John Kuri retraces the footsteps of Indian leader who escapes with last of his people.
By Betty Bailey/Special to The Malibu Times
It’s difficult to trace footsteps taken more than a century ago. Add that to the fact that the Cheyenne have always kept their records close to the vest and it’s easy to see why there is a scarcity of accurate written or film history of the Northern Cheyenne and their long ago leader Chief Morning Star. A number of Hollywood folks have been turned away, but members of the Morning Star Memorial Foundation recently opened their records to Malibu writer John Kuri to research his historical novel, “Cheyenne Rising Sun.”
Kuri, who is not of American Indian descent, was approached four years ago by a friend who worked with the Morning Star Memorial Foundation and asked if he would consider telling the Cheyenne story.
“As a result of several conversations and meetings, they listened to what I had in mind and it seemed like I would handle it with authenticity,” Kuri said. “A good deal of Cheyenne history has been distorted.”
However, Kuri had his work cut out for him. “I thought I knew the kind of history I was writing,” said Kuri, an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of television and film. “But when I got into it all, I really started to learn.”
Kuri’s research took him and a foundation historian guide on a weeklong horseback trip through Yellowstone Valley, where they did not see another human being for seven days. They followed the trail used by Cheyenne Chief Morning Star after the Indian leader escaped with what remained of his people from a U.S. Army fort in Nebraska and headed home to their land in the north. Fewer than 300 Northern Cheyenne were all that remained in the late 1870s, less than one-third of the number that had been relocated to Southern Cheyenne territory in Oklahoma.
“There’s something that you learn from the land,” Kuri said of the journey. “You get a sense of what it must have been to try to escape. I was able to move around. I imagined the positions they would have taken. Knowing how they fought ferociously to defend themselves, it puts it into a context that is very clear.”
U.S. soldiers killed all but about 85 of the Cheyenne involved in the escape.
Brutality is only part of the picture. The story of the Northern Cheyenne is “a beautiful piece of history that people need to understand,” said Kuri. “The Northern Cheyenne were hunters and gatherers who took care of their animals and used only what they needed from the land. They knew how to take each time of life and put it to its greatest use. Grandmothers were the greatest teachers. Mothers took care of the home and food. Fathers would go hunting.”
Chief Morning Star plays a predominant role in Kuri’s book, which spans the 19th and 20th centuries. Another key figure is Morning Star’s great-grandson, Ted Rising Sun, a decorated hero of the Korean War who overcame his own struggles with poverty and alcoholism and went on to fight in Washington, D.C. for better education for all American Indian tribes.
Both Morning Star and Ted Rising Sun believed the only way their people would survive was to be educated. In the early 1880s, American Indians were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools to sever the ties with the life they knew.
“I would describe it as a holocaust on the culture,” Kuri said. “They were not allowed to speak in their native tongue or wear their native clothes. They were not allowed to see their parents for long periods of time. If they spoke in their native tongue, they were severely punished.”
It was not until 1935 that American Indians were given citizenship and the right to vote. “It is quite painful,” Kuri said. “The writing of American history around the American Indian is quite shameful. The American Indian saw many treaties broken. Whatever was on their land was taken away from them.”
Kuri said life for the American Indians is still not easy. “Unemployment on reservations is up to 70 percent,” he said. “In order to get any benefits, they must live on the reservation. They are so limited and, if they do find ways to use their land to make money, they become criticized.”
Although Kuri’s book is fiction, he says it is based on a history that needs to be told. Doreen Pond, a member of the Northern Cheyenne and former member of the Tribal Council, called Kuri’s story “a tribute to our ancestors, our cultural traditions, and our spiritual beliefs … A very authentic telling of our history.”
“When you look at conditions and you meet with tribal elders and tribal politicians, your eyes begin to open,” he said. “They gave up a way of life that traced back ten thousand years and we’re still fed a lot of misinformation.”
Kuri is scheduled to meet with Malibu readers at a book signing this Thursday evening, Oct. 28, at 7 pm in Diesel, A Bookstore in the Cross Creek Shopping Center. He will also be at the Village Bookstore in the Palisades at 2 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 30.