From the Desk of Denise Low

Throughout the month of November we will feature books and authors from our list to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Denise Low teaches in the School of Graduate Studies at Baker University. She is the author of the memoir The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (Bison Books, 2017) and co-author of Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Fort Robinson Breakout Survivors (Nebraska, 2020).

The year 2020 has been tumultuous globally, with the pandemic, war, and terrorism. The book Ramon Powers and I co-authored, Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Survivors of the Fort Robinson Breakout, shows how this is nothing new in human history. The book includes drawings of seven remarkable Northern Cheyenne men who survived the Fort Robinson massacre in 1879—Old Crow, Wild Hog, Porcupine, Strong Left Hand, Tangle Hair, Blacksmith, and Noisy Walker. Their recovery from personal and national trauma inspires me every time I think of it.

These seven were among the handful of fighting men left alive after their desperate attempt to escape imprisonment in Nebraska’s Fort Robinson with over a hundred men, women, and children. The army commander had withheld food, fuel for winter fires, and finally water. After their recapture, the warriors expected to be hung as war prisoners. Instead, they were sent to Dodge City in Kansas to face civil court trial for murder. This twist changed their fate.

The actual historic facts could spawn a dozen western movies. Bat Masterson was the sheriff at the time. He and his brother Jim escorted the prisoners from Fort Leavenworth to the western Kansas cattle town of Dodge. At some railroad stops, they prevented mobs from lynching the prisoners. When the Northern Cheyenne prisoners finally arrived at the county jail, some were wounded and all were distraught. The jailer was ordered not to give them forks, to prevent suicide. In the next days, Masterson addressed their medical needs, and all the wounded recovered. He provided adequate food for the starving men.

Gradually, they regained physical health. Masterson allowed them to bathe in the Arkansas River and to spend time outdoors, which must have improved their mental outlook. Sympathizers from Eastern newspapers sent reporters to hear their stories. Wild Hog was a gifted orator, and he gave interviews to newsmen in exchange for tobacco. Tobacco is important to Northern Cheyenne people’s religious practice, as part of their prayers, so this was a welcome gift. These interactions also allowed the desperate men to tell their stories, which can be an aspect of healing.

Spiritual recovery continued with creation of the ledger-art drawings that are reproduced in this new book. My co-author Powers discovered a remarkable account written by an Ohio doctor who visited the men in jail. He witnessed the making of one drawing, which is rare in the documentation of this genre. Wild Hog was pleased to meet this healer, perhaps because of his own recent need of a doctor. He and the other men sang and danced briefly, and then Wild Hog drew an image of a spiritually powerful woman. He presented it to the doctor as a gift with protective qualities. This drawing verifies Wild Hog’s artistic style. It also documents a religious context for the ledger art drawings the men created in Dodge City.

In the latter part of their imprisonment, the Northern Cheyenne men asserted their cultural identities. They recounted their experiences, they danced (some of the drawings depict these dances), and they prayed. They also practiced generosity. Wild Hog’s gift of a drawing to the doctor is one example. Another is when they gave one of the ledger-art booklets to the jail keeper, whose wife cooked for them. Another collection of the ledger-art drawings went to a court official. Gift giving is an important Cheyenne value; it also restores the giver’s equitable role in a social exchange. The men asserted their ability to influence their future.

The drawings themselves show opossums, skunks, elk, turkeys, and other fauna local to the Dodge City area. The Northern Cheyenne artists looked around them at the grasslands for subject matter, asserting connection to the land. Often, they drew images of mother animals with their offspring, especially buffalo and elk. There are no representations of the violence they had just survived, but instead focus on nurturing imagery—food sources and mother figures. They also drew images of their wives and courtship. Two rare images show a spiritual being that resembles a horned turtle, depicted on the cover of the book. This emphasizes the spiritual context of the ledgers. They were a form of prayer, in my opinion.

Native peoples have found survival strategies during the 500+ years since contact with Europeans. The ledger-art drawings are one example, and this book celebrates the ability of this Northern Cheyenne group to overcome crushing wartime experiences.

I grew up in the Kansas prairies, east of Dodge City but a similar habitat. One of my first motivations for working with this project was the chance to see a non-Eurocentric view of my home region. These drawings have helped me appreciate the environment, indeed, but also I have gained respect for the Northern Cheyenne men’s courage and wisdom. How persistent they were after experiencing great adversity and trauma. Eventually, a volunteer lawyer helped them win their court case, and they were released. They continued to be important leaders for the Cheyennes.

Powers and I want our book to celebrate the heroism of these men during the Fort Robinson Breakout, and also afterwards during reservation times, so we provide biographies of them. Some were pivotal in creating the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, in 1884. Porcupine, Strong Left Hand, Old Crow, and Tangle Hair lived into their eighties and were political spokespersons during negotiations with United States agents. Old Crow stayed in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and fought allotment. One of his descendants’ family stories informs our account.

Their legacy continues. Today’s Cheyenne artists who extend the genre in their own ways include Gordon Yellowman, George Levi, Alaina Buffalo Spirit, Edgar Heap Of Birds and the poet Lance Henson—his poem about Morning Star continues to inspire me. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is a Northern Cheyenne who served as a United States Senator, continuing the tradition of political leadership.

History is a living stream of stories and values. I feel so privileged to have worked on this project, which celebrates the Northern Cheyenne artists and their families. Along the way, there are fascinating glimpses into interaction of traditional Plains Indigenous people with European settlers of the Gilded Age. Walt Whitman makes an appearance. The prisoners are taken to a circus and a county fair for horse racing. But most of all, Northern Cheyenne Ledger Art by Survivors of the Fort Robinson Breakout is about how seven men use their cultural expression to overcome incredible losses and to contribute to the next era of their tribe’s experiences. Lessons in the drawings are infinite.

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