One Thousand White Women
This is another in my Still On The Shelf series, where I tell you, book by blessed book, why I periodically run a dust rag across them, pull them off the shelf, and open them up to read.
A lifetime of reading has left me with a sizable number of books. Throughout the years I’ve donated them for tax deductions and traded them for credit by the carload. But for all the trimming and weeding my collection has undergone these past decades, the ones remaining on the shelves are there for a reason: they’ve withstood the tests of time. Although I’m more inclined to pick up my Kindle these days, there are still plenty of books on my shelves, and One Thousand White Women is one of them.
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
by Jim Fergus
St. Martin’s Press, 1998
Back in the day, news about the greatness of this book spread through my old neighborhood in Northern Colorado faster than you can say Manifest Destiny. The Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association proclaimed it a Regional Book Award Winner. If you read it, and I hope you do, you’ll see why.
This story is told through the journal of a fictional character. It’s about cultural misunderstanding and manipulation and the efforts of the trusting Cheyenne people to right it.
My heart aches for all the innocents traumatized by the ideology of Manifest Destiny — the perception that white Americans were divinely ordered to settle the entire North American continent (how in the world did our ancestors come up with this abomination!?). Manifest Destiny was responsible for various regulations, policies, and programs designed specifically to destroy or remove the native population.
Rewind to September 1874. Little Wolf, the great Cheyenne “Sweet Medicine Chief,” traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant and members of a special commission to receive the Presidential Peace Medal. Little Wolf, speaking through an interpreter, told President Grant:
(put in quotes)
It is the Cheyenne way that all children who enter this world belong to their mother’s tribe…My father was Arapaho and my mother Cheyenne. Thus I was raised by my mother’s people, and I am Cheyenne. But I have always been free to come and go among the Arapaho, and in this way I learned also their way of life. This, we believe, is a good thing.
He goes on to acknowledge the dwindling numbers of his people and realizes they must become members of the white man’s world. He asks President Grant for the gift of 1,000 white women to become Cheyenne wives, “to teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone.”
Little Wolf’s idea is to create a generation of Cheyenne children born into the white tribe, “with the full privileges attendant to that position.”
In the next part of the plan, Little Wolf proposes the Cheyenne return the U.S. Government’s gift of 1,000 white women with 1,000 horses — 500 wild horses and 500 already broken.
This much is actually true. It really happened. Little Wolf really pitched this to President Grant.
Perhaps you can imagine the ensuing commotion and reaction, as well as the Government’s subsequent refusal.
This novel, however, twists this around and goes off the opposite premise — what would have happened if the U.S. Government had accepted Little Wolf’s offer?
Perhaps you can imagine some of what would have gone down with that. Jim Fergus takes us there, his writerly eye focused on exposing an understanding between the two sides and the newly-created third — the women who came from one world and lived their lives in another. The women with one foot through the door and the other foot through the flap of a tepee. In culture, one and one always makes three.
The Government launches a secret Brides for Indians (BFI) program and recruits volunteers from jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutions. Nothing but our most upstanding and honorable citizens to trade to the natives, right?
May Dodd is an upper-class woman who was kidnapped and placed into a lunatic asylum by her family when she fell in love with someone beneath her station. She volunteers for the BFI program in exchange for her freedom. Via her journal, she tells her story and that of the other white brides as they travel from the east to their new home with the Cheyenne.
Of her decision to enter the program, May writes:
Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called “civilized” people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.
She goes on to describe the journey to the west, her reflections on the life choice she’s made, life as a squaw, the group wedding ceremony, “which involves little more than an elaborate feast and a dance.” She goes on to say that those plans had been “complicated by the presence of Reverend Hare, who feels obligated to conduct a Christian ceremony.”
I can imagine.
In that group ceremony May Dodd is married to Little Wolf.
As time passes, May and the other women adjust to the nomad lifestyle. Fergus writes it real, and I am alongside the women as they tend to their work, as they live their lives. I mourned with them when Little Wolf’s tribe was attacked by the Army, mistaking them for Crazy Horse’s Sioux.
Fergus preserves historical integrity while delivering a touching and beautiful story of Cheyenne life and world view — all written and beautifully detailed from a white woman’s perspective. It rings true to the time and the history. It’s realistic.
One Thousand White Women is in a place of honor on my bookshelf beside my copies of other novels such as Ahab’s Wife (see my review here) and The Red Tent (see my review here) that round out fictional history by graciously expanding and retelling a beloved story from a feminine perspective.
Stories like this are needed just as much today (maybe more) than they were 25+ years ago, and longer, really.
As I wrote in my review of The Red Tent:
The written account of the world’s history came to us through centuries of enforced feminine silence. While it’s no secret that women’s stories and their perspective of historical events were related by men — if told or written at all! — I don’t believe we realize the impact this lack of voice has had, and continues to have, on our lives today.
Part of the treatment, part of our therapy, certainly must include retelling history to include the equally important feminine view.
Jim Fergus joins in on the effort to apply the medicine that will cleanse our souls, wipe the slate clean, contribute to our healing.
One Thousand White Women is the retelling of white women, native women, and all native peoples, giving all of them a voice, contributing to their healing.
And that’s why One Thousand White Women is Still On The Shelf.
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