Category Archives: Paul VanDevelder

Interview with Paul VanDevelder, Final Chapter

Victoria: What are three nuggets of Indigenous wisdom that you can share given all that you have learned in both your professional and personal connection to Indigenous America?

Paul: One that Janine (Pease) highlighted:  that real wealth is our relationships and our relatedness to one another. That’s what real wealth is.

That elders are to be cherished and honored is another one because they are the fountains. They are the keepers of the medicine bundles, if you want to use that as a metaphor. They’re the ones who make sure that it all stays together and continues to work.

This is one of the most important ones: in some tribes there’s still a very clear demarcation of what the women do and what the men do. For example, on Dan Old Elks clan in Crow, his daughters both have PhDs in math.  But when they’re at home they perform tasks that are female tasks and they consider it an honor to do. And the men perform their tasks and they consider it an honor to do.  I’ve always looked at that and thought, why are they able to be so clear on that and we get so confused about gender? I don’t understand or have clearly understood why we have the connections that we did but it stands in stark contrast to what they have. What I have watched with my own eyes, and, it was beautiful to watch, because there was love through all of it. It was all about love and the honoring of each other.

Victoria: I think that our education since the 17th century Age of Enlightenment has been a progressive dishonoring of the feminine—the feminine principle.  And Indigenous Americans and our Indigenous traditions have been to honor the feminine as part of the balance. There are a lot of women who walk around now and don’t realize that their body reflects the concept of Grandmother Earth, which is very powerful. It’s been diminished, demeaned and, because it is invisible, seen as not worthy.

Paul: And it’s going to cost us huge.

Victoria: Well I want to thank you for your voice. It’s incredible and beautiful.

Paul: Thank you. There is nothing but passion.

There was a nice interview with (Roger) Rosenblatt on the PBS News Hour. He’s been a commentator for them for years but he teaches writing. He’s got a new book out. The title is Unless It Moves the Human Heart.

I’ve always thought that these books, at their core, were beating hearts. It was not just this abstract, historical treatise but that there are real people here. Let me read from the introduction (Savages and Scoundrels):

“But for the weaver of tales that germinate in such storied soil, no source material, however hallowed and unimpeachable, can substitute for walking the frozen ground of the North Dakota prairie in a February wind, or for listening to the solitary voices of people whose bones were formed from the dust of prairie soil, or for the howl of a wolf, the trill of the loon, or the lilting melody of a meadowlark on a spring morning. In any search for the true and authentic America, one whose residue of betrayal and loss are redeemed by the endurance and perseverance of its resilient citizens, there are no proxies for the people whose lives and voices animate these pages.”

It’s their voices.



Interview with Paul VanDevelder, Part 3

Victoria: Who are your greatest teachers?

Paul: Some of my greatest teachers were my journalism professors and women like Louise Holding Eagle, Phyllis Cross, and Marie Wells–people I wrote about in the afterward of the new addition of Coyote Warrior. Remarkable people.

Victoria: Why do you include these Indigenous women?

Paul: Because they talked so freely about the underpinning of their value system and their relationship to the natural world and each other. Let me give you an example: We were doing a film for Discovery and we had Janine Pease. She was a MacArthur award winner[1]. She agreed to do an interview with us. I had one question that I was building up to:

“Janine, this is an opportunity to speak to those who are going to follow you a hundred years from now. You can speak to that generation right now.  What do you want to tell them?”

It was riveting. She looked right into the camera and she started speaking to them as if they were right there.  Everybody on the film crew was absolutely frozen. She spoke for five minutes without even flinching. She told the future generations that their wealth was in their connectedness and their relatedness of clans and family. That it had always been that way and included the birds, the bears, the horses. All of these things were part of who they were and without them they would cease to exist. But that their real wealth is in the people–the sounds of the voices, the people who they were born into the world with and it would always be that way. Because of it they would always be a little different than the white men that surround them because their sense of wealth was so much different. And that those two world views would probably never meet.

Victoria: She was a great teacher.

Paul: Yeah, a great teacher. But see, Phyllis Old Dog Cross was very much that way. So was Louise Holding Eagle. Louise was so beautiful–when she talked about food–because we would go out and pick the wild turnips and the chokecherries–and we would go back to her house.  She would show me how she prepared the foods and dried the foods and what not. I mean this was a sacred act—picking the food and then caring for one another.

Through that I was just transported into another world where I realized everything that they see and do is so radically different from a point of departure of the white people. And they all said you just can’t understand this unless you’ve been through “the starving time”.

It was wonderful. Those women will always be with me.


[1] Dr. Janine Pease, educator and MacArthur Fellow, July, 1994

Interview with Paul VanDevelder, Part 2

Victoria: I love the passages depicting the lively trading centers of the past and how the Mandan people bartered corn seed from the Aztec and the Mayans. There’s a picture of these really vibrant cultures interacting with one another, moving across great distances to meet one another, to marry one another, to trade cultural artifacts. Much of this is missing in our education about US history and the Americas. Do you have any additional comments about our historical assumptions about our Indigenous ancestors?

Paul: Are you kidding me? That’s why I write the books. That’s essentially the core of the question that was put to me by the director of the Yale (University) Press. He asked me, “Hey, do you have any more stories like the last one?” And we ended up with Savages and Scoundrels, an amazing story.

Ray Wood[1] can paint a picture of Pre-Columbian America and the trade networks.  He said this continent was crisscrossed with trade. I mean it was extraordinary. All of the tribes knew about each other. That’s why I love the story when the first Frenchmen[2] got to the Mandan villages at the Heart River where they were astonished to find goods made in England and France and Italy. They’d already been trading in this stuff forever and, I mean, they all knew one another. That’s how sign language developed because it was a universal language between all these different cultures of tribes.

The sad thing is that all that inter-connectedness has fallen away in an atomic and nuclear age. They’re all isolated from each other. There was a time when they knew each other very well. They intermingled, they intermarried, they co-mingled and they knew each other’s religious rites and all kinds of things that were remarkable. In fact, when Charles Mann wrote 1491 he interviewed ten anthropologists.  He asked them if they had a choice to live in Europe or the New World of the Americas in 1491, what would they choose? They all chose the same thing, without hesitation—the Americas. They said that it was so far evolved beyond the European and what was going on in Europe at the time. It comes back to the Guns, Germs and Steel[3] thing.

Victoria: You said that the isolation that has been created in the nuclear age but didn’t it have a lot to do with disease? I heard a marvelous storyteller from one of the Oregon Coast tribes tell a story about the big longhouses near the Columbia River and how they were just teeming with thousands of people. But after disease ravaged the community, the long houses were virtually ghost towns.

Paul: In Coyote Warrior I cite that in the footnotes. The Smithsonian and a team of epidemiologists have isolated twenty eight different pathogens or pathological scourges that hit Native America. Most of them before the whites ever got west of the Mississippi. So what happened is that these viruses came up out of Mexico and swept across the plains up into the Northwest and we never saw them. They happened out in the great beyond. One prediction was that there were a hundred million Native people in all of the Americas in 1491—as many as a hundred million! Even if you cut that in half think about how many got wiped out. Because in the census in 1900 there were 242,000 left on the North American continent. That was all that was left.

Victoria: So when you talk about the isolationism in the nuclear age, what exactly do you mean?

Paul: I mean so many of the tribes were beaten back and settled on these isolated reservations where they don’t trade together anymore. They don’t see each other now.

A poor cousin is the powwow circuit. They do see each other a little bit at the powwow but certainly not everybody goes to powwows. The Crow nation have theirs and a few Cheyenne come over, Arapaho, and some of the other tribes. But the whole tribes don’t go. So it’s a fairly small number of people, I think. At least that’s my sense of it. So that sense of connectedness and inter-relatedness has been broken.

Victoria: And inclusiveness.

Paul: And inclusiveness has been broken.

[1] W. Raymond Wood, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia


[2] From Coyote Warrior, page 18: “When the French explorer Sieur de La Vérendrye finally made his way to the Mandan Villages in November of 1738, he was heartened to discover that the Mandan’s reputation as skilled diplomats was well deserved.” Paul VanDevelder

[3] Guns, Germs and Steel, 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jared Diamond

Interview with Paul VanDevelder, Part 1

Victoria: I want to congratulate you, Paul VanDevelder, for being named an Oregon Book Award finalist for Savages and Scoundrels.

You wrote in the introduction about how you helped your mother track down your family genealogy to find your Native American/Cherokee lineage.  Is that what made you want to write about Indigenous Americans with Coyote Warrior and Savages and Scoundrels? If not, what led to your journey of discovery about Native American treaty law?

Paul: When I got out of the daily news business I was a photo editor, a graphic arts person. I had wanted to be a writer but I discovered photography and I went off and did that for a number of years and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But when I left journalism, I decided that I wanted to come back to writing but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I knew it wasn’t going to be fiction this time, because I write screenplays for fiction.  And I was casting about, just moving through the world seeing that there were so many things that I wanted to write and was fascinated by.

But to me, I grew up in a family that was all about justice. It wasn’t just the décor of our family but our structure and value system. I got out of the news business in ‘90—and by 1993, I had a pretty keen sense, interestingly enough, that natural resources and the distribution of natural resources were going to play right into the heart of all future justice issues because so many of those resources were owned and controlled by Native peoples.

So it wasn’t just that my grandmother was one of those, you know, classic Cherokee grandmothers or that I had some sort of romantic attachment or affiliation with Native Americans. I had always viewed Indigenous people with high regard but it wasn’t that I wanted to just jump into their world. It was the interplay of dominant cultures with Native cultures that was fascinating to me because, looking down the road, I thought, this is going to test these dominant cultures and their advocacy for human rights, etc. This is where we’re really going to find out, again, whether they are who they say they are or what kind of train wreck we’re going to have to deal with.  And, I was guessing, it’s going to be a train wreck.

As I got to know more and more about it and met more and more people, I started writing stories. Sierra Magazine asked me to write a story that basically was an overview of all of the different legal battles going on in Indian country.  What amazed me was how many legal battles were being won! I didn’t know. I had no idea why. Well, that led to my secondary education in law.  I started associating and getting to know a lot of Indian law scholars and reading everything I could get my hands on–reading hundreds and hundreds of cases to get my bearings.

Simultaneously, I was getting to know the people at IEN, the Indigenous Environmental Network, which had just formed over the battle in Navajo country on the incinerators from toxic waste that was led by Lori Goodman[1]. But it turned out there were a lot of remarkable women, too, leading these structures: JoAnn Tall[2] , Gail Small[3], Winona La Duke[4].

I thought this is an amazing story because these people have the law on their side. They own the resources. There’s nothing in the previous history that suggests that the dominant culture has had a change of mind or heart. That it’s going to just roll over and suddenly start obeying its’ own laws. But this is going to get really ugly because these people are trained. Previously, Indigenous leaders were not trained in the white man’s law, or chemistry or biology or hydrology and all these other things. But these people are.  And the interesting thing about that was a lot of it resulted from Richard Nixon and the Indian Health and Education Acts that came out of his administration:  which is the ultimate irony of all, for Indian country.

It was more about looking forward and saying, “OK, what’s happening? Where are we headed with this natural resource stuff?”  So, by looking forward, naturally, I ended up looking back at previous stories. That’s why the Cross[5] story kept coming back. I had a nuclear story over nuclear waste with the Chemehuevi in Fort Mojave which is a great story. I had related stories for earth, wind, water, fire, and spirit. I had land use in Yankton with the Yankton Sioux; wind with the Potawatomi, and air quality issues; water with the Isleta Pueblo and the Kootenai in Montana. I had some big cases and there were a lot of great stories.

But I kept coming back to the Cross story because it embodied everything. It had everything. And as (George) Santyana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This was a story that hadn’t been told, or at least not in a major way. I felt in that story were the answers to all future paradoxes and dilemmas around these issues and there was a lot to learn.

[1] Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (Diné CARE) was founded in 1988 to resist the construction of a toxic waste site in the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation. Lori Goodman has been an integral part of Diné CARE since its inception.


[2] JoAnnTall co-founded the Native Resource Coalition and was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993 for her protests against uranium mining and plans for testing nuclear weapons in the Black Hills area.

[3] Gail Small is Executive Director of the non-profit organization Native Action. Native Action’s work has led to national precedents in federal banking law, environmental policy, Indian voter discrimination and youth law

[4] Winona LaDuke is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to advocate, raise public support, and create funding for frontline native environmental groups.

[5] Both Coyote Warrior and Savages and Scoundrels are about the Cross family, members of the Hidatsa tribe, from Elbowoods, North Dakota.