During the research for my book, Brave Hearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West, I was glancing through a book about the cholera outbreak that had been caused by emigrants travelling west during the 1849 California Gold Rush. The epidemic had a devastating effect on the wagon trails that year, but for the Native American Tribes it had been nothing short of a catastrophe. I was particularly struck by an account left by a US military patrol which had stumbled across a group of abandoned tipis. The tipis were in fact tombs, inside which the dead bodies of a number of Lakota had been ritually laid out. In the smallest one, they had found the lovingly arranged body of a young girl richly dressed in leggings of fine scarlet cloth, her decomposing body carefully wrapped in buffalo robes.
It was such a striking image that I was determined to find its source. And there, buried in the deepest seams of the book’s bibliography, I found my very own nugget of gold. It was a reference to a work by Josephine Waggoner, a historian whose name I had not heard before; its title, Witness: A Húnkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas, as haunting and precise as a line of poetry.
Before this time, I had had some success in finding Native American accounts of the mid-nineteenth-century westward migrations, but they were nothing like as numerous as the white sources. Most Tribes had ways of recording their history that are very different from ours; and being largely oral, much had been lost. And yet here was a written chronicle that promised to deliver exactly what I was after: scores of eyewitness accounts (including many of the author’s own) of some of the most searing events during the ‘Indian Wars’ — compiled not only by a Native American, but by a woman.
To my amazement, the British Library had a copy, but there was a hitch. It was the first summer of the Covid epidemic, and although the BL had cautiously re-opened its doors, it only allowed readers to attend a three-hour slot, once a week. When I went to pick Waggoner’s work up from the issue desk, I almost cried. ‘Witness’ turned out to be a behemoth of a book. At 750 pages, it weighs in at over 2kilos (or, for those of you who are old enough to remember them, the equivalent of a couple of telephone directories). At that rate, it was going to take me years to read and absorb it.
Born in 1871, Josephine Waggoner was a woman of mixed-race heritage. Her father, Charles McCarthy, was an Irish soldier who had gone out West, like many Civil War veterans, to seek his fortune. He had bought his wife, Ithatewin, or Wind Woman, a Húnkpapha-Lakota, from her brothers, for ten guns and several pounds of powder and bullets. It was not an unusual arrangement for the times. After her husband died, Ithatewin took her daughter to live with her own people, and it was as a Húnkpapha-Lakota that Josephine was raised.
Josephine Waggoner is the great chronicler of the Lakota (sometimes also referred to as ‘Sioux’), a collective term for seven closely allied Tribes, who together make up perhaps the most powerful of all the Plains people. Although the Lakota held out against white incursion on their lands for longer than any of the other Tribes – and indeed bested the US military for many years – by the 1880s all had been forced onto reservations.
In the 1920s, Josephine became increasingly concerned that the Tribal elders were dying out. Conscious of the knowledge that would be lost with their passing, this remarkable woman devoted the last decades of her life to making sure this did not happen, travelling to numerous different reservations, conducting hundreds of interviews with chiefs and tribal historians. As her great-granddaughter would later write, ‘[Josephine] had the purest of motives in recording her people’s history from firsthand accounts — that it not be lost or, worse, rewritten’. Above all, her mission was to ensure that it would not be only the white version of events that should prevail.
In fact, it is nothing short of a miracle that her manuscripts survived at all. Although it seems extraordinary to us now, during her lifetime Josephine Waggoner did not see a single word of her own work in print. As a woman, and a Native American one at that, she left testimonies that few whites believed had any value. But she did not give up. On her deathbed, she dictated a will giving precise instructions for the safekeeping of the precious manuscripts. Her children, her grandchildren, and even her great-grandchildren, made numerous attempts to publish them, but with no success. Over more than half a century, the manuscripts were ‘”misplaced”, lost, stolen, retrieved, sold without permission, left in storage’ and finally even ‘held by the courts’.
It was not until the Waggoner family met an independent scholar, Emily Levine, that things began to look more hopeful. But when she was first approached, Levine turned it down. The task was simply too Herculean (much of the material was still in handwritten form). Several years later, Levine relented. It would take this heroic editor thirteen years to complete the task, which was finally published in 2013, almost a hundred years after Josephine first started her work.
It is impossible to convey the impact that Witness would have on me. Much of my book, Brave Hearted, is centred on white women’s accounts of the westward migrations — and very extraordinary they are. Josephine Waggoner’s work shows, in poignant and often excoriating detail, exactly what was lost along the way. Her voice is at once poetic, beautiful, and tragic. Although she was only a small child in the last days of the ‘Indian Wars’, she was nonetheless an eyewitness to some of its most searing events. She could remember the exact moment at the Standing Rock reservation in June 1876, when the first news came through of the great Lakota victory on the Greasy Grass River, the place known to whites as the Little Bighorn. The warriors included many of her own relations, and her beloved grandmother was with those who followed the great Chief Sitting Bull when they fled north into Canada. She was also there when the US military, in revenge for the death of Custer and his troops, forcibly removed all the Lakota’s horses from the reservation. ‘No one in this machine age could understand the love between master and horse’, she writes. ‘It was like the love of a beloved child.’ She remembers the dust clouds caused by the vast herds as they were rounded up, and the eerie silence that descended afterwards, ‘because there was no enjoyment in talking, no enjoyment in singing, only a wailing song at times that came with the wind, a song of grief and regret’.
Later, Josephine would become one of the first children to be removed to a boarding school, half a world away from her family, in Hampton, Virginia. When she returned to the reservation, her skills at reading and writing brought her close to Sitting Bull (like her mother, a Húnkpapha-Lakota), who she came to know well. She would talk to him ‘on many subjects’, also translating and writing his letters for him before his death in 1890.
However, it is her reminiscences about her childhood that stick most clearly in my mind. They include a matchless description of what it was like to grow up in Powder River country, the Lakota’s sacred heartland, in the very last summer (1875) when her people were still free to roam and hunt in the traditional ways.
Today, long after my own book on the West has been published, I still think often about Josephine. As a woman, I am outraged on her behalf that her extraordinary work took so long to get even some of the recognition it deserves. And as a writer who has worked for many decades now in women’s history, I feel a huge connection with her and with what she was trying to do: to preserve the experiences and life-stories of people who, for so long, had no voice, and whose histories were being written over – as they still are today in much of the US – by their conquerors.
I have my own copy of Witness beside me now as I write. It is by far the most expensive book I have ever bought — but its contents are truly priceless.