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SunLit Interviews

Denied Cherokee citizenship, Colorado author Courtney Miller still yearned to preserve tribal culture in his writing

The author's extensive research into Native American culture -- especially Cherokee -- has produced two series of novels, plus a genre he dubbed "geezer lit"

Courtney Miller is the multi-award winning author of the acclaimed 7-book series, The Cherokee Chronicles, which follows a fictional Cherokee family through the ages from antiquity through relocation. 

His celebrated cozy mysteries and geezer-lit novels, The White Feather Mysteries, pit a Cherokee elder against a rural sheriff’s office in the Wet Mountain Valley of Colorado. He has authored over 200 articles on the art, archaeology, astronomy, history and cultures of Native America and is considered an expert on ancient Native American cultures.  His book awards include the 2019 Colorado Authors League award for Literary Novel.  He currently lives in the Wet Mountain Valley of southern Colorado with his wife, Lin.

The following is an interview with author Courtney Miller.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

“Gihli, The Chief Named Dog” is the third book in a seven-book series entitled “The Cherokee Chronicles.”  The inspiration for the series really came from three sources. The first was my high school English teacher who liked my little stories and encouraged me to become a writer.  When I told my parents, they laughed and said, “You can’t make a living at that!” So I spent 40 years making a living in corporate management but turned to a writing career when I retired.   The second influence came from researching my family history in search of the Cherokee link. My family’s application for Cherokee citizenship was denied in the 1890’s so legally and officially, we are not Cherokee citizens.  But, my admiration for the Cherokee culture has never waned and I want to do my part to preserve a great history and culture. The third influence came from wanting my grandchildren to know about their heritage. Many of the stories in the Chronicles series were written with them in mind.

Author Courtney Miller.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I enjoy a wide range of literature, but have drawn inspiration from great authors who have written Native American literature like James Mooney, Thomas E. Mails, Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, Dee Brown, Robert M. Utley, and Robert J. Conley.   Many of these authors are not Cherokee themselves but, like me, want to do their part to preserve the story of a great people.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

Each of the books in the Chronicles series has an underlying theme in addition to the story and character depiction.  Book One is about witchcraft, the second is about the priesthood, and the third is about war and peace, etc. This excerpt from the third book takes place in the lull between an abduction and a witch’s visit and all-out war.  This moment in the lives of young twins caught up in tragedies beyond their control try to understand what is happening to them and I feel reveals one of the fundamentals of Cherokee philosophy for how life returns to normal once disturbed.  It is also the point in the story when Ali notices Waya Usti whom she has taken for granted before.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this project?

There have been many.  Working with Principal Chief Hutke Fields was very enlightening and interesting.  The discovery prompted by research has been very fulfilling and challenging. Seeing the look on my grandson’s face when I gave him the first book in the series was heartwarming. I have thoroughly enjoyed traveling to Native American and Cherokee sites in particular.  It was a bit scary taking up writing as a career at the age of 64. But, it was something that I wanted to try and, of course, the advantage of being that old and retired is that there was no pressure to succeed. I have been able to have fun with it and receiving awards and achieving a small measure of success has been rewarding.

“Gihli, The Chief Named Dog.”

What was the most difficult section to write in this book?  Why?

Writing scenes involving cruelty or brutality are hard for me.  It is difficult for me to get inside the head of a vicious witch or a savage warrior.  I am basically an old softy but I think it is important to depict all aspects of man and of a culture.  Just because I could never be a witch does not mean that I should not try to understand what makes one tick.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

I found the Cherokee concept that man possesses four souls to be fascinating.  Growing up with the European concept of witchcraft and, of course, the many Americanized versions like Bewitched and Harry Potter, it was refreshing to discover an entirely different concept existing in Cherokee lore.  Especially the notion that a man has four souls residing in his heart or blood, bone marrow, liver or bile, and saliva. I am indebted to Alan Kilpatrick and his book “The Night Has a Naked Soul” for helping me understand the concept and use it in my book to enable the Raven Mocker witch to steal men’s souls for his own benefit.

What project are you working on next?

I am always working on multiple books.  When I read or find something that would fit in a future book, I will work on that.  Of course, I spend most of my time on the next book in the series. The fourth book in the Chronicles series is about the  national politics of the pre-contact Cherokee. I intend to try to show the duality of politics, that is, the profound concepts of how the Cherokee had separate leaders for war and peace.  In Cherokee society, one was born to a clan and that clan held certain responsibilities for the tribe, village, or nation. This book will deal with a character that is torn between his responsibility to the clan and his personal interests.  I want to show the foundations of democratic rule that existed long before the European influence.  

In addition to the Chronicles, I also write present day cozy mysteries set in the valley where I live.  I thought it would be interesting to take a somewhat traditional, somewhat modern Cherokee Elder and have him compete with the local Sheriff’s Office solving crimes.  So far, White Feather has been the cagey old sleuth in three “White Feather Mysteries”: “Ludwig’s Fugue,” “It’s About Time” and “Ghosts of St. Jude.” The next book in that series will feature the distinguished lady’s Columbine Club of Westcliffe, Colorado.  When I interviewed some of the members, I found them to be witty, fun-loving, and adventuresome. They recently celebrated their 100th anniversary and I want to honor them by featuring them in a fun-filled murder adventure set on the Royal Gorge Route train. This book and two of the previous mysteries are classified in a new genre known as “geezer lit” which means they are written about old geezers by an old geezer.  The mysteries are a fun read and fun to write.

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— Excerpt from “Gihli, The Chief Named Dog”