Behind the Story
Our guest this week is renowned mystery author, Margaret Coel.
Chuck Schneebeck Photography
The Eagle Catcher by Margaret Coel
Almost twenty-five years ago, I visited the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to do research for what I hoped would be a mystery novel set among the Arapahos. The novel was at the vague-idea-floating-in-my-head stage, with no clear plot and no title. I stayed at St. Stephen’s Mission (which would become St. Francis Mission in my novels), where I ran into an Arapaho friend. We stood on the grounds chatting and catching up. It was a hot July day, and the wind whipped at our clothes and hair. When I told her I hoped to write a novel set on the rez, I was surprised at the way she opened up and started telling me things about Arapaho culture and spiritual beliefs—closely guarded things Arapahos never tell outsiders.
Then she glanced up and stopped talking. I also looked up. Circling above us, not much higher than the rooftops, was a magnificent eagle. He was so close I could see his eyes and the sheen on his black feathers. My friend clutched her purse to her chest and started for her ancient brown sedan parked on the gravel road. (Circle Drive, in my novels.) “What is it?” I called, hurrying after her. “What happened?”
She turned toward me. “The eagle has come,” she said. “He’s upset that I’m talking to you and telling you these things.” With that, she hurled herself into the car and drove off.
I remember watching the brown car peel around the drive, gravel spitting beneath the tires, and feeling my dream of writing a novel set among the Arapahos crash around me. Word of the eagle coming would blow like the wind across the reservation. By tomorrow, everyone would know what had happened, and no Arapaho would talk to me. I knew I should pack up and go home.
St. Stephen's Mission on the Wind River Reservation. A religious and social center for the Arapahos since 1884.
Instead, I spent the night in the guest house (Father John would often put people up in the guest house.) The next morning, with my car packed, the brown sedan came bouncing around the drive. It pulled up next to me and my friend jumped out. She had an armload of gifts—beaded earrings and necklaces, a small beaded bag, and a copy of the Arapaho-English dictionary that I had been trying, without success, to locate.
She gave me the gifts and told me she had been so upset when the eagle came that she had driven straight to her grandfather’s house. She told him what had happened, and he told her that whenever the eagle comes, it is a blessing. “The eagle blessed your words,” he said. “It is okay for you to talk to that white woman.”
Through the years, my friend continued to talk to me about the Arapaho Way, as did so many other friends on the reservation. The fact that the eagle had come that hot, windy day made it possible for me to write twenty novels in the Wind River series. It also gave me the idea for the plot of the first novel, and it gave me the title: The Eagle Catcher.
To this day, every time I see an eagle circling overhead, I know that I am being blessed, and I am grateful.
Margaret Coel is the award-winning author of the Wind River series of mystery novels set among the Arapahos on the Wind River Reservation. Winter’s Child, the 20th novel in the series, was published in September 2016. In addition, she is the author of two novels set in Denver. She is a six-time winner of the Colorado Book Award and the recipient of the Colorado Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award, the Emeritus Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Work from the High Plains Book Awards, and the Frank Waters Award for Exemplary Writing and Literary Success. She was inducted into the Colorado Authors Hall of Fame in 2019. Her novels have appeared on numerous bestseller lists, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Denver Post. Margaret is also the author of Watching Eagles Soar, an anthology of short stories. Her non-fiction articles have been published in the New York Times, American Heritage and many other publications. She is also the author of five non-fiction books, including the national award-winning biography of an Arapaho chief, Chief Left Hand, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.