Author Philip Burnham | HistoryNet MENU
Author Philip Burnham had to search beyond Dewey Beard's meager paper trail, interviewing those who knew him best to reveal the remarkable life of the Minneconjou Lakota.

Author Philip Burnham

By Candy Moulton
5/26/2016 • Wild West Magazine

If an author created a character who fought at the Little Bighorn, lived with Sitting Bull, got shot at Wounded Knee and later played a role in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, he’d be accused of conflating too many historical events. Yet the story of Dewey Beard is not fiction but the account of a remarkable Minneconjou Lakota. As a youngster at the Little Bighorn in June 1876, Beard killed a 7th U.S. Cavalry trooper. In December 1890 he was shot twice when the 7th Cavalry opened fire on Big Foot’s band at Wounded Knee. The onetime Ghost Dancer became a farmer and trick rider and later toured with Buffalo Bill, appeared in movies and argued Lakota land rights before Congress. As an old man Beard shared his story with a great-granddaughter who in turn shared it with Philip Burnham. The author’s 2014 book Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn won a Spur Award for best western biography from Western Writers of America.

When did you learn about Beard?
I met Beard’s great-granddaughter Marie Fox Belly when I was doing a book on American Indians and the national parks about 20 years ago. She told me Dewey’s story, which stayed for years in the back of my mind. Years later, by chance, I stumbled across the tape of an interview with Beard, made in 1955 just before he died, held at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The effect of hearing his voice on tape, even in Lakota, was both magical and unforgettable.

What was his role at Little Bighorn?
Beard was barely an adolescent, about 12 years old, at the Little Bighorn. By his own account he was held out of the fray until close to the end, when he rode across the Little Bighorn River with several friends and joined the battle. He counted coup once, killed a trooper with a bow and steel-tipped arrow and claimed to have seen the man (Thunder Hawk) who killed Custer. Beard, eventually known as Iron Hail (Wasú Máza), finished the day with several prizes, including an Army bugle and a big cavalry horse he rode to Canada. The bugle was passed down through the family and is on display at the Old Fort Meade Museum in Sturgis, S.D.

Neither Little Bighorn nor Wounded Knee, of course, happened at his bidding, but when they did, he rose to the occasion as only someone trained as a warrior could

When did he join Sitting Bull in Canada?
In 1877 many Lakotas crossed the border to Canada to avoid military retribution after the Little Bighorn. The press went so far as to call the victorious Lakotas and Cheyennes “murderers.” For a time the Canadian government was willing to offer refuge to Sitting Bull and his followers, so long as it didn’t impair relations with the American government. Beard’s people preferred “Grandmother’s Land,” because they could keep their guns and horses there, something they couldn’t do if they had gone into a fort and surrendered. The Lakotas who went to Canada were the last of their tribe to come into the reservation, and some never returned to America.

What did Beard experience in Canada?
We know very little about his life in Canada, except in the general sense of what the Lakotas endured. But this was the first time the he would experience exile. It was a time of intense and extended privation. And during the three years he spent there with his family, the threat of starvation was never far off. In 1880 they crossed back over the border into Dakota Territory and settled along the Cheyenne River.

He also knew Crazy Horse?
Their families camped together at gatherings, which suggests they were related. He called Crazy Horse “uncle,” which may have been more metaphorical than literal, as native people often use relational terms. Whatever the case, Beard spoke about Crazy Horse with easy familiarity, which suggests the two knew each other well. They may have been related through Beard’s mother.

How did Beard come to experience so much in life?
Beard was either in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither Little Bighorn nor Wounded Knee, of course, happened at his bidding, but when they did, he rose to the occasion as only someone trained as a warrior could. He was adventurous and fearless, whether riding for Buffalo Bill or going to Washington to make his case for Wounded Knee reparations.

How did you go about researching your book about Beard?
I spent a lot of time in dusty archives, and a lot more on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Beard spent the last 65 years of his life. I followed small clues, intriguing footnotes, always looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Since Dewey Beard never learned to read or write, I had no sources like letters to work with. So the book is based on both archival research and personal interviews, which gives it a sense of being history and journalism at the same time.

Of the documents you found, were any pivotal?
The taped interview at the Library of Congress, originally recorded by National Geographic, gave me a lot of important details—including the fact he rode in a Wild West show. Beard was frequently interviewed about Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, especially the longer he lived as a survivor of both. Those interviews were also essential to writing the book. They were, in a sense, the letters I didn’t have in his own hand.

Did you make any connections with his family/acquaintenances?
There aren’t many people left who remember Dewey Beard well. Since he died in 1955, his peers are long gone. The only people who really knew him are quite old now. I was blessed to meet his granddaughter, great-granddaughter and several great-nephews, all of whom shared their memories with me. All of them, by the way, were perfectly bilingual in Lakota and English, which was helpful, since my Lakota is rudimentary at best. Sadly, several Beard family members and friends have passed away since I finished the book, and not all of them were able to see it. So the book isn’t just about Beard, it’s also about his descendants and the legacy he willed them.

How did Wounded Knee affect him?
Beard lost almost his entire family in a single day at Wounded Knee. But he went on to live another 65 years, a virtual lifetime. He never forgot his tragedy, but he never succumbed to it, either, by way of cynicism or complacency or alcohol or despair. He was a quiet leader, a willing witness—and more than just a survivor. As his granddaughter Evelyn Yankton likes to put it, “He was a forever person.”

What challenges have you faced in your own research?
It took a lot of time and effort to go out to Pine Ridge every summer. But I learned that it was necessary to go back every year, not only to gain the trust of my Lakota friends, but also because you need to hear a story several times before you get it right. And people don’t just remember everything all at once. Recalling the past is a process, and I had to become a part of that process, in person, to do justice to my subject.

Another challeng was timing. Someone once told me I should have started the project 10 years earlier. If I had, a lot of Beard’s contemporaries would still have been alive. But as someone else also told me, that’s a common regret of historians. In a way you never start early enough. Documents are always disappearing; memories are always fading.

What document or connection eluded you?
Many was the time I fantasized about discovering a “Dewey Beard” file in some archive that would have given me everything I didn’t have—photos of his children, memories of life with his wife Alice, reflections on how much the world had changed in his lifetime. Needless to say, I never found that file. I wish I could have had access to some of his more private thoughts, which is what letters usually reveal. But there were no letters. And that’s why his descendants were so important to the project.

How do you discern a reliable source?
I like it when oral tradition and the written word overlap. Though the two are often portrayed as rivals, in many places in my research they intertwined and even confirmed one other. But human memory, whether written or spoken, is constructed from different points of view. Preserving stories is not just a matter of listening to (or reading) one version. There are always competing ways of recounting the past, and finding good sources comes with the caveat that no single one is definitive.

Who “owns” a story?
No one owns a story precisely, though people may well own (or avow) a particular version of it. History is about uncovering stories, which are almost always contested, and that’s what makes the past interesting. Historians owe it to their subjects to recover and recount stories in a way that respects and understands the parties involved, even when judgments are rendered.

How do you feel about corporate sponsorships of museums and historical sites?
Funding for public history almost always comes with strings attached. In my book on public history sites I detail how the retelling of history is influenced by who pays the bills. In the case of the National Park Service the sites are publicly funded, but even then a government agency can have an agenda not in keeping with the communities it serves. That’s the paradox I wrote about in my book on the national parks, which traces the long history of how the NPS has often marginalized Indian presence on the land and granted concessions to corporations with minimal interest in Indian issues.

Is that good for history?
Sponsorship is necessary in order to bring historical research to the public. But sites need to work harder to admit their biases and become more adept at including diverse storytelling or perspectives.

What are you working on?
I’m working on a book about Indian men and women who used their boarding school educations—and the trauma they experienced—to advance the cause of their tribes. The book is about unknown people—teachers, lawyers, doctors, preachers—who were trained to assimilate but instead applied their learning in unexpected ways that transformed their lives and those of their neighbors. WW

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