As they crested a small butte, Renaldo could see another stream below, the ground fecund with growth and trees. Up here, they were at the edge of the tablelands, near where the land drove up sharply into the mountains of New Mexico. As they carefully picked their way down the side, the horses managing to avoid the scree and slippery portions with grace, Renaldo could see a solitary figure below. He looked to Hank to see what he made of this and made himself relax at the sight of the huge smile blooming on his companion’s face.
“Didn’t think he’d…” Hank cut himself off, shaking his head in what looked to be happy disbelief.
“Do you know him?” Renaldo asked.
“Very well,”Hank replied, his face splitting with a wide grin. He put his fingers to his mouth and gave three sharp whistles. The man in the distance replied with a high-pitched cry.
Meet Tsá-Cho, a.k.a. The Wrench in the Love Works. (Not what the name means.)
You simply can’t tell a story about Texas in the 19th Century without Native Americans (or N’Dee, Nde, or The People as they would refer to themselves) in the story. Unfortunately, Native Americans have often been cast as savages, as dutiful side-kicks, or as set dressing. The European immigrants almost destroyed them and the Nde are still feeling the devastating effects, part of which is the consistent “othering” and dehumanizing Hollywood continues with respect to these people. They’re either your spiritual guide–an object to help the white person “learn something about themselves”–or they’re illiterate, ignorant simpletons, all of which is grossly insulting. Their rich history, their massive contributions to the Americas, and their incredibly diverse and accepting cultures are often left by the wayside, or worse, aren’t even known by the general public.
The tribes I’ve been most familiar with are the Choctaw, Shivwits, Utes, Navajo and Hopi, so it was a pleasure to learn more about the Mescalero Apache when writing this. One of the best things about the Mescalero is that they honor women above all else. They’re most known for their Puberty Rites, when girls become women, celebrating them and all the women in the tribe for four days. (Four is a sacred number.)
Even more wonderful to discover was that the Mescalero are one of about 250+ Native American tribes (of 518 recognized in the entirety of North America: Canada, USA and Mexico) who believe in multiple genders. I’ve spoken about Two-Spirits before, which is the generally accepted term encompassing all Nde who do not identify as what we Westerners refer to as male or female. It was a daunting task to write about a character who was.
As they neared the stream, Renaldo could see the man more clearly–he was N’dee, but from which tribe Renaldo couldn’t say. The man was setting up a small camp as he and Hank rode near. He was shirtless, his flawless bronze skin on display, a slightly richer color of brown than Renaldo’s. He wore only soft-looking leather leggings topped with a breechclout. His hair was black as night, falling in an almost liquid sheen halfway down the length of his bronzed back with two thin, wrapped braids framing his face. He had a strong nose, full lips, high cheekbones and wide-set, amber eyes. There was a smudge of white on his forehead and the tip of his nose. He was utterly striking, and if Calandaría had been close by, she would have gasped and sighed over how handsome the man was.
Tsá-Cho is more than just a handsome man in the background, he’s an intricate part of Hank’s life and upbringing. He’s the first queer man Hank had ever encountered, and was a man who was revered by his people because he was queer. But sinceTsá-Cho doesn’t know Renaldo, he cannot trust him and cannot be his naturally warm self around Renaldo (and therefore, around us).
In writing Tsá-Cho, I wanted to present a character that we don’t often see in most media: a Native American who, yes, was a warrior, strong and fierce, but also queer. The Mescalero call it nádleehée — today that is (generally) called Two-Spirit, an acknowledgement of the intertwined nature of gender and sexuality.
He has a tenderness to him, one he shares with those to whom he is close. Unfortunately, since the book is in Renaldo’s POV (and they’re essentially rivals for Hank’s attention), we only get glimpses, stolen moments of what Hank and Tsá-Cho shared years before.
I have a short story coming that serves as a prequel to Bitter Springs, a better look into what it was to be these two young men, allowed to be themselves, to care for each other and still be respected in their tribe. I’m looking forward to sharing that, and hope it will give some of you a better liking of a character I adore. (I know, I know, he’s the wrench, so you can’t like him, ha ha ha!)
A Cree Two-Spirit (who also uses the label transgendered) named Jack Saddleback has a series of talks called “There are no closets in tipis” and serves as an ambassador for Two-Spirits in Canada. You can read more about him, here.
Research is my forever fallback, and I was fortunate to come across Bernard Second and Claire R. Farrer’s work. Bernard Second was a Two-Spirit Mescalero Apache who allowed Dr. Farrer to essential learn at his feet. She lived with the Mescalero for several years and once Bernard Second decided she would tell the correct story, allowed her to publish all she’d learned about what is called the “Mescalero Apache Cosmovision.” (Read: Living Life’s Circle) Her website was also a fountain of information. Old documents, photographs, and shared stories between tribes that have been lovingly transcribed by current generations wishing to hold onto and preserve their history were also crucial to me in my attempt to create as honest a character as I could. Hopefully I’ve done that.
One of my favorite lines in the entire book is in reference to Tsá-Cho, and it makes me laugh every time. I’ll leave it to you readers to see if you can guess which one it is. 🙂