The tragic death of Sioux Indian Chief Sitting Bull during a sudden skirmish with police officers trying to arrest him on Dec. 15, 1890 and its bloody aftermath at Wounded Knee are tragic enough historical incidents without trying to exaggerate them to make strong political points. However, that’s what the new movie, WOMAN WALKS AHEAD does, by presenting a highly fictionalized story about Sitting Bull’s relationship with a woman painter, Catherine Weldon, who came from New York to live with the Sioux on the Standing Rock Agency Indian reservation straddling the border between North and South Dakota.
The movie begins in 1889 with Catherine writing the agent in charge of the reservation, James McLaughlin, a letter about coming to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, including a personal letter from her to Sitting Bull explaining her mission. However, McLaughlin burns Catherine’s letter to Sitting Bull and orders a Sioux police officer, Chaska, to arrest Catherine as soon as she steps off the train.
On the train, Catherine meets a gruff Army colonel named Groves. He warns her about befriending the savage Indians on the reservation, but she ignores his warning.
No one comes to the bare bones train stop to take Catherine to the fort that lies adjacent to the Indian reservation. So, she starts walking with her large suitcase and smaller bag. An Indian riding a horse pulling a makeshift wilderness stretcher comes upon her, takes her bags, and simply rides off with them.
Catherine finally makes it to the fort, but McLaughlin orders Chaska to put her on the next train. However, Chaska turns out to be a nephew of Sitting Bull, and he takes her to the chief instead.
Sitting Bull is not exactly accommodating to Catherine’s plan. He tells Catherine he’ll let her paint his portrait, but only if she pays him $1,000. She agrees, and the two begin a tenuous friendship that eventually seems to turn into a tenuous romance.
Meanwhile, Colonel Groves begins implementing a new federal policy to take half of the Sioux tribe’s land and cut their rations from the federal government in half as well to force compliance. However, the Indians get to vote on the new treaty with the American government implementing this policy. Groves bribes some Indian chiefs to vote for the treaty, but Catherine helps Sitting Bull lead a successful political campaign against the treaty in 1890.
According to the movie, their success leads the government to order an arrest of Sitting Bull by the reservation’s Indian police, who carry out McLaughlin’s orders. The white government officials are afraid Sitting Bull will lead a rebellion among the Ghost Dance Movement, a mystical prophecy among the Sioux and other Indians that the white settlers will leave, and the Indians will return to their old ways and experience newfound peace, prosperity, and unity. The day of Sitting Bull’s arrest arrives, but the Army has stationed a hidden assassin in a nearby building waiting for Sitting Bull to leave his cabin.
WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is nicely made, but it clearly compresses some historical incidents. For example, the movie combines the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, or General Allotment Act, with the fictional treaty that the Sioux Indians are asked to sign in this story. The Dawes Act was meant to encourage Indians to assimilate into American society and become independent citizens, but in reality, it broke up the power of the various tribes and effectively resulted in the loss and even outright theft of about 90 million acres or more of Indian tribal lands. Of course, by 1890, the Dawes Act was well underway.
Although historical truth is often hard to determine, the story of the Dawes Act and its extremely negative impact on Native Americans appears to be a terrible story that needs to be told. Also, according to the apparent historical record, it was clearly one of the things that led to the increased tension between Sitting Bull and the federal government, including McLaughlin, the white Indian agent in charge of the Sioux reservation. However, that’s about where the historical truth of this movie ends.
In reality, from the beginning, Catherine Weldon wasn’t just an innocent, obscure portrait painter from New York. She actually came to the Sioux reservation to visit Sitting Bull and his people as an activist working with the National Indian Defense Association. She not only wanted to fulfill a dream of living with the Sioux; she also wanted to help the Sioux Indians fight the Dawes Act and other government rulings. In addition, she also came with her young teenage son, Christy. This was how she met Sitting Bull, befriended him and ended up painting four portraits of him, two of which have survived.
In the movie, Catherine is a relatively young widow and proto-feminist who chafes at the idea of being married. The movie implies that her father forced her into this marriage. However, Catherine was actually 45-years-old at the time she moved to the reservation with her son, and Sitting Bull was 58 or 59, much older than how this movie portrays the famous warrior and leader. Not only that, but, by this time, Catherine’s husband had divorced her (in 1883) after she had run away with a married man in 1876 and given birth to Christy. Later, this man abandoned Catherine and his son and returned to his wife. Also, of course, at the time of this movie’s setting, Sitting Bull already had two wives.
Worse than this, however, there was no hidden military assassin when Sitting Bull was killed while being arrested on Dec. 15, 1890. During a dawn visit to arrest Sitting Bull, the Indian police tried to use force to make Sitting Bull mount his horse after he refused to do so. The Indians surrounding Sitting Bull’s cabin became enraged at this treatment, and one Indian seriously wounded the Indian police officer in charge, who reacted by shooting Sitting Bull in the stomach while another Indian police officer shot Sitting Bull in the head. In all, eight policemen and eight Sioux Indians (including Sitting Bull) died during the tragic skirmish.
In addition, unlike the movie’s portrayal, Catherine had already left the reservation in November because her son had become deathly ill. Also, she and Sitting Bull had had a disagreement about the Ghost Dance Movement. She had warned him that the movement would give the military an excuse to kill him and destroy what was left of the Sioux Nation. Her prediction came to pass, but the upshot of their disagreement was that Sitting Bull turned against her, and she soon left thereafter. In fact, according to Indian agent James McGlothlin’s own memoirs, MY FRIEND THE INDIAN (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t00008872;view=1up;seq=232, admittedly a biased source, Sitting Bull became a full-fledged leader of the Ghost Dance Movement and was known to have pledged in 1890 to take some kind of violent action against the whites as head of the movement (see pages 179 to 222). McLaughlin also says Sitting Bull gave the order for the other Sioux Indians to shoot at the Indian policemen, at the instigation of Sitting Bull’s 17-year-old son, Crow Foot, who reportedly shouted, “You have called yourself a brave man and said you would never surrender to a blue-coat, and now you give yourself up to Indians in blue uniforms!” Finally, according to McGlothlin (and contrary to the events in this movie), there was indeed a new treaty negotiated between the Sioux of the Standing Rock reservation and the federal government in 1889, but that the treaty was supported by most of the Indians, and Sitting Bull’s opposition to the new treaty didn’t succeed. Other white leaders, such as former Indian agent V.T. McGillicuddy, dispute McLaughlin’s fears of the Ghost Dance Movement among the Sioux Indians, but they were not as close to the situation surrounding Sitting Bull as McLaughlin was.
Be that as it may, one of the more egregious factual errors of WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is its treatment of General George Crook, who fought in the Indian Wars and was a member of the commission that dealt with the Sioux during the above-mentioned treaty negotiations in 1889. Toward the end of the movie, Colonel Groves tells Catherine that General Crook is manipulating her and Sitting Bull to take a stand against the new treaty because the General wants an excuse to kill Sitting Bull and wage war on the Sioux Indians. However, there is absolutely no record of such an attitude on the part of General Crook. In fact, Crook actually died on March 21, 1890, nine months before Sitting Bull was killed and nine months before the 7th Cavalry’s massacre of 153 Ghost Dancer Indians, including women and children, at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890! Finally, Red Cloud, a Sioux war chief, reportedly said of Crook, “He, at least, never lied to us. His words gave us hope” (GENERAL GEORGE CROOK, HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Martin F. Schmitt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).
Although the movie discusses the Ghost Dance Movement, it fails to mention the Christian, mystical and occult background of the movement. The Ghost Dance prophecy predicts that Jesus Christ will return to Earth and bless all Native Americans who renounce war, love one another and work instead of steal. In 1890, the Sioux war chief Kicking Bear brought a more militant version of the movement to Sitting Bull and the other Sioux on the Standing Rock reservation. According to McLaughlin in his book and other sources, Kicking Bear preached Jesus would return to live with the Indians, remove all the white people, and the Indian would be blessed and rule the Earth. Ecstatic ritualistic dancing became part of the movement, as did occult seances with the ghosts or spirits of Indian ancestors.
Before the credits roll in WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, a note mentions the massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee, where it says 300 Indian men, women, and children died. As mentioned above, only about 153 Indians died that day on December 29, 1890 (some may have died later in the following week or two). What the movie doesn’t tell viewers, however, is that the main chief who led the 350 or so Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, Chief Spotted Elk, was a leader of the Ghost Dance Movement, so he too may have had thoughts about using the movement to start another war. Even if that wasn’t true, however, some reports about the “massacre” from eyewitnesses say that the young Indian braves became agitated at the American soldiers being ordered to seize their weapons. One of the beliefs in the Ghost Dance Movement taught by Sitting Bull and Kicking Bear was that the “ghost shirts” worn by Indian men in the movement were bullet proof. This belief may have led to the horrible battle that broke out between the Indians and the troops. In fact, according to one report about the massacre, when a blind Indian’s rifle accidentally discharged, five braves may have drawn concealed weapons from blankets and started shooting at the troops. Sadly, soldiers manning some artillery near the Indian camp started firing their artillery as well. This was probably the main thing that resulted in so many Indian deaths. Also, of course, 25 American soldiers lost their lives during the battle. In addition, about 50 Indians and about 39 soldiers were wounded.
Thus, as the historical record shows, despite its cohesive script, beautiful cinematography and heartfelt performances, WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is filled with revisionist history, factual inaccuracies and even slander that give a false, Romanticized view of Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon. The movie also makes all the Indians out to be and Indian leaders noble victims, martyrs, or innocent stooges and almost all the white people and white leaders evil, duplicitous, or mean. Even if you discount some or even many of James McLaughlin’s assertions in his book, it’s clear that WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is designed to turn Sitting Bull into a totally innocent martyr, when the truth may be significantly less than that. Even McLaughlin in his book admits the Indians were often treated unfairly by the white man. He also admits, however, that this treatment resulted in some excesses by the Indians as well, excesses that sometimes targeted innocent victims on the other side. Interestingly, in the last chapter of his book, McLaughlin argues in favor of the federal government giving each Indian the money that the government had been holding in trust for each tribe and let each Indian fend for himself, without any of the extra assistance the government had been doling out to them for years. Such a solution may not be fully applicable today, but it seems like a morally just, pro-free enterprise solution that has much merit. Be that as it may, McLaughlin’s proposed solution (not to mention his advocacy for fair treatment of Indians in his book) shows that he wasn’t the heartless Indian agent that WOMAN WALKS AHEAD portrays.
Ironically, reading McLaughlin’s text reveals that, in actuality, he shared one major opinion with the movie WOMAN WALKS AHEAD. Both he and the movie assert that the American government often mistreated the Native Americans and broke many of the treaties it made with the Indians. McLaughlin, however, thought that Sitting Bull was one of the more untrustworthy Indians he met, as well as a selfish warmonger who thought he could regain his stature among the other Indians if he led another war against the government in 1890. Of course, readers of his book don’t have to accept his accounts of what happened at face value. However, it’s clear from other sources as well as from reading McLaughlin’s book that WOMAN WALKS AHEAD has played fast and loose with the facts about Sitting Bull and the Indian activist, Catherine Weldon, including the facts surrounding Sitting Bull’s untimely demise and the Battle of Wounded Knee. The movie has exaggerated the ill treatment Sitting Bull and the Indians received to make political points in favor of Sitting Bull and the Indians, but it didn’t have to do that! The true story may be much more complex than WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, but the real facts still demonstrate that Native Americans often got a raw deal whenever they dealt with American society and negotiated with its state, local and federal governments. For example, it clearly was a bad idea, not to mention a violation of the Second Amendment, for the American troops to forcibly disarm the American Indians at Wounded Knee. Also, by depriving Indians of a portion of their rations just made things worse. However, WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is clearly guilty of exaggeration and propaganda.
WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is a highly fictionalized account of the friendship between the Sioux Indian war chief Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon, a female painter and Indian activist from New York in 1890. Sitting Bull tells Catherine he will only let her paint him of she pays him $1,000. She agrees, and the two begin tenuous friendship that develops into an unrequited romance. Catherine gets involved in Sitting Bull’s campaign to stand up for Indian rights on the reservation, but it leads to tragedy and death.
Despite its cohesive script, beautiful cinematography and heartfelt performances, WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is filled with revisionist history, factual inaccuracies and even slander. It exaggerates the goodness of the Indians and the evil of the white people to make political points, for purposes of propaganda. For example, Sitting Bull was not assassinated as the movie claims. He died in a skirmish with Indian policeman when one of his followers shot the lead officer arresting Sitting Bull for allegedly trying to foment another Indian war. This is only one example of the abhorrent falsehoods in WOMAN WALKS AHEAD.