"They lost because they were ‘savages’ and because even in the beginning they were woefully outnumbered. They lost because their way of life was in the Stone Age.
In the end they signed treaties so that some of their land might remain with them. But the treaties were broken, and land companies sold their acres for anything from twenty cents to twenty dollars."
The Last Frontier page 10
In 1878 people of the northern Cheyenne and Arapaho had been confined to land at Darlington, in Indian Territory as Oklahoma was called at the time. This was as far west as you could be, and hundreds of miles south of their homelands in the northern plains.
"The heat came from everywhere, from the sky and the sun, from the Texas desert, blown by the south wind, from the ground itself. The ground had given up its moisture and now it was dissolving into little puffs of fine red dust."
The Last Frontier page 12
Following the Battle of the Little Big Horn in July 1876, the Lakota and their allies, the northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, had been hounded until, in the spring of 1877 the northern Cheyenne and Arapaho had surrendered to General Mackenzie. After their surrender they were moved south to join the southern Cheyenne, despite them having effectively split into two separate peoples in the 1820s, nearly sixty years earlier. In the hot dusty hostile terrain these northern Cheyenne, free spirits used to a nomadic life following the buffalo were far removed from their natural surroundings. Not only did the new conditions blight their lives but the rations distributed by agent John Miles were insufficient and were of the poorest quality.
Eventually their leaders, Dull Knife and Little Wolf, decided enough was enough and took the monumental decision which Howard Fast, writing with great feeling and perception, turns into an epic tale which is gripping as it unfolds. John Ford based his film “Cheyenne Autumn” on this book, despite crediting Mari Sandoz and copying the title of her historical work about the same events. A later film of Ford , this sought to redress the balance of his earlier work which had presented the native Americans in a stereotypical fashion. It is clearly based on Fast’s book because there is a farcical interlude based in Dodge City featuring Wyatt Earp which detracts from what is an otherwise reasonable film without being inspirational. These events, virtually ignored by Sandoz, figure in a few chapters of Fast’s book, although not including the lighthearted idiocy of Ford’s schoolboy humour which presumably was introduced to create light relief from the traumatic events and add to the pathos in the later part of the film by producing a stark contrast. Ford claimed to have come up with the idea himself as a kind of interlude in a film which at over two and a half hours was quite lengthy.
One suspects that the failure to credit Fast with the idea came from the politicisation of Hollywood at this time ( Fast’s book was published in 1948, Sandoz’s in 1953 and the film made in 1964). Certainly Ford and Fast were at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
What is remarkable about Howard Fast’s book is that he is so clear in his empathy for the Cheyenne. Writing in 1948, he was years ahead of his time in presenting the plight of the native Americans in a way which highlighted the injustice and was not stylized. I treasure my Penguin copy which I inherited from my in laws whom I greatly admired. It bears the price two shillings and was published by penguin books in 1953.
Howard Fast based his book on a solid historical foundation which he gathered while living with the Cheyenne in Oklahoma in 1939. This book is written with sensitivity and élan. It is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the American West. I unreservedly recommend it.