Upcoming graphic novel strives to tell both sides of Spirit Lake Massacre

Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Photo by Seth Boyes

When tensions between midwestern settlers and native tribes rose in the winter of 1857, it culminated in one of northwest Iowa's darkest stories the Spirit Lake Massacre. Artist Gary Kelley of Cedar Falls decided about a decade ago to shine a light on the dark spots of both sides involved in the historic tragedy, and he chose to do it through a soon to be published graphic novel. Kelley both wrote and illustrated the story.

His new work, titled "Moon of the Snow Blind," is scheduled to be released March 8 to coincide with the anniversary of the massacre.

Kelley, who grew up in Algona, said he was like many in northwest Iowa. He grew up hearing the story of Abbie Gardner and the Spirit Lake Massacre. He said his uncle, whom he credited with teaching him to draw at an early age, had many a book on art and history, including Gardner's autobiography. Kelley said comic books also drew his attention, on occasion, as a youngster, when he would pay about 10 cents for the paperback pages 15 cents for issues of "Classics Illustrated."

Kelley said the idea of the 15-cent comic retelling classic literature and historical events through pictures was fascinating to him.

"They would tell the story they didn't tell them the way we do now but they would tell the story in panel pictures," Kelley said. "So this is not new. It's not a new thing as far as telling history this way."

Kelley earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Northern Iowa. He said the school didn't offer an illustration major at that time, but his work soon swung in that direction. Since then, he has created artwork for well-known publications and businesses, ranging from illustrations for the New Yorker to murals for Barnes & Noble and even postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. He estimated he has illustrated about 30 picture books over the years, but "Moon of the Snow Blind" is his first foray into the realm of sequential storytelling at least the first fruitful attempt, he said.

Kelley said he's always had a passion for Native American history, and he could hardly think of a better story for his first graphic novel than the Spirit Lake Massacre.

"I love the challenge of designing the panel," Kelley said. "And when I write the words, that's what inspires the design a lot of times."

Kelley said he often worked out segments of text on a notepad before sketching a given page. The sketches then served as a guide underneath his preferred drawing paper, where he makes corrections and improvements. The final illustrations were drawn using ink pens, and Kelley often chose to use open, atmospheric panels to set the pace and scenery of the story. As an example, Kelley highlighted an eight-panel composition of the Gardner family praying before their meal, which is immediately followed by a two-page spread of a back-lit native standing in their doorway.

"I want to tell the story accurately, but then I want to find parts of it that I can imagine an interesting point of view visually or an interesting part of the culture," Kelley said, adding he might never have finished the book if he wasn't invested in telling both sides of the story.

Few Lakes Area residents are unaware of the local tragedy turned tourist destination. It was an especially harsh winter in 1857 when a band of Wahpekuti led by Inkpaduta killed nearly every settler in the handful of cabins that dotted the lakes at that time. Four young women were taken captive during the violence, including 13-year-old Abbie Gardner.

Ultimately, only Gardner and Margaret Marble would survive. Gardner would eventually purchase a portion of her family's pioneer plot in 1891 and open a museum on the site.

In preparation for his work, Kelley set about researching aspects of life from the 1850s things like clothing, culture and even how breeds of cows looked at that time and he was able at one point in the story to use Gardner's father Roland as a way to inject some broader historical context for the reader. But, rather than immediately focus on the Gardners, the first character depicted in "Moon of the Snow Blind" is actually Inkpaduta himself hauling the frozen corpses of his brother Sidomindota and his family to a settlement after they were murdered north of Humbolt by a man named Henry Lott.

Decades later, the Spirit Lake Beacon would print statements from Lott's brother-in-law, Franklin McGuire, who called Lott "the direct cause of the Spirit Lake Massacre."

History says Lott escaped his indictment, and some accounts say Sidomindota's head was displayed on a pole in the settlement. During his research, Kelley learned about another incident in Smithland, southeast of Sioux City. There, just a month before the Spirit Lake Massacre, settlers had forced natives out during the harsh winter and required them to leave behind their guns, leaving the natives with no means to hunt for food.

"I wanted that story to have its own chapter in my book because that, the way I read it when I got into it, was what really pushed Inkpaduta over the edge," Kelley said.

But Kelley said it was also necessary to depict the Wahpekuti's darker side with equal measure.

Creating the panels depicting the infamous massacre was a difficult prospect, he said. The use of shadow and light to convey the tension provides a stark contrast to an earlier scene of the family gathered around a campfire. Only a few of the actual deaths are illustrated outright. The others are simply understood. As the chaos of the scene comes to an end, the illustrations shift to symbolic elements rather than strict reality a broken doll, a somewhat abstract line drawing of a body in the snow. The author and illustrator personally felt one of the darkest points of the book was several sections ahead in the death of Lydia Noble, who was beaten to death with a piece of firewood while she and Gardner were held captive.

By some accounts, Noble had refused the advances of Inkpaduta's son.

"That's part of the story, and I didn't want to ignore that because, like I said, there's two sides to every story, and to show that to figure out a way to do that I didn't like that part of the story, especially because I wanted to be fair to the Indians, but it's there," Kelley said. "It's part of the story, and it was hard to do."

The book's final few pages serve as a sort of epilogue to the local tragedy as they retell Gardner's life after her ransom as well as the common presumption of Inkpaduta's whereabouts in the years after the massacre. The book's final illustration a cedar tree Kelley sketched along the shore opposite the Gardner cabin and modern day amusement park helps ground the story in some ways, he said. The tree is estimated to be older than any settlement in the state, he said, and made for a towering piece of perspective on the Lakes Area and one of its most enduring events.

"That kind of stuff all adds to the story for me," Kelley said.

"Moon of the Snow Blind" is published by Ice Cube Press. The company is currently in the process of arranging local sales. The graphic novel can also be purchased on Amazon.

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