May 11

This Day in History

Old West

May 11, 1896:

Western writer Mari Sandoz is born

Mari Sandoz, the author of several histories that demonstrated sympathy for Indians that was unusual for the time, is born in Sheridan County, Nebraska.

Sandoz had a difficult childhood on a Nebraska homestead. Her father, Jules, was a bitter, tyrannical man, who took out the frustrations of homesteading on his wife and children. Unusually bright and studious, Sandoz eventually escaped to the University of Nebraska, which she attended irregularly from 1922 to 1930. She never earned her degree--though the school awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1950--but found that she enjoyed the life of the scholar. After working as a schoolteacher for a time, she gradually devoted herself to historical research and freelance writing.

Sandoz authored a number of novels, but today she is remembered for her meticulously researched non-fiction histories. Her 1935 biography of her father, Old Jules, is a bittersweet and moving history of homesteading on the Great Plains. Even more valuable, though, were Sandoz's histories of the Plains Indians. In 1949, she published Crazy Horse, a biography of the great Sioux warrior who participated in the 1876 defeat of George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. For decades after Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse was usually portrayed as a bloodthirsty savage who helped murder a great American hero. Sandoz's biography revealed a noble and admirable man dedicated to his people and to resisting white theft of their traditional lands.

Sandoz's 1953 book, Cheyenne Autumn, was equally unusual for its many appealing and sympathetic portraits of Indians. Painstakingly researched, the book remains valuable to this day for its thorough treatment of Indian history and folkways. Cheyenne Autumn is a moving condemnation of the brutal war waged by the U.S. to deprive the Cheyenne of their lands and traditional ways. The book was also the inspiration behind John Ford's 1964 movie of the same name. Cheyenne Autumn was one of the first Westerns to abandon the old racist stereotypes of the Indian as a vicious savage and emphasize the tragedy of the Indian experience.

Strong willed, ambitious, and dedicated to providing an accurate history, Sandoz's work marked the beginning of a movement that greatly revised how Americans viewed the history of western settlement. The Indians were not the villains in this great historical drama, Sandoz suggested, but the victims. Mari Sandoz died in 1966, just as many Americans were starting to embrace her more compassionate view of the Native American.

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