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Promise: Bozeman's Trail to Destiny (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Chrys Ankeny
By Serle Chapman
Pavey Western Publishing, Billings, Mont., 2004

This is a beautiful book and a special book. It not only provides a colorful multivoice perspective on the important but sometimes overlooked Bozeman Trail but also benefits native people today. Author/photographer Serle Chapman has several perspectives here, but we also get trail takes from such contemporary scholars as Susan Badger Doyle, editor of the recent Journeys to the Land of Gold: Emigrant Diaries from the Bozeman Trail, 1863-1866, and natives such as Chief Alfred Red Cloud, a great-grandson of Chief Red Cloud. Nine pages of the 214-page book feature Alfred Red Cloud sharing his family's oral history about Mahpiya Luta, better known to history as Red Cloud. He writes, "Before he went to the spirit world my great-grandpa said, 'I was born a Lakota, and I have lived as a Lakota, and I shall die a Lakota.'" The Bozeman Trail, as all Western history buffs know, is closely associated with the Red Cloud War, which led to the closing of the 500-mile trail to the Montana gold fields and the signing of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

Chapman's photograph of Alfred Red Cloud, just like his many other photos of Indians and the Bozeman Trail today, is first rate. Archival images are mixed in, and it is a fine mix. Chapman's writing is nearly as stunning. In the section called "A Letter Home," Chapman offers an imagined letter written by a woman after her journey over the Bozeman Trail. A sample: "Oh, how harsh is this country since we commenced upon Mr. Bozeman's road. Be it only a few days ago, the sweeping grasslands and river bottoms lined with timber are a distant memory, replaced by the monotony of sagebrush and soap weed. This is a land in which you can see the horizon of tomorrow…." Through the eyes of a young Cheyenne warrior, Chapman looks at the so-called Fetterman Massacre in the section called "Hundred Soldiers Killed Fight." A sample: "The Little Star pulled up what he could of the walking soldier's head and took his scalp. I had not thought of taking it. I just thought how much the walking soldier reminded me of a starving coyote I had once seen die as she gave birth." In his foreword, Rick Ingoldsby, president of the Fort Phil Kearny/Bozeman Trail Association, says that the description of the Fetterman Fight is "a virtual blow-by-blow Cheyenne account of the battle, detailing which Cheyennes and Lakotas did what, where and when…."

"Every student at Oglala Lakota, Dull Knife, and Wind River colleges will receive a free copy of the book," writes Sarah Gilbertson-Chapman, director and coordinator of the project, "and we are proud to say that all the profits from Promise: Bozeman's Trail to Destiny are pledged by the publishers to Native American educational scholarships, primarily to colleges of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium." A good cause and a good read (and look), that's a Promise.

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