- "Now for the Indian Story"Reconceiving George Bent as a Warrior-Writer
When advertising its upcoming October 1905 issue, the Colorado Springs periodical The Frontier: A Journal of Early Days and Their Thrilling Events declared, "We have read the other side of the story. Let us see what the red man has to say about it." The "red man" in question was George Bent (1843–1918), a sixty-two-year-old Southern Cheyenne writer, historian, translator, Confederate veteran, Crooked-Lance (or Bone-Scraper) Society warrior, and Sand Creek Massacre survivor.1 His "story" was "Forty Years with the Cheyennes," a six-part autobiography that ran as the Frontier's leading article from October 1905 to March 1906.2 Despite his literary ambitions, "Forty Years" is one of just two publications that appeared in Bent's lifetime; the University of Oklahoma Press published the more widely-known Life of George Bent (1968), a book-length expansion of "Forty Years," fifty years after Bent died.3 Though rarely read today, "Forty Years" greatly complicates our understanding of early twentieth-century Native and non-Native collaborative writing. Among its diverse interventions, "Forty Years" centralizes Bent's authorial agency (especially in contrast to Life); establishes his tribal belonging by engaging with Southern Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warrior culture and communal identity; critically addresses narratives by white writers like Hamlin Garland; and privileges Southern Cheyenne orature.4 More closely studying Bent's early writing and editing—particularly surrounding his development of "Forty Years"—thus crucially defines Bent as one of the "active agents in history, innovators of new ways, of Indian ways, of thinking and being and speaking and authoring in this world created by colonial contact," to quote Creek-Cherokee scholar Craig Womack (6). Bent's "Indian" way of authoring and editing reveals that US Western history and literature [End Page 111] are not simply defined by straightforward conquest. Rather, the Euro-American, Southern Cheyenne, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota perspectives that Bent interweaves in "Forty Years" form a provocative international narrative that resists essentialist views of Native and non-Native collaborations of the assimilation era. In the end, Bent's unique serialized autobiography radically refigures the US West as a narrative landscape deeply shaped by Native orature, kinship, and persistence.
Many contemporary readers—both Native and non-Native—valued George Bent's Southern Cheyenne vantage. In a letter dated April 17, 1906, Bent tells his longtime collaborator, amateur Euro-American ethnographer George Hyde (from Omaha, Nebraska), that "people down here [in Indian Territory, or present-day Oklahoma, where Bent lived in the early 1900s] wanted more Frontier Magazines. of this month they think our accounts in it were good" (Beinecke, box 1, folder 7).5 This account of praise for Bent's Frontier narrative is supported by Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1905–1906. A footnote to Kansas State Historical Society President Robert M. Wright's autobiographical "Reminiscences of Dodge" article in Transactions describes "Forty Years" as a "story… well told, and without passion," seemingly admiring Bent's fact-oriented approach and restrained tone (73).6 Prominent Euro-American ethnographer James Mooney further proclaimed "Forty Years" a "valuable series of papers of personal recollections" in 1907 (429). National recognition followed with the 1921 publication of the Cambridge History of American Literature, which announced that the "Indian side of much of the trouble of the years following 1861 may be read in 'Forty Years with the Cheyennes'" (Dellenbaugh 148).
A few Mountain West figures, however, lambasted "Forty Years" for casting Euro-Americans as antagonistic—particularly in Bent's account of the Sand Creek Massacre. Their responses reveal the racism and uneasiness about diverse views that contextualize Bent's turn-of-the-twentieth-century Frontier writings. The Frontier magazine circulated among a mostly white audience of first-and second-generation Colorado settlers. Its readership at the time was not large. When Part Six of "Forty Years" appeared in 1906, the Frontier had just 4,875 subscribers (Ayers 85).7 Part One, which addressed the Sand Creek Massacre, reached a wider audience when reprinted by the Denver Times on November 2, 1905.8 An anonymous editorial accompanying the...