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Interview Dr. Margot Liberty

October 2006 

Bob Reece: Thank you for allowing us this great opportunity to talk with you about your new book, A Northern Cheyenne Album as well as your long illustrious career as a historian of the Cheyenne nation.

Dr. Margot Liberty: Bob, it is great to be in touch with your grand organization Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, which is doing such a wonderful job on line and in support of interpretive activities at Custer Battlefield including creation of the new Indian Markers on the field.

B.R. Thank you very much.  How did you become involved with the Thomas B. Marquis photos that resulted in A Northern Cheyenne Album?

M.L. They were sent to me about nine years ago by Betty Clark Wilson, a member of the reservation research team which conducted interviews concerning the pictures with elders on the reservation in 1960 and thereafter. John Woodenlegs, recently Northern Cheyenne tribal president for several terms, headed this team. He was a grandson of the warrior Richard Woodenlegs whose story is told in Marquis book, Wooden legs: A Warrior who Fought Custer.   After Marquis died, Marquis’ two daughters gave the pictures that he took between 1922 and 1936 to John Woodenlegs. It was hoped that they would become a book for reservation school use, concerning the early reservation years.

Betty Clark Wilson sent me the material following a phone call asking whether I had any publication ideas.  In all likelihood, Mrs. Wilson working closely with Woodenlegs and the other reservation interviewers had written the first set of captions for the photos.  Mrs. Wilson died not long after sending me the material. Woodenlegs and the interviewer Tom Weist, whose latest interview was in 1981, are also deceased so it is not clear exactly how the first set of captions was written.   They are however very close to the Cheyenne “voice” as one hears it today. Thus we decided to leave these intact, and that I would add my own notes and comments separately.

B.R. What impact did these photos have on you the first time you saw them?

M.L. It was clear that they were of great historical value. They relate not only to the traditional times of the tribe before surrender (eg. the portraits of Custer Battle veterans in their old age, ca. 1926) but also to ongoing aspects of tribal life and culture in the early reservation period.  Pictures of ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and the Animal Dance or Massaum are important. The Animal Dance no longer exists, and present Sun Dance participants do not welcome photographers. 

B.R. Why did it take so long for these photos to come to light?

M.L.  Marquis had the pictures until his death in 1926, publishing some of them in his historical pamphlets, (there were six of these such as “She Watched Custer’s Last Battle”), and using them with exhibits of artifacts in his small museum at Hardin, Montana. He began buying Custer Fight artifacts in 1927 or so -- see details in Tom Weist’s fine biographical sketch in the Marquis book, Cheyennes of Montana. A few of the pictures were also published there. (Cheyennes of Montana may be out of print and should be kept going.) 

After his death, his daughters had the pictures until giving them to Woodenlegs prior to 1960.  Some pictures were also placed at Custer Battlefield with his artifact collection, which remains the backbone of Battlefield Cheyenne exhibits today.  He used a half red- half-blue symbol as a logo, meaning  “My Heart Is Half Indian.” This appears with the pamphlet series and elsewhere.  

The reservation research team (Woodenlegs, Wilson, Weist and others) worked in association with an educational organization in Billings directed by Hap Gilliland, who retained the negatives.  There were about 500 of these. Only 149 were used in the book.  The reservation research team made the selection and I did not change it.  A few years ago Gilliland sold the negatives to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. So they now have publication rights. 

B.R. How is Thomas Marquis remembered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation today?

M.L. He is not remembered at all.   But he was a doctor there for less than a year in their great grandparents’ generation, and how many of us remember our great grandparents’ doctors? We don’t even remember our great grandparents.

B.R. What kind of feedback are you receiving from the Cheyenne people regarding your book? Are they satisfied with the finished product? 

M.L. They are delighted. Almost everyone has a relative in the book and those who don’t are envious!  I was invited to speak, on the reservation, at Chief Dull Knife College September 19, 2006 and was able to touch base again with a number of my former school kids whom I taught in the Birney community 1954-1958.  I have been in touch with a few through the years. Very little is, in general, known or published about the reservation years, which have by now lasted longer than the period of equestrian buffalo hunting -- more than a century.  It was at the Birney Day School that I met John Stands In Timber and became aware of his amazing knowledge of Northern Cheyenne history, which he had been gathering all his life.

B.R. After reading the book, I had a deep sense of understanding why the Cheyenne people were willing to lose so many of their people during the great escape from Oklahoma in 1879 in order to establish the current reservation. Montana is their home. Any thoughts on this?

M.R. The Oklahoma outbreak story is one of the great epics of American history, and the Northern Cheyennes today are very aware of its importance. They have fought very hard to preserve the integrity of their beautiful reservation against the loss of land to outside sale (98% is still in Cheyenne ownership, including the mineral rights, which is amazing) and to the environmental disasters of energy development. But it is often forgotten that a good number of the Northern Cheyennes were never sent to Oklahoma. They surrendered at Ft. Keogh, Montana  (today’s Miles City) and served as scouts for the army against the Nez Perce in 1877. Many of the Oklahoma returnees joined them there. Most drifted south along Tongue River to Lame Deer, the site of their present reservation, established formally in 1884.

B.R. One of the great classics in the Custer/Battle of Little Bighorn library is yours and John Stand In Timber’s Cheyenne Memories. Any serious student of this story should not overlook this book. Let’s talk a little about it. How did you meet (Stands In) Timber and how did your friendship grow with him?

M.L. John was a well-known figure around the Lame Deer agency headquarters of the Northern Cheyennes, where I met him in 1955. I was a schoolteacher for four years for the BIA at the community of Birney, on Tongue River.  He had been tribal chairman for I think 7 terms, and was widely respected for his knowledge of history as well as his prominence in tribal affairs.

B.R. Did you always plan to write Cheyenne Memories or did that develop after your friendship with (Stands in) Timber?

M.L. The book was an obvious “must” once I had met him.  He had tried many times to get others to help him with it, but nobody had the stamina to stay with him on such an exhaustive project. He wore everybody out. Scholars would come to consult him, but his heart was set on a book of his own.

B.R. Were there any communications difficulties between you and (Stands In) Timber? Did he speak English, did you speak Cheyenne, or did you use an interpreter?

M.L. He spoke perfect English.  He himself had served as an interpreter for many Mennonite missionaries and government agents. He was a kindly, generous person, with tolerance for all kinds of people and all walks of life. He was not bitter in any way about the misfortunes of his people, but rather interested -- in their stories, and why and how things had happened.  He had a grand sense of humor -- see the introduction to Cheyenne Memories for his analogy between privy pits and eagle traps, and ice skating on his shoes, and how pale scars from burns made him partially a white man.

B.R.  Did (Stands In) Timber and Marquis have a close relationship?

M.L.  No. Marquis took some pictures of John and his family that appear in A Northern Cheyenne Album, but to my knowledge they never worked together. In a sense they were research contemporaries.  During the Marquis years 1922-1935, John was busy with his various “day jobs” as line rider, politician, Mennonite translation assistant, etc.  An account of his life has not been compiled, and should be.  But throughout, he was tirelessly collecting the stories of his people.

B.R. When did you realize that  (Stands In) Timber might be able to help identify where warriors fell at Little Bighorn?

M.L.  I first went to the battlefield with him in the late 1950s. He had already been there many times working with historian Don Rickey and others to identify sites of action which had been shown to him by various old timers including his grandfather Wolf Tooth. He identified the death site of his second grandfather Lame White Man for Rickey, who subsequently put up the first marker for an Indian on the field.

B.R. I’ve always understood that the LWM marker was placed where the current granite marker is and it stated that LWM fell here. But, visitors complained that they couldn’t see it so the NPS moved the marker beside the road and changed the wording to LWM fell near here. Is this true?

M.L. I don’t know about this.

B.R. Today we see red granite markers on the battlefield to mark where a warrior fell in the battle or remember a warrior who fell near its location. These markers would not exist if not for your unselfish dedication to the project that you and (Stands In) Timber worked on to identify those sites. We sincerely thank you for that. 

M.L. Thanks for the kind words.  I am really glad that these places are marked and recognized today.  For a long time little credence was put in what Stands in Timber had to say.  Rickey was the exception.  It was generally felt that he was just an old Indian, and worse, he was partnered with a silly young woman schoolteacher. He was 75 and I was 25 and we made quite a pair.  He could outwalk and outtalk me any day of the week.  He could go on all day and all night, despite diabetes.  

B.R. Would you share with us what the first trip to the battlefield with  (Stands in) Timber was like? What were you feeling? How did  (Stands In) Timber react to what you all were doing there? How many trips did you all make?

M.L. We made so many trips I don’t remember the first one.  I don’t know how many Custer Fight Cheyennes he had talked to and visited there with -- most of their names are in Cheyenne Memories

Anybody who is around the Cheyennes at all cannot help but become aware of their extraordinarily heroic and dramatic history.  Also, I had some extra awareness because my parents were both historians. My father Henry Pringle won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for Theodore Roosevelt in 1932, and my mother Helena Huntington Smith is well known for her works We Pointed Them North with Teddy Blue Abbott, A Bride Goes West, and The War on Powder River.  (All of these are still in print.)  It was thus easy to recognize a walking encyclopedia of the Cheyenne past, and the value of the material he had been gathering for a lifetime. And although he was fully literate, it was all in his head.  He had written down virtually nothing, and badly needed help in recording it, which we did in many sessions of tape recording. They were scarcely interviews. We would decide on a topic, and off he would go for hours at a time. I transcribed them myself and then re-recorded over the same tapes. I was so young and dumb I didn’t realize the value the tapes would have once they were transcribed. A copy of the original transcript is available at Custer Battlefield. It had to be edited a good deal for publication by Yale University Press, after having been turned down by the University of Nebraska Press because Mari Sandoz disapproved it.  Robert Utley came to the rescue for Yale, and attested to the value of the material, which he was able to annotate with reference to the appropriate military documents. His annotations remain an important part of Cheyenne Memories, which has been in print since 1967.

B.R. I was not aware of your parent’s remarkable achievements. That is fantastic. How did you and (Stands In) Timber locate the warrior sites?

M.L. He remembered them specifically. He had learned the locations from many trips to the field with Cheyenne warrior participants.

B.R. What are your impressions of the warrior markers today compared to the first wood marker built by former Chief Historian Don Rickey for Lame White Man?

M.L. The new markers are appropriate and beautiful. Great thanks are due Chief Historian John Doerner and former Superintendent Neil Mangum for their willingness to place the markers on the field for the first time. And, thanks to the Friends for their vital assistance to the Park Service for the placement of the markers.

B.R. Do you know what were (Stands In) Timber’s reactions when he learned that Rickey was placing LWM’s marker on the field?

M.L. This happened before I knew him.  He was very proud of the marker though -- the only one for an Indian.

B.R. How reliable are the Indian oral accounts today as we enter the 21st century and more generations tell the tribes’ history? Can we depend on them for accuracy or should they be ignored?

M.L. I don’t think that oral history continues with any accuracy across more than two or three generations at best.  John could be relied upon because he had gathered information directly from participants, but if these accounts were relayed through one or two other people their accuracy would be severely diminished.   Such accounts may have value as folklore or as an indicator of present beliefs and attitudes, but not as historical fact.  John himself pushed back the historical veracity of people’s memories as far as they would go.  

B.R. Do you have any future books planned?

M.L. I would like to do a book perhaps to be called Cheyenne Genius which would sum up Cheyenne achievements in other areas than warfare -- art, for example, and legal authority and development which was extraordinary for a non-literate people, and ceremonialism -- they probably invented the Sun Dance, and led other Plains tribes in many areas of spirituality. Also the ways in which they adapted to changing circumstance through time, including the challenges of a modern reservation world, in spite of the difficulties they have always faced.

I would also like to do an account of the lives of the 55 Cheyenne school kids I knew in the 1950s. A shockingly high number of these, perhaps half by now, have already died. Reservation life is no joke -- the problems are often insurmountable.  But there are occasional real success stories and human triumphs, and these should be told. 

B.R. I think your ideas for both books would provide a great contribution to the Cheyenne record. We wish you all the best and good luck in those endeavors. Thank you very much for this fascinating discussion regarding your new book A Northern Cheyenne Album and your friendship with Cheyenne Oral Historian and Tribal Leader, John Stands In Timber.

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