Cheyenne Autumn

It was a research project with the drama of a detective story. And just as Sherlock Holmes unraveled mysteries--using a method reliant on fanatical attention to detail--so too did the organizers of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, which currently fills the main-floor galleries at the Colorado History Museum.

The genesis for this show came more than twenty years ago when Jean Afton, a local anthropologist interested in the Plains Indians, found a Cheyenne ledgerbook in the archives of the Colorado Historical Society. The book was from a private library that had been donated to the society in 1903 by Ira LaMunyon, an early Union Pacific Railroad surveyor who lived in North Platte, Nebraska. The discovery of the book was no accident. Afton had a personal as well as professional reason for looking into the LaMunyon collection: She's married to the pioneer's great-grandson.

The ledgerbook was filled with drawings by various Cheyenne warriors, who depicted themselves in combat with soldiers. But Afton quickly became convinced that the book was more than just a collection of genre scenes. As early as 1977, she published an article in which she argued that the drawings referred to specific historical events.

Two years ago Afton was joined in her project by CHS vice-president Andrew Masich and chief historian David Halaas, who brought with them their expertise in uniforms and armaments, as well as the society's wide array of resources. Together the three were able to prove Afton's thesis, uncovering letters from early pioneers and other documents that make it clear the Cheyenne intentionally set out to make a historical record of their activities.

In the exhibit that stemmed from Afton, Masich and Halaas's research, the original ledgerbook has been supplemented by a second book of Cheyenne drawings and by Indian and settler clothing and other historical artifacts. The historical society began collecting American Indian material in 1879 and has mostly drawn on its own considerable collection. But there are also items on loan from the National Archives, the Kansas City Museum, the Nebraska Historical Society, the Denver Art Museum and private collections.

The show begins with an invaluable display of artifacts and text blocks that introduce the viewer to the Cheyenne people, in particular the Dog Soldiers. The Cheyenne freely ranged across the plains before white settlers and the U.S. Cavalry arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. The tribe was divided into two groups, the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne. The Dog Soldiers were one of a half-dozen warrior societies active within both groups. Then, in 1837, Porcupine Bear, a Dog Soldier chief, participated in the killing of a fellow Cheyenne. His punishment for this act, dictated by tribal law, was banishment from the Cheyenne. But Porcupine Bear was not without friends and influence, and the rest of the Dog Soldiers and their families joined him in exile. This created a third Cheyenne tribal group on the plains. Soon, disaffected Lakota and Arapaho warriors joined Porcupine Bear's Dog Soldiers, creating a union of forces cemented by a profound distrust of the white man.

This first part of the show fills several rooms with beautiful bead and quill works by Cheyenne women. Of particular interest are the "Hairpipe Breastplate" and "Shell Choker," which were worn by the Dog Soldiers. Originally, the breastplate and choker were meant to be body armor and may have been effective in dealing with the bow and arrow. But by the time the Dog Soldiers separated from the rest of the Cheyenne, gun play was the way of the West, and protection from bullets was beyond the capacity of the bones and beads that make up the breastplate and choker. Their meaning by then was purely symbolic.

Another spellbinding historical artifact on display is the extremely rare "Dog Rope," on loan from the DAM. The Dog Rope is a woven sash that was worn over the shoulder. Only the four bravest Dog Soldiers were allowed to wear it. In battle, the wearer of the Dog Rope would sometimes stake himself to the ground and then fight, without the possibility of surrendering. This piece, made of reeds and bark and other natural materials, is so fragile that it is only intermittently lighted, for fear that exposure to light could cause further deterioration.

According to co-organizer Masich, the mainstream Cheyenne looked upon the Dog Soldiers as thugs and troublemakers. But everything changed after the Sand Creek Massacre, which Masich calls the single most important event in Colorado history. On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington, leading 1,000 volunteers out of Denver City, attacked Chief Black Kettle's village of the peaceable Southern Cheyenne on the banks of Big Sandy Creek. The American flag was flying over the treaty-protected village when Chivington and his men attacked, killing 150 men, women and children. Chivington's goal was ending the "Indian problem." In this he surely failed, because the massacre ignited twenty years of war between the Indians and the white settlers on the Great Plains and, according to Masich, proved to the Cheyenne that the Dog Soldiers had been right: They couldn't trust the white man.

The portion of the exhibit devoted to the Sand Creek Massacre reprises a number of items from last year's incredible Real West exhibit, a joint presentation of the CHM, the DAM and the Denver Public Library. That exhibit, which addressed scores of topics with thousands of articles, was clearly a laboratory for future shows, and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers is the first of what is hoped will be many more. As in Real West, there is the clay pipe retrieved by Cheyenne warrior and massacre survivor Cometsevah, along with that wonderful 1930s painting of Sand Creek by Robert Lindneux. New for this exhibit are the scorched belongings of the Southern Cheyenne, gleaned from the Sand Creek site by Chivington's volunteers, who returned to Denver with them, kept them as souvenirs and eventually left them to the CHS. Particularly graphic is a glob of melted beads that was lent to the museum by a private collector.

It is at this point in the exhibit that the viewer comes upon the ledgerbook from the LaMunyon collection. The oldest known book of Cheyenne drawings, it has been paired for the first time in more than a century with another Cheyenne ledgerbook from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. That second book sat in a file for more than 130 years before co-organizer Halaas pulled it out of an envelope during a research trip for the project. When he saw the document, recalls Halaas, "the hairs went up on the back of my neck."

The ledgerbook that stayed in Colorado is in superb condition, its paper and colored drawings bright and luminous. But the pocket-sized volume from the archives suffers from water damage, discoloration and broken bindings. As a result, it is only dimly lighted, as are the "safe-conduct passes" for Dog Soldier Chief Tall Bull, which are also on loan from the National Archives. One of these, signed by E.W. Wynkoop, the U.S. Indian Agent out of Fort Larned, Kansas, reads in part that Chief Tall Bull "will do nothing that is wrong, unless forced to do so by the impudent acts of white men."

The two ledgerbooks and the safe-conduct passes were taken from the site of the Summit Springs massacre. If Sand Creek launched the Indian wars on the Great Plains, Summit Springs marked the beginning of the end of the conflicts. On July 11, 1869, the Fifth Cavalry under the command of Major Eugene Carr, along with Pawnee scouts and William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, attacked Chief Tall Bull's Dog Soldier village at White Buttes, in northeastern Colorado. Their victory was complete, and after taking refuge in the village during a rainstorm, the soldiers discovered the ledgerbooks. A convened-on-the-site commission of officers made an inventory of the village. Using that inventory as a guide, exhibition organizers have created a display tent that features not only Cheyenne-made articles but objects taken in raids from the settlers as well. Also on display are a couple of Frederic Remington paintings and Buffalo Bill's battered hat. It's interesting to note that, well into the twentieth century, Buffalo Bill re-created his battle with Chief Tall Bull as a part of his famous traveling Wild West Show.

Building an exhibit around a pair of books presented a real challenge to the organizers. Each ledgerbook can be opened to only one place at a time, of course, meaning that the exhibit could include at most only four actual ledgerbook drawings. The organizers solved the problem with well-done photographs of many additional pages. Though this compromise is necessary, it's a slippery slope; at times, everything in the viewer's sight is a photo reproduction, and not all of them are essential.

But this is a small quibble in an exhibit replete with compelling historical documents, each of which seems to carry with it a story. The small ledgerbook and the safe-conduct passes wound up in the National Archives in the first place because Major Carr sent them to Washington with his complete report on the battle. Other events leading up to the Summit Springs massacre, such as the Indian attack on the stage stop at Julesburg, were documented, too. In that case, the Dog Soldiers took the payroll, and so depositions were taken for the insurance claims.

Also invaluable to Afton, Masich and Halaas were the more than 600 letters written by George Bent (son of William Bent, the builder of Bent's Fort, and Owl Woman, a Southern Cheyenne). At the time the ledgerbooks were drawn, the younger Bent, who was raised in both the white and Cheyenne worlds, was riding with the Dog Soldiers. Bent, whose Cheyenne name was Beaver, is pictured in the ledgerbooks, and later in his life, he wrote about the events that are depicted. In his letters, he also describes how the drawings in the ledgerbooks were the product of the collective recall of the assembled warriors, reflecting on events immediately after they occurred.

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers reinforces the realization, as did Real West, that art, just like written records, can tell us our history in very precise and specific ways. It's a moral that has been noted only recently by the powers that be at the history museum. Let's hope they'll continue to take this important message to heart.

Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, through August 3 at the Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 866-3682.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia