© 1977, 2001 Kae Cheatham
Electronic editions with all illustrations, expanded history notes and references: KINDLE and NOOK
If someone in 1975 had said that I would publish a book that would be selling into the next century, I wouldn't have believed them. Nor would I have believed that the same book would be the basis for many speaking engagements.
Speaking engagements? Duh. In 1975 I was a mom of toddlers living in a place I wasn't too sure I liked. While I did get out and about on occasion, it was with crafts—beadwork, specifically. That was hot stuff back then.
Another reason the claims wouldn't have made much sense is that I was a poet (and occasionally wrote newsletter articles).
At that time I was with my hubby and two little ones in North Carolina, after having fulfilled some personal maturing in Michigan. I had been part of one of the many "power" campaigns of the era. For me it was Red (American Indian) Power. (I'm one of those mixed breed Americans sometimes called Black Indians; when I wear beads, part and braid my hair, most people only see "Indian"). At North Carolina craft shows youngsters would come up wanting desperately to touch the beaded items I was selling, and for lack of something else to say they asked question like: "Did you bring your horse?" or "Do you live in a teepee?"
Anyway all this was just setting me up to fulfill the unspoken claims that someone might have said if they had a crystal ball (and believed in such).
One summer weekend we (aforementioned hubby and I) took the kids camping—sort of. We were in one of those trailer popup campers with the canvas top that becomes unbearably hot in the humid southeast. I can't recall which park we visited, but when the somnolent heat took hold, hubby fell asleep and so did my two-year old; leaving me to sweat it out with my four-year-old who hardly ever slept. I got him busy with something quiet and pulled out my ever-present pad and pen, thinking to scribe some poetry. But my thoughts strayed to wanting to be somewhere else—out West—and got mixed up with some of the irksome comments that were far more prevalent in NC than they had been in Michigan.
Weaving through all this was a tell-aloud story I'd been making up on some evenings as the kids got ready for bed. A story that made fiction of the facts I knew about my own distant ancestors, the Kainah tribe of the Blackfoot. On that steamy North Carolina afternoon, I started writing a story about a girl on the Northern Plains (where I wished I were) in the long-ago time before there were white folks and stupid questions—and before any of The People had seen a horse (ponokomita). Ta da! The first stage of my story.
By the time we returned to our condo in Raleigh I had written nearly thirty pages—a huge amount for poet me. I pounded out the copy on the typewriter and kept going. By the next weekend I had finished seventy-five glorious (by my accomplishment standard) pages.
When we moved to NC I had by chance fallen into the company of Real Writers. They had even asked me to join them in their once-a-month writers group. So at the next meeting I presented my prose and read part of it to them, about the girl Spotted Flower who returns to her village site only to find her family and friends are gone and in their place are enemy hunters and their strange companions—horses. "It's based on facts," I told the group. "The horse was first seen by Blackfoot Indians around 1736." The response was encouraging, and one well-published author of children's books gave me her editor's name.
Well, references are nice, but a decent product is even better. Although I had polished it as best I could with my neophyte prose skills, the editor at Westminster Press (the eventual publisher) wrote a nice letter explaining that the language I used was too advanced for a picture book, and the manuscript was too short for a young adult book. "If you decide to lengthen the story, please contact us."
That challenge got me rethinking my story. I set to work developing a subplot for the main story. I also kept in mind the irksome comments I suffered at craft shows and added details based on fact about how the people of the Northern Rockies had lived in the 18th century before they had horses. After three months, I resubmitted the manuscript and was offered a contract.
Several years later, when Westminster changed publishing direction of their house and back listed the book, I bought up as many copies as I could. By word of mouth they sold until, at the end of the century, I was down to five copies. By then, with no toddlers or husband, I was living in the West where I knew I belonged, and I published a revised edition of Spotted Flower and the Ponokomita—tweaked a bit and with Internet links; I even wrote a Teacher's Supplement.
The book is still selling—in print and electronic editions—and I'm currently listed in the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau for a history program called "Before the Horse: Northern Rockies Lifestyles." Since 2004 I've presented this program in many schools and libraries, at state parks and private organizations, and at summer history festivals.
Who'da thunk it?