Cheyenne Autumn

Dull Knife (Nat’l Archives)

If you only read one book about the diaspora of the North American Plains Indians, I think it should be Mari Sandoz’s Cheyenne Autumn.  The telling of the 1,500 mile trek by a band of a few hundred Cheyenne people is full to the brim with the heartrending plight of people who are the targets of a country’s policy of extermination and genocide.

The story is mainly centered around the struggles by the old chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf to preserve the integrity and survival of their people as they make their way from the Southern Indian territory.  Their goal is to once again live and thrive in their homeland of Wyoming around the Yellowstone River.

Little Wolf (Nat’l Archives)

The saga begins as the Cheyennes, who were banished from their homeland of the Yellowstone country to the Indian Territory, Oklahoma.  They had been promised by the U.S. Government that if Oklahoma was not satisfactory to them, the Indians could return to their homeland. 

The journey back home begins secretly as they departed under cover of nighttime. They were dogged right away by the U.S. Army.  The journey was complicated by the fact that the Cheyennes had few belongings because of their undercover  departure and because they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Indian hunters and the Army.

The efforts of the soldiers and civilian bounty hunters complicated the plans of the refugee group of Cheyenne.  Eventually, they divided into two bands.  With the Army in pursuit, Little Wolf’s followers travelled the East fork of the path north of the Platte River, Dull Knife’s group took the western fork.

Dull Knife was less fortunate.  His group was taken to Camp Robinson.  After a period of dissatisfaction, an escape plot was planned and executed during the very cold, moonlit Nebraska night of January 9, 1879. In the aftermath, the Army had killed 30 Cheyenne and had captured 35 wounded.

Meantime, Little Wolf’s band continued onward.  They suffered deprivations of hunger and severe cold.  The Indian hunters of the Army and civilians continued to chase Little Wolf as he made his way northwest with his ever shrinking band.

I’ve been recommending Mari Sandoz’s books all summer.  Each one is an eye opener to one aspect of history or another.  Cheyenne Autumn certainly must rank near the very top as far as quality and readability are concerned.  I don’t wish to use too many superlatives when describing any work of art or literature.  When a person expects dazzling amazement, he or she is often let down. 

With that caution in mind, I give Cheyenne Autumn the highest marks I can recommend for the lover of nineteenth century history of the west and midwest.  The storytelling skills of Mari Sandoz bring a vivid picture of a breathtaking, epic tragedy to life.  I hope you will take some time to learn about an important time in human history.

Cheyenne Autumn copyright 1953 by Mari Sandoz.  Bison Edition paperback printed by University of Nebraska Press.  ISBN 0-8032-9212-0


The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the call of the “tier tier bird” makes a cameo appearance in this book.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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