Local Author Tells Native American History in New Novel
by WINIFRED BIRD
It’s a cloudless night in the second half of the 17th century, long before ferries or even the name Washington Island existed. Ogima, the young narrator of Sturgeon Bay resident Thomas Davis’ new work, is crossing to the place that he and his people, the Potawatomi, call Wassekigganeso. He is accompanying a shaman named Quapaw, the novel’s central character, who is fleeing to the island to escape persecution.
The two men step onto the moonlit, frozen lake and begin to cross, only to be surrounded by a pack of wolves. Ogima is terrified, but Quapaw tells him he has called the wolves as protection. Encircled by this canine escort, they run through the night to reach the island.
It’s a haunting scene, and one that captures the otherworldliness that envelops the island, both in real life and in Davis’ historical fiction novel Prophecy of the Wolf: The Neshnabek, Wassekigganeso, and Papma.
“It’s an easy place to feel a connection to the Earth and the water and the sky,” Davis said. “I love to go there.”
The book depicts a crucial moment in the history of the Neshnabek, as the Potawatomi people call themselves. By the mid-1600s, the French had founded Montréal and were pressing westward into the lands of the upper Great Lakes region. They traded guns, alcohol and other goods for furs, and they sought to convert Native people to Catholicism.
“At that moment, the Neshnabek civilization on the Door peninsula and Washington Island was flowering,” Davis said. “But then this incursion of the French integrated the American Indians into the European economy. It was a time of massive change.”
The characters in his book must decide how to respond to their quickly shifting circumstances. At its heart, the book is about staying true to yourself in the face of overwhelming change.
Fact and Fiction
Davis credits Deb Wayman, owner of Fair Isle Books & Gifts on Washington Island, for suggesting that he write about the island’s Native American history. Although some of his previous works have been about the island, and he spent most of his career in American Indian higher education, he hesitated to write this one.
“Their stories are their stories,” he said. “I wondered, should I really do it? I finally decided that I could write a powerful story that lets non-Indian people know there was a full-blown civilization that the white world – the French world in this case – interrupted.”
Davis spent about a year researching. He read everything he could about the Neshnabek, spent time on the island, examined Native American artifacts at the island’s Jacobsen Museum and visited historical sites. Although the resulting book is a work of historical fiction, Davis’ descriptions of how people made a life in the 1600s are based on historical evidence.
The main characters such as Ogima and Quapaw are imagined, but others are historical figures. Among these is Ononghissee, a Neshnabek leader who traveled to Sault Ste. Marie to forge an alliance with the French. Davis said he found evidence that Ononghissee had lived on Washington Island, at least for a while.
Davis noted that the island was an important place during that time.
“Water was the highway; there were no roads,” he said. “Washington Island was absolutely important, and Rock Island was even more important in some senses because they had good harbors and were safe places to land.”
Many tribes had a presence on Washington Island over the centuries, but the Neshnabek became dominant after a flotilla of enemy canoes was destroyed in a major battle with either the Ho-Chunk or the Iroquois in the 1600s.
“As white Americans came into Wisconsin and Door County, the Indians over time were pushed out,” Davis said. “By the 1800s, there weren’t many left.”
Lessons for Today
Davis sees profound connections between the period of change he depicts in his novel and the present day.
“The Earth is in trouble, and that leads to an enormous amount of change within the world,” he said. “There are some parallels there, I think. What’s going to happen? Are we really going to have the wisdom to survive the desecration going on?”
The characters in the novel struggle to preserve their culture as new technologies and ideologies emerge. Although the book ends without revealing the long-term outcomes of their choices, history shows that their real-life counterparts succeeded: The Neshnabek and their culture survive today, if not on Washington Island.
“I think that people who live in a place ought to understand all of the layers that exist there,” Davis said. “A place is the landscape itself, the living community, the animals, plants, water, fish and the birds in the sky. But it’s also all those layers and layers and layers of history going back 8,000, 10,000 years. I think it’s important to have at least some sense of that unity.”
His new book is a good place to begin.