In Other Words

Song of Dewey Beard: Last Sur­vivor of the Lit­tle Bighorn by Philip Burn­ham and Sil­ver Screen Fiend by Pat­ton Oswalt

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Sandy Nel­son

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.