- "I Do Not Apologize for the Length of This Letter": The Mari Sandoz Letters on Native American Rights, 1940-1965
The quotation in Kimberli Lee's title comes from a letter Mari Sandoz wrote to Harry S. Truman in 1949 with the object of directing the president's attention to the plight of the Northern Cheyenne. Understanding that Truman had read her book Crazy Horse (1942) and hoping that his interest in American Indians would lead him to act on their behalf, Sandoz set pen to paper. Lee's thoughtful selection of letters shows just how often this Great Plains historian, biographer, and fiction writer applied her pen to promote the heritage, rights, and talents of Native Americans.
In her imminently readable and informative introductions—a general introduction and one for each major division in the book—Lee provides succinct biographical, social, and historical contexts for the primary material. The letters are presented chronologically within four sections, the titles of which convey an accurate sense of their content: "Quest for Historical Accuracy," "Political Activism/Social Justice for the Tribes," "Campaign against Native American Stereotypes," and "The Advocate: Promotion of Native American Artists and Writers." The organization and editorial commentary are great strengths in Lee's work, providing a unity and purpose that edited volumes of correspondence often lack.
Sandoz's letters reflect her impatience with historical inaccuracies and negative stereotypes regarding Native Americans. She was particularly irritated by Hollywood's insulting inattention to the Indian cultures it sought to represent. In a letter to her friend Anne Laurie Williams, she points out several gross errors in Universal-International's production Chief Crazy Horse (1955). She writes, "By making Crazy Horse's wife the daughter of Spotted Tail, they are making his marriage incestuous in the Indian's meaning of the term" (136). Clearly, Sandoz did not nitpick the factual discrepancies; she was concerned about major gaffes that denigrated Native Americans.
Lee's introductions help us to understand Sandoz's reaction against such social and political policies as "termination": "Simply put, termination was federal Indian policy instituted in the late 1940s through the 1950s as a way to end the U.S. government's responsibilities to American Indian tribes. Its goal was the total assimilation of Native Americans into the mainstream American population" (74). As a result, Sandoz felt that the Indians were either thrust unprepared into alien situations off the [End Page 309] reservations or starved, ignored, and exploited on the reservations. With the publication of Cheyenne Autumn in 1953, Sandoz began a number of publicity appearances, which she used as forums to publicize contemporary problems on the Cheyenne reservation. She wrote to Mr. Rufus Wallowing of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council in Montana to ask a number of questions about the status of the Cheyenne with regard to education and exploitation of their natural resources. She promises, "I'll have an opportunity to get in a few good licks for the People in the present, if I know just what the situation is now" (99). Avoiding the arrogance associated with outside do-gooders, Sandoz always turned to the Indians to ask what they needed.
The book concludes with letters showing Sandoz's encouragement of Native American writers and artists. Perhaps her finest achievement in this regard was the publication of A Pictographic History of the Oglala Sioux (1966). According to Lee, "Sandoz lobbied incessantly for the publication of the Amos Bad Heart Bull manuscript and pictographs compiled by Helen Blish" (145). It is still one of the most outstanding documents of Native history, narrative, and art. Sandoz wrote the introduction even though she was dying of cancer at the time.
The last major scholarly work on Mari Sandoz's voluminous correspondence was Helen Winter Stauffer's Letters of Mari Sandoz (1992), a chronological selection of the author's letters on a wide variety of subjects. Focusing on Sandoz's advocacy for Native Americans, Kimberli Lee has produced a new collection...