Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2014 issue.
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Introduction - David L. Bristow, Editor
On a hilltop overlooking the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, historian Jerome Greene described the tragic event to the attendees of the Ninth Fort Robinson History Conference. As he spoke, the audience mentally erased the highway below and imagined an encampment of Lakota men, women, and children surrounded by U. S. soldiers. The mass grave near where we stood became an emplacement of Hotchkiss guns firing down into the valley.
While this issue of Nebraska History can’t recreate the experience of standing on historical ground with Greene at Wounded Knee, or with Paul Hedren at Warbonnet Creek, or with Tom Powers at the Fort Robinson guardhouse, it presents six of the papers delivered at the conference, which was held April 25-27, 2013, and was cosponsored by the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission.
These papers don’t adhere strictly to the “After the Indian Wars” theme, but taken together they emphasize the transition from war on the plains to its aftermath and consequences. In the opening essay, Paul Hedren takes a broad view of northern plains history, considering several ways in which the 1876 Great Sioux war shaped subsequent events. Tom Buecker corrects a common misconception about enclosed army forts on the plains (it turns out that Hollywood wasn’t entirely wrong), and shows how fort construction adapted first to plains warfare and then to the reservation era.
A tenth of the post-Civil War frontier army was comprised of African American soldiers commanded (with a few notable exceptions) by white officers. Brian Shellum looks at some of the specific issues faced by “Buffalo Soldiers” in a segregated army and the challenges encountered by one of the first black officers, Lt. Charles Young. Jerome
Greene, in a paper adapted from his forthcoming book American Carnage: Wounded Knee 1890, examines the military buildup in the weeks leading up to the Indian wars’ bloody epilogue.
Nothing illustrates the change in attitudes toward Native Americans and the Indian wars as succinctly as the shifting reputation of George Armstrong Custer, the much-celebrated and much-derided army commander who perished with his men at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Brian Dippie traces the evolving interpretation of Custer in American history and popular culture.
The issue concludes with an essay that differs significantly from the author’s conference presentation. Rather than reproduce his two conference talks, both of which were adapted from his book The Killing of Crazy Horse, Tom Powers instead expands upon a story he told briefly in the book’s afterword. In a rich and moving narrative he tells of the Crazy Horse medicine bundle and of his own attempts to track down the Lakota oral tradition pertaining to it, a story that “marks a divide between the things that have been lost and the things that survive.”
Fort Robinson, Custer, and the Legacy of the Great Sioux War - Paul L. Hedren
I often find myself in a reflective mood these days and so allow me to be a bit autobiographical. Doing so helps explain, I think, not just my deep fascination with this place, and the Great Sioux War, but also how it is I came to be interested in the matter of legacy, which plays straight to our conference theme this year. A friend says that legacy is an “age thing,” and perhaps that’s so. But whether an age thing or not, this consuming interest in this Indian war, and ultimately in this place, has been a near lifelong affair, and I’ll confess that it all began with Custer. I recall very clearly an interest in Custer even in my earliest school days, and remember absorbing those Quentin Reynolds and Margaret Leighton juvenile biographies of the general on cold Minnesota Saturday mornings, books I read again and again, and possess still. Given any opportunity in the 1950s and ‘60s, on summer vacations to the West my family paused at Custer Battlefield and I simply reveled in the place. In high school and college I tried hard to get a summer job there, but that chance never came along. In college I was well along in preparing for a teaching career, wedded to history and geography and bound I supposed for some Minnesota high school.
But instead I lucked into a career with the National Park Service, and my first park job was at Fort Laramie, a place having nothing to do with Custer or the Little Bighorn. There I was introduced to western history in its widest sweep: the fur trade, the Overland migrations, the Pony Express and transcontinental telegraph, gold rushes, and Indian treaties. That place has a powerful war story, too. But there it’s the story of the Grattan Massacre in 1854, and Harney at Blue Water a year later, and the Platte Valley war, and Bozeman Trail war, and the ambush and killing of Lt. Levi Robinson near Laramie Peak in 1874, and of course this Indian war of 1876, but with a decidedly different slant from that which had been my youthful interest.
In interpreting the Great Sioux War at Fort Laramie, one necessarily tells the story of the Black Hills gold rush, and Crook’s successive campaigns. It was there where I was introduced to the notion of a “southern front” to this Sioux war, and where I got enthralled with the Warbonnet Creek story. I remember vividly the day when my boss, Bill Henry, and I first visited that place in 1972. And I remember well a later day when my wife and I took an old man to the Warbonnet site for his first visit. That old man, Bill Shay, was a veteran Fort Laramie staffer, too, but in his young adulthood some sixty years earlier knew Gen. Charles King, who was there in 1876, and there on that Warbonnet hilltop we read aloud the story of the fight appearing in King’s book Campaigning with Crook.
This was an impressionable time in my life, and it was these experiences that set my course in a lifelong study of the Great Sioux War. Along the way I’ve written about Warbonnet repeatedly. I’ve examined Fort Laramie’s role in the war, authored a guide to the sites of the war, and investigated the army’s capacity for waging war. And it was on this course that I grew interested in the consequences, the legacy, of the Great Sioux War.
In my travels across the northern Great Plains, whether intent on locating some Sioux War site that was somehow new to me, or visiting again those I thought I knew well, I’d encounter roadside markers and local museums devoted, it seemed, to anything but the war. I’d read those markers and study the exhibits, which were invariably devoted to railroads, buffalo, cattle, cattle trails, and ranches. Certainly I knew those as aspects of northern plains history, but for the longest while I appreciated such stories in relative isolation, and usually dismissed them as something I really didn’t need to invest in too deeply. Now don’t get me wrong. I love buffalo, cattle trails, and ranches, but I love Warbonnet Creek more. And yet the longer I was confronted by these varied dimensions of the historical geography of the northern plains the more evident it became that these were not isolated or discrete episodes at all, but truly elements of one large story, episodes connected to one another, and stories that tied straight to the Great Sioux War.
My attempt at exploring the consequences and interrelatedness of it all is served in the book After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country, published late in 2011 and climaxing some fifteen years of research, as I explored northern plains railroads, the demise of the northern buffalo herd, the story of cattle on these plains, and Indian people, reservations, and sacred places.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
“Pretty Well Fixed for Defense”: Enclosed Army Posts in the Northern Plains, 1819-1872 - Thomas R. Buecker
Remember those great western forts we all saw in the movies? The ones with log walls, blockhouses, and huge gates through which rode the likes of Gen. George Custer, Randolph Scott, and John Wayne? They were strong, secure, palisaded structures that protected their garrisons from attack by warring tribesmen. They were, in fact, what the fort in the West should look like. We knew this. I remember my disappointment upon learning that the Fort Lincoln from which Custer rode did not have walls or a gate. Similarly, a question asked by more than one alert tourist after visiting the Fort Robinson Museum was, “OK. Now, where’s the fort?”
But the enclosed fort on the plains isn’t just a Hollywood myth. The accompanying map (fig. 2) shows sixty-three northern plains army posts built between 1819 and 1880, in Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. All these posts were occupied a minimum of two years, and were specifically built for military purposes. The forts or camps shown in capital letters on the map are those I consider “enclosed” forts: closed in by log or heavy board walls, or adjoining buildings, or even sod and earthworks. Twenty-five posts—more than one-third of those built on the northern plains—were of the enclosed type.
We can identify five different types of enclosed fort. Our first example is the building-enclosed type, where back walls of contiguous buildings form the enclosure’s defensive wall. The first United States military posts west of the Mississippi River were of this type: Cantonment Missouri, built in 1819, and replaced by Fort Atkinson in 1820 (fig. 3). At that time, Fort Atkinson was the largest army post in the United States, with each side of the fort enclosure more than two hundred yards long, and a capacity of one thousand soldiers, plus dependents. The first Fort Sully, built in present-day central South Dakota in 1864, was another example of a building-enclosed fort. Fort Mitchell, Nebraska, a small one-company post also built in 1864, was building-enclosed on three sides, with a stockade-protected corral adjoining on the east (fig. 4).
The palisade-enclosed fort was the traditional enclosed type, with a defensive wall completely surrounding the buildings. This wall was made of logs set vertically in a trench, or sawed boards fastened to a framework. The classic example of a palisaded fort in the West was Fort Phil Kearny (fig. 6). Built in 1866, it was the largest fully enclosed fort built on the northern plains. Engineered by Col. Henry Carrington, the palisade was built of pine logs, cut eleven feet in length and side-hewn to touch. The logs were set in a three-foot ditch, with a continuous banquette, or firing platform, and flared loopholes cut in at the tops between every fourth and fifth log. Another enclosed fort was Fort Reno (1865-68, fig. 11), also on the Bozeman Trail, where its palisade walls were a separate construction feature that surrounded the buildings. A separate wall is also apparent in the original plan of Fort Ellis, built in 1867 in Montana Territory.
Although Fort Buford, established near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in northwestern North Dakota, began as a full palisade-enclosed, one-company post in 1866, it was expanded to five-company size the next year. The rebuilt fort had a palisade wall on three sides, but was left open and not stockaded on the south side facing the Missouri River. Fort Thompson, built to guard the Crow Creek Agency, South Dakota, was surrounded by a cottonwood stockade three hundred by four hundred feet in size.
On the northern plains, seven forts were originally built with palisade walls. Wall height was certainly not standard, varying from eight feet at Fort Phil Kearny, to a wall eighteen feet tall reported at Fort Totten (fig. 15).
Combination-enclosed forts were a common type on the northern plains. They were formed by the back walls of separate buildings, with log palisades filling in the gaps. An excellent example was Fort C. F. Smith (the third fort built on the Bozeman Trail, fig. 13), with log walls set between adobe buildings. Fort Rice is another example, as originally constructed in 1864 on the Missouri River in south-central Dakota. In the plan shown here (fig. 7), sections of palisade fill in between the buildings. The first Fort Totten, also in North Dakota, and Fort Cottonwood, later to become Fort McPherson, Nebraska, were both examples of combination construction.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers after the Indian Wars - Brian G. Shellum
Black Americans have served and sacrificed in U.S. military conflicts from the Revolutionary War onward, but it was during the Civil War that they first fought in large numbers and in organized black regiments. The service of 178,975 black volunteers during the Civil War, comprising about 10 percent of the total Union manpower by the end of the bitter struggle, paid the price for blacks to serve in the Regular Army in the postwar era. These black regiments fought in all the major theaters of combat and suffered 36,847 dead, and individual members received sixteen Medals of Honor. As the Union army demobilized the last of the black volunteer regiments at the end of the war, Congress passed legislation establishing black Regular Army cavalry and infantry regiments. This was the first time the U.S. permitted blacks to enlist as regulars and as soldiers in the nation’s standing army. These black regulars came to be known as Buffalo Soldiers.
Nearly everyone today recognizes the term Buffalo Soldier, but in the
post-Civil War era the black soldiers would have been known as colored
troops who served in Negro regiments. The soubriquet Buffalo Soldier came
into popular use in the twentieth century, even though it has its roots in
the nineteenth century and was coined by Native Americans. According to
various sources, the Cheyenne and Comanche used the expression first in the
late 1860s and early 1870s for the members of the black regular regiments.
The term was used occasionally by the press and in private letters, but not
by the black soldiers themselves. Most agree the name referred to the
soldiers’ dark skin and black curly hair, similar in the Indian view to that
of the buffalo. There is a great deal of disagreement in any meaning beyond
this visual similarity. Certainly there was no empathetic connection between
the two groups; the Indians viewed the African
A firsthand account from 1886 illustrates the contemporary Indian view of the Buffalo Soldiers. When Maj. Frederick W. Benteen arrived with a detachment of the Ninth Cavalry at the future site of Fort Duchesne, Utah, an Indian agent reported that a Ute Indian headman shouted: “Buffalo Soldiers! Buffalo Soldiers! Coming! Maybe so tomorrow! Don’t let them come! We can’t stand it! It’s bad—very bad!” When the agent asked through an interpreter about the Ute’s aversion to the black troopers of the Ninth, the Indian’s broken English response was “All over black! All over black, buffalo soldiers! Injun heap no like him!” After rubbing his head with his hand, he screamed, “Woolly head! Woolly head! All same as buffalo! What you call him, black white man?” This is one of the earliest documented uses of the term Buffalo Soldier by Native Americans. The epithet evolved and came to embody much more.
Congress approved an act on July 28, 1866, that added four cavalry regiments to the six existing and twenty-six new infantry regiments to the nineteen then in service; two of the cavalry and four of the infantry regiments were reserved for black soldiers. By August 1866 the military departments began recruiting black soldiers and white officers from the former Civil War volunteer regiments to fill the ranks of the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry Regiments and the Thirty-Eighth, Thirty-Ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-First U.S. Infantry Regiments.
In 1869 and subsequent years, Congress moved to reduce the size of the peacetime Regular Army by limiting its enlisted strength to less than 30,000, the strength the army maintained throughout the Indian Wars. This mandate forced the army to reduce the number of infantry regiments to twentyfive but left the number of cavalry regiments at ten. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments survived intact, but the Thirty-Ninth and Fortieth Regiments combined to form the new Twenty-Fifth Infantry Regiment, and the Thirty-Eighth and Forty-First Regiments formed the new Twenty-Fourth. These four Buffalo Soldier regiments comprised about 10 percent of the post-Civil War Regular Army strength, and played a key role in the Indian Wars on the western frontier in the period 1866 to 1890.
The newly formed Ninth Cavalry Regiment shared essentially the same organization as the white regiments in the Regular Army. A cavalry regiment consisted of 12 companies formed into three battalions (four companies in each battalion). At full strength a cavalry regiment rode with 43 commissioned officers and 845 enlisted men. Each company had three officers, 10 noncommissioned officers, and 60 privates. During this period cavalry units began to commonly use the term “troop” instead of company and “squadron” instead of battalion, a practice that began during the Civil War. Cavalry units used both terms interchangeably until the army directed regiments to use troop and squadron exclusively in 1883.
The Ninth Cavalry was different from the white cavalry regiments in several important ways. Black enlisted men filled the regimental ranks, though they were led exclusively by white officers, with three exceptions to be discussed later. Secondly, the army assigned chaplains to the black regiments. The army assigned chaplains to most military posts, but the black regiments were the only ones allotted unit chaplains in this period. These chaplains, commissioned as captains, ministered to the black enlisted men and taught them fundamental school subjects. This practice of chaplains educating illiterate black soldiers began during the Civil War and was perhaps as important as their religious role.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
The Changing Image of George Armstrong Custer - Brian Dippie
When I finished delivering my talk under this title at the Ninth Fort Robinson History Conference last year, a member of the audience observed, not unkindly, that I had said nothing that I had not already said in my 1976 book Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth. Exactly. My point is that nothing substantial has changed in Custer’s popular image since the centennial of his Last Stand, apart from a gradual retreat from public prominence as a symbolic touchstone in the nation’s past. References to Custer’s Last Stand are still made in sports columns, late night monologues, even in the realm of political commentary and satire. He is the self-deluded fool of cartoon quips (“Take no prisoners, men!”). Books about him continue to pour off the presses and light up e-readers. Many are self-published, but commercial and university presses are in the mix and occasionally a national bestseller serves notice that the public can still be engrossed by the story of Custer’s Last Stand.
That said, Custer is no longer the commanding figure in American popular culture that he was in the past. He has not been featured in a major theatrical release since Little Big Man in 1970, and his infrequent appearances on television, apart from documentaries and miniseries like Son of the Morning Star (1991), are uniformly dismal. This may be a natural consequence of the decline of the Western since its heyday in the late 1950s. Today the Western rarely raises its head and Custer is as noticeable by his absence as cowboys and gunfighters. The bleak box office showing of Disney’s The Lone Ranger in 2013 suggests that studios will not be crowding the range anytime soon. George Armstrong Custer lived 36 years. His myth has lived 138. Do cultural myths—even such well-entrenched ones—have a shelf life and an expiration date? If Custer’s image is unchanging, will he remain relevant?
First to semantics. Image is a prominent figure’s public face, in Custer’s case his reputation. It may bear more or less relationship to reality. The image of Custer is intertwined with and inseparable from his Last Stand. He would be just another obscure historical figure known only to specialists had he not lost a battle—spectacularly— on the Little Bighorn River in 1876. And so the Custer myth.
“Myth” is often used to reference a falsehood— indeed, the terms are used interchangeably. But the Custer myth involves much more than fabrication. Myth is a touchstone to fundamental cultural values, expressed as origin stories, hero tales, and what is often called collective memory. A cultural myth is true—truer than truth, as one definition goes, because, as the intellectual historian Gordon S. Wood wrote in 1977, “the world is made up by us, out of our experiences and the concepts we create to link them together.” The Custer myth expresses the values of Custer’s contemporaries; it also expresses the values of our time. “Ideas and symbols do not exist apart from some social reality out there,” Wood explained. “They are the means by which we perceive, understand, judge, or manipulate that reality; indeed, they create it.” One could not fashion a more serviceable definition of the Custer myth. Cultural myths are never static; they change to serve changing needs, and the image of General Custer is no exception. Some background is in order.
Born in Ohio in December 1839, George Armstrong Custer achieved fame as the Boy General in the Civil War and immortality by perishing with his entire command in battle with Lakota and Cheyenne Indians in 1876. Graduating from West Point at the bottom of the class of 1861, he proved himself fearless in combat and by the age of twenty- three was a brigadier general of volunteers. In a self-designed uniform, his long blond hair flying out behind, Custer looked the part of a beau sabreur; by the age of twenty-five, he was a major general commanding a division of cavalry.
With the end of the Civil War he reverted to his regular army rank of captain, but was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the newly formed Seventh Cavalry in 1866. After a fruitless campaign against the southern plains tribes over the summer of 1867, culminating in a court-martial and suspension from duty for eleven months, Custer established himself as an Indian-fighter on November 27, 1868, with a controversial victory on the Washita River, Indian Territory, in which the Seventh destroyed a Cheyenne village, killing 103 men, women, and children. Following a stint of Reconstruction duty in Kentucky, Custer accompanied his regiment to Dakota Territory in 1873. He led it in the field that summer on the Yellowstone Expedition, and the following year on an exploratory probe into the Black Hills that turned up gold in paying quantities, creating intense pressure on lands ceded to the Lakota by treaty in 1868.
The fallout, the Sioux Expedition of 1876, had as its objective the confinement of “hostile” Lakota on their reservation. Three military columns took the field, Custer riding with the Dakota Column under Gen. Alfred Terry. On June 22, Terry sent Custer ahead with the Seventh Cavalry and on the morning of June 25, in sight of what proved an enormous Indian camp on the Little Bighorn River, he divided his regiment into battalions. The five companies under his direct command—212 men—were totally annihilated. News of Custer’s Last Stand created a sensation, and Custer, because of the shocking magnitude of his defeat, became the best known soldier to serve in America’s Indian wars.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
On the Brink: The Pre-Wounded Knee Army Deployment of 1890 - Jerome A. Greene
In 1890 the Lakota Sioux Indians faced a traumatic period in their history. Major land losses and restrictions stemming from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the taking of the Black Hills in 1877, and the final culminating division of their remaining reservation lands in 1889, by which they surrendered some 9,000,000 more acres to augment white settlement, brought desolation both materially and spiritually to the people. Compounding all was Congress’s decision to cut their already meager rations. Added to drought and resulting crop losses, as well as inroads by influenza, whooping cough, and measles that killed many of their children, the Lakotas faced straitened conditions. As with many peoples in similarly afflicted societies, many of the Sioux sought relief in supernatural intervention, and in their trial turned to the Ghost Dance, a remedial ceremonial practice then sweeping through other tribes in the West, as they tried to escape a seemingly bleak future of cataclysmic proportion.
In the late fall of 1890, as the dances gained momentum on the several Lakota reservations created by the 1889 act that dismantled the Great Sioux Reservation, white residents in the surrounding vicinity took alarm. They believed the dances—in fact, largely peaceful attempts by Lakota people to deal with their circumstances—instead forecast war. In November, Agent Daniel Royer at the Pine Ridge Reservation, increasingly apprehensive that trouble was in the offing, telegraphed his superiors in Washington, D.C., that “Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy,” and pleaded for military protection. “Nothing short of one thousand soldiers will settle this dancing,” said Royer. The agent further called for the arrest and confinement of the Ghost Dance leaders. In days, there was rampant excitement at Pine Ridge and at Rosebud Agency farther to the east, as well as in the white communities surrounding the reservations, where growing numbers of citizens clamored for military protection.
On November 13, President Benjamin Harrison concluded the situation was serious and that the authority and discipline of the agents must be maintained and an outbreak prevented. He ordered the secretary of war to ensure that sufficient military forces be prepared to take the field if required, “and that any movement is supported by a body of troops sufficiently large to be impressive, and, in case of resistance, quickly and thoroughly efficient.” By his action in ordering such deployment, the president instituted a constitutionally authorized civil function to use the army to protect a state (South Dakota) against domestic violence, and also, following initiation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, empowered the War Department to manage the Lakotas on their reservations.
The president’s directive set in motion the military occupation of the Sioux reservations. On Friday, November 14, Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, commanding general of the army in Washington, forwarded Harrison’s order to Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles at the Chicago headquarters of the Division of the Missouri, an administrative domain including the states of Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and thus the entirety of the troubled reservations. While calling for Miles’s views on the Sioux matter, in his own accompanying directive Schofield reiterated the purpose for the action: “First to prevent an outbreak on the part of the Indians which shall endanger the lives and property of the people in the neighboring country, and second to bring to bear upon the disaffected Indians such military force as will compel prompt submission to the authority of the Government.” On November 17, Miles ordered troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud, the reservations most immediately affected by the Ghost Dances, a decision with which Schofield concurred. Schofield told Miles that cavalry and artillery troops at Fort Riley, Kansas, would also be available for his command, should the emergency require them.
The advent of Maj. Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles into the surging Lakota crisis seemed at the least a fortuitous stroke, for he shared a long and discordant history with Indian people in many parts of the country. He knew the Sioux people well and many of their leaders personally, for he had rigorously medical, ordnance, and engineer departments supplied the troops with necessary food, supplies, weaponry, and all other services. All told, it was this broad collective from which Miles would draw to initiate operations in South Dakota. While Miles prepared to send troops to the Lakota reservations to curb the Ghost Dance and maintain order, the major military posts encircling the concerned reservations were forts Niobrara, Robinson, Meade, Yates, Bennett, Sully, and Randall, incorporating in all some fourteen cavalry troops and twenty-five infantry companies, all below optimum designated strength. To deal with arising exigencies at Pine Ridge and Rosebud, Miles immediately dispatched troops from the Department of the Platte, commanded by Brig. Gen. John R. Brooke in Omaha. Brooke directed troops into the Pine Ridge and Rosebud agencies from forts Omaha, Niobrara, and Robinson, Nebraska, which by their proximity were most immediately accessible.
Thus, in a relatively short time span, Agent Royer’s persistent dispatches to his superiors in Washington had set in motion a military response to quell the Lakota Ghost Dance and, based on rumors then circulating, avert trouble at both Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
The Crazy Horse Medicine Bundle - Thomas Powers
Hard times soon came to the Oglala Lakota in the years after Crazy Horse was killed in 1877. In their early years on the Pine Ridge reservation the Oglalas raised cattle and horses with success, but during the First World War, when prices were high, they sold most of their animals on the advice of agency officials and local white ranchers. After the war they never managed to rebuild their herds. Without animals to feed they began to lease or sell their land. The great epidemic of Spanish Influenza swept the reservation in 1919 and killed hundreds of people, in many cases because they tried to treat themselves in the traditional way, with a sweat bath. The time of greatest hardship and deepest poverty for the Oglalas came in the 1930s, when there was almost no work on the reservation and people, especially the elderly, sometimes died of starvation in their lonely cabins during the winter. By this time the days of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show were long over and the reservation Indians no longer had much to sell. Most of the old pipes, beaded shirts, and war paraphernalia had gone quickly and other things of a sacred character, carefully wrapped and hidden away, were too precious or personal to sell. Beading and quillwork were still done by Indian women but prices were low and customers few. In 1930, according to the young anthropologist from Yale, Scudder Mekeel, only one Indian received “steady monthly wages” in the White Clay district of Pine Ridge, which included the agency offices—a man paid $50 a month to herd cows for the trader.
For some years, Mekeel reported, Indians had been going south in the fall to
pick potatoes on the big farms along the North Platte River down in
Nebraska. Some traveled in old cars or trucks but quite a few of the people
made the hundred and twenty mile trip in horse-drawn wagons, heading south
on the road out of Pine Ridge to Rushville, Nebraska, where the show Indians
used to gather to take the train before Buffalo Bill died in 1917. From
Rushville they proceeded south through Alliance where a dogleg headed them
toward Bridgeport or Scottsbluff or the towns in between along the river.
One of these was the bustling little farm town of Minatare. There hundreds
of Pine Ridge Indians would gather every September in tent camps on the
farms where they worked, often setting up in the same place, under the same
big old cottonwood tree or in the same grassy spot along an irrigation
ditch, year after year. Two grandchildren of Fast Thunder were among those
who took their families south for a month or six weeks, making the trip
every year right through the 1930s and into the early 1940s, until the war
got in the way. Fast Thunder had called Crazy Horse “cousin” and he was
present the day Crazy Horse was killed. One of his grandchildren who made
the annual trip to Minatare was Theodore Means, son of Fast Thunder’s
daughter Fannie (and of Bruce Means, interpreter for the agency doctor at
the time, James Walker). The other was Stella Swift Bird, daughter of Fast
Thunder’s oldest boy, Mark Red Star, known as Old
The work in the potato fields was hard and long, remembered Barney Wickard, who lived his entire life in Minatare except for the war years. The day began about 6 a.m. and sometimes continued until eight in the evening, with a constant trekking of horse-drawn wagons from the fields to the two potato cellars in town where the potatoes were stored until they could be sold and shipped off. The trick was to get the harvest in before the frosts came. Potatoes only two or three inches below the surface at the top of the potato hill were especially vulnerable. Even a touch of frost would leave the potatoes dotted with greenheads and you’d have to get rid of them. Some of the Oglalas sent their younger children to the Minatare grade school but in most families everybody worked, from the old grannies down to children as young as five or six. If the men had trucks or wagons they might hire out to haul potatoes to the cellars. And it wasn’t just potatoes; there were sugar beets to be topped and piled for the wagons to haul to the refineries, as well.
The work went on all day every day until Saturday night, when there was a band concert in town and everybody drove in to buy provisions, or go to the Minatare movie theater, or fix a car, or get a horse shoed at one of the two blacksmith shops owned by men named Helmick and Jensen. The Great Depression disappeared for a few hours every Saturday night during potato picking time, when more than thirty businesses stayed open late on main street alone, including four grocery stores, three car dealerships (Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet), three clothing stores, an Ace Hardware and the Boston store owned by Maw Anderson where Barney Wickard worked on Saturday nights as a teenager. There were a hundred and thirty year-round jobs in Minatare then and the town doubled on Saturday nights when as many as three hundred Indians would come into town. You couldn’t find a parking space for a whole block on either side of Main Street.
As Barney Wickard remembered it, everybody got along. On the western edge of town there was a swimming hole in the Minatare irrigation ditch and on hot fall days Barney Wickard and Marvin Kishiyama and Indian boys like their friend James Red Fern would all go down to a certain place beneath a big old cottonwood tree and swim, generally skinny dipping. “There’s more mud in that hole than water,” people used to say. It was the cottonwood tree that identified the place; the swimming hole itself was no different than any other stretch of the ditch, which was perhaps a dozen feet wide and straight as an arrow for miles. Cottonwood trees grow big but this particular tree was truly of mammoth size. It is still there, seventy years after Barney Wickard and his friends used to jump or dive into the water from the big tree’s branches. The trunk of this tree is fifteen feet or more around. A silvery log limb on the bank of the ditch, broken off from the main stem, is shoulder high and as hard as rock. It has probably been lying there for a half century. Earth-moving equipment would be required to dispose of this log, not to mention the tree. One imagines it will be a kind of landmark for the next hundred years.
The entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue.
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