Among the nine hundred Indians, mainly Oglala Sioux, who surrendered to the US Army at Camp Robinson in Nebraska in early May 1877 was an eighty-four-year-old man who served as a tribal historian. His name is lost but his existence is preserved in a letter written by the post commander, Colonel Luther P. Bradley, to his wife. A few weeks after the surrender, Bradley reported, the historian rode over to Camp Robinson on his pony to visit. “I went outside the gate to shake hands with him,” Bradley wrote.
He was very chatty and thanked me for coming out to see him, saying he was an old man and couldn’t walk very well. He carried a stick about six feet long covered with notches, thousands of them. I asked him what it was and he said it was the history of the world from the beginning, handed down by his fathers. Some day he is coming in to tell me the story and I’ll write you about it.
I have tried to puzzle out the historian’s name but without success. The surrendering Indians had all come in with Crazy Horse and the following day, on May 7, 1877, they were counted and many of their names—probably including the historian’s—were recorded in an Army ledger book. Sometime after the end of the Indian wars this register disappeared into private hands but it resurfaced in the late 1980s and was published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1994.1 With the reappearance of the book all those people, many of them unknown for a century, suddenly re-entered the historical record. Unfortunately, no ages had been recorded along with the 217 names of heads of families in the Crazy Horse band, and Bradley offers no other fact to help identify their historian.
Things written down are the evidence of choice for historians in the classic tradition of Western Europeans. Francis Parkman, writing in the year Crazy Horse surrendered, dismissed “Indian traditions of historical events [as] almost worthless.” But paper records, too, are a sometime thing—gone today, here tomorrow, like a letter from Bradley to his mother which sold at auction a year ago. The letter, written on September 8, 1877, only three days after Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers under Bradley’s command, includes several details about the killing recorded nowhere else. The historian’s stick, like Bradley’s letter to his mother, may also be awaiting discovery—on a collector’s wall, or stored away in the basement of a museum, or conceivably still in the possession of some old traditional living on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, where most of the people who surrendered with Crazy Horse ended up, and their descendants still live.
The Oglala history stick described by Colonel Bradley was not unique. Several similar sticks maintained by other Indian peoples are cited by the scholar Peter Nabokov in his recent study, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. Nabokov, a professor…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.