“You know how much money came out of the Butte copper mines?” Shann Ray Ferch asked. “It’s 300 billion dollars! I can’t even imagine it because it’s so much.”
Such is the background of Ferch’s much heralded first work of historical fiction, “American Copper,” released this month. The Montana native, who writes under the pen name Shann Ray, launched his book at a release party last week in Spokane with Sherman Alexie as the keynote speaker.
The book is set in Butte, heralded as “The Richest Hill on Earth,” in the early years of the 20th century, against a backdrop of powerful greed and corruption. It tells the story of Evelynne Lowry, the daughter of a copper baron, and her relationship with two men, a rough-and-tumble steer wrestler from the Hi-Line named Zion and a Cheyenne team roper named William Black Kettle.
Ferch’s 2011 collection of short stories, “American Masculine,” won two High Plains Book Awards and an American Book Award as well. His collection of poems, “Balefire,” won the 2015 High Plains Book Award for poetry.
In a telephone interview, Ferch talked about how Butte, with its huge supplies of the copper used in electrical wiring, played a key role in the electrification of the United States and made millionaires in Montana. Along with such riches came monumental egos, greed and corruption in an era of unfettered, unregulated capitalism.
For Ferch, the inclusion of the Cheyenne character Black Kettle into his narrative was essential. Although he was born in Billings, Ferch spent much of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Busby, where his father taught.
In the book, Black Kettle is a descendant of the Chief Black Kettle, whose tribe was attacked at the infamous Sand Creek massacre in 1864 even though they were flying an American flag of truce in their village. The book describes the atrocity as part of the narrative that would forever taint trust between the nations.
Remarkably, even after the massacre, “Peace Chief” Black Kettle would still advocate for peace between whites and Natives. Just four years after Sand Creek, Black Kettle was killed when his village was attacked by the U.S. Cavalry under the command of George Armstrong Custer, in what became known as the Washita River massacre.
Turning to his own life, Ferch said he was terrified at first of living in Busby as part of a white minority, in addition to being physically small. But he and his family were readily accepted into the Northern Cheyenne tribe, he said. Love of basketball became a bond of friendship. Ferch later helped lead Park High School (Livingston) to two State A championships, in 1983 and ’85, on teams coached by his father. He went on to excel at Montana State University before playing professionally in Germany.
Another bond was the love of humor. Ferch appreciated the constant good-natured teasing and bantering so common among the Cheyenne.
“Based on my experience, the Cheyenne people are really happy to be close to you,” he said. “Sometimes in dominant white culture—and no culture is perfect—people have so many barriers on their emotions. Whereas in the Cheyenne culture, people openly love you and not care.”
Overcoming his fear of being an outsider in an unknown society made Ferch a stronger person, and he’d eventually liken his tribal peers to brothers who showed him unconditional love. The character William Black Kettle is partially based on a real-life friend of his.
Although Ferch’s personal relations with Montana Native Americans are good, he said things like the Sand Creek massacre and the blatant racial disparities described in his novel have never been fully understood by the general public.
Without acknowledging the past, he said, the future will always be tainted. Ferch noted that since European colonial contact with the Americas, estimates of the death toll among indigenous peoples range from a low of 20 million to a high of 90 million.
Ferch currently teaches in the Doctoral Program in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane. His Gonzaga biography says his “emphasis is on the nature of forgiveness and how servant-leadership honors personal and collective responsibility, and self-transcendence across the disciplines.”
Throughout “American Copper,” Ferch said, exploring ways to bridge the differences between white and Native cultures and characters is part of an underlying theme.
“It kind of shows the light and dark differences of three cultures between three different families,” he said. “You have the Cheyenne family, the white, privileged, powerful family, and a white, tough, poor white trash family.”
In the shadow of those families, attempts are made to understand one another. “Most of the time they’re not succeeding,” Ferch said, “but in the end they kind of succeed a little.”
Speaking of developing his characters, Ferch said it’s hard enough for an author to write about himself with full understanding, but you’ve got to give it your best effort anyway in hopes of making the characters come alive.
In regard to the female character Evelynne Lowry, he said, “I try to envision her, to work with her, you know?”
A strong woman he kept in mind and admired was his own grandmother, as well as his wife, he said. In writing about Zion, he pictured some of his “jock” friends in rural Montanan, gentle giants who would die for you without question once they liked you.
Ferch warned that it’s a tough book at times, what with descriptions of the Sand Creek massacre and a lynching, as well as the general aura of prejudice and greed.
“It’s big-ego, white males, just dominating the landscape while creating riches for themselves while they overtly harmed others,” he said.
Despite the tough portrayal of the state’s early history, Ferch said he wrote the novel as a “love song to Montana, and to the people of Montana.”
Ferch said it is his hope that by acknowledging the often dark history of the land, reconciliation and light can emerge through the lens of literature.
“The hope of the book is to dig down into the cellar of history and honor the people who gave their lives,” he said. “Then we can figure out how to move into the right place from there. That’s the hope.”