Mari Sandoz: Keeper of the Flame for Native American History

By Joan Amenn

When an artist creates a body of work, they will sometimes look back to assess what they have done. John Ford was near the end of his career and apparently wasn’t completely proud of what his oeuvre consisted of. Most egregious was the way his Western films depicted Native Americans as villains who deserved to be killed and their lands confiscated. His shot at redemption came through a remarkable woman named Mari Sandoz who had written a strongly researched book titled, Cheyenne Autumn.

Mari grew up hearing the stories of the suffering of the Native American people through friends, neighbors and visitors to her family farm in Nebraska in the early 1900’s. Her relationship with her father was difficult but she wrote a very well received biography about him after his death. Her research into his life brought back the memories of the members of the Cheyenne tribe who were his friends. She went on to write other works about the Old West but focused on the story of the tragedy and resilience of Native Americans in Cheyenne Autumn.

Mari_Sandoz
Mari Sandoz

 Mari grew up hearing the stories of the suffering of the Native American people through friends, neighbors and visitors to her family farm in Nebraska in the early 1900’s…Her research into his life brought back the memories of the members of the Cheyenne tribe who were his friends.

Her book came to the attention of Ford who had been working on drafts of a script sympathetic to the harsh treatment of Native Americans for years. Mari Sandoz received screen credit for her novel on which the film is based which is amazing since few women at the time were acknowledged for their writing in Hollywood. What is even more astonishing is that Sandoz never graduated high school and yet became a teacher, wrote many novels and won a Newberry award in 1958 for her young adult book, The Horse Catcher. Obviously, John Ford knew a genius for Western storytelling when he saw one.

cheyenne autum book

“Cheyenne Autumn” (1964) is not a great film and certainly not one of Ford’s best. However, rather than take a negative view of it for its flaws, there are many aspects to appreciate and enjoy. As always in a Ford film, the cinematography is gorgeous. William Clothier received an Oscar nomination for his work in capturing the almost surreally beautiful Monument Valley, where the Navajo Reservation is located. Like the book, this film tells the heartbreaking story of how the remains of the Cheyenne Nation make a desperate flight from their oppressive government mandated reservation back to their northern homelands.

Mari Sandoz received screen credit for her novel on which the film is based which is amazing since few women at the time were acknowledged for their writing in Hollywood.

Although Westerns tend to be dominated by male roles, there are two women who give outstanding performances in “Cheyenne Autumn.” Carroll Baker is a Quaker schoolteacher who is smart, strong willed and devoted to seeing the Cheyenne children safely to their destination. Dolores del Rio is given the obvious and absurd name Spanish Woman but is regal and fearless when she speaks for her people in refusing to return to the confinement that has only led to starvation and suffering. It is unfortunate that her role wasn’t bigger, but she gives a moving portrayal nonetheless.

caarroll
Carroll Baker in “Cheyenne Autumn.” (1964)

The less said about the embarrassingly incongruous intermission featuring Jimmy Stewart the better. “Cheyenne Autumn” broke ground for depicting Native Americans in a sympathetic light. Their stories deserve to be revisited and Mari Sandoz should be remembered for recording their traditions for future generations to be inspired by.

 

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