Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: Voices of the American West

Voices of the American West, Volume 1: The Indian Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919, by Eli Ricker, edited by Richard E. Jenson, University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 495 pages.

Voices of the American West, Volume 2: The Settler and Soldier Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919, by Eli Ricker, edited by Richard E. Jenson, University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 470 pages.

Eli Ricker, a Civil War veteran who marched with Sherman, tried his hand at a number of occupations after the war, including lawyer, judge, and newspaperman. He came to live in Chadron, Nebraska, in 1885, not far from Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse had been killed just eight years earlier. Chadron was also in close proximity to the battlefields and reservations of western South Dakota, and it was at Chadron around the turn of the century that Ricker began conducting interviews, compiling notes, and doing research on the rapidly changing “Old West.” His intention was to write a book he called, “The Final Conflict Between the Red Men and the Palefaces,” but a quarter century later he was still gathering material.

As early as 1903, Ricker, who spent two full winters on the Pine Ridge Reservation -- began writing down eyewitness accounts about what transpired at Wounded Knee both from the 7th Cavalry perspective as well as from survivors of Big Foot’s Lakota Band. Ricker was sympathetic to the plight of Indians at a time when white Americans nearly universally regarded them as savages. Indeed, he advanced the radical proposition that Indian historical testimony was as valuable and legitimate as that of the white man.  One of Ricker’s notes, quoted in the Introduction, gives a sense of his enlightened sensibilities: “The Indians sneer at the whiteman’s conventional reference to the Custer massacre and the Battle of Wounded Knee. They ridicule the lack of impartiality of the whites in speaking of the two events – when the whites got the worst of it it was a massacre; when the Indians got the worst of it it was a battle.”

Alas, Ricker’s long-researched book never materialized. A stint at the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. allowed him to fortify his research, but also served to overwhelm him with the amount of Indian resources demanding his attention. Already past the age of 60 when he began the project, Ricker died before he could complete more than some sections of a rough draft.

Ricker left behind stacks of tablets containing transcriptions of his interviews -- a treasure trove of unique and invaluable oral histories. Happily, after selling much of his collection, including his library, Ricker’s family donated the precious tablets to the Nebraska State Historical Society, where they were received on November 2, 1926. The collection remained relatively obscure for decades, though some Western historians like Robert Utley have accessed it in support of their own studies (Nebraskan Mari Sandoz cataloged and collated the interviews, and incorporated some of the material in her writings as well).

Finally, the 2005 publication in two volumes of Voices of the American West has made Ricker’s painstaking work readily available to scholars and history buffs alike (being reviewed here are the 2012 paperback releases of both volumes). Editor Richard Jensen has done an expert job organizing the Ricker material, intuitively devoting one volume to Indian interviews, and the other to Settlers and Soldiers. Within each volume, interviews are grouped together into major subject areas. Volume one includes chapters on The Garnett and Wells Interviews, The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee, and The Old West – Indians and Indian Fights. Volume two chapters include: Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn, Beecher Island, Lightning Creek Incident, Biographical Sketches, and The Old West. 

Though there is a heavy emphasis on military affairs in the interviews, they also present perspectives on a broad range of other aspects of the Old West, from life on the reservations to the fur trade. Fully 200 pages of volume one are devoted to interviews with
William Garnett and Philip F. Wells, mixed-blood men who spent decades as Lakota interpreters. Garnett and Wells, in addition to discussing warfare, offer insights on treaties, Sun Dances, Sioux customs, religion, and languages. Garnett, sometimes called Billy Hunter, is reported to be the son of Confederate General Richard B. Garnett, who died in Longstreet’s assault at Gettysburg. While stationed at Fort Laramie before the war, Garnett took an Oglala woman, named Looks at Him, as his common-law wife, resulting in the birth of William.

Maps, illustrations, useful appendixes and an exceedingly generous index enhance the text, and Jensen’s voluminous endnotes not only demonstrate his utter mastery of the subject matter (Jensen was a senior research anthropologist at the Nebraska State Historical Society), but render the oral histories exponentially more useful and interesting.

Bison Books, the trade paperback line of the University of Nebraska Press, has consistently released some of the most fascinating and valuable works of American history.  Voices of the American West is another brilliant offering in a catalog of over 900 in-print titles spanning more than 50 years.  

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