In Other Words
Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn by Philip Burnham and Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt
by Philip Burnham, University of Nebraska Press, 288 pages
Dewey Beard didn’t achieve the celebrity of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, but he outlived both his fellow Little Bighorn compatriots, survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, and spent the rest of his life resisting the U.S. government’s protracted campaign against Native sovereignty.
The Lakota warrior was present at the defining events that shaped his tribe’s existence from the late 19th century until his death in 1955. “When Dewey Beard died, nobody could say for sure how old he was,” George Mason University assistant professor Philip Burnham writes in his poignant, lyrical biography based on official archives and personal interviews with Beard’s descendants. The Indian Office — now the Bureau of Indian Affairs — recorded Beard’s birth year as 1862, but a direct descendant claims it was 1856.
Either way, Burnham writes, “What Beard saw in a lifetime was as big and bold and astonishing as a Dakota sky in full summer. As an adolescent he rode his buckskin pony up Deep Coulee and shot a U.S. trooper at the Little Bighorn. In his thirties he took at least two bullets at Wounded Knee and watched as half his family was killed. A half century later he was wrangling with the U.S. Army over ownership of his homestead. He was a nephew of Crazy Horse, a companion of Sitting Bull, a follower of Big Foot, an employee of Buffalo Bill Cody, and an acquaintance of bigwigs from matinee heartthrob Robert Taylor to the intrepid Nelson Miles.”
When he died, Beard — whose many names included Iron Hail and Putinhin — was the last known survivor of Custer’s disastrous 1876 attack on the multitribal encampment along the Little Bighorn River. After the rout, he and his family fled with Sitting Bull’s band to Canada until hunger and cold drove the last of the exiles back home to Dakota Territory in 1880 and 1881. Beard and his relatives settled near the Cheyenne River and became ranchers and farmers. “They went through a transformation within sight of their old life, the past in plain view on the bluffs above, and started to till the soil with the memory of starvation fresh in their minds,” Burnham writes. Meanwhile, the federal government had designs on Sioux land, forcing the tribe to sell 9 million acres of the original 25-million-acre Great Sioux Reservation and carving up the remnants into dispersed parcels. Distressed at the relentless encroachment of white settlers and the collapse of tribal unity, Beard and his kinsmen embraced the prophecies of a Northern Paiute named Wovoka that the white man would soon disappear. Beard made a Ghost Dance shirt and participated in the ceremony that brought hope to his tribe and fear to the U.S. military leaders who were building a ring of forts around the reservation.
Sioux society was bitterly divided between traditional leaders like Sitting Bull and those who urged tribal members to make the best of what was left to them. When tribal police killed Sitting Bull at his home in 1890, many of his relatives and allies dispersed into the countryside — too fearful to return to their reservation homes but unprepared for war. Beard and his family joined the scattered group at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After federal troops attacked the peaceful encampment on Dec. 29, 1890, he was badly injured and seven members of his family — including his wife, mother, father, and two brothers — were dead. His infant son died two months later. “They murdered us,” Beard told a reporter from National Geographic during an interview in Rapid City, South Dakota, in June 1955. Beard surrendered with the rest of the Ghost Dancers and returned to the ranching life, but his warrior energies found a new outlet. He and other members of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association never dropped their demand that the government pay reparations to survivors and their heirs (they got an apology, but no compensation, from Congress in 1990) and in 1903 erected a monument at the massacre site, where as many as 300 people were buried in a mass grave.
During the buildup to U.S. involvement in World War II, Beard’s family suffered a loss from which it never recovered. When the federal government seized 340,000 acres of Sioux land for a proposed aerial gunnery range, his was one of 125 families forced to leave their homes. “He was homeless in Oglala land, having returned to the roaming ways of his ancestors in the days before Pine Ridge knew fences and roads,” Burnham writes. “From tipi to tent, from one-room shack to shantytown, Dewey and [his third wife] Alice would stay on the move for the rest of their lives.” In his last years, Beard capitalized modestly on his survivor status. When tourists began visiting the Black Hills after World War II to see the Mount Rushmore memorial, many paid to be photographed with Beard. Long after starring in William F. Cody’s controversial movie The Indian Wars in 1914, Beard was rediscovered by Hollywood in the 1950s. He appeared in several uncredited roles, including in Tomahawk (1951), Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952), and
The Last Hunt , released in 1956 after his death. Beard sang his family’s death song during the National
Geographic interview, which is preserved on tape in the Library of Congress. But his voice echoes even now throughout Indian Country, wherever Native activists carry forward the fight for sovereignty and treaty rights.