This historical novel set in 1807 in the western Great Plains, the Southwest and northern Mexico is based on an 1805 map created by Juan Pedro Walker. The story involves Cheyenne, Kiowa, Gataka, and other tribes from the American Southwest tribes and northern Mexico. The main characters are the Cheyenne Stone and his twin brother, Whirlwind. Whirlwind has gone on a raid in northern Mexico with some others to steal horses. The raid ends in the death of one member of the group, Magpie, and Whirlwind is captured and made a slave to the owner of a traveling circus, performing as a knife thrower.
Whirlwind’s wife is a Kiowa woman, and she comes to inform Stone of Whirlwind’s capture. Stone gathers some members of his soldier society he heads, the Kit Fox, and set off for Mexico. They stop at Whirlwind’s wife’s tribe’s camp where Whirlwind lived; her brothers and others join in the journey to rescue Whirlwind and revenge Magpie. Stone needs a person who can speak Cheyenne or Kiowa and Spanish, so they buy another Indian woman who is a slave in a New Mexico town. The group now includes Stone, his wife, the wife of his twin and their daughter, and his wife’s Kiowa brothers, Cheyenne relatives and friends, and this New Mexico Indian and her son. There is also a red-haired wolf-dog that is the pet of Stone’s niece. This large group from various tribes heads south to Mexico to rescue Whirlwind.
The group looks all over northern Mexico to find Whirlwind and discover that he is a prisoner of this circus. They begin looking for the circus, at the same time hiding and being secretive. Stone, his wife and the New Mexico Indian dress up as Mexican Indians or peasants and ask around about the whereabouts of the circus. It is almost like they are chasing after a phantom; they hear it has been in one town or another, then learn they have missed it by just a few days. They continue looking, trying not to be noticed, stealing or buying food and horses from ranches and towns. They also run into banditos and others, some of whom they have to kill to keep their existence a secret. They even resort to traveling at night and hiding during the day. This annoys Stone’s warrior followers, but they stick it out. Then, when they catch up to the circus and Whirlwind, he surprises them.
The red butterflies, Monarchs, appear in the story at least twice as they are migrating south, a symbol of the group and a good luck sign (a Monarch is featured on the book jacket flying over a desert), as are other animals the group comes across on their journey. The red haired wolfhound appears in the story many times, and his antics are entertaining - he serves as an alarm clock in the mornings and is protective of Stone’s niece, forewarning the group of enemies. Two maps based on Walker’s map are supplied in the body of the story, and there is a three-and-a-half-page bibliography.
Trail of the Red Butterfly is a delight to read, its story based on what life was like in the Southwest and northern Mexico as Native Americans came into contact with the Spanish. Schlesier shows what it probably was like for Indians from the Great Plains to discover cities, churches, various peoples, and languages. This book is highly recommended to those interested in life in early 1800’s southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico from the perspective of Native Americans. Those interested in a Native American story will love this one, too.
Karl H. Schlesier taught anthropology at Wichita State University and at the University of Kansas. He served as an expert witness for the Cheyenne tribe in two federal court cases. He is the author of Josanie’s War (1998), Plains Indians, A.D. 500-1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups (1995), The Wolves of Heaven (1993), and other books and articles.