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American Indian images

American Indian images

Northern Cheyenne history told in photos, interviews

Curiosity flared into a passion for history when Thomas B. Marquis came to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as a doctor in 1922.

Although it was nearly 50 years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Marquis sought out Northern Cheyenne participants in the battle and learned sign language to preserve their side of the story. The Missouri-born doctor published their controversial perspectives in a series of pamphlets and books, which can still be found on the shelves of many battlefield history buffs.

Maps he made of the battle are stored in the archives at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, along with artifacts he preserved from survivors.

Although Marquis is less-well-known as a photographer, his images document reservation life from the mid-1920s until 1935. The collection includes photos of Northern Cheyenne survivors of the Custer Battle as they grew into old age.

About 30 of his images are preserved in the battlefield's archives, while the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., has a collection of more than 460 negatives, which the museum acquired in 1999.

It took a collaborative effort spanning more than 40 years to put together Marquis' photos as a book, "A Northern Cheyenne Album," published this summer by University of Oklahoma Press.

"It was a long, long effort, and a lot of players were involved," said Margot Liberty, an anthropologist specializing in American Indian cultures and the American West, who edited the volume of photos.

"The first person was the old doctor, the photographer," Liberty said.

John Woodenlegs, who was the Northern Cheyenne's tribal president from 1955 to 1968, provided much of the commentary on the lives of the subjects of Marquis' black-and-white photos. With Woodenlegs' support, a group in the 1960s began interviewing the tribe's elders and talking to relatives of the people in the Marquis photos. They intended to publish the photos and oral history in a book for reservation schoolchildren.

Most of the captions were done in the 1970s. But the manuscript languished for several decades, in part because of the expense of reproducing so many photographs.

Ten years ago, a participant in the oral-history project sent the manuscript to Liberty, who had taught on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the late 1950s. Liberty had co-written a book, published in 1967, with tribal historian John Stands in Timber. The book, "Cheyenne Memories," is considered a classic oral history of the Cheyennes.

Liberty immediately saw the importance of the collection of 150 photographs. To see it published, she was willing to forgo any royalty payments for her work on the project.

"There are a lot of historical pictures available, but very few of the early reservation years," she said in a phone interview from her home in Sheridan, Wyo.

She saw equal value in the commentary, provided mainly by Woodenlegs.

"He was an insider in the tribe, and he knew so many of these people well," she said. "The older people would talk to him in their own language. The tone of his captions is a very natural, very deeply Indian point of view."

To maintain the natural flow of Woodenlegs' way of speaking and preserve the other Indian voices, the editors at the University of Oklahoma Press envisioned two sets of captions. The original captions preserved the Northern Cheyenne voices from the oral histories. The other set of captions, written by Liberty, added more background information for those less familiar with Cheyenne customs and traditions.

In the early 20th century, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was much more isolated, both geographically and culturally, than it is today. People assume the transition to reservation life was just kind of a sad story, Liberty said.

"The photos show the early reservation as a much better place than most people realize, because the Indian people were very, very poor, but they had their communities and their relatives nearby. …They could also still speak their language and still have their ceremonies."

Although tribal members have maintained traditional ceremonies, the language is fading rapidly, Liberty said.

Custer buffs may be particularly intrigued by a few of the Marquis photos in "A Cheyenne Album," including a photo of Kate Bighead taken in 1926. Bighead is the only woman who is known to have been on the field to witness the Battle of the Little Bighorn and whose account has been preserved. She was the narrator of "She Watched Custer's Last Battle," a pamphlet written by Marquis.

"She watched from a great vantage point, what we know today as Greasy Grass Ridge," said John Doerner, chief historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

"Her accounts are vivid, and they actually tell us a lot about how the Seventh Cavalry collapsed," Doerner said.

Some commentary by John Woodenlegs is about his grandfather, Wooden Leg, who as an 18-year-old fought in the Custer battle. Marquis preserved Wooden Leg's controversial recollections of the battle in "Wooden Leg: a Warrior Who Fought Custer."

"That's a classic in battle literature. It's a must for any serious student of the battle," Doerner said.

Because Wooden Leg was so vivid in his account as an eyewitness to the battle, Doerner still uses his descriptions when leading interpretive programs at the battlefield.

After befriending veterans of the battle, Marquis took great care to listen to their stories, Doerner said. To communicate with Wooden Leg, and other participants in the battle who didn't speak English, Marquis learned sign language.

"He spent countless hours sitting down with him and actually drew maps with Wooden Leg's help. I still study those today," Doerner said. Those maps are preserved in the battlefield's collection.

Marquis had a rare opportunity to capture stories of the elderly veterans of the battle.

"It's remarkable the time he spent trying to preserve this original history and document it," Doerner said.

For Marquis, who is buried at Custer National Cemetery, the history of the battle may have been "a magnificent obsession," one that caused him to put aside his medical practice for his writing.

"He was the right person at the right time," said Doerner, who envisions Marquis wearing his hallmark straw skimmer summer hat and always traveling with notebook in hand.

"The importance of sharing the photographs is they offer us a rare glimpse back in time, a moment in time," Doerner said. "They're like a time capsule.

"When you look at the faces … these were proud people. I think capturing those images is significant, to look at this culture and admire it too. They preserve the faces of individuals who experienced the hardships of the Indian Wars firsthand."

Liberty sees a different value in presenting the images, some of them never before published, to a wider audience on and off the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

"Í think the current generation is finding a lot of connections to their grandparents that are very important to them," Liberty said.

At a book signing in Sheridan, she was moved by a family whose members showed up to talk to her:

"It was their grandmother on the cover, and they were just thrilled."

Contact Donna Healy at or 657-1292.


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