The harrowing march of Dull Knife and his Cheyenne compatriots from U.S. Army captivity toward their homeland in present-day Wyoming is described in Mari Sandoz's Cheyenne Autumn (1953). Dull Knife (ca. 1810–1883), as he was called by the Lakota, also was called Morning Star by the Cheyennes. Dull Knife, with Little Wolf, led the trek after their exile to Indian Country (Oklahoma today) late in the 1870s and 1880s.
Dull Knife and Little Wolf were among the Cheyennes who allied with the Lakota and other Native nations who defeated George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. The Army, reinforced with fresh troops, then pursued the Lakota and their allies. By 1877, U.S. Army troops chased Dull Knife into the Bighorn mountains near the head of the Powder River. The Cheyenne were then arrested and sent to Oklahoma, where, during the next several months, many of them died.
During mid-August 1878, the Cheyennes asked Indian Agent John Miles to let them leave Oklahoma for home. Miles, on superiors' orders, refused. The Cheyennes, who lacked food, took matters into their own hands, escaping homeward on foot. Early the next day 300 surviving Cheyennes started a march to their homelands in the Powder River Country, several hundred miles away. The next day, cavalry caught up with them on the Little Medicine Lodge River. The Cheyennes refused to surrender and continued their trek, repelling other attacks. They crossed the Arkansas and South Platte rivers. At White Clay Creek, Nebraska, they split into two groups. Dull Knife led 150 people to Red Cloud Agency, where they surrendered. Little Wolf and another 150 people hid in the Nebraska Sand Hills.
Little Wolf's band surrendered to Lieutenant W. P. Clark and an Army unit of Cheyenne and Lakota scouts the following March.
Back in Nebraska, Dull Knife's band arrived at the Red Cloud agency and found it abandoned, so they marched to Fort Robinson. Dull Knife's band lived at the fort two months. Officers at the fort then were ordered by superiors to force the Cheyennes back to Oklahoma. Dull Knife refused to go. Captain Wessells, the commanding officer, locked the Cheyennes in a freezing barracks with no food or water for three days. They refused to surrender.
On January 9, 1879, the Cheyennes broke out again. Fifty of them died that evening under fire by troops; twenty more died of wounds and exposure. Most who survived, fewer than 100 survivors, were directed back to Fort Robinson under guard.
Dull Knife, his wife, and son then escaped once again, traveling eighteen nights on foot, resting by day, to Pine Ridge. They ate bark and their own moccasins to survive. At the Pine Ridge agency, Bill Rowland, an interpreter, housed the family. Thirty-one other warriors also escaped Fort Robinson. Troops followed them to Hat Creek Bluffs, where they called upon the warriors to surrender. The Cheyennes answered the command with their last three bullets. More shooting followed, killing twenty-eight Cheyenne. The last three survivors stood up, using their empty rifles as clubs, and charged the 300 soldiers, who killed them.
John Ford, the well-known director of Westerns, released a film version of Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, his last Western film. Some reviewers believed that Ford's film was an apology for the excessive cruelty displayed toward Native peoples in his earlier films (Crowther, n.d.). Set in 1887, the film recounts the defiant migration of 300 Cheyennes from their reservation in Oklahoma territory to their original home in Wyoming. They have done this at the behest of Chiefs Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Rolands), played as "peaceful souls who have been driven to desperate measures because the U.S. government has ignored their pleas for food and shelter" (Crowther, n.d.). In the New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther described the film as a cinematic elegy—not only for the beleaguered Cheyennes, but for John Ford's fifty years in pictures" (Crowther, n.d.).
The bones of the dead Cheyennes later were turned over to the U.S. Army Medical Museum for scientific study. On October 8, 1993, the remains were returned to a delegation of sixteen Cheyennes in Washington, D.C., for reburial under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Bruce E. Johansen
Crowther, Bosley. No date. "Movie Details: Cheyenne Autumn." New York Times. Available at: http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=9133. Accessed November 1, 2005.; Little Eagle, Avis. 1993. "Remains of Dull Knife's Band Make Final Journey Home." Indian Country Today, October 14.; Sandoz, Mari. 1992. Cheyenne Autumn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. [Originally printed in 1953 Lincoln, NE: Center for Great Plains Studies.]; Wiltsey, Norman B. 1963. Brave Warriors. Caldwell, ID: Caxton.