The story I mean to relate is for tomorrow. This is another story. This one needs to be told first, as Joe Starita tells it first, for context, in his I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice. Standing Bear’s story is of the Ponca tribe. This story is of the Cheyenne. A well-known film was made of it, John Ford’s last Western, Cheyenne Autumn, in 1964, based on the little-known book by Mari Sandoz. (I posted a clip a while back.) One could argue that Ford’s previous Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, had brought the curtain down on the era of the classic Western.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard famously concludes the film.
Cheyenne Autumn, Ford said, was his elegy to Native Americans. He might have called it an elegy for the truth, which was transformed into legend before it ever could be known. Some people thought Ford made the film, told the story, as recompense for the fictitious West he had retailed on film for thirty years. Afterwards, there were a several years more of Western entertainments, the dying fall of John Wayne’s career, then the post-modern Mcabe and Mrs. Miller and revisionist Little Big Man – and Sam Peckinpah, not much concerned with Native America – then not much for many years, then from time to time another revisionist tale, like Dances with Wolves, or a neo-classic Western like Lonesome Dove or Open Range, not much concerned with the American Indian story either.
But Cheyenne Autumn was a marker, told nonetheless, in Hollywood style circa that period. The leading Indians, for one, were, of course, not American Indians. Ford’s most expensive film, it was not a financial success.
Starita, a former Miami Herald bureau chief in New York City, long now a Professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, but most of all a writer, tells the real story, meticulously researched, accurately recounted. It is the story of an ending, and it begins in “Indian Territory,” Oklahoma, to where the Cheyenne, like so many other tribes from various regions of the country, had been “removed” from their homeland in Montana. Like every other tribe from somewhere else, the Cheyenne did not wish to be there and suffered from the separation from their native land. Here is Starita to tell the rest. There is no more tragic story in all the history of North American conquest.
The previous fall, three-hundred Northern Cheyenne under Dull Knife and Little Wolf had walked off their reservation in the Indian Territory, heading for their Montana homeland. In mid-October, cold, hungry, and exhausted in the Nebraska Sandhills, the two chiefs made a decision: The younger, healthier ones would stay with Little Wolf and continue on. The old and the sick, and most of the women and children, would go with Dull Knife and seek refuge with Red Cloud and the Lakota. Dull Knife’s group was captured about a week later and marched to Fort Robinson, where they eventually were told a decision had been made.
Each year, General Crook had found the decisions more and more complex, his orders more and more difficult. He told his superiors the latest ones would not be easy to carry out. He didn’t know if his men had the heart for it. The Northern Cheyenne, he wrote, “repeated their expressions of desire to live at peace with our people, but said they would kill themselves sooner than be taken back to the Indian Territory. These statements were confirmed by Red Cloud and other friendly Sioux chiefs, who assured us that the Cheyennes had left their Reservation in Indian Territory to avoid fever and starvation and that they would die to the last man, woman, and child before they could be taken from the quarters in which they were confined.” But the orders remained firm, so in late December, Crook tried again. “At this time, the thermometer at Fort Robinson showed a range of from zero down to forty below … The captives were without adequate clothing, and no provisions had been made to supply it …” Still, the orders stayed the same. On Christmas Eve 1878, Crook telegraphed his superior, Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan: “It would be inhuman to move them as ordered.” Sheridan replied he would forward the concerns of food and clothing to Washington. But the orders stood. The Indians were to be moved south soon as possible.
On January 3, when the post commander told Dull Knife that he and his people were to be marched back to the Territory, the chief stood and faced the soldiers. “I am here on my own ground,” he told them, “and I will never go back. You may kill me here, but you cannot make me go back.” That afternoon, the 149 Northern Cheyenne barricaded themselves in their barracks. On the evening of January 9, after five days without food and heating fuel, three days without water, they broke out, fleeing for the protective bluffs of the White River, the soldiers in pursuit. When it ended, sixty-four Indian men, women, and children were dead. “Among these Cheyenne Indians,” Crook later wrote, “were some of the bravest and most efficient of the auxiliaries who had acted under General Mackenzie and myself … and I still preserve a grateful remembrance of their distinguished services which the Government seems to have forgotten.”
Starita, Joe (2010-01-05). “I Am a Man”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice (pp. 107-108). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
- Thomas Jefferson, Architect of Deception (sadredearth.com)
- Ethnic Cleansing in the United States, Historic & Contemporary (sadredearth.com)
- Sioux, Cheyenne celebrate new historic landmark (billingsgazette.com)
- Nonprofit helps Native students with college dreams (billingsgazette.com)