Philip Burnham is an assistant professor of composition at George Mason University and a former reporter for Indian Country Today. He is the author of So Far from Dixie: Confederates in Yankee Prisons and Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks. His latest book, Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn (October 2014) is the biography of Dewey Beard, a Minneconjou Lakota who witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn, survived Wounded Knee, traveled with William Cody, experienced the continued exploitation of the government during World War II, and felt the effects of Black Hills tourism and Hollywood Indians.
Dewey Beard: Bigger Than Fiction
It took me almost ten years to write my book about Dewey Beard. That’s longer than I’ve ever taken to write a book. But I had a hidden advantage when I started: without a contract or a deadline, I was free to work at my own pace. That allowed me to visit Pine Ridge Reservation year after year, a good way to nurture relationships with the people who knew Dewey Beard and still remembered him.
Many of those people became my friends. Some of them were getting almost as old during the last years of the project as Beard himself lived to be, well into his 90s. Three of them have passed on during the last year, which means not everybody lived to see the book I worked on for so long.
As I researched Beard’s life, I talked with people about it. When I would start describing the project, a lot of them would say the same thing: “Hey, this sounds like Little Big Man,” the famous Western film made in 1970. The Arthur Penn movie was based on the Thomas Berger novel that was published to acclaim in the 1960s. Great book, great movie. And, at first the comparison made sense to me.
The movie tells the adventures of a spry, old geezer, over 100 years old, who recounts for a reporter a life spent in the wild and woolly West. He recalls a time in which he knew everyone from General Custer to Wild Bill Hickok, survived massacre by the US Army, lived among the Cheyenne Indians, and saw his life upended so many times that it would have made many a lesser mortal curl up and die.
I loved the movie, but I knew there was something wrong with the comparison. Placing Dewey Beard next to the adopted Cheyenne warrior played by Dustin Hoffman left something important out of the story I was telling.
For starters, Dewey Beard (a.k.a. Iron Hail, Wasu Maza) was Native American, not white. The Little Big Man character is one in a long line of American stories in which a white guy is forced by circumstance to live with a native tribe–and ends up becoming a hero. Think James Fenimore Cooper. Or, A Man Called Horse. Or, Dances With Wolves. Or even, if you want to see the global reach of that legend, Lawrence of Arabia. The white guy rides into the wilderness, dons a flowing robe or buckskin shirt, and rescues the tribe in need of a fearless leader.
More important, Beard’s story wasn’t a piece of fiction. He was a real man–a real husband, father, son, and brother. He fought at the Little Bighorn. He was shot and maimed at Wounded Knee. He rode with Buffalo Bill. He acted with Hollywood stars like Robert Taylor. He visited Washington, DC, as a diplomat and lobbyist. He saw nine of his children die before him. And as a lame and wrinkled elder he defied the US Department of Defense when it confiscated his land in the interests of national security.
Here was the thing that got me started on my book: he never wrote any of it down. Beard didn’t learn how to read and write. He never even told anyone his whole story, so far as I can tell. Maybe he just never found the right person to listen. I wonder if they would have believed him if he had.
Dewey Beard didn’t step out of a movie or a novel. He lived a real and epic Lakota life.
And the facts are more compelling than anything I could have made up.