The Big Medicine Family

One of the primary characters of the Benediction of Paul series is Father Jacob Knows the Song, a native Apsáalooke (also known as Crow). Jacob’s early life is tragic. He and his parents struggle with alcohol dependence, and prior to entering St. Alberic’s Abbey, he had been married. He lost his family in an automobile accident to a drunk driver.

Jacob struggles with many demons. He must learn to weave his life from the threads of his heritage and that of the dominant culture, including the Catholic religion, and with the abbey’s adoption of Paul, he must live with this boy in his life while his own children are painfully absent.

I was so intrigued by Jacob that I wrote the prequel of the Benediction of Paul series focused on Jacob’s early life.

But, while I know a lot about Benedictine monasticism, raising children, being a step-parent, and coping with histories of abuse, I am not a Native American. I did a lot of research about Native American life and customs, and especially Apsáalooke culture, but research can only take you so far. My husband and I were talking about the best way to find culturally appropriate readers for the novels before publication, when an amazing thing happened. I met Laurie Big Medicine.

This is how I met Laurie. My husband heard that the COVID-19 vaccines would finally be available to our age group at our medical provider later that week. He stayed up late the night before, and as soon as the website let him, he scheduled vaccine appointments for both of us unbeknownst to me. He surprised me with this news that next morning. Now, I’m a planner. I like to percolate things around in my head and gut for a while before acting. This inoculation spontaneity ran counter to my comfort.

Following the vaccine, we wound up in separate areas for observation. I started having tightness in my chest and trouble breathing, and a nurse swept me off to a room in urgent care. Staff wired me up to an EKG and took vitals. I think my nurse suspected (correctly, it turns out) that I was experiencing a panic attack, so she engaged me in conversation. She asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a novelist — an exaggeration at the time, if making a living included receiving money for my effort. I explained I was working on the prequel to a series called Counting Coups, the Making of an Abbot. When she learned the story focused on an Apsáalooke, she got excited. She had lived on the Crow Reservation for many years and is married to an Apsáalooke, Eddie Big Medicine. I explained I was looking for readers that could give me frank feedback to help ensure the story reflected life experiences accurately, and that my story was culturally appropriate; she ran off to call her husband and returned with the cheerful news that she and Eddie would be pre-publication readers and reviewers.

Over the next few months, Eddie and Laurie read the draft novel, providing references for me to read, sharing their own life experiences, pointing me to a translation application, making specific corrections, and generally encouraging me. Perhaps the most important direction they provided was about alcoholism, drugs, and abuse on the reservation. They told me if I discuss these subjects in Native American culture without pointing out that these problems result from the severe and sustained destruction of an entire people’s culture by the invasive society and that society’s government, I was as guilty as those that brought the problems on in the first place.

Based on that advice, I found opportunities to introduce that very concept in my books and rewrote several passages. I hope I captured that awareness in the telling of these stories. Still, it bears calling out again here. Sustained, multi-generational trauma to a culture, and the individuals that make up that culture, results in immeasurable harm to the survivors and their children and grandchildren for generations to come. I cannot thank Eddie and Laurie enough for all the help and wisdom they have given me.