Carl Van Doren's
The Last Frontier
by Howard Fast
(for the Press of the Reader's Club edition)
(Sections in dark blue were used for the version on the back cover of the Blue Heron Press edition.)
AT HARTSHORNE in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) during the summer of 1902 Edwin Dukes, whose father was governor of the Choctaw nation, told me a dim story to which Howard Fast has given enduring form and life. Most of the Choctaw boy's stories were about his own people, their migrations and wars, with little about Indians in general. But he once spoke of a tribe he did not name that at a date he did not specify was mistreated in the Territory, indignantly left it, and in spite of all the white soldiers could do got back to some river in the north, where the tribe had remained ever since. Years afterwards I came upon what I supposed was the same event in a history of the Northern Cheyenne. But till I read THE LAST FRONTIER I never realized what a magnificent story it was I had first heard from an Indian to whom it was more or less a legend in the country where the heroic flight began.
The official account in Hodge's Handbook of American Indians furnishes the dry outlines. "The Northern Cheyenne joined with the Sioux in the Sitting Bull war in 1876 and were active participants in the Custer massacre. Later in the year they received such a severe blow from Mackenzie as to compel their surrender. In the winter of 1878-79 a band of Northern Cheyenne under Dull Knife, Wild Hog, and Little Wolf, who had been brought down as prisoners to Fort Reno to be colonized with the southern portion of the tribe in the present Oklahoma, made a desperate attempt at escape. Of an estimated 89 men and 146 women and children who broke away on the night of September 9, about 75, including Dull Knife and most of the warriors, were killed in the pursuit which continued to the Dakota border, in the course of which about 50 whites lost their lives. Thirty-two of the Cheyenne slain were killed in a second break for liberty from Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where the captured fugitives had been confined. Little Wolf, with about 60 followers, got through in safety to the north. At a later period the Northern Cheyenne were assigned to the present reservation in Montana."
Though this record does not quite agree with the novel at every point, it is only because Mr. Fast has followed other and now and then better authorities. A chance paragraph in a book he was reading made him feel that here was "possibly the greatest struggle against odds in all human history and also an epic in man's desire for personal freedom. Deciding that the story should be told in full, I set out to gather the facts." He ran down contemporary documents and newspaper reports and himself followed the trail the Cheyenne took. He had too much respect for the story to enlarge it, and it was a story that could not be enlarged. Such incidents could not have been invented. They must have happened, in the strange and terrible world of truth. "All of the principal characters in the story, with the exception of Captain Murray, are persons who lived and played their parts much as I have detailed here."
Captain Murray is in no sense a superfluous added character. He serves as the lens through which the action is seen and by which it is clarified and intensified. Mr. Fast does not try to enter into the dark minds of the Cheyenne and tell the story through their consciousness. But he needed a consciousness through which it might be told, preferably that of a white man, certainly that of a man who witnessed the whole flight. This could hardly be anybody but a soldier in the pursuing forces. Murray is such a soldier, vigorous enough to persist through the long campaign, imaginative enough to have a humane sympathy with the Indians in their fearful, honorable sufferings.
That sympathy is essential to the story as it has at last been told. For most frontiersmen in 1878-79 these Cheyenne were hardly different from a roving wolf pack except that they were more dangerous. The battles they fought on their way were commonly regarded as separate outbreaks of Cheyenne hostility, not known to be the recurring effects of a single cause, much less felt to be the mounting disasters of a people fiercely convinced that death was better than loss of liberty. How many white men in that time could comprehend the exalted desperation of Indian fugitives who said they had been dead ever since they lost their home in the north, and had nothing to fear from any other kind of death? Even Murray comprehends it without too much thought of the universal principle involved. In 1942 the experience of millions of men held in wretched subjection by invaders has taught the world at large what this small remote tribe understood. Here is a story that is tremendous in its application to our day: a story to hearten all grieving exiles, all languishing victims of alien tyrants, all imaginative, sympathetic men and women who have had to revalue freedom in the dread prospect of losing it. Against incomparable odds an incalculable heroism once rose up, and led to an unpredictable triumph.
There were white contemporaries on the plains who saw the government's behavior towards these Indians as a scandal. In a few months it was forgotten, and "only today," Mr. Fast realizes, "does a parallel begin to appear as all over the earth people begin the long trek to freedom." And not till today could the story have had the powerful impact it has in the light of daily happenings in occupied countries. The facts had to lie buried, waiting to be called out of the past when there should be a present ready for them.
Yet the matter as Mr. Fast presents it is more than documents dug up, more than a pamphlet about a scandal. It is a story which is a work of art, fresh and direct. As to persons and places, motives and intentions, acts and speeches, he has kept close to whatever facts there are records to verify. But instead of merely mentioning names on a map he has gone to the places themselves and re-created the scenes of his events. Though the persons who played the chief parts in the flight are now dead, they were alive then, and their story could be brought to life only by restoring them, as faithfully as possible, to flesh-and-blood. THE LAST FRONTIER is an amazing restoration and re-creation. The characters breathe, the landscape is solid ground and sky, and the story runs flexibly along the zigzag trail of a people driven by a deep instinct to their ancient home.
I do not know any other episode of Western history that has been so truly and subtly perpetuated as this one. A great story lost has been found again, and as here told promises to live for generations.
CARL VAN DOREN