Samantha Specks brings Minnesota history to life through her first novel, Dovetails in Tall Grass. Published in August 2021, the historical fiction book is a tale of two women, one Dakota Sioux and one settler, during the U.S. Dakota War. The women are connected by the fate of one man.
The inspiration behind the book stems from an experience Specks had while she was a student at Mound Westonka High School. In the car with her family on the way to visit her grandparents one Christmas Eve, the headlights illuminated a group of men on horseback in the midst of the bleak winter. Confused and intrigued as to why these men were voluntarily out in the cold, she soon learned that they were riding for a purpose.
Commemorating the displacement of thousands of indigenous people and the 38 Dakota natives, who were publicly executed in Mankato, Minn., on December 26, 1862, this annual reconciliation ride consists of over 300 miles of travel from the Sioux Tribe reservation in Lower Brule, S.D., to Mankato. “Crossing paths with them and the people that once called this area home enlightened me to this history that I haven’t been able to forget,” Specks says.
As the largest mass execution in U.S. history, Specks says she was amazed that she never learned in-depth details about this time period while she attended school. “Because it happened in the shadow of the civil war, which rightfully gets a lot of attention, this part of history is often overlooked,” she says. “It is a messy time in history, and it is painful, but Native history deserves to be respected on its own and as its own sovereign nation and identity.”
With a desire to understand Minnesota’s complex past while also ensuring historical accuracy in her writing, Specks researched for six months before she started developing the plot of the novel. Reading every book on this time period that she could get her hands on, she also went to presentations from the Sioux community, attended week-long educational events commemorating the war in Southern Minnesota, collaborated with a research librarian in the Mdewakanton Sioux community and worked with historians at the Brown County Museum of History in New Ulm, Minn., for guidance with additional primary sources.
As she learned more, Specks says she frequently thought about the lack of a woman’s perspective in all accounts. “I just kept thinking what a [female] settler would have been feeling and what would a Dakota woman would have felt,” she says. “As I toggled between that in my own scope from the research, I just felt like these two women [Emma and Oenikika] came to life to me.”
Now working on her second book, Dovetails of a River, Specks, who lives in Texas but has a lake home in Wayzata, says this new novel takes place in 1876 in Montana during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand. “I hope to continue to make history compelling and follow women on their own important journeys,” she says.
With the war taking over the frontier, Emma’s family farmstead is attacked by Dakota Sioux warriors. Meanwhile, on the same prairie, Oenikika desperately tries to maintain her calling as a healer and follow the orders of her father, Chief Little Crow. Following the war and in the midst of vengeful war trials, both women are faced with decisions that will test their values and encourage them to fight for the truth of their convictions.