Mark Lee Gardner is the author of “To Hell on a Fast Horse” and “Shot All to Hell,” which received multiple awards, including a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. His expertise as an authority on the American West has led to appearances on PBS’s “American Experience,” the History Channel, AMC, the Travel Channel, and on NPR. In addition to his several books, he’s written for National Geographic History, American Heritage, the Los Angeles Times, True West, and American Cowboy. He holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Wyoming and lives with his family at the foot of Pikes Peak.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Mark Lee Gardner: Ever since I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield as a boy, I’ve been interested in this iconic fight between George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry and the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and other Native leaders. However, my fascination as a boy centered on Custer and the mystery of his defeat, the “mystery” being that there was no one left to “tell the tale.”
Of course, as I grew older, I realized that many, many individuals were left to tell the tale: the Indian victors. It’s a side that I wanted to explore more fully with this book. Who exactly were Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and what brought them to that fateful day on the Little Bighorn? What happened to them and their followers after Little Bighorn? What is their significance to American history, and do they remain relevant today?
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Gardner: Sitting Bull was a holy man well known for his gift of prophecy. As one Lakota explained it, “He was a man medicine seemed to surround someway.” The excerpt I chose describes Sitting Bull’s most famous vision, which foretold his people’s great victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
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.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Gardner: I wanted the book to be based as much as possible on the accounts of Lakotas who knew and were close to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Fortunately, many oral histories were preserved by authors and researchers (some of whom were Lakotas themselves) in the 1920s and early 1930s, while the memories of these eyewitnesses were still vivid.
In addition to immersing myself in these primary sources, I journeyed extensively across the Lakota homeland (the northern plains), visiting the places Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their people fought so hard to protect.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Gardner: This was the only one of my books that made me feel real anger. What the U. S. government, its military, and its citizens did to the Lakota people was horrendous. And once the Lakotas were defeated and made to live on reservations, the Indian Bureau enforced a policy of “civilizing” the Indians, which was nothing short of cultural genocide.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Gardner: The biggest challenge, by far, was both attempting to gain a deep understanding of a culture much different than my own and then writing knowledgeably about that culture.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
“The Earth Is All That Lasts”
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SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
Gardner: My book tells a sad story, but I also feel that the lives of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull can serve to inspire us today. Neither leader ever signed a treaty. Both sought to protect their people, their homeland, and their culture. Both resisted the white man and his influences until their tragic deaths. They never gave up.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Gardner: I grew up in a rural town of 500 people. The closest real library was in a town 14 miles away, in another county. However, my mom paid a small annual fee so that we could use it. She knew that books and information were a critical necessity for her children in their formative years. They remain so for young and old alike to this day, as do public libraries. What a sad world this would be without them.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Gardner: I write in part of a garage/guest room that I converted to a home office. It’s hard to keep heated in the winter, so I dread those long winter nights all bundled up at my computer desk. On the other hand, it’s quite pleasant in the summer!
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Gardner: I’m writing a nonfiction book that focuses on the relationship between iconic westerners Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Working title: “Brothers of the Gun: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Friendship that became a Wild West Legend.”
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Gardner: Mostly chore.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Gardner: A poem about my cat, Panther.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Gardner: Always, always want another crack at it.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing?
Gardner: Mark Twain. Owen Wister. Theodore Roosevelt.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Gardner: That I’m a historian of the American West.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Gardner: Generally silence.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Gardner: Committing an historical error.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Gardner: Letters of thanks from readers.