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The 1862 mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota nightly haunts Mary Todd Lincoln, institutionalized and alone with her ghosts.

May 1875: Mary Todd Lincoln is addicted to opiates and tried in a Chicago court on charges of insanity. Entered into evidence is Ms. Lincoln’s claim that every night a Savage Indian enters her bedroom and slashes her face and scalp. She is swiftly committed to Bellevue Place Sanitarium. Her hauntings may be a reminder that in 1862, President Lincoln ordered the hanging of thirty-eight Dakotas in the largest mass execution in United States history. No one has ever linked the two events—until now. Savage Conversations is a daring account of a former first lady and the ghosts that tormented her for the contradictions and crimes on which this nation is founded.

About the Author

LeAnne Howe (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) is a poet, fiction writer, playwright, and filmmaker. Her most recent book, Choctalking on Other Realities,won the inaugural 2014 MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. She is the Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature in English at the University of Georgia, Athens.


“Howe’s drama taps emotional undercurrents that course imperceptibly through conventional historical narratives.” —Publishers Weekly

“This lucid collection ingeniously examines the deep and sordid layers of complicity.” —Star Tribune

“I left the story with a deep sense of gratitude for Howe’s dedication to complexity and nuance.” —The Paris Review Daily

“A play/poem/novel/historical nightmare, Howe mixes disparate textual, visual, and genre techniques to create something absolutely singular and haunting.” —Literary Hub

“While history reframed President Lincoln’s legacy as one of benevolent glory, Howe refocuses on a national inheritance that is contradictory and even criminal. Perhaps the real ghosts here are in Howe’s portrayals of presidential power, the treatment of marginalized bodies, the erasure of shameful stories in favor of those that glorifya man and a nation; historical relics and monuments and walls, sanity and control—these are still what haunt us.” —Poetry Foundation

Savage Conversationsradically ups the ante in characterizing Mary Todd Lincoln, imbuing her with malice and poetry.” —Foreword Reviews

“In May of 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln is confined to an insane asylum. There, she is haunted by a ‘Savage Indian’ who scalps her nightly and sews her eyes open. In Howe’s telling, the specter haunting the widowed First Lady is one of the thirty eight Dakota men, hanged in 1862 by her husband in the largest mass execution in American history. In reading this, I was blown away. Unmoored. Sent spiraling adrift on gusts of wind.” —Rachel S, Harvard Book Store

“Part fever dream, part extended meditation on madness, Howe’s Savage Conversations is a bracing commentary on the nature of guilt and grief.” —Historical Novel Society

Savage Conversationstakes place somewhere in between its sources, between sanity and madness, between then and now, between the living and the dead. It pushes past the limitations of textual sources for telling indigenous history and accounts of insanity.” —Barrelhouse Reviews

“An eerie mash-up that ties President Lincoln’s mass 1862 execution of 38 Dakota warriors to the hallucinations of Mary Todd Lincoln.” —City Pulse

“LeAnne Howe’s words are to savor, contemplate, and horrify. Savage Conversationsexplodes with the stench of guilt and insanity that undergirds the American story, whispered through a personal, familial, national, and supernatural drama revelatory in every sense. Howe’s uncanny images will long haunt readers, just as the Dakota 38 linger in land and memory, both offering a testament to the violent entanglements of past and present.” —Philip J. Deloria

“LeAnne Howe’s play Savage Conversationsactivates this space in history. She fills the wide-open gaps with a narrative of ‘what could have been,’ makes the absences present in very intimate ways.” —Full Stop

Savage Conversationsinvokes our own racial conflict and probes America’s psyche, its struggle to reconcile its colonialist values, indeed its white supremacy, with its multi-ethnic cultures and populations. . . . Through the masterly dramatic management of Mrs. Lincoln’s disturbing and chilling obsessions, Howe shows that there is no escape from the yesterday’s paradigms of power without a true reckoning with the injustices that set the stage for our troubled social landscape.” —On the Seawall

“Howe’s book powerfully contributes to our understanding and re-thinking of a moment in time that we are still grappling with today. In the wake of recent movements to remove Confederate monuments as we work to present the truths of history, Howe’s book directs our attention to a violent event that has not been adequately acknowledged. Through experimental form, Howe refracts a moment of history that readers simply cannot forget, that they will inevitably carry with them long after reading the last page.” —The Carolina Quarterly

“This is a haunted poem. Howe gives us voices intimate, twisted, and deluded—and yet relentlessly exact. Inside this drama in verse, a seething history uncoils. But do we meet a mad woman’s fantasy or someone more real?” —Heid Erdrich

Praise for LeAnne Howe

“Let her lead you into history, intrigue, comedy and comic insight, even mystery, yes, as she impels you and other readers toward decolonization with attitude! A very fine and fulfilling read.” —Simon J. Ortiz

“How does she do it? Cross Rocky Horror Picture Showwith War and Peacein a voice that sings America’s song as deeply as the best musical poetry of Walt Whitman? But no, Howe’s voice is so utterly unique, comparisons can’t do her justice.” —Susan Power

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LeAnne listens to Cherokee Elder Walter Calhoun in a scene from “Spiral of Fire”

Jessica Nicastro • April 28, 2008
Wraps up Rochester Native American Film Festival

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – St. John Fisher College’s final contribution to the 2008 Rochester Native American Film Festival on April 6 was an emotional one, prompting tears from guest speaker LeAnne Howe.

Howe was on hand to present ”Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire,” and speak about its creation following the screening. ”Spiral of Fire” is a documentary that showcases her journey to get in touch with her Cherokee roots.

The 2006 documentary primarily focused on Howe’s individual journey. But the deeply personal film touched on many issues that Natives face as well. The film touched on topics such as commercializing Native culture, feeling like second-class citizens compared to non-Natives, and dealing with the diabetes epidemic.

But before any of these issues were highlighted, the audience got an in-depth look at Howe’s life. Howe, the interim director for the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois, was raised Choctaw but also has Cherokee roots. Howe’s father, whom abandoned her mother before Howe’s birth, is Cherokee.

LeAnne Howe writes in a scene from “Spiral of Fire”

The documentary follows the Oklahoma native’s journey to Cherokee, N.C., to learn about the father she never knew by discovering his – and also her own – heritage.

”Native stories have power,” Howe says in the opening sequences of the film. ”They burn through our lives like a sacred spiral of fire.”

”Spiral” continuously incorporates spirals into the film. The film’s opening showcases Howe driving through a spiraling mountainous road. The intricate editing also highlights how her individual journey and the Cherokee culture’s quest for preservation swirl together into a metaphorical spiral of long-sought self-acceptance. ”Spiral” often shows Howe looking into the camera telling a personal story and then jumps from her first-person narrative into her conversations and experiences with the Cherokee.

Her first Cherokee experiences were clearly not what she expected.

”I am not prepared for the tourist spectacle I find,” Howe said. The camera shows quick shots of the stereotypical souvenirs such as dream catchers, as Howe rattles off the name of each souvenir in amazement.

LeAnne Howe interviews “The Chief” in a scene from “Spiral of Fire”

Howe incredulously asked Henry Lambert, who dresses up in an elaborate costume to become ”Chief Harry” and charges $5 to get a picture taken with him, about the commercialization of this Cherokee town.

”Who is to criticize anyone on how to make money?” he said matter-of-factly.

It wasn’t mentioned in the documentary, but Howe said Lambert told her he put his children through college with that job.

Making life better for Cherokee children was an important theme of the film.

The Cherokee youth’s struggles to both preserve and heal from a treasured but painful past were highlighted through a traditional non-Native sport – football.

The audience of approximately 50 people cheered along with the students on screen as the Natives won their first victory against a rival non-Native school in two decades, but Howe’s narration raised an interesting point.

”Can a football victory erase years of feeling second class?” she asked.

Sports may not be the answer, but cultural preservation may be the way to instill a permanent sense of pride.

”As soon as you say ‘I’m Cherokee,’ I’m going to expect something out of you – knowledge,” Bo Taylor said to Howe.

Howe spent her trip trying to obtain that knowledge, but admits one major accomplishment still eludes her – learning the language.

”Cherokee language defines who we are,” said Laura Pinnix, on camera. ”If we lose the language, we will not be Cherokee.”

But language is not the only thing being lost. Diabetes is claiming the lives of countless Cherokees.

”What is it that makes us not want to do what we need to do for our health?” asked Patty Grant, commenting on the fact that it is difficult to get Cherokees to acknowledge the severity of the diabetes problem.

It is a severe problem indeed. That subject is what prompted tears from Howe following the screening.

”This breaks me up,” she said, explaining that many of the people shown in the film have since passed away. Howe called it the ”most important, poignant story” because it affects Indian country in ”profound ways.”

But in the film’s conclusion she makes a solemn vow: ”I will speak of the things I have learned on this journey.”

And so she has.


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Dancer Jorge Luis Morejón, actor Monique Mojica and writer LeAnne Howe started thinking about creating “Side Show Freaks” in 2008.

November, 2016, Brown University – Three artists will present “Side Show Freaks and Circus Injuns,” a play centered on indigenous people, Friday at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Described by LeAnne Howe, one of the artists, as a “decolonizing process,” the piece seeks to resist Western modes of thought and performance.

“We challenged ourselves to put indigenous knowledge, indigenous ways of knowing (and) indigenous structures in the center of our practice,” said Monique Mojica, an artist-in-residence at Brown for the month of November and one of the collaborators on the piece. “Simultaneous to creating an organic piece of theater, simultaneous to working collaboratively, we are also dismantling and unlearning structures that come from Eurocentric performance.”

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