Williams, Walter L. and Johnson, Toby. “Two Spirits: A Story of Life with the Navajo”, Lethe Press, 2006.
Little Known Americana
“Two Spirits” is set in the territory of New Mexico during the period that America was engaged in the Civil War. The book focuses on a piece of American history that few know of—thousands of Navajo Indians (referring to themselves as “Dine” were held in a concentration camp which was sanctioned by the government of the United States at Fort Sumner. The authors, Walter Williams and Toby Johnson have taken this and written a historical novel about what happened.
The true story of what happened reads like this. The Navajo were treated with callousness and suffered untold indignities under the supervision of the “righteous” Union general, James Carleton. He, himself, was an Indian fighter who concocted a plan to relocate about twelve thousand what he called savages from their homeland in northeast Arizona to the area around Fort Sumner. They were forced to walk some 325 miles in the cold of winter without the aid of sufficient wagons for the old, infirm and very young. About 3000 died along the way but even with this, Carlton’s experiment was supported by the government. Funds that were appropriated for the Dine went, in many cases, into Carlton’s own pockets and during the four year period of captivity a quarter of their population died. They were also victims of regular raids. Carlton never ordered his men to defend the Dine.
Williams and Johnson took the story and added a love angle between William Lee, a young man from Virginia and a Dine of high rank by the name of Hasbaa. Will’s father once caught him in hi, in the barn with another young man and thereafter shunned him. Will went on to Washington and was hired as an apprentice to the Indian agent and assigned to Fort Sumner where he quickly saw how badly the Indians were treated. He felt responsible for the welfare of the Indians and requested additional aid from the government, not being aware of Carlton’s actions in relation to the Dine.
Will began to make regular visits to the Indians at their camp and was eventually accepted into their circle of talk and became captivated by Hasbaa, a man with two spirits—male and female as well with an abundance of other gifts of the spirit. The two men became close friends and quickly fell in love. Their union was celebrated by the Dine, according to their tribal custom. When Will discovered Carlton’s treacherous activity, he acted and things improved for the Indians.
I love historical fiction and “Two Spirits” is such a book. It is well written and the characters are unforgettable. The way the ceremonial acts of the Dine is depicted is sheer reality. It is easy to see the authors’ passion for their material. The novel is based on real history buy it is the characters and their way of life and spirituality that makes this book such a treasure. This book is part of American history regardless of the shame it provides. Even though the book is categorized as fiction, the accounts are historically accurate. It brings together compelling history with spirituality, culture and romance and the writing is both literate and lucid. The history of the Native American has been hidden from us for a long time but with this book we get a glimpse of what really went on. History can often be dry but this book never does.