Cheyenne history is told in a new way in ‘Northern Cheyenne Exodus’

Elby Adamson

By A Contributor

Kansans will find “The Northern Cheyenne Exodus In History and Memory” an outstanding book and an excellent account of one of the most significant events in the state’s history.

It documents the flight of a group of Northern Cheyenne led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf from a reservation in Indian Territory across Kansas to their homeland in the Northern Plains.

But this well-crafted, scholarly book provides more than just an historical record of what occurred between Sept. 14, 1878 and the spring of 1879.

It provides analysis and insights into both the facts and perceptions of what happened.

As they traveled through western Kansas, some of the Cheyenne killed more than 40 settlers, raped a number of women and girls and destroyed considerable property belonging to settlers.

Surviving settlers demanded justice.

However, many Cheyenne lost their lives either due to the deplorable conditions of the reservation or in pitched battles with the military and cowboys in Ford, Meade, Scott and other counties in Kansas.

Many more Cheyenne died at or near Fort Robinson, Neb., either from mistreatment and intolerable living conditions or from a slaughter by the army as the Indians fled inhumane deprivation.

The Cheyenne believed they had been terribly wronged.

The authors make it clear there were victims among both the settlers and the Indians and that “‘Justice’ seems one of those slippery concepts that people claim to know instinctively yet cannot really articulate, let alone attain.”

It is likely that all parties involved, the Cheyenne, the settlers and even the military were to some extent victims of social and economic forces beyond their control.

What would be accepted as justice might vary widely depending on the party defining justice and even how much time had passed between an event and an attempt to secure justice.

This book makes it clear that as time passed newspapers of the day moved from viewing the Indians as transgressors to portraying them as victims and absolving them to a great degree of responsibility for what transpired.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court viewed the “Cheyenne exodus as an act of war instigated by the United States.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is its examination of memory as it relates to history.

Questions about why the memories of those who experience a historical event take the form they do and why those memories don’t line up with recorded history. It indicates the need to see both memory and history as interdependent entities.

History professor Emily Rosenberg says they should be seen as “blurred forms of representation whose structure and politics need to be analyzed not as oppositional but as interactive forms.”

This view is presented as the authors are confronted with Julia Laing’s memory of what happened when her husband and son were killed during a well-documented Indian raid Sept. 30, 1878, in Decatur County.

Julia Laing later in her life “blamed the massacre on Mexican ranchers intent on driving out homesteaders.”

Her memories included no mention of her having been raped and embodied an account of being rescued by an Indian.

How can such discrepancies be explained? How does the memory of an individual become independent of or reinforced by a larger community or cultural memory?

“The Northern Cheyenne Exodus In History and Memory” also examines how the exodus has been shown in movies and other media and the book explores notions of collective and cultural memories as they relate to history.

Because so much of what happened during the Cheyenne exodus occurred in Kansas, readers might want to explore The Last Indian Raid Museum in Oberlin and other sites in Decatur and Rawlins Counties.

There is also a museum in Scott City and sites near Scott County State Lake where some events captured by this book are commemorated.

Elby Adamson is a Clay Center resident.

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