You guys!!! I am beyond pleased to welcome Sharon Sala to ALBTALBS!!! American Indian/Native American Heritage Month is still ongoing, and I’m really excited about this post. Probably you should have a few tissues handy. I’m just warning you.
WALKING THE PATH OF THE PEOPLE
My paternal great-grandmother, Francis Walker Smith, was three-quarter Cherokee. My maternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Cooper, was part Cree, and yet all of their children grew up without much attention to their ethnicity, mostly because of the white men they married.
Sylvester (Vester), one of Francis’ sons, married Kathryn (Katie), one of Elizabeth’s daughters. My daddy was next to the oldest of six sons born to Vester and Katie. Nearly all of the babies in that family were born with a head full of black hair so thick it stuck up like grass. They had pretty skin that turned a warm brown in the summer, although most of them had Katie’s sky-blue eyes. And so they grew, six fine young men living off the land, becoming fine hunters and fishermen, as was the way of their ancestors.
The grandmothers who had been raised in the ways of their people died without passing down much in the way of tribal culture, so when grandchildren began arriving, which is where I come in, being one of The People was hardly ever mentioned. Even worse, although the thick black hair was still prevalent among the babies being born, I was not blessed with that genetic trait. Instead, I inherited the white, pale skin of my mother, and my grandmother, Katie’s blue eyes. And I was bald until after my first birthday, at which time little white baby curls came in like cotton tufts. And the bloodline had thinned so much that my generation did not have enough to ever be entered on tribal roles.
When I grew old enough to know my heritage, I felt like I’d missed out on something important. Not only did I not qualify to be counted as “Indian”, I didn’t look like one either, but the older I grew, the more aware I became that my soul was one hundred percent pure in tune with The People. I identified with them. I thought the people with the warm brown skin, the black hair and dark eyes had the most beautiful of faces. I ran barefoot through the hot Oklahoma sand and played barefoot in the rain while the red earth squished between my toes, and at night I dreamed of leaving my body and flying anywhere I chose. I flew among the stars and flew low among the treetops. I walked the woods in my dreams and heard the animals’ voices. I can plan what I want to dream and when I go to sleep, I dream it. For years, I thought everyone could do that. And so that was my life. On the outside the little white girl by day, on the inside, the little Native girl by night.
The year I began first grade, we lived in a rent house in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma that was six long red dirt miles outside of a tiny little town, population about 500 people. The house was within walking distance to the South Canadian River. The half-mile path from our house to the road where I would catch the bus was barely wide enough for my daddy’s old black pickup. One side of the road was a heavily wooded hill that rose high above the path on the north, and on the south side was a pasture full of native grasses that grew higher than my head. The path seemed endless for a small girl going to meet a long yellow bus that would take her away from everything familiar, and so my old yellow dog, Laddie, walked it with me every morning and was waiting at the stop to walk me home every evening.
So in the fall of my first semester of first grade, when the leaves had just begun to turn and the morning air was chill enough that I could see my breath, and sometimes little wisps of fog still lingered knee-high above the ground, something happened that marked me as a child of The People.
On that morning I am walking with my hand dug deep into the fur on old Laddie’s back, taking comfort from the warmth coming off of his body when I sense another presence. Almost at the same time, Laddie began to growl, a low deep grumble that never wavered. I caught a glimpse of movement up on the ridge and turned to see a wolf walking the ridge parallel to us, weaving in and out among the trees but keeping pace with Laddie and me down on the path. I saw it for the very large, very wild animal that it was, and yet for some reason, I was not scared. I just kept walking and made it to the bus stop, got on the bus and promptly forgot about it. It wasn’t there when I came home that evening, but when Laddie and I began our walk to the bus the next morning, it was on the ridge again and Laddie was growling and I was holding on to him and we were walking, walking, with the wolf keeping pace with our every step. Every morning through that entire season and up until the first snow, it was our uninvited companion.
I never mentioned it to my daddy. He was quite the hunter and I was afraid that he would shoot it. It wasn’t hurting me and if Laddie didn’t mind him being up there, then I didn’t either. Once the snow came, I never saw it again, and I never spoke of it until many years later and I was a young woman, almost grown. When I told the tale, an old Indian man who’d been sitting quietly throughout most of the visiting suddenly grabbed my arm and asked me if I knew what that meant? Never having been raised in the culture, I told him no. His dark eyes widened. I felt his gaze rake my body from head to toe and back again, and then he told me in a quiet, private tone that the wolf was my totem, and that I’d been marked for something special. My life was so ordinary, I couldn’t imagine, and I asked him what it would be. He shrugged, then said it was for me to discover, and that I just had to pay attention.
So the story stayed with me through my first marriage, during which time I survived two car wrecks that should have killed me. I remembered thinking, maybe I lived because I have not fulfilled my purpose. So I had my first child and then divorced. Later remarried and had my second child and I’m thinking, maybe it’s not me, but one of my children who has this special thing that they must do. And as they grew up, my second marriage grew worse, and I began searching my heart for something to do that would mentally take me out of my sadness.
Now remember, I said I always planned what I wanted to dream? Well, those dreams had become vivid daydreams as well, and one day after a particularly hard day, I pulled a typewriter out of a closet and began writing the story that was in my head.
All of a sudden my days were better. I had something to look forward to that was positive, something that took me ‘out of the place in which I lived’. My family thought I was silly. It made my husband mad because I had an interest in something that he couldn’t control. I wrote in cursive on yellow legal pads and then typed it at night. It took a year for me to finish, but I will never forget the satisfaction I felt at typing THE END.
I reread the story, realized how awful it was, because I didn’t know HOW to put on paper what I saw in my head, and stuck it under the bed. But the writing bug had bitten me hard, and I wrote another that also took another year to finish, and wasn’t any better. It, too, went under the bed and I let life and growing children overwhelm me again.
It wasn’t until 1985, when my sister and my dad died within two months of each other, that I re-evaluated my life. I didn’t want to be on my death bed sometime in the future wondering what would have happened if I’d just written another book. So I joined a writer’s group and figured out how to put on paper what I saw in my head, and after another year, I wrote the third book.
In the way of the People, I was a storyteller and just didn’t know it because the third book was the charm. The first place I sent it, bought it. That was 1991 and the book was called Sara’s Angel. It was a romance with a little bit of mystery/suspense and the hero in the book was Native American, because in my heart, all my heroes have pretty brown skin with black hair and dark eyes.
But it wasn’t until I received my first fan letter that I realized what I’d been chosen to do. The letter was from a woman who’s first language was obviously not English, and she wrote a line in that letter that I never forgot. She said, “For a little space of time, you show me a better world than the one that is mine.”
It was my first step onto the path for which I was marked. I was doing what I was supposed to do…telling my stories… and when I could, showing Native American people in a positive and heroic light. More than half of my books have Native American characters, yet throughout the twenty-three years I’ve been published, I have fought a losing battle with traditional publishing houses to put real Native American models on the covers of the books with those characters. Every time I’d ask, I’d get another male model with long hair, but never one of the People.
And so it continued until self-publishing became possible. For years I’d been writing under two names – Sharon Sala, and my pen name, Dinah McCall and I wrote under both names until the year my fiancé died. His name was Bobby and he was from the Muscokee/Creek tribe. He was my childhood sweetheart and I’d lost touch with him until he came back into my life after a divorce. I had eight wonderful years with him before he died in our house, in my arms. I thought I would die with him. I wanted to, but my spirit wasn’t done here. I had stories yet to tell.
I was writing a McCall story when he died, and for some reason, after I finally finished that book, Dinah died with him. I never wrote under Dinah McCall book after The Survivors, which was dedicated to him, until my Bobby came to me one night years later in a dream. I woke up the next morning knowing I had another story to tell, and began writing the Windwalker trilogy under the Dinah McCall name.
I knew I was going to self-publish because I was going to tell these stories about the People the right way – my way. It wasn’t just the fact that both hero and heroine in these stories were going to be Native Americans, but I had a dream I was going to make come true. For the first time in twenty-three years of writing, I was going to have real Native American people on the covers for the Windwalker trilogy, and one of them who became the female model was my own granddaughter, Logan Sala, who through her mother, is a member of the Muscokee tribe. Rick Mora, an actor/model from Hollywood who is Yaqui/Apache became the male model. The covers for Windwalker and The Dove are strikingly beautiful and I am as proud of those covers as I am the stories they represent. There is one more book in that trilogy called The Gathering, which will be out sometime next Spring and their beautiful faces will grace that cover, as well.
I have won many awards and received many accolades during my career, but none mean as much to me as being able to tell my stories my way, and see them published in the manner most befitting the heroes and heroines within those pages.
So twenty-three years and nearly one hundred books later, I am still the little white child with the Native heart, following a path marked by the wolf, who became her totem.
What a beautiful, amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us, Sharon.