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History in the making

March 15, 2010

“The writing of any history struggles against all our illusions. In the wider sense, the compendium of individual stories can provide the portrait of an age, and each may contribute something to our understanding of a particular period. But the final features of that portrait are drawn from those individual stories that remain after time and distance have sifted them all for relevance.”

Jerry Mader, The Road to Lame Deer

I’ve been perusing available versions of the story of Head Chief and Young Mule, two young Cheyenne men who rode down Charging Horse Hill into a line of military fire aimed at them for slaughtering a white rancher’s cow. Rather than face death by hanging, the two young men decided to die fighting – so various versions go. Or rather, perhaps they were simply tired with life on the reservation, where they could not prove themselves as warriors as Cheyenne men had been able to do in the past, as another version goes. The battle between the boys and the military lasted for several hours – or was it just an hour? – while Cheyenne women and men watched from the valley floor, invited out by the boys to witness their bravery. Or were the other Cheyennes simply out in the valley that day to collect their rations from the agency? It depends on which account you read or hear.

As my research of this incident demonstrates, there are no cut-and-dry, “true” versions of history. Accounts from the various white newspapers of the time (1890) conflict with each other while leaving out aspects of the story passed down by generations of Cheyennes, whose versions likewise harbor differing details. Taken all together, however, the numerous accounts of Head Chief and Young Mule’s heroic act – or was it a foolish act? a savage act? – paint a more complete picture of not only the event, but also of the time period, than any single version taken alone. From the white man’s versions, one can detect hints of both racism and admiration at the Indians’ acts; from the Cheyennes’ versions, one can pick up on the emotions that were wrapped up in the transition from nomadic life to reservation life, which ranged from a sense of sadness and loss to defiance, depending on the account.

“The writing of any history struggles against all our illusions,” Jerry Mader writes. This is because our own perspectives, biases, and emotions are projected into our writing. We emphasize the details that fit with our world view, often blindly, without realizing that the very same set of facts can support a far different interpretation. But far from being wrong or malintentioned, our individual recordings offer insight into the culture, beliefs, and conflicts of our times.

“And so, within that awareness, I place mine alongside some of the others, hoping some clarity may emerge from the mix.”

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