While organizing research notes for my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, it occurred to me that my task is akin that of the Cubist painters. A hundred years ago artists including Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Juan Gris invented Cubism. They looked at objects from multiple viewpoints, analyzed each viewpoint, and then reassembled them into a single composition. That’s like what I’m doing.
I’ve collected numerous pieces about the events of the summer of 1877 when the Nez Perce Indians encountered several groups of tourists while fleeing from the Army through Yellowstone Park. Those pieces contain distinct—even disparate—viewpoints. Here are some of them:
- Yellow Wolf, a young Nez Perce brave who felt justified in seeking revenge on all whites following the Army’s pre-dawn attack on the sleeping Indian camp that left dozens of women and children dead.
- Emma Cowan, a young wife fulfilling her dream of visiting “geyserland” who spoke sympathetically of the plight of the Nez Perce in her reminiscence even after Indians left her husband for dead after shooting him in the head and then took her captive.
- Jack Bean, an old Indian fighter who had been with the troops that buried the mutilated bodies of Custer and his men after the Battle of the Little Big Horn and had no qualms about scalping Indians.
- General Oliver Otis Howard, an evangelical Christian and Civil War hero, who led his exhausted troops across Yellowstone Park after several humiliating skirmishes with the Nez Perce.
My job is to analyze the accounts of these people—and of dozens of others—and sift out the truth. Then I’ll try to put the whole thing together in a coherent whole. To do that, I’ll need to look for places where the various viewpoints converge and diverge, overlap and separate, compliment and contradict.
Like a Cubist painting, the final narrative won’t always arrange things in the way that people are used to seeing them, but I hope it will be compelling and enlightening. I’m enjoying the challenge.
— Image, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
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