The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

  1. August 13, 2015 at 3:48 am

    Fascinating, I had never heard of this author or this book or any other book about the colonisation of the American Indians, and isn’t it ironic that I learn about it from a French blogger! I have added it to my wishlist. Thanks.

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    • August 13, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      I’d never heard of Fast either. We just have a terrific French publisher who unearths American writers.
      Oddly, Howard Fast is mentioned several times in I Married a Communist by Philip Roth, that I read just after The Last Frontier. He seems to have been a liberal militant and he wrote historical books. I hope Brian will drop by, he could probably tell us more about him and if Fast’s books are still read nowadays.

      It’s not ironic at all that you hear it from a French blogger: if you knew how many French writers foreign bloggers bring to my attention!!

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      • August 14, 2015 at 1:29 am

        *chuckle* Maybe I can do that one day too. I’m reading Indiana by George Sand in French at the moment, but I’m very slow so it will take a very long time before I can recommend it or not…

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  2. August 13, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Great commentary, Emma – quite a sobering, eye-opening read on many levels. .

    I know very little about this expedition, but it sounds as though the author has approached it with a sense of understanding dignity and respect for the Cheyennes. You raise a good question about how these events (and other similar atrocities) are taught in schools. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect there’s a role for more education around this.

    There’s a John Ford film of this story, Cheyenne Autumn, but I haven’t seen it. Not sure if it’s any good or not.

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    • August 13, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      I really think it’s a balanced way to tell what happened. I’d never heard of this expedition either. Like you’d read anything by Pereine Press, I’d read anything by Gallmeister. They’re fantastic gem-discovers.

      PS: As this is a month to celebrate women writers, I regret that Fast didn’t put his wife on the cover of his book. She seems to have worked a lot on the investigation to understand what happened. He mentions her a lot in his afterword.

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  3. August 13, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    So. Much. History.

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    • August 13, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      Yes. How is this history taught in American schools?

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 13, 2015 at 11:12 pm

        Badly?

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      • August 13, 2015 at 11:15 pm

        Okay, well, we usually would get a giant hardcover book that goes through important dates and terms like “1492” and “Magna Carta.” There was little life to be found in history classes in American public schools, and I would typically cram some dates in my head and finish my little test and then forget everything. I had one teacher who just showed History Channel movies all hour, and I am not a TV lover. When I got to college, I took history that interested me and found a professor who loved the subject. The class was called “Black Detroit.” AH-MAZING.

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        • August 14, 2015 at 9:52 pm

          Thanks for the info. Are history tests MCQs?

          I guess the excuse for France to skip these disagreeable passages of our history is “so many things to tell from Ancient Rome to nowadays, too little time”.

          I wondered about the US since the history of the country isn’t very long if you concentrate on the post-Mayflower times.

          Liked by 1 person

      • August 13, 2015 at 11:23 pm

        Personally, I felt very little was taught about Native peoples in the U.S. I always felt like I was studying European history, which now seems ironic in this conversation. However, I grew up on a reservation, so it was very normal to meet Natives and learn Native culture, in this case the Ojibwe (or Chippewa in English).

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      • August 14, 2015 at 8:04 pm

        It’s not taught much in American schools, at least not until one might be lucky enough to get some of that history at university (or, as another commenter notes, if you’re lucky enough to be in particular region). There’s a shocking lack of attention paid to Native American history in U.S. primary and secondary schools, and what little does get taught seems to focus on ways of life (now largely eradicated) rather than on the history of what was done to Native Americans as European-Americans pushed the frontier westward.

        The other member of our household just read this novel, and while she liked it, she was incredulous to find that despite Fast’s sympathies obviously resting with the Cheyenne, the book was told almost entirely from the perspective of whites. She’s now reading another work about the Cheyenne forced exodus, Mari Sandoz’ Cheyenne Autumn, which she’s finding does a much better job of presenting the history.

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        • August 14, 2015 at 10:12 pm

          Thanks for your explanations, that’s very useful to me.

          Did your wife read Fast’s book in the Gallmeister edition too? I understand her point about Fast writing only from the point of view of the whites.
          However, I wonder if he could have done it differently in 1941 and if he didn’t open a door for Mari Sandoz’s book that came later. Perhaps the first attempt at retelling this episode of the American history had to be written that way to have a chance to be published.

          From a narration point of view, choosing to follow the whites’ perspective strengthens the dramatization of the events. It emphasizes the distances and the difficulty to find people in this wild land. It also puts forward the absurdity of the chase, the nastiness of the whites and their stupidity.

          While the Cheyennes’s reasons for leaving are clear, understandable and noble, seeing the events from the whites’s point of view shows how badly they behaved from a human, strategic and political point of view. It also shows great military heroes and well-known politician in a different light.

          Choosing to tell the events through the whites’ eyes magnifies the Cheyennes who fight for their life and freedom and belittles the whites’ decision makers. (officers, politicians and “civil servant” in charge of the reservation)

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  4. August 13, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    It probably depends on what part of the U.S. it’s being taught. Here in the Pacific Northwest where Indian nations, cultures and issues are a part of everyday life it’s definitely a part of the curriculum and what is taught has gotten more honest over the years. Though Howard Fast was groundbreaking for his time, there are many good native writers who tell their own stories: Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Charles Eastman, James Welch, etc. If you’re interested in knowing more about what Indian nations have gone through, Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission published a report earlier this summer and the CBC has had good coverage of the heartbreaking facts. Sadly in the U.S. very similar things happened and there are still many unresolved issues.

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    • August 13, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      Thanks for your enlightening comment.

      I’ve read Sherman Alexie (2 books) and tried Louise Erdrich but couldn’t finish her book. I must come back to it, I think I started it at a wrong time. Thanks for the other recommendations.
      Is Howard Fast still read?

      I didn’t know that Canada had such a commission. It’s a good thing and we should implement something similar in France. However, except for La Martinique, la Gouadeloupe, la Réunion, la Nouvelle-Calédonie, we don’t live on the same land as the people we colonised and these countries are now independent. I suppose it’d be harder to implement, from a legal point of view.

      I’ve been to British Columbia and I’ve seen some native arts and explanations about their culture.

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      • August 14, 2015 at 1:41 pm

        I wish I could answer your question about Fast, but I just don’t know. Erdrich can be an uneven writer, her earlier books and her latest seem to be the strongest. My list is really limited – there are many others and I didn’t even include any Canadians. Are France (& England) facing different consequences of colonization with issues surrounding immigration?

        Ah, you were practically in my neighborhood – hope you enjoyed your visit to this part of the world.

        Like

        • August 14, 2015 at 10:37 pm

          I have The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Have you read it?

          I don’t think there’s a direct link between the issues surrounding immigration and colonization, except maybe the way immigrants from these countries are treated. But even in the 1950s, being of Italian origina wasn’t always easy. My opinion is that we failed to assimilate immigrants from North Africa the way we did with Italian, Spanish, Polish or Portuguese immigrants from the 1920s. It’s a complex topic. Of course, the economical context is different. Unemployment is rather high and hits first the less qualified workers whereas there was enough work in the 1920s (poor birth rate in France + WWI deaths + Spanish influenza of 1918 = lots of young people were missing in this generation). For Algerian immigrants, there are the remnants of the war of independence and the massive exodus of the pied-noirs.

          From what I understand, the religious question is also important. France is a secular country, which means that the French State cannot invest in religious premises. The immigrants who were Christians came to a country where churches were numerous and already organised. They joined the local churches, mostly catholic and mingled. The Muslim immigrants came to a country that had no mosques and that couldn’t build any (by law). So places of worship were organised in basements and later financed by foreign countries with petro-dollars.

          The most important consequences of French colonization are for the countries who became independent. The colonial past also weight in the way France does politics with these former colonies. It can be very patronizing and manipulative, like what the USA did in South America.

          I did enjoy my visit to BC, great place. Plus it was my honeymoon.

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          • August 15, 2015 at 5:22 pm

            No, I haven’t read that one. I wonder if Erdrich might be a writer whose books read in order could add to the richness as she builds up layers/links a bit like William Faulkner did in creating his own community. Perhaps someday I will go on an Erdrich binge.

            Thank you for taking the time to give such interesting background on colonization and immigration; so many complex and fraught issues for everyone. Yes, our relations with South & Central America and the Philippines do have similarities. U.S. relations with other countries is a whole other can of worms.

            But most urgently this country has to face up to its willful blindness and deafness to what white Americans have done (& are doing) to Native peoples and African-Americans and as GTL and ScottW have pointed out eduction needs to be overhauled, but it is controlled on a state and local level, not federal.

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            • August 17, 2015 at 10:09 pm

              Thanks for the advice. I’ll try her first one, even if I wonder if it’s not doomed from the start: I’ve never been able to finish a book by Faulkner. 🙂

              Here the school programs are centralized. (but France is smaller than Texas, at least in size…)

              I was bowled over by James Baldwin, I have to say. Such a way to make you understand what racism does to someone.

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  5. August 15, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Howard Fast’s popularity has shrunk, I think, in recent years.
    I’m at the point with my reading life, that when it comes to real events and people, I’d rather read a non fiction book.

    I took an entire History of American Indians class taught by a very enthusiastic professor. The best university history classes I took

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    • August 17, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      For some unknown reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I can’t remember what I read, my mind wanders, after 10 pages I want to do something else. It irritates me that I can’t focus on non-fiction books.

      This class must have been fascinating. Why am I not surprised you picked it?

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