Hugh A. Dempsey,
Charcoal's World: The True Story of a Canadian Indian's Last Stand
(Bison, 1979; Fifth House, 1998)

Charcoal's World: The True Story of a Canadian Indian's Last Stand is the wildest, wackiest tale of misinformation leading to tragedy that you will ever hear. Although this is a serious subject with a pitiful main character and a horrible ending, you cannot keep from laughing. It is too absurd not to laugh. Still, it demonstrates the clash of cultures at the turn of the century and how misunderstanding of the opposing culture often led to tragic situations.

The villain, who I saw as a hero, was a Blood Indian of the Blackfoot Nation named Charcoal (Si'k-okskitsis, which means Black Wood Ashes). In 1896, when he was 40, he was married to 31-year-old Pretty Wolverine Woman. He took a second wife, an 18-year-old named Sleeping Woman.

He soon learned that Pretty Wolverine Woman was having an affair with her 25-year-old cousin, Medicine Pipe Stem. He warned them to stop seeing each other, but they laughed and ridiculed him. When he caught them in the act, he shot Medicine Pipe Stem through the eye. At that point, if he had turned himself in, no jury would have convicted him. But he did not understand the law. He thought if you killed somebody, you hanged. End of story.

Charcoal knew he was going to be killed, but being a devoutly spiritual man, he believed he had to follow an ancient tribal tradition if he wanted to be accepted into the spirit world. First, he had to send a messenger to the spirit world to announce his arrival. Then, he would kill himself and his cheating wife. His messenger had to be an important person -- a leader. So he set off on a mission to kill somebody important; anybody important would do.

Samuel Steele was in charge of the North West Mounted Police. He was a straight-laced, by-the-book-until-the book-fails kind of guy. He just wanted to catch the murderer and bring him to justice. He was willing to utilize as many men as were needed to apprehend Charcoal.

Ten days after the chase began; Steele had four officers and 100 men "scouring the country for a lone bow-legged Indian in an advanced stage of tuberculosis." Steele provided his men with a description that should have made identification a breeze: "He has a squaw with him who is an accomplice, rather nice looking and a good size and another squaw of his who is medium sized and not good looking."

Twenty-one days after the chase began; Charcoal stole two racehorses and a saddle from an Indian camp within a mile of Steele's headquarters while his men were out scouring the country. Twenty-four days after it began, Charcoal was still trying to find just one important person to kill. Poor Charcoal. He had the best of luck when he needed to hide or escape, but he had the worst of luck in killing any important person.

Dempsey has penned a fantastic biography and historical narrative of a legendary incident. The writing is lively with vivid imagery and emotionally-detailed characters. He shows you what they were thinking and why they were thinking it. He juxtaposes the two cultures and analyzes the action from both angles. But through it all, he maintains his storytelling as if it were fiction -- never losing the tension and suspense of the story.

Charcoal's World is one of the better books that I have read this year. I could not take even a short break from reading and finished it before I paused. It is one of those "truth-is-stranger-than-fiction" stories.

book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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