- SONG OF DEWEY BEARD: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn by Philip Burnham
Song of Dewey Beard is less the biography one might expect than a well-contextualized oral history of a remarkable man whose long life spanned the most painful and demoralizing decades of Lakota life on the Plains. The man known in his later years as Dewey Beard was born on the banks of the Niobrara River in Nebraska Territory in the late 1850s or early 1860s to Minneconjou Lakota parents. By the time he died in 1955 he had an English name, was an enrolled Oglala, and had gained enough notoriety as the last survivor of the Little Bighorn battle to earn an obituary in Time magazine. In between, he had many different names. In the Bureau of Indian Affairs files he is Dewey Beard, a name that followed him in the white world into which he was thrust, but many of his descendants still call him Putinhin [End Page 167] and he referred to himself as Wasu Masa (“Iron Hail”). This highly engaging book charts his remarkable life journey as remembered and reported by others.
Beard was a witness to history, if ever there was such a person. He came of age fighting soldiers on the Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass) and almost died at Wounded Knee, where soldiers’ bullets killed many of his closest kin and left his own body badly scarred. He was cousin to Crazy Horse, followed Sitting Bull into exile in Canada after the Custer fight, and fled toward Wounded Knee with Big Foot when Indian police killed Sitting Bull at the height of the 1890 Ghost Dance panic. He rode in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, performed in Hollywood films, signed autographs for tourists at the Badlands, and was hosted at the Little Bighorn battlefield. All the while he struggled to make a living for himself and his family. Born a Minneconjou, after Wounded Knee he was relocated from the Cheyenne River Reservation to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where federal agents enrolled him as an Oglala. Under the terms of the Great Sioux Agreement of 1889, he and his wife and children received allotments near the Badlands on Red Water Creek. In 1924, he was granted US citizenship under the Indian Citizenship Act and less than two decades later he had his lands seized by his new government for a gunnery range. By the time the government fully compensated him for their taking Beard was dead.
This volume covers this tragic ground with sensitivity, respect, and tremendous insight. Burnham’s insights, however, are not the outcome of hours spent hunched over government records, digging through dusty tomes, or prowling archives. Instead, they were acquired through what can only described as active listening, the method at the heart of high-quality oral history research. Over many years, Burnham tracked down and developed relationships with Dewey Beard’s kinfolk, friends, neighbors, and other acquaintances. In doing so, he recorded their fragmented memories of this much beloved figure. Burnham has compiled and organized those memories here, skillfully locating them within the sociocultural setting of reservation life, the flow of events internal and external to the Lakota communities, and the ever-changing federal policies that shaped Lakota existence in the late-nineteenth and first sixty years of the twentieth century.
It is sadly fitting that the Song of Dewey Beard, from which this book draws its title, is a warrior song. Dewey Beard’s life was, indeed, a constant battle for survival, a battle he fought with courage and dignity. While he experienced a more dramatic slice of Native American history than many of his peers, his fight for day-to-day survival and the accommodations that he was forced to make are far more typical than atypical of Native life in the first half of the twentieth century. That, coupled with the historical background and context provided by Burnham, makes this an ideal volume for use in undergraduate history, Native American studies, and anthropology courses. It is also a book that...