Muddy Nebraska

Stuck in the mud near Bancroft, Nebraska. NSHS RG3334-1-56

Stuck in the mud near Bancroft, Nebraska. NSHS RG3334-1-56

The knowledge will be small consolation if you ever get stuck in the mud, but Nebraska has come a long way since pioneer times in the development of its public roads and highways. A glance through pioneer reminiscences and the spring issues of early newspapers provides plenty of evidence that good, old-fashioned Nebraska mud was one of the principal obstacles in the way of spring travel here.

Covered wagon emigrants, beating their way to Oregon, California, or Utah, frequently had trouble with the muddy Nebraska leg of the long journey almost always undertaken in early spring. The trails became so badly rutted that wagons could not pass, and new roads had to be marked out. This accounts in part for the fact that the Oregon Trail may be several miles wide in certain parts of the state, notably southeastern Nebraska.

In territorial times, roads were little better than trails; and when the ground thawed out in the spring they usually were impassable. Rural roads were not the only ones afflicted by the spring thaw. Villages and city streets suffered in equal or greater proportion.

An editorial in the Dakota City Democrat, April 13, 1861, may be considered typical: “Last week this city was visited by shower after shower of April rain that reduced the condition of our streets to the consistency of paste.  Pedestrians worked them up into a still worse condition . . . until the upper surface for two feet deep, was of the primitive nature of brick. Stilts, and other pedal appendages, adroit jumping, and the aquatic knowledge of sturgeons, were in much requisition.”

Even the proud city of Omaha was afflicted with mud. The Omaha Daily Bee, on May 28, 1881, reported that a team of horses pulling a grocery wagon had recently been rescued from a mudhole near Fourteenth and Douglas streets. An unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the hole had been made by city workmen, who filled it with soft mud and then smoothed dirt over the top. But when a team of horses “touched the reconstructed mudhole, they sunk to their shoulders in soft mire. The efforts which they made to get out only sunk them deeper . . . . After struggling in the pit for about an hour a sufficient crowd collected to raise one of the horses bodily and remove it to firm ground. The other horse was taken out after much difficulty. It was badly strained in the process and its harness nearly ruined.” The Bee noted, “The matter created considerable indignation.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Treasures from the Nebraska History Museum in Nebraska History News

George Churley with Stumpy and Deputy Duke, two of the original Cartoon Corral puppets.

George Churley with Stumpy and Deputy Duke, two of the original Cartoon Corral puppets.

For the past two years we’ve been featuring “Treasures from Nebraska Museums” in Nebraska History News, the Nebraska State Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter, and in small exhibits at the Nebraska History Museum. This project was a lot of fun, and we thank our colleagues at museums around the state for participating. As we prepare to close our museum temporarily for renovation, we begin a new newsletter series in the April/May/June issue featuring objects from our own collection.

To kick off “Treasures from the Nebraska History Museum,” we share a few items from a new collection donated in 2013 by George Churley of Lincoln. Churley, a puppeteer and founder of the George Churley Puppet Company (1973-80), donated twenty-eight puppets as well as photographs and audiovisual materials.

Kalamity Kate (Leta Powell Drake) poses with two young fans and puppets Hash T. Horse and Little Reggie.

Kalamity Kate (Leta Powell Drake) poses with two young fans and puppets Hash T. Horse and Little Reggie.

The company was best known for the puppets created for Kalamity Kate’s Cartoon Corral, a children’s television program shown on KOLN/KGIN. Churley served as a writer, producer, and puppeteer for the show from 1975 to 1980. With the cooperation of more than forty Nebraska schools, he also developed and produced a game show segment featuring fourth, fifth and sixth grade students titled Little Reggie’s Quiz Kids. This segment was chosen by the National Television Information Office as one of five nationwide examples of “excellence in local children’s programming”; three program clips appeared in a national special, Television in America: Children, Television and Change. The George Churley Puppet Company also traveled, performing live shows and workshops for kids. They presented more than 700 live performances in 16 states.

Although the collection is not currently on display, the puppets and photographs are cataloged and included in our online database. To view the collection, visit nebraskahistory.org and click on “Photograph and Artifact Collections Search” under the “Search Collections” menu.

 

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Cigarettes in the Boudoir: Omaha’s Female Smokers in 1889

Nathaniel Currier’s 1847 lithograph depicted a reclining woman smoking a cigarette. NSHS 10645-4273

Nathaniel Currier’s 1847 lithograph depicted a reclining woman smoking a cigarette. NSHS 10645-4273

“From London comes the assurance that the duchess of Marlborough has introduced cigarette smoking in the charmed circle of her select friends,” said the Omaha Bee on October 27, 1889. The Bee went on to inform its readers that the “more than half-naughty fad” was becoming popular among society women in Omaha as well.

The male Bee reporter said of this new class of smokers and their feminine smoking accessories: “In the boudoirs of any number of women in Omaha, a tray of cigarettes, holders and matches has its honored place with no effort at concealment. . . . There are little trays of silver, Benares brass, tortoise shell or porcelain; holders of amber, mother of pearl, or silver again, in instances jeweled and adorned with a monogram; match boxes of rarest workmanship, some of them with miniatures of bygone beauties made to smile at this now-a-day custom; tiny candlesticks to hold the tapers, and a thousand other enticing things which go far toward seducing the feminine mind.”

The Bee believed that “[t]he charm for the fair sex in smoking is undoubtedly the conviction that it is at least venturesome!” Well-known actresses, such as Rose Coghlan and Lillie Langtry, who smoked onstage, were thought to be another cause.

The Bee reporter clearly disapproved of a woman with “a paper covered weed in her dainty fingers and her bewitching face seen through the soft gray curling smoke.” His final advice to Omaha women in 1889 was to avoid the use of tobacco as the source of unpleasant odors, “wrinkles and a lack of repose, that unmistakable seal of good breeding.”

Sixteen years later in 1905 there was a legislative effort in Nebraska to curb cigarette smoking. It did not take long for smokers to challenge the new law in court, with mixed results. The act was finally repealed in 1919, presumably because it was considered ineffective.  - Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Buffalo Bones Once Plentiful on Nebraska Prairie

Unloading buffalo bones at rail terminal, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-2

Unloading buffalo bones at rail terminal, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-2

The slaughter of the buffalo left the prairie marked by millions of tons of their bones, the skeletal remains of an entire species. Settlers wanting to augment their meager cash incomes sometimes collected and sold these bones, which were usually ground for use as fertilizer. Harry B. Harlan, born on a farm near Waverly, Nebraska, in 1874, recalled gathering buffalo bones with family members during the summer of 1880 in Furnas County:

“That first summer I remember going with Uncle Allen and his team and wagon with side-boards on, to gather a load of buffalo bones. In those days money was scarce, and a dollar looked as big as a wagon wheel to the settlers. A man was glad to work all day for a dollar. Some one in Arapahoe would buy the bleached bones to ship to some fertilizer plant perhaps. A big load of the bones would bring two or three dollars, perhaps more, so, if a man put in a day with his team gathering up a load, and another day to take it to town – it would be hard money, wouldn’t it?”

Buffalo bones piled at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-1

Buffalo bones piled at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-1

Harlan said the bones were plentiful, “usually scattered here and there, where the animal happened to fall, and sometimes two or more skeletons were in one place. There were many huge skulls with wide spreading short horns; bulls horns thick and stubby; cows horns more slender. I found lots of flint arrowheads nearby, or sticking in a bone when the buffalo had been killed by an Indian. We found some bones with a big lead bullet smashed into them. Some of the bullets were as big as the end of a man’s thumb, being from large bore ‘buffalo guns’ sometimes used by hunters.”

Harlan also remembered another artifact of the buffalo valuable to settlers: the buffalo robe. A buffalo hide, carefully tanned or softened and with the hair left on, “would be in nearly every farmers rig for a warm wrap in riding. Some carried a robe the year round as padding for the wagon seat. We had one of those buffalo robes, the inside leather soft and pliable, the outside long curly hair making it perfect protection for winter weather. The robes were plentiful then and comparatively inexpensive for millions of buffalo had been slaughtered a few years previously intirely [sic] for their hides.”

For information on another benefit to settlers bestowed by the buffalo, see “Buffalo and Cow Chips” on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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The Changing Image of George Armstrong Custer

Lt. Col. George Custer was once considered “the model of a Christian warrior.” In the 1870s, poets called him heroic, splendid and glorious. One magazine editor called him “chief among our nation’s knights,” and in popular opinion Custer was a martyr who fell defending the frontier.

How did a man so lauded by his contemporaries later become the subject of lasting ridicule and disgrace? In the Spring 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Brian W. Dippie discusses the factors involved in the changing image of George Armstrong Custer among historians and in popular culture.

Born in 1839, Custer became famous as the “Boy General” in the Civil War, and carried that fame with him when he joined the Seventh Cavalry after the war. But what ensured his lasting fame was his death. On an 1876 expedition to confine “hostile” Lakota to their reservation, Custer chose to attack an Indian camp that proved much larger than his forces. He and all 212 men under his direct command were killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand.”

"Custer's Last Stand," by F.C. Yohn, ca. 1929. From 1930 Calendar, Caron & McGrath (General Insurance), Southbridge, Massachusetts. In 1930, four years after the observance of the semi-centennial of his Last Stand, Custer was still riding high in popular esteem.

Custer’s Last Stand, by F.C. Yohn, ca. 1929. From 1930 Calendar, Caron & McGrath (General Insurance), Southbridge, Massachusetts. In 1930, four years after the observance of the semi-centennial of his Last Stand, Custer was still riding high in popular esteem.

On July 6, 1876, just two days after the United States’ 100th birthday, the nation received news of Custer’s defeat. Dippie explains how this timing was crucial – Custer’s defeat clashed with the centennial celebrations of American progress. Writers, poets and politicians romanticized Custer’s death, painting him as a hero to aspire to. As magazine editor E.M. Stannard wrote,

“Custer fell! But not until his manly worth had won for him imperishable honor. Pure as a virgin, frank and open-hearted as a child, opposed to the use of tobacco, liquors, and profane language, free from political corruption, cool and courageous in the midst of the fiercest battle, he has left to us the model of a Christian warrior.”

"They Died With Their Boots On" (Warner Brothers, 1941). Errol Flynn's grand finale in this film represents the zenith of Custer's heroic career on the screen.

They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Brothers, 1941). Errol Flynn’s grand finale in this film represents the zenith of Custer’s heroic career on the screen.

Not everyone thought of Custer in such noble terms, but these dissenters were fairly quiet until the 1930s when criticism of Custer became more mainstream. The Great Depression made it hard to believe in glowing tales like the legend of Custer.  In 1934, one year after Custer’s widow died, Frederic F. Van de Water published the biography Glory-Hunter, which portrayed Custer in an extremely unfavorable light. Van de Water saw Custer as a proud, immature and foolish man “with little to recommend him beyond a headlong bravery and a picturesque appearance. He’d have made a damned spectacular United States Senator, but he was a deplorable soldier.”

Perceptions of Custer were mixed for several decades. The 1941 movie They Died with Their Boots On once again portrayed a heroic, charismatic Custer and was released just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. However by the 1960s, growing empathy for Native Americans and backlash from the Vietnam War caused Custer to be perceived more than ever as a foolish villain.

 Little Big Man (Cinema Center Films, 1970). Richard Mulligan's Custer reversed the heroic conventions established in films like They Died with Their Boots On and served to critique American involvement in Vietnam by descent into madness at his Last Stand.

Little Big Man (Cinema Center Films, 1970). Richard Mulligan’s Custer reversed the heroic conventions established in films like They Died With Their Boots On and served to critique American involvement in Vietnam by descent into madness at his Last Stand.

Popular opinion has not seen Custer as a hero ever since. And in Dippie’s opinion, it probably never will again. “His champions have never given up – doomed Last Stands are in their blood – and they still fight a rearguard action in his defense,” Dippie writes. “But they have no purchase in popular culture. His detractors hold the field.”

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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No Irish Babies Born in Nebraska in 1912

St. Patrick’s Day souvenir postcard. NSHS 10146-169-(3)

St. Patrick’s Day souvenir postcard. NSHS 10146-169-(3)

When the Nebraska State Board of Health released statistics in December 1912 on various aspects of life in this state, it probably didn’t expect to provoke any controversy. However, the Omaha Daily News on December 25, under the headline “No Irish Babies Born in Nebraska,” took the board to task for its failure to include the Irish in its list of the birth rates of various ethnic groups in Nebraska.

The board’s statistics indicated that there were 26,697 births reported during the year 1912. Of these 13,783 were male and 12,914 female. “Americans” had the most births, 21,869; with considerably lesser numbers reported for other nationalities, including Germans, Scandinavians, “Bohemians,” and the British.

Entirely missing was a separate category for the Irish, who could not have been more unhappy over the report had it appeared on St. Patrick’s Day. “According to Omaha Irishmen,” said the Daily News, “this is a grave and slanderous error and they will have the records corrected or at least see hereafter that the Irish are classed separately. . . .

“‘What do they think we are, South Sea Islanders or cannibals,’ demanded [Nebraska legislator] John E. Reagan today. ‘I suppose they have included us among the British or the Indians or some other class. I am going to investigate and have it corrected.’

“‘It is a base slander on our race and I will not stand for it. The Irish have just as many babies as anyone else and more. I repeat, I will not stand for it. It is an insult,’ said Jerry Howard.” Howard, born in Limerick, Ireland, represented Omaha in the Nebraska House of Representatives in 1909 and from 1915 to 1919. He died in 1930, remembered as an Irish patriot and “friend of the working man and working girl.”

More information on the Irish and their celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in Omaha is online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website, along with other articles from past issues of Nebraska History magazine. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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Beauty at the Keyboard

Solomon D. Butcher’s photograph depicted C. W. Roush, principal of the Broken Bow Business College, and his stenographer, Mable Holcomb, both with typewriters. NSHS RG2608-002815

Solomon D. Butcher’s photograph depicted C. W. Roush, principal of the Broken Bow Business College, and his stenographer, Mable Holcomb, both with typewriters. NSHS RG2608-002815

With the advent of the typewriter in the late 1800s, women came forward to apply for and receive employment as typists, eventually replacing male clerical workers. Some acquired the new skill by enrolling in a business school that specialized in teaching commercial courses. The Omaha Daily Bee on November 11, 1889, published an interview with a representative “Beauty at the Key-Board,” who discussed wages, working conditions, and matrimonial prospects of Omaha’s “lady typewriters.” (The word then signified the machine’s operator rather than the machine.)

Asked about the number of female typists in Omaha in 1889 and their average wage, Beauty said: “I should say that there are not far from three hundred. And what do we earn? Oh, I really couldn’t begin to tell you. It depends upon the ability of the operator, . . . Some girls that I know of are working for as low as $6 per week . . . . There are three or four in Omaha who receive as high as $30 per week, . . . It depends, as I have said, upon the ability.” Typing speed was also discussed. Forty words per minute was considered an acceptable rate, with sixty words, “a lively pace.”

Asked to compare male and female typists, Beauty replied: “As compared with gentlemen, well, the sterner sex, I believe, hold the records for the most rapid work, and, owing to the difference in physical construction, are able to do a greater amount of work when it comes to a ‘pinch.’ But I think as a rule that girls are to be relied upon.” And she insisted that on the job women were as discreet as men. “The saying that women cannot keep a secret doesn’t seem to apply in the case of typewriter girls, for I know that I hold several valuable state secrets that would make splendid items for newspapers that I wouldn’t give away for anything.”

Beauty noted bluntly: “Of course we are good-looking the most of us. . . . I am not egotistical when I say that one must be fair to look upon to succeed in an office. . . . Are the most of us single? Well, I should say! Of course we are! What a question! When one of us gets married we expect that our liege lords will provide for us, and that there will be no necessity for us to work. Of course if hubby should die we could collect his insurance and go to work again, and our avocation would be quite handy.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Robinson, Nebraska

In the racially segregated military that followed the Civil War, one of the first Cavalry regiments for black soldiers was headquartered in Nebraska for more than a decade. These soldiers played a notable role in social and military changes of the late 1800s. In the Spring 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Brian Shellum tells the story of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment, which fought discrimination as well as Indians on the Great Plains.

A Ninth Cavalry squadron on the drill field, circa 1892-93. Each of the four troops has its own guidon and its own color of horse. The shadow of the reviewing stand is visible in the foreground; Crow Butte and a few of the Fort Robinson buildings are visible in the right background. NSHS RG1517-93-20

A Ninth Cavalry squadron on the drill field, circa 1892-93. Each of the four troops has its own guidon and its own color of horse. The shadow of the reviewing stand is visible in the foreground; Crow Butte and a few of the Fort Robinson buildings are visible in the right background. NSHS RG1517-93-20

By the end of the Civil War, black volunteers made up about 10 percent of the Union’s manpower, had fought all over the country and had suffered 36,837 deaths. But it wasn’t until after the war that Congress established the first regular regiments of black soldiers – nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Indians because of the soldiers’ dark skin and curly black hair. One of these regiments, the Ninth Cavalry, fought in the Apache Wars in New Mexico from 1875-1881, and was later headquartered at Fort Robinson, Nebraska from 1887 to 1898.

In terms of organization and equipment, the Buffalo Soldier Regiments were almost identical to white regiments in the Regular Army. Shellum explains that “the army simply could not afford to cripple one tenth of its combat power by deliberately issuing substandard items to the black regiments. The army bureaucracy was by regulation color-blind when it came to all things official such as recruiting, medical services, military pay, and pensions.”

Interior of an 1887 adobe barracks at Fort Robinson. The all-black Ninth Cavalry lived in buildings that were identical to those of their counterparts in the all-white Eighth Infantry. NSHS RG1517-93-13

Interior of an 1887 adobe barracks at Fort Robinson. The all-black Ninth Cavalry lived in buildings that were identical to those of their counterparts in the all-white Eighth Infantry. NSHS RG1517-93-13

However, that did not protect the Buffalo Soldiers from the fierce racism of some white regiments and officers. Fort Robinson hosted large numbers of black cavalry along with white infantry soldiers, creating what Shellum calls “a breeding ground for racism.” When Frank B. Taylor became an officer in the Ninth Cavalry, he made clear his contempt for the black soldiers and officers. In 1881 Taylor was court-martialed for verbally abusing, pistol-whipping, and beating a black trooper with the butt of a carbine. When the black Lt. Charles Young arrived at Fort Robinson in 1889, Taylor actively avoided serving with him.

Fortunately, not all the white officers were so hostile. Louis H. Rucker treated the enlisted men of the Ninth Cavalry with respect, and was a mentor to black officers John Alexander and Charles Young. Over time, the Buffalo Soldiers won the respect of others as well. Black regulars had higher enlistment rates but lower desertion rates than whites, causing Secretary of War Redfield Proctor to suggest raising a black artillery regiment.

The Buffalo Soldiers’ faithful service not only helped diffuse racial tensions, but also paved the way for future generations of black soldiers. To read more about the work of the Buffalo Soldiers in Nebraska, you can order a copy of the Spring 2014 issue at 1-800-833-6747.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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How High Is That Drift?

Conditions in Fairbury after a 1912 snowstorm. NSHS RG2083-4-48

Conditions in Fairbury after a 1912 snowstorm. NSHS RG2083-4-48

The four men standing between snow banks in Fairbury in 1912 illustrate the aftermath of a snowstorm described by the Fairbury Journal on March 1 as “about the heaviest ever experienced in this vicinity.” The first man in line is resting his arm atop a drift, perhaps to impress upon the viewer how much snow has been heaped along the sidewalk.

The storm extended all over the Rocky Mountain region, especially the southern portion, and as far east as the Atlantic coast. At Fairbury, it  began with a drizzling rain, which turned to snow, leaving a total of sixteen inches on the ground.

The Journal said: “On account of the high wind, which at times blew 50 miles an hour, the snow was drifted and sidewalks and streets were impassable Monday morning. Old residents say they never saw so much snow in the streets of Fairbury. On the east side of the square it was necessary to shovel a path thru banks four feet deep. When the snow was shoveled off into the street, a person of ordinary height, passing along the sidewalk, could not see into the street.”

Fortunately, the effects of the storm didn’t last long. The sun came out, and the snow “settled rapidly,” indicating that it may have been winter’s last major blast. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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Crazy Horse’s Sacred Bundle Buried In Minatare Nebraska

The medicine bundle of Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse is six feet deep somewhere in Minatare, Nebraska.

A medicine bundle was a package that contained a man’s most sacred things – perhaps special stones, herbs, beads, or hair. The bundles were believed to have special power, and were guarded carefully by their owners. In the Spring 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Powers tells the story of how Crazy Horse’s bundle was entrusted from one person to another for 65 years until it was buried for safekeeping in Minatare during World War II.

Shortly before his death, Crazy Horse entrusted his medicine bundle to his close friend Fast Thunder, who took it to the new Pine Ridge Reservation after Crazy Horse was killed in 1877. When Fast Thunder died in 1914, his wife Jennie Wounded Horse preserved the bundle, then before she died entrusted it to Nellie Ghost Dog. Nellie Ghost Dog later passed it on to Theodore Means, the grandson of Fast Thunder.

The death of Crazy Horse as portrayed by Amos Bad Heart Bull (ca. 1868-1913), an Oglala Lakota tribal historian known for his ledger art, which adapted traditional Native American pictography to the medium of paper. NSHS 11055-2241-18

The death of Crazy Horse as portrayed by Amos Bad Heart Bull (ca. 1868-1913), an Oglala Lakota tribal historian known for his ledger art, which adapted traditional Native American pictography to the medium of paper. NSHS 11055-2241-18

In the 1930s, times were hard for the Oglala Lakota and jobs on the reservation were scarce. Theodore Means and others found seasonal work in Minatare picking potatoes, and hundreds of Indians would travel down from Pine Ridge every year to work in the fields.

But the arrival of World War II made everything uncertain. The fall of 1942 was the last year in Minatare for a long time for Theodore Means – it was also the year he decided to bury Crazy Horse’s bundle, to keep it safe. The next year, Means joined the army and went to war.

It was many years before anyone returned for the bundle. During that time, the war and the years after had completely changed Minatare. Many of the massive cottonwood trees were cut down, and the growing popularity of cars forced roads to expand and change. Means died in the early 1960s, and when his wife Theresa went to look for the bundle in 1968 or ’69, Minatare was unrecognizable. The landmarks had all changed, and the bundle was impossible to locate.

Powers heard the story from Theodore Means’ granddaughter Barbara Adams, though it seemed that not everyone was comfortable with a white man hearing the story of Crazy Horse’s most guarded possession. In the article, Powers describes the day he went to Adams’ house to hear the details of the story.

While we talked Barbara’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table, playing solitaire. A young man was working out in the yard, building a chicken house. We could hear the hammering as he pounded in nails. The man and Barbara’s mother, whose last name was now Black Weasel, were thin as drinking straws. There wasn’t an extra ounce on either of them, probably not even as many ounces as they needed. Through the open doorway Margaret Black Weasel examined me closely. She was eighty years old and was smoking long cigarettes that hung from her lips as she sorted and slapped the cards. She looked straight down at the cards on the kitchen table in front of her with the smoke curling slowly up around her eyes and she listened as ferociously as I did…During my conversation with Barbara in the living room Margaret Black Weasel smoldered but did not protest or interrupt and bit by bit Barbara deepened the story she had told me the first time I met her.

While the bundle was no longer passed on, it may be that Crazy Horse wanted the contents of his bundle to remain a mystery. To Powers, the story of the lost bundle “marks a divide between the things that are lost and the things that survive.”

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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