Julia Sullivan's Bone Necklace
By Alla Drokina
For Julia Sullivan, attorney and recent author of Bone Necklace, pursuing a career in law always seemed to be in the cards. It wasn't until after many years of practicing law that she found the confidence and skill set to try her hand at historical fiction.
In the realm of law, Sullivan, who is former executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, devoted her life to representing those who are marginalized and considered the underdogs of the system. In the literary world, she plans on continuing to write historical accounts with themes of exploitation and corruption of power.
Keen on excavating the real cause of historical events and probing deeper beneath the surface of familiar narratives, Sullivan tries to convey the story of the Nez Perce War with objectivity and sensitivity in Bone Necklace.
Having spent two decades of research and consulting with a representative of the Nez Perce tribe about her text, she finally published a fictional narrative combining the perspective of three characters to strike a delicate balance of storytelling.
She allows the reader to see the disparity in allocations of access to justice for certain groups while presenting patterns in history that point to a root problem.
What drew you to your passion for justice and representing those who are often marginalized?
I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was probably 10 or 11 years old. A family member of mine was wrongly accused of a crime, went to trial and was acquitted. But it took a year, and it took a lot of money and a second mortgage on the house.
It just really motivated me to learn the system, to understand the system, and to help people who had difficulty navigating it.
That's young. To experience something so personal, I can see why it compelled you.
It can be really overwhelming, terrifying, confusing, disorienting. I was young enough not to understand the details, but I understood the emotion and the fear. I never wanted to be in that position again. I never wanted to be unable to help if I saw someone experiencing something like that. I wanted to be able to understand it. I wanted to be able to manage it.
I'm not sure getting a law degree has necessarily helped me manage the emotional side, but at least I'm in the fight. At least I'm trying to do something. I'm trying to make it better.
Have you always been writing from a young age?
I always have been a lover of books. I've been a reader since I was very young, and I always kind of dreamed of writing. When I got out of high school, I was 17 years old. I clearly didn't have the skillset or the courage.
Even after college, I didn't think I could actually make a living at it. I always had a passion for the law, so I went in that direction. I went to law school. I practiced for 30 years, and it was great. I loved it, but after 30 years, I really wanted to do something else.
I had this book in the back of my head for a long time, something I was working on and off. I just really wanted to finish it. It's definitely been one of the most rewarding projects I've ever taken on. I'm a little sorry that it's done, because I enjoyed writing it and researching it so much.
I can imagine spending 21 years researching it and fleshing it out would form quite the bond or attachment to your project.
Yeah, I've written this book probably every possible way it could have been written. I couldn't really figure out, frankly, how to do it. I worked on it full time for about a year in the beginning, and at the end of that, I thought, you know, I'm just not sure I know how to write fiction.
I took some classes. I went to seminars. I bought books. I hired editors. It took me a long time to figure out that way of writing, which was so different from what I had done before, but it was a great journey. I liked being on the steep part of the learning curve, and it was very steep.
I was wondering how you write historical fiction while retaining historical integrity and deference?
That's a really tough issue. Obviously I want characters who can engage in dialogue, but the historical record isn't that precise. I have important historical figures in the book, and to the extent that their words are recorded, I use them.
But it was necessary to introduce some fictional characters who could really carry the emotional side of the story. It's a real balancing act between maintaining historical authenticity and introducing these characters who weren't really there but whose emotions you can imagine and describe.
How did you decide on the narrative?
I really wanted the story to be balanced. I didn't want to tell it entirely from the perspective of the Nez Perce, and I didn't want to tell it entirely from the perspective of the army. I wound up choosing three narrators who I thought could present the story from every angle and ensure that it would be balanced and fair.
There's a Nez Perce warrior, who is the main character. There's an Idaho Militia man, who is a second narrator. There's an English artist, who is kidnapped by the tribe, and travels with them for about a month.
She's based on a historical character. But because she's English not American, and a woman not a man - I wanted a woman's voice - she could really look at things with more objectivity than anybody who is actually involved in the fighting.
That's how I chose my narrators. It was really driven by an effort to be able to present the story in a way that was not one sided and didn't gloss over the flaws on both sides.
What made you want to cover the Nez Perce War?
What I thought was unique about the story and what drew me in so deeply was that there was a significant part of this tribe that fought the U.S. Army to a standstill and escaped to Canada, where they were given political asylum and lived in peace. In fact, there is a small Nez Perce diaspora in Canada today, descendants of those 1877 refugees.
Much has been written about the Nez Perce tribe, and Chief Joseph has been the most famous Nez Perce. Chief Joseph surrendered with the portion of the tribe that just physically wasn't able to make it to Canada.
But I was fascinated by this other part of the tribe, led by Chief White Bird, whose story doesn't really fit the narrative that we're so accustomed to. These Native Americans were different. They weren't beaten. They weren't defeated. The story of the war from their perspective is really amazing and quite heroic.
What does the Nez Perce War teach us about power and system inequality?
One of the things I wanted to understand when I started researching this war is what really caused it. People assume it was a conflict of culture. It was a fight over land. That wasn't really it.
What happened was that gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, and it was quickly overrun with prospectors and sort of the worst and roughest representatives of white society. They passed a law that said no Native American could testify against a white man in court. Think about that.
A white person would rape a Nez Perce woman, and there was no remedy. There was no criminal charge brought. They would murder a Nez Perce man, and there would be lots of witnesses. But if none of the witnesses happened to be white, there would be no criminal charges brought.
They could steal from the Indians. They could beat the Indians. They could tear down their fences, destroy their gardens, and nothing could be done. This went on for two decades.
Chief Joseph, who I mentioned earlier, eventually composed a list of twelve white murderers. He went to the U.S. Army Commander in the region, and he said that he wanted those twelve men arrested and prosecuted for murder. And if the government couldn't do that, he wanted them turned over to the tribe for punishment.
There were a lot of witnesses to the crimes, and there wasn't any doubt about guilt. The problem was this law. Instead of turning over those twelve men, the government ordered the Nez Perce on to a very small reservation. Most of the tribe was willing to go to the reservation, because they knew they couldn't fight the U.S. government. But one man whose father had been killed was unwilling to submit, and he went out looking for his father's murderer.
At the end of the day, he had killed thirteen people, including a woman and a child, whose house had been burned down. That started the war. The Nez Perce tried to turn over the guilty men, but it was too late. Militias were being raised, and they were shooting any Nez Perce they saw. What followed was four months of run and retreat.
The cause of all of that, to get back to your question, was the lack of access to justice. It was the unequal treatment of the Nez Perce under the law that made this conflict inevitable. In my mind, it wasn't a conflict of culture.
The Nez Perce had been living side by side with white society for years, and it wasn't really a fight over land. The Nez Perce were content to have white people on their land. They didn't try to remove them or fight them off. They just wanted to be treated the same under the law.
It was the government's unwillingness to accede to that request that caused this awful, bloody series of battles. To me, it a theme that echoes throughout our history and in our modern day - the unequal application of the law, particularly in the criminal justice system.
How has the unequal access to justice affected Indigenous communities in the U.S. and how do you think it still affects Indigenous people?
Just look at the difference at Covid infection rates on Indian reservations versus American society as a whole. That sort of gives you a window into the differences in access to resources between the two communities.
It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act and began treating all Native Americans as equal under the law. That wasn't very long ago, so we still have a lot of work to do in that area for sure.
What ways do you think our education system needs revisionist history to better tell the stories of those who have been oppressed?
I think people believe they understand why the so-called Indian Wars happened - that the two cultures were fundamentally incompatible, that it wouldn't have been possible to live side by side in peace. And yet, the Nez Perce who escaped to Canada were able to live in peace.
I think we need to dive deeper to understand why these conflicts really occurred, what was really behind them, and what can we learn from it, and apply to our current situation.
Absolutely. And what kind of challenges, if any, did you face researching and piecing together Bone Necklace?
I was actually surprised at how much material was available. I was worried when I started researching that the American, the military, the Army side of the story would be well documented, but the Nez Perce side wouldn't be. But that wasn't really true for a couple of reasons.
One is that Chief Joseph traveled to Washington D.C. three times after the end of the war, and he met with three U.S. presidents: President Hayes, President McKinley, and President Roosevelt.
One of those trips, his first trip, he delivered a lecture at Lincoln Hall, which was later published in the North American Review. I was able to read his firsthand account of the war, in his words, so that was amazing.
In addition, there was a historian named Lucillus McWhorter, who met a Nez Perce named Yellow Wolf, who was among those who escaped to Canada with Chief White Bird. McWhorter was so fascinated by the story that he wrote a book called Yellow Wolf: His Own Story, in which he helped Yellow Wolf tell his own firsthand account of the war.
There were these two firsthand accounts of the fighting. I was also able to find in the national archives hundreds of pages of handwritten notes from meetings between the Nez Perce Chiefs and various commissions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the army. It wasn't as difficult as I was afraid it would be.
In addition, I was fortunate to find a former member of the Nez Perce General Council who was able to share with me the modern-day oral traditions and to read a couple drafts of the book for me.
All of that was really helpful ... I would not have been comfortable publishing without having some representative of the tribe look at it. I thought that was a really important part of the writing process.
I understand that your next book is about the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. What drew you to that event?
I've always been fascinated by the history of Israel, a nation born in this cauldron of conflict coming out of World War II.
The Yom Kippur War was really fascinating to me for a lot of reasons - the unexpected outcome, the complacency with which Israel went into the war and the ferocity with which it fought, emerging five days later as the clear military victor.
It also occurred in the midst of the U.S. energy crisis, so the U.S. was having its own issues with the Arab States, and during Watergate. The political, the religious, the military elements all sort of combined into an amazing five-day story.
Will your future works explore similar themes of exploitation, political gain, and injustice?
Definitely. Almost all conflict has at its core an unwillingness or inability to get along with people who look different, pray different, love different.
I have a real interest in trying to eradicate those ideas and hopefully make people a little more open minded about reaching out a hand and walking together.
"Bone Necklace" is slated for release in February 2022.
Visit Sullivan's Facebook Page for more information.
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