Cheyenne Autumn

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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.

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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