Then and Now


The kids came Saturday for another Thanksgiving dinner.  After dinner,  from a top shelf in my temporary bedroom (over a year now), I got two hand crafted Native American drums, sometimes called tom-toms.  One was, I  think, the first non book gift I bought for Eli. “He was too young for it, grandfather.”  Jenny said the other one was hers from childhood.  Eli has recently started drum lessons, so within minutes he and Viv were pounding out  a steady rhythm.


That night I settled in to finish watching “Cheyenne Autumn,” a 1964 John Ford epic.  It was the last western directed by Ford; starred Richard Widmark, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Edwin G. Robinson and others.  The story line is simple, based on a real event.  Although factual it’s told in a typical  “Hollywood style.”

In 1878, Chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife led over 300 starving Cheyenne from their reservation in Oklahoma territory to their traditional home in Wyoming.

The Northern  Cheyenne had been forced onto the desolate OK reservation from their historic homeland on the Yellowstone.  By 1878, sick and starving, tired of the white man’s broken promises, they began a 1,500 mile journey home.  They were pursued by the United States Calvary led by an almost sympathetic, Captain Thomas Archer (Widmark).  Bosley Crother, N Y Times critic wrote,  “It is an eye opening  symbolization of a shameful tendency that has prevailed in our national life — the tendency to be heartless to weaker peoples who get in the way of manifest destiny.

There  are many familiar images, curving lines of the refugees as they move through the western landscape — plains, mountains, Monument Valley; stoic, determined chiefs draped in government blankets; ever alert warriors, arms crossed with rifle;  resolute strong women.  And then the cavalry in dark blue (its black and white movie but) uniforms, precision, prancing horses, ready to charge the fleeing natives at the sound of a bugle.

There are various subplots, a romance between a Quaker school teacher and the Calvary captain.  A Congressional delegation that never shows up and Cavalry down time at a fort. In a strange sequence, Dodge City characters,  leave the saloon and gambling tables to check out the Cheyenne, only to retreat back to town when they discover them.  There are skirmishes  between the Cheyenne and soldiers; capture, followed by the killing of  warriors, women and children.  Finally escape for a few and an eventually an 1883 Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

As I tried to go to sleep,  a dreamy film loopes over and over.  The Cheyenne stood up to a government that didn’t recognize their rights and humanity. It was over 100 years ago.   The Cheyenne stood up and reclaimed their homeland.  It is still happening today.


I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, N.D.  I’ve actually been more aware of anti-pipeline signs around Stockton and Frenchtown, N.J.  According NPR, however,  the protest at Standing Rock “exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.  But that history itself, of indigenous people fighting to protect not just “their” land, but “the” land, is centuries old.”

“There are no rights being violated here that haven’t been violated before.” said Kim Tallbear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, who for years worked on tribal issues as an environmental planner for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Those violations, she said, have taken two forms: long-term disregard for indigenous land rights and a “bureaucratic disregard for consultation with indigenous people.”

When she sees images of police using pepper spray and water cannons or security guards unleashing dogs on Standing Rock protesters, Tallbear said, she isn’t shocked. “I’m, like, oh yeah, they did that in the 19th century, they did that in the 16th century,” she said. “This is not new. … The contemporary tactics used against indigenous people might look a little bit more complex or savvy, but to me, I can read it all as part of a longstanding colonial project.”

“Maybe for non-Natives who thought that the West was won, and the Indian Wars were over, and Native people were mostly dead and gone and isn’t that too bad – now, they’re like, ‘Oh wait a minute, they’re still there? And they’re still fighting the same things they were 150 years ago?’

“Yeah, we are.” I need to follow this story.  This historic protest.

As I try to go to sleep, the film loopes over and over. The Cheyenne stood up to a government that didn’t recognize their rights and humanity. It was over 100 years ago.  The Cheyenne stood up and reclaimed their homeland. It is still happening today.