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.