In 1979, I was teaching a U.S. History class from a chapter titled "The Indian Problem". The indigenous people were depicted as "the problem" while the country attempted to complete its God ordained "Manifest Destiny". Forced removal from their homelands and battles to enforce the will of the U.S. Government was how the problem was solved. Although the prayerful Plains tribes believed strongly that the Creator had placed them on the land as its caretakers, this perspective was ignored during the Indian Wars. The immigrants covering the land had no time or tolerance for another worldview.
I was horrified to perpetuate this misunderstanding and continue justifying the genocide of the native people that had gone unchecked by the conscience of the historians creating the narrative of our country's history. I shared these concerns with my students and began trying to understand the worldview of the Plains Indians- their nomadic life as horse people, living in teepees, following the buffalo herds, the "spirit of place" that held them to the land and fueled their fierce fighting with soldiers being sent from forts in the Great Plains. Early in my reading, I came across an account of a Cheyenne chief, named Dull Knife, and the striking one photo that exists of him. As I read a little more, I began discovering that there were different accounts of his fate in different books. Altogether in books circulating in the early 1980’s there were five different accounts of his death at five different times!
No historical figure had been so inaccurately written about. What could explain this? How could I sort through the scarce information available and ever know the truth or figure out what was behind all of the apparent deception? A friend at the time, Jon West, was a tribal member of the Southern Cheyenne, who was from what had been their allocated land in Indian Territory. He had become urban in his bicultural understanding and he “walked two roads.” Having been raised by traditional grandparents, he spoke the Native language and was very familiar with traditional beliefs and ceremonial practices. He helped me to understand many of the core values that represented “the Cheyenne Way” and his manner of speaking reflected the careful treatment of sacred subjects and a genuine regard for the history and place of the Cheyenne in the world today.
A popular book at the time was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Its author, Dee Brown, happened to live just a few hours away and invited me to his home to talk about Dull Knife. His account of Dull Knife’s death was the last recorded date, and so I thought he might know the most of the authors still alive.
Dee Brown was gracious, shared openly what he knew, and acknowledged that there was little of substance recorded about Dull Knife. He said that he thought the answers that I was looking for would need to come from the Cheyenne elders and historians. I would need to go to the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana to learn more. In the summer of 1985 I took a week off work as the Director of a non-profit that I had created providing group home and therapeutic foster care for youth, and set out to Montana so that I could finally learn what had been left out of history books.
I traveled with a friend, David Courtney, a Vietnam War Marine veteran, who shared an interest in the story. We were invited into many offices and homes each day. Many of the elders we spoke with were guarded in what they shared; others were very open and wanting to teach us some of what they valued most about The Cheyenne Way. I learned of traditions, culture, history, unfamiliar events and about other Cheyenne chiefs, whose stories were motivating and compelling. I learned more about the strong spiritual nature of the people. Day after day, though, I wondered why no one would speak about Dull Knife. The last person we spoke with was Bill Tallbull on the evening before we were to depart. He was the tribe's cultural liaison, called by some a medicine man, and highly respected as a keeper of the culture and history of the Northern Cheyenne people. We met a little before dusk and visited through the night into the early hours of morning. I began realizing that if his accounts were accurate, there was no way "the dominant culture" could accept what happened in the battles with the U.S. troops during the Indian Wars, nor the kindred relations that the Cheyenne people had with their winged and four legged relations. It would be difficult to translate the deep "spirit" connection to the land and the beings it held. While enthralled with Bill's willingness to share his extensive knowledge, it became apparent that he, too, was going to leave out any account of Dull Knife.
As the evening ended, he shared the reason no one had spoken of Dull Knife and the reason there was so much disinformation. The descendants of Dull Knife had withheld these accounts for over a hundred years. One promising development, he went on, was that a descendant had begun sharing the stories outside of the family. His name was Ted Risingsun, a tribal leader and great-grandson of Dull Knife. Bill encouraged us to go to the post office in Busby that morning and ask the clerk if she would point out Ted's house from there. Later that morning, we met with her and she pointed to a house nearby. The house, though, was abandoned, and had been for a long time. Windows and doors were open and hay was strewn throughout it.
It was disappointing, though somehow expected. This was my last visit and I ended up at a house where no one lived. I was even more amazed with the Cheyenne people and the carefully concealed story of their Old Man Chief. The importance of the discovery of his life had increased with each day and now I was going to be leaving with far more questions and no answers. With a sense that I had nothing to lose, I sat down on the porch and wrote a letter to Ted. I got a large rock and put the letter under the rock and we left the reservation.
As time passed, the effort to discover the story of Dull Knife seemed a naive undertaking and I came to believe I was out of my league in even trying. I had been fully rebuffed, as had historians and anthropologists for a hundred years. Then a couple months later a call came. The voice on the line asked for me and then he stated, "This is Ted Risingsun. I got your letter. Guess you went to the wrong house." I imagined a broad smile when he said this. It was "Indian humor." He went on to state that what I wrote was interesting and he noted some of what I had stated about his great-grandfather. He then asked, "Would you write down everything you know about my great-grandfather and would you send it to Bill Tallbull?" He also asked that I state in my letter what I would do with the information if it were shared with me.
I took a couple weeks to respond with a lengthy letter relating my understanding of The Old Man and stated what I would do with the information if it were shared with me. Then I waited for a response. After a couple weeks I began doubting that my response was acceptable to him or to Bill Tallbull. After a couple months, I was pretty sure I would not hear from Ted again, though I still waited each day hoping for a response. Then he called. He informed me that there was going to be a meeting of the descendants in the spring (1986) and asked me if I would like to come. He said that there was going to be a large gathering and the great-grandchildren were going to bring up the possibility of recording the stories of The Old Man and sharing these outside of the family. Thrilled, I gratefully accepted his invitation.
Once again, I left the comfort of my home, wife and kids and with my friend David, I travelled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The meeting of the descendants in April of that year was at the tribal Hand Game Hall. It was an auditorium with bleachers on each side. On one side the men were seated, on the other the women sat. There were well over a hundred adults seated. Children were free to roam, their laughter a constant background sound while the adults carried forward their agenda. Ted introduced the idea of recording the oral histories that had been shared with many of them. It was generally thought that the stories could be compiled into a narrative that could someday be presented outside of the direct descendants. Many were in favor of creating from them a script and working together to create from the story a film. This was the most popular view. Many, though, opposed letting go of the story and having others prosper from the telling. The most valuable asset the descendants held was this story and to release it could mean that nothing would come back to them. It could also mean that the story would be distorted and filled with misrepresentations like most all films about American Indians. At times the debate was contentious. Often, the language was Cheyenne. At other times it was English. Many of the elders were soft spoken and seemed to be mainly speaking to the other elders, limiting what they had to say to the Cheyenne language. Much of the morning was taken up with one after another speaking his or her thoughts on the important matter.
Finally, there was a silence that seemed sustained. Slowly, in the middle of the women, an elder who appeared older than the others in the auditorium, stood up. She first spoke Cheyenne and then translated to English, so that she could be understood by everyone. There is no known recording of all that she said, but I remember most of it because of how powerfully she presented her remarks. She began “My name is Maggie Dull Knife One Bear. I am the last surviving grandchild of The Old Man. Ever since I was a little girl, people have come here asking about my grandfather. Always they have been turned away. Today there has been talk of great leaders of other people---Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our country has not been able to recognize an Indian leader. Maybe we are soon coming to a time when that can happen. I look around at our children and see that they have no such leader to follow. They need to know about my grandfather. He was a great leader. He put the interests of his people above his own, like a father caring for his family. He brought us back home here, overcoming powerful forces against us. He was an example of leadership during the hardest times. Our children need to know, and other children need to know, about Cheyenne leadership. We should come together and tell this story for the children." When she was finished speaking, she signaled the women beside her and she was helped down the bleacher steps and out of the auditorium.Maggie Dull Knife One Bear
She seemed to be the settling voice. From this point on, a consensus arose among the great-grandchildren that the stories of The Old Man should be collected and someone needed to be appointed to weave them together into a story that could be shared "for the children". There continued to be talk of writing a screenplay. Three storytellers were chosen among the great-grandchildren, who were recognized by the others as the most knowledgable of the oral histories--- Ted Risingsun, Josie Sooktis, and Rose Killsontop. Josie's daughter, Rubie Sooktis, was selected as the descendant who would collect the stories and weave them into a book or manuscript from which a film could be developed.
I had witnessed this and was extremely grateful. I was included in the discussion as someone that might add support to the descendants. I agreed to help write grants for the collection of the oral histories, and to provide other support as needed, which over the next few years I followed through on. I was also invited to gatherings occasionally, when the descendants would come together as a part of one grant or another to bring in other authors, historians, and U.S. government officials to support the work of the descendants. Ted Risingsun invited me to visit with him on occasions to share some of the stories and ask for additional assistance with their efforts. We often traveled to locations where he shared historical accounts of what had taken place there. Years passed and although a screenplay had been written, it was not picked up by any filmmaker. Grants had not resulted in a collection of the oral histories.
In the summer of 1995, Ted's last year of life, I was invited to an annual event. It was the four day Northern Cheyenne Chief's Powwow. It turned out to be a pivotal time in my life. An area was reserved for recognized guests and a lodge (teepee) had been placed on the grounds for me to stay (the previous year it was where the actor Tom Berenger stayed, being honored for his role in the film "Last of the Dogmen"). There was a giveaway, honoring the memory of Maggie Dull Knife One Bear, who had passed later in the same year of the gathering in 1986. I was recognized during the giveaway by the descendants of Morning Star for my support to them over the previous years. During the events, Ted Risingsun was honored many times over for all of his contributions to and accomplishments on behalf of the Cheyenne people. Inclement weather forced many of the ceremonies to take place in the high school auditorium. There Ted was called from his seat over and over again to go to the center of the auditorium to receive awards and gifts that commemorated his many achievements on behalf of the people. I sat beside him and was his support walking beside and assisting him as he went forward to receive his acknowledgments. His health was very poor and diabetes had weakened his legs. Exhausted from the effort, at the end of the evening, he turned to me and surprised me by stating, "You need to write this story." He elaborated that he did not believe it would be accomplished otherwise. I responded that so much had taken place already and that the family had come together as descendants to record the oral histories, creating from them the story that needs to be heard. I wanted him to understand that it had to be the descendants' story, not me writing it. I wasn't the writer; only someone to assist the descendants in the writing. He let it go and I imagined we would return to the subject soon and he would understand my resistance. Unfortunately Ted passed away later that year.
Although I reached out to other descendants after this, there seemed little that was needed from me or that I any longer had to offer the descendants. I traveled occasionally to the reservation and visited with Rubie Sooktis, who continued her attempt to write the story and one of the great-grandchildren Barbara Spang, who kept me informed of happenings and the progress being made. Visits and calls became less frequent. Then I was asked to come to a meeting called by the remaining great-grandchildren. They had decided to seek another route to have their story told and asked me to represent this effort. The fourth generation descendants asked me to represent them in creating a film of the story of Morning Star. Robert Bailey had begun resuming the role that Ted had previously held with the descendants and wanted to revive progress on their goal to record and share the story of their great-grandfather. I didn't know how I could accomplish this, but believed that I had no choice but to accept their request, remembering Ted's last request of me and how empty my support had been over the last five or six years.
I formed the Morning Star Family Foundation, through which proceeds that may come would be directed. I also formed a corporation, Morningstar Storytellers, which was incorporated as a partnership including the Northern Cheyenne Nation as a partner, investors, descendants and others. A local attorney, Jim Ferris, worked diligently with the attorney for the Northern Cheyenne Nation, the descendants and investors to create a viable organizational structure through which to pursue the film. After gaining endorsements from Herman Viola of the Smithsonian Institution and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (a Northern Cheyenne tribal member) for the importance of the oral history, I was eventually able to secure a "first right to a screenplay" contract from Sony Pictures, a producer, and the interests of a few screenwriters. Investors put in funds to cover the costs of a first draft of a screenplay, which the tribe was being asked to match. A presentation by Robert Bailey and me to the tribal council resulted in a consensus of support for the project. The Economic Development committee approved the investment. Then time passed. The President of the tribe, though, failed to release the funds. A year later, I was asked to report to the council. I was asked what progress had been made but informed there could be no discussion of the failure of the tribe to release funds as proposed and approved by the Council the previous year.
Robert Bailey passed and the descendants' expectations of the making of a film were nearly lost. I asked for another meeting of the remaining great-grandchildren. I recalled all that had happened and my best efforts to help, but clearly there was nothing else that I could do for them. I asked that I be released from any expectation of helping them to record the story of Morning Star or helping them to develop a film on his life. Surely they could find a more capable person in who's hands they could place their hopes. There were little more than a handful of great-grandchildren remaining, all women, and they spoke among themselves in Cheyenne. Toward the end there was significant laughter. All in agreement, I was informed they wanted me to continue, but without the tribe as a partner.
There was a time when I had no plan to offer them. I reflected on Ted's request that I write the story. This seemed impossible. I had no experience nor had I demonstrated the talent to take on such a complex story. I only knew hundreds of bits and pieces of the oral histories that had been shared and couldn't imagine a way to string them together into a screenplay. I contacted prominent screenwriters and leading American Indian authors trying to find someone with the talent to take this on as a book or a screenplay. Over a year passed. I couldn't let go of Ted's request, or of Maggie's plea that the story be "told for the children." I also recalled a parting question in my conversation in 1998 with the last surviving of the three storytellers, Rose Killsontop. "Why is this taking so long?"
By now, twenty-five years had passed since I first began this journey and it finally dawned on me that I had to make the best of this. Although Rubie was still collecting oral histories, which may someday become a valuable collection of accounts from the elders, no story "for the children" had yet been created. I needed to write it! If only to provide an example of Cheyenne leadership and to create a new narrative of the times of Morning Star. I needed to include what Ted and the others had shared, which were many of the strongest elements of the oral histories, as Ted had suggested fourteen years earlier. If I did this, the descendants could review each draft and make recommendations for changes and edits. They could either support the effort or inform me that they did not wish for this to be how I continued my effort to support them.
Twenty five copies of a preliminary first draft in spiral bound pages was circulated among the descendants in that summer of 2009. It was presented only as a sketch of what I hoped, with their help, could be developed into a book. Over the next few years this was totally reshaped, with ongoing input from the descendants after review of each draft, a growing consensus support from the fourth generation descendants and a renewed interest in the fifth generation to see this completed. Year after year, there were additional elements added and revisions made. With unanimous approval of the descendants in a gathering at Chief Dull Knife College, a version was approved for copyright and distribution in 2015. During an event in 2016 unveiling a large pipestone monument near Fort Robinson, commemorating the Cheyennes' escape from the fort, the first hundred copies of the book, Dull Knife, Let Us Make a New Way, were distributed by and for the descendants. Later about fifty copies were distributed among the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma. The books were used over the next year in the high school on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as a part of the Cheyenne History and Government class. This limited edition was intended to be read by persons familiar with the story, including Cheyenne elders, historians, and other authors. Additional feedback was sought during this time from persons outside the direct descendants before there was to be a wider distribution of the book. A year later, in November of 2017, with consensus approval of the descendants, support from Cheyenne elders outside of the descendants, support from historians and others and with permission at last to use his Cheyenne name and the Morning Star symbol, the book, Morning Star, Let Us Make a New Way, was published.