Cheyenne Autumn

It's Trivial Thursday today, an excuse for me to yada yada about anything.

I first "met" Mari Sandoz in the covers of her most famous book Cheyenne Autumn when I was not quite a teen.

Mari Sandoz wrote books that viewed Indians sympathetically which was very much against the prevailing attitude of her generation. She was born May 11, 1896, in Sheridan County, Nebraska. To say she had a difficult childhood is an understatement. Her tyrannical father vented his frustration and anger on his hapless wife and children.

When she was eleven, Old Jules, her father whom she wrote about after his death, beat her and locked her in a dark cellar when she won first prize and publication of one of her short stories. "Fiction was for hired girls," he shouted, averring that he would not tolerate its presence in his family. Years later, he told her, "You know I consider artists and writers the maggots of society."

Mari spoke only German when she was young. She learned English quickly and easily and used education to escape her bleak home life. Though she attended the University of Nebraska from 1922 to 1930, her attendance was inconsistent, and she never earned her degree. In 1950, the school gave her an honorary Doctor of Letters. Though she never graduated, she discovered that she liked the scholarly life. She passed the teachers' exam and taught school but eventually devoted her time to historical research and to writing.

She wrote nearly two dozen novels but is remembered more for her well-researched non-fiction. In 1935, she wrote Old Jules, her father's life story, which was received as "a bittersweet and moving history of homesteading on the Great Plains."

Even more acclaimed were her histories of the Plains Indians such as Crazy Horse, a biography of the great Sioux warrior who helped defeat Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Prior to that book, Crazy Horse was usually seen as a bloodthirsty murderer. Her biography portrayed him as noble and dedicated to his people and to retaining their traditional lands from white theft.

In 1953, Cheyenne Autumn, the book I read years later, was published. With her usual painstaking research, the book is still important today for its accurately detailed history of Indians. With its Indians characterized as appealing, even sympathetic, Cheyenne Autumn is an emotional condemantion of the brutal war waged by the United States to take away the land and the traditional ways of the Cheyenne.

Cheyenne Autumn made me cry. A movie was made by celebrated director John Ford in 1964 and was one of the first westerns to present the Indian in a different light. I never saw it because of two reasons: I didn't think it could hold a candle to the book, and I didn't think I could take the pain if it did.

Mari Sandoz's writings marked the beginning of a movement that changed how Americans viewed the history of settlement in the west. She suggested that Indians were not villains, but victims. Thankfully, she lived long enough to see more Americans accept her compassionate view of the native peoples of this country.

Like a true writer, she wrote up until her death from cancer in 1966.

If you haven't read Mari Sandoz before, do yourself a favor and find a copy of Cheyenne Autumn.

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