‘This is not a book written by someone who is afraid of anything’
Ruth Beebe Hill, 66, is a long-winded housewife, Mayflower descendant, political Tory and staunch member of the DAR. Chunksa Yuha, 74, is a soft-spoken, full-blooded Dakotah Sioux who was reared in the tribal ways by his grandfather. Together, this odd literary couple has produced the surprise best-seller of the season—Hanta Yo, a Roots-like saga of two Indian families who roamed the plains from 1794 to 1835. The book shot onto the New York Times best-seller list three weeks after it was published last February. Roots producer David Wolper paid six figures for movie and TV rights, and the paperback went to Warner for $200,000.
“I wanted to write about the American Indian,” says Hill, “because I am a devout patriot and if you live in America it’s nice to know where you came from.” Unlike Alex Haley’s book, Hanta Yo is fiction based on Hill’s 30 years of painstaking research. The title comes from the Dakotah language and means “clear the way.” “This is not a book written by someone who is afraid of anything,” Hill says. She traveled 90,000 miles gathering information, spending three years in the UCLA library and summers dragging her husband, Buzzy, a biochemist, around Crow, Allegheny and Cherokee reservations. Hill had problems that few interviewers encounter. “You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Hey, tell me about your grandfather,’ ” she explains. “Indians consider questions a vulgarity.” They also frown on taking notes, so she relied on her “superb memory” and wrote it down later. Obsessed with detail, she trekked to within 50 feet of menacing grizzlies in Alaska, observed grazing buffalo in Montana, joined the Boy Scouts on nature rambles, learned to identify beavers by their scent and read moccasin prints—all of which she used in her writing to convey the “Indian experience.”
By 1963, having battered three typewriters to ruins, she had a 2,000-page manuscript and a new problem. “I knew I had to learn the language,” Hill says, “to make it complete.” Through a mutual friend, she was introduced to Chunksa Yuha, a university-educated musician living in San Diego. When he visited her at home, she opened the door and barked, “What’s the Indian word for ‘Hail’?” Not until he replied “Wasu” (“seeds of snow”) did she let him in. Yuha has lived with the Hills ever since. The publisher’s contract, however, assigns all royalties from the book to Ruth.
The unlikely collaborators worked 18-hour days for the next 15 years; it took Ruth eight to learn Yuha’s archaic Sioux dialect. They translated the draft first into his native language, then back into English, phrase by phrase, with the aid of an 1806 Webster’s dictionary. As a result, Hanta Yo is written in highly readable, rhythmic prose with the English vocabulary and the Indian idiom of the period. “Chunksa is the soul of it,” Ruth Hill beams, but their collaboration was not always harmonious. “There-were days when I would look at him and say, ‘You are the dumbest person I know,’ ” she laughs, “and he would say, ‘No, there’s one person dumber: YOU.’ Then we’d bring out the Yahtzee dice and play a game to cool off.”
Hill traces her fascination with Indians to her childhood in Cleveland Heights when her father, an engineer, took her to an Allegheny reservation at the age of nine. (“I kept wondering what it was like here before the white man.”) She studied geology at Western Reserve and the University of Colorado, where she met and married Borroughs Reid Hill. For 20 years they rented the San Fernando Valley house of her friend Ayn Rand, the ultra-conservative author, while he did cancer research at the City of Hope Medical Center. Their son, Reid, 43, a government worker, lives in Virginia. “I told Buzzy when we married that I wanted a boy and a book,” she says. “I think you can will what you want.”
For the past eight years the Hills and Yuha have lived near Friday Harbor on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington. They work and sleep in separate cedar cabins and dine together in a fourth.
Having crisscrossed the nation to promote Hanta Yo, Ruth now has more leisure for her favorite pastimes: entertaining, taking hikes and watching the sun set into the Pacific. She is a woman at peace with herself. “My life has been one marvelous adventure after another,” she observes. “I’m so happy to have been born.”