows of soldiers with their rifles with steel knives tight against their shoulders, at the thousands of Indians who ringed the open field, and he wasn't afraid anymore. The Indians who awaited them were aliveâand they were singing. The whole valley was alive with the peace song. It was a song the boy would not forget for the rest of his life.