Indian Country

Massacre of the Cheyenne


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.


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Indian Country

Thomas Jefferson, Architect of Deception


I head in a few days to Columbus, Nebraska for an NEH workshop on the Legacies and Landmarks of the Plains Native Americans. One of the books I’m reading in preparation is I Am a Man”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, by Joe Starita. Standing Bear was a Ponca Indian chief whose efforts to return his son for burial to Ponca territory in Nebraska, after the U.S. had forcefully removed the tribe to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, gave rise to the landmark US District Court case Standing Bear v. Crook (1879). In the court’s decision, for the first time,  American Indians were delcared to be “persons within the meaning of the law.” Starita’s prose is fine and evocative, and his story researched to a revelatory degree.

Because the Ponca were encountered by Lewis and Clark and their land included in the Louisiana Purchase, Starita offers foreshadowing background in the attitudes and policies of Thomas Jefferson. The whole Native American story is one of uncanny realities emerging frightfully out of the foreshadows. For instance, there is no American president rightfully more reviled in Native America than Andrew Jackson, for his brutal campaigns against the Southeastern tribes and as signer and enactor of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Starita tells us that Jackson was enacting a policy conceived before him, by a man once again revealed to be a complex of contradictions.

For much of his life, Jefferson’s views on the country’s native inhabitants had swung back and forth, vacillating between soft, sentimental stereotypes and a hard-edged pragmatism.

In Jefferson’s instructions to the leaders of the great expedition,

He had made it a point that Lewis and Clark, among their multitude of duties, were to return with linguistic records of each tribe they visited. And in his writings, Jefferson offered a more resolute defense of the nation’s native people than all but a few of his contemporaries.


[O]n June 20, 1803, his formal instructions to Captain Lewis conveyed many of the same sentiments. “In all your intercourse with the natives,” he wrote, “treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S…. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them … If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct, and take care of them.”

In his good will toward the Indian, Jefferson, even when insightful about earlier errors, still to be repeated, was a condescending patron from the civilized world.

In public remarks to his citizens, he had articulated those views clearly: “Now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter’s state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts, to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existences and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals.”

In writing, he laid out, step by step, how such a transformation might occur:

The plan of civilizing the Indians is undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries. Our experience has shown that this must be the last step of the process. The following is what has been successful: 1st to raise cattle, etc., and thereby acquire a knowledge of the value of property; 2d, arithmetic, to calculate that value; 3d, writing, to keep accounts, and here they begin to enclose farms, and the men labor, the women spin and weave; 4th to read Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe are their first delight.

Eventually, however, a sharp split developed between Jefferson’s public and private views on the matter. Within the private confines of the White House, where romantic push evolved into pragmatic shove, he came to see the native people as an entrenched impediment in civilization’s path—one that would have to be removed, ruthlessly if necessary, for Jeffersonian Democracy to prosper.

On February 27, 1803, two months before the Louisiana Purchase, more than a year before the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis, Jefferson wrote a long, detailed letter to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory….


“this letter being unofficial, and private, I may with safety give you a more extensive view of our policy respecting the Indians.”


Then, in specific detail, Jefferson went on to tell the governor how to purge the eastern United States, one by one, of every remaining Indian tribe. Once they’re lured onto a small piece of land “they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests,” and want to give them up in exchange for government assistance to sustain their farms and families. High-pressure trading posts near Indian encampments, he said, would create debt to help leverage their lands. The government will “be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” Gradually, Jefferson wrote, American settlements will squeeze natives out and they will “either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States or remove beyond the [Mississippi].” Resistance would be futile. “Should any tribe be fool-hardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe and driving them across the Missisipi [sic], as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.”

And this is precisely the manner over the next century by which the indigenous population of the Southeastern United States, the Ohio River Valley, and the Indian Territory was seduced, ensnared, corrupted, betrayed and made war upon by that civilized culture for which the reading of “Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe are their first delight,” having itself already achieved “that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals.”


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