John Stands in Timber & Margot Liberty,
Cheyenne Memories
(1967; Yale University Press, 1998)

The original edition of Cheyenne Memorieswas published in 1967. John Stands in Timber died as the manuscript was in press. This second edition has a new preface by Margot Liberty, which adds information about the passing three decades. It also has an updated bibliography.

John Stands in Timber was born in March 1882. He was raised by his grandparents in Birney, the most traditional of the Cheyenne Reservation communities. He became fascinated with the stories of his people at an early age. When he returned from school, he began collecting the Cheyenne's history and their stories. He became the official historian of both, the Northern and Southern Cheyenne. He spent six decades documenting his people.

John realized the culture of his people was dying. Much was already lost. He intended to publish a book that recounted the complete history and culture of the Cheyenne. But, despite his best efforts, he never managed to get the book written. Anthropologist Liberty, with a grant from the Association on American Indian Affairs, was his answer to preserving his culture for future generations.

Liberty recounts how she arrived to find a woodshed filled with a half-century's worth of "documentation" -- newspapers, handwritten notes, tribal business documents, pow-wow programs and "assorted scraps of narrative on rags of paper of every description." After an entire month of sorting, they had the documentation sorted into time periods and were developing an outline for the book. John told his story as Liberty ran the tape recorder. There is no doubt that this is a factual account by a man whose one true passion was to preserve his heritage.

That passion flows through on page after page. His words conjure the image as clearly as if you are seeing it with your eyes. He is a gifted storyteller and historian of oral tradition. When he has conflicting stories about something, he tells you that this person said this, but this person remembered it another way. He includes all the data that he collected about the incident and then sums it up with what he knows to fact and what he believes is the truth.

Liberty did an exemplary job of supplying supporting documentation and footnoting things. She points out any inconsistencies with other versions that have been published or records that are available. Everybody always wants to know about Custer's Last Stand. John told a version that nobody believed until J.W. Vaughn took a metal detector to the spot in question and discovered shells. It turned out that John had told the truth. Then other historians started seeking his advice in the matter. His version has several differences from others. Liberty supplies details.

This is the total package in a book: thrilling narrative, groundbreaking facts, captivating folklore and plenty of humor. It is one of those books that you cannot put down. The more you read, the more you want to read. And no matter how much you know about Plains history, you are certain to learn something from this book. I learned about the Arikara's equivalent of Comanche, the cavalry horse that survived Custer's Last Stand.

Cheyenne Memories is one fine piece of literature. It is also a cutting-edge documentary of the Cheyenne people. Whether you want to laugh at the white man who wanted to learn courting, Cheyenne style, and grabbed the mother instead of the single daughter, or you want to learn about the stone used to make pipes or the ancient ceremonies that have disappeared, or you desire to read -- and analyze strategically -- action-filled battle scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat, this book has it all (and much more). It engages all of your senses and involves all of your emotions. It is the total reading package!

book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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