Nobody Better, Better Than Nobodyby Ian Frazier
Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody is a collection of five extended essays that appeared in The New Yorker from 1978 to 1986. In the tradition of A. J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Frazier raises journalism to high literary art. His vivid stories showcase a strange and wonderful parade of American life, from portraits of Heloise, the syndicated/i>/i>
Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody is a collection of five extended essays that appeared in The New Yorker from 1978 to 1986. In the tradition of A. J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Frazier raises journalism to high literary art. His vivid stories showcase a strange and wonderful parade of American life, from portraits of Heloise, the syndicated household-hints columnist, and Jim Deren, the urban fly-fisher's guru, to small-town residents in western Kansas preparing to celebrate a historic, mutual massacre, to which they invite the Cheyenne Indians' descendants with the promise of free bowling.
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Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody
By Ian Frazier
PicadorCopyright © 2003 Ian Frazier
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NOBODY BETTER, BETTER THAN NOBODY
Authentic Accounts of MassacresThe town of Oberlin, Kansas, is in the northwest corner of the state, eighty-three miles east of the Kansas-Colorado state line and a hundred and seven miles west of the geographical center of the continental United States. Oberlin has a population of twenty-five hundred and a town whistle that blows five times a day--at seven in the morning, at noon, at one in the afternoon, at six in the evening, and at ten at night--and it is the county seat of Decatur County. It was named after the town of Oberlin, Ohio. In 1878, it changed its name from its original one--Westfield--because a man named John Rodehaver gave the town some land on the condition that the name be changed to that of the town he and his family had come from in Ohio. I myself am from Ohio, and so this fact, likethe fact that for many years the World's Largest Vase made its home in Zanesville, Ohio, or the fact that the first concrete pavement in America was laid in Bellefontaine, Ohio, or the fact that the comedian Bob Hope owns a share in the Cleveland Indians baseball team, is probably more interesting to me than it would be to somebody from another state. Many cities and towns in Ohio are named after places in other states or other countries (Norwalk, New Philadelphia, Versailles), but it is rare to find a place named after a place in Ohio. The reason for this is probably that people who leave Ohio do not like to be reminded of their native state, but I am sure that if there were a town anywhere named New Akron or New Lorain I would not be the only Ohioan eager to visit it. The Ohio town from which Oberlin, Kansas, gets its name has a strong humanistic tradition: it was a station on the Underground Railroad, and it is well known as the home of Oberlin College, the first coeducational college in America and a college that over the years has won many international friends as a result of its participation in the Congregational missions overseas, particularly in China. The town of Oberlin, Kansas, has a strong tradition, too, but "humanistic" is not the first word I would think of to describe it. It is as if the traditions of the Ohio Oberlin were so jolted and banged up by the thousand-mile journey across the prairie that they just didn't work the same as they had before. In the second half of the nineteenth century, many Ohioanswent West and, by exaggerating certain of their personality traits, found violence and fame (among them the border raider William Quantrill, scourge of Lawrence, Kansas; the abolitionist John Brown, scourge of Pottawatomie, Kansas Territory; and George Custer). Oberlin, Kansas, reminds me of a whole town that did that. From the beginning, Oberlin, Kansas, has had about it something daring, something careening, something here-goes-hope-I-don't-get-shot, to a degree that is rare even for Western towns. Big, exciting, calamitous events have come snapping down on the prairie around Oberlin like the bars of giant mousetraps, especially during the town's early years.My favorite of all the Western museums I have ever been to is in Oberlin, and it is called the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum. It commemorates the biggest thing ever to happen in or near the town --a raid by a group of Cheyennes that took place on September 30 and October 1, 1878, in which about forty settlers and at least two Indians died. The museum has exhibits, paintings, and books about the Indian raid and manuscripts of firsthand accounts of the Indian raid. It also has other exhibits about the history of the area, and it occupies five buildings, one of which is a sod house. The first time I visited the museum, in 1975, I asked the curator, Mrs. Kathleen Claar, about some of the recent photographs in the Indian-raid exhibit. One of the photographs was of a survivor of the raid, Charles Janousek, who as a baby was wounded in the head, and later cared for, bythe Indians, and who then was almost a hundred years old. Another was a picture of a big Indian in a T-shirt and a cowboy hat, standing with his wife and his grandson, a little boy wearing a headdress with buffalo horns. Mrs. Claar said that since about 1956 there had been a celebration at the museum on the anniversary of the Indian raid; that every year for many years a number of the survivors had come to the celebration; and that Charles Janousek was the only one left. She said that the Indian was named Little Wolf and his grandson was also named Little Wolf; that they were the grandson and the great-great-grandson of the famous Cheyenne chief who was the leader of the Indians in the raid; that they had come to the museum when they were in the area on their way to join the rodeo circuit; that descendants of the Cheyennes had come to the museum several times in the past; and that several times Cheyennes had been invited to the celebration on the anniversary of the raid.Late in the summer of 1978, remembering that the centennial of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas was approaching, I called Mrs. Claar and asked her if they were planning a big celebration and if the Indians were coming, and she said yes, they were planning a big celebration, and forty or fifty Northern Cheyennes were going to attend. Since the idea of descendants of the Indians and descendants of the settlers sitting around and talking seemed to me like a mirror image of heaven, I made a rental-car reservation, took moneyout of the bank, flew to Chicago, changed planes, flew to Omaha (I had a long layover in Omaha, so I walked to the city from the airport and had a few beers at the bar of the Omaha Hilton, where a real-estate salesmen's convention was taking place, and then I decided that I wanted to take a close look at the Missouri River, so I got a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the best place to look at the river, and he said he would, and he started telling me that he was separated from his wife and was from New York City, and then he dropped me off at the airport and said that the airport observation deck was the best place to see the river, but that wasn't what I had in mind at all, so I walked along the fence around the runway, scared up a covey of quail, climbed a levee, walked through a field, scared up a couple rabbits, walked through some woods, and finally got to the black-mud, smelly banks of the Missouri--the river that drains a vast area of the West, the river that the Niobrara, the Yellowstone, the Big Sioux, the Knife, the Milk, the Heart, the Bad, the Cannonball, and the Teton all run into eventually, the river that was the main way West when the first white men came, the river that many trappers went up to be killed by Blackfoot Indians, the river that sometimes used to be full of drowned buffalo, the river on which the steamboat Far West brought the news on July 4, 1876, of Custer's defeat--and then I walked back to the airport), took a plane to McCook, Nebraska, reached McCook after stops inColumbus, Lincoln, Grand Island, Hastings, and Kearney, picked up my rental car, drove to Oberlin, and checked in at a motel.The whole time I was in Kansas, I never heard an adult use a swearword. A lot of people asked me if I was married, and one man asked me if I was a Christian. In the evenings, I had either pork-tenderloin sandwiches and French fries at Lindy's, a café a block up from the Indian Raid museum, or ham with mashed potatoes, gravy, noodles, rolls, string beans, three-bean salad, pickled beets, corn relish, apple pie, ice cream, and milk at the 5th Wheel, a restaurant outside of Oberlin, on Highway 36.One evening at sunset, I went for a drive in my rented Volaré and listened to the million radio stations you can get on the Great Plains. I came over a ridge and saw the red sun sitting on the lip of the prairie and the aerodynamically shaped shadows in the washes and gullies just as a really good song ("Rocky Top") came on the radio. I passed the feedlot north of Oberlin, with its many thousands of cattle. One of every nine cows sold for beef in America in 1977 was sold to McDonald's Restaurants.One night, I watched TV in my motel room and after all the stations signed off I went for a drive. There were few cars on the road and no lights on in town and no people anywhere except for a man at a gas station who was ignoring a man with no teeth who was telling about a sow and her piglets he had seen walking down the highway some distance to the west.I drove on dirt roads until I couldn't see any lights, and then I got out of the car. The prairie just kept on going and going in the night, under the faraway, random stars. I felt like a drop of water on a hot plate. I did not get so far from the car, with its engine running and its headlights on, that I could not hear the radio through the closed door.I had been in Kansas only a short time when I found out the Indians were not going to show up at the centennial celebration.
Mrs. Kathleen Claar, curator for the past twenty years of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum, in her museum two days before the centennial weekend:"The Northern Cheyennes are coming. They have made a commitment to attend, and they have chartered a bus that seats forty-nine, so that will be quite a group. It will be senior citizens and junior-and senior-high students. The older Indians will stay at the Frontier Motel, and the younger ones will camp on the museum grounds. And I just had the best news! I went out and bowled this afternoon to try and get away from all these preparations, and Rick Salem, who owns the bowling alley, told me that if the Indians want to they can bowl for free. Wasn't that nice of him?"We're going to have all kinds of demonstrations here at the museum on Saturday, September 30. We're going to have wood carving, spinning, graingrinding, soapmaking, butter churning, glass staining, wheat weaving, bulletmaking, needlepoint, china painting, tatting--that's like macramé, only you use fine thread--and crewelwork. We're going to have a quilt that was made a hundred years ago by a ten-year-old girl, and the biggest piece of cloth in that quilt is no more than one inch square. At the highschool cafeteria, the Oberlin Music Club is sponsoring a fashion show and salad luncheon, with new fashions and also 'Fashions from the Good Ole Days,' dating back to the turn of the century. There's going to be a horse show at the Saddle Club arena, at the fairgrounds, both Saturday and Sunday. The Oberlin Commercial Club is having a mini-tractor pull at the corner of Commercial Street and Penn Avenue on Saturday afternoon (those are the little fuel-powered toy tractors, you know), and then that night the bunch from Topeka--oh, they're wild, the Starlighters Chorus--are going to put on a medicine show here at the museum. It's called Dr. Femur's La-Ka-Ha-NaKlee and I'm in it--I play a madam. It's so bad it's funny. Then after that there's going to be a street dance in front of the museum, and right before the dance we're going to judge the winners in the beard-and-mustache contest. Then on Sunday there's the memorial service at the Oberlin Cemetery at one o'clock, and then Fred and Wilma Wallsmith, of the High Plains Preservation of History Commission, are going to lead a fifty-mile tour of the massacre sites along the Beaver and Sappa Creeks."I really don't know what the Indians are going to do. They say they want to do their dances. I guess they'll just provide music and dancing and be up and down the street here to answer questions and talk to people. I've tried to take everything out of the museum that might offend the Indians. This exhibit here used to be the bones of an Indian woman who lived supposedly about twelve hundred to two thousand years ago. I've covered that up, but I'm scared to death that some little kid is going to say, when the Indians can hear him, 'Oh, Miz Claar, where's the bones of that Indian woman that used to be here?' And I've taken the word 'ravished' out of all the descriptions of the massacre, even though the Indians did ravish at least nine women, and some of the babies that were born later were brought up in the community and you can still see the Indian blood in the families to this day. And I've kind of pushed this exhibit about Sol Rees out of the way--he was quite an Indian fighter, and he lived with the Delawares for a while, and he had a wife who was a Delaware. I don't know whether they were legally married or not. The story goes that he finally traded his Indian wife for a pony. I did an article for the Oberlin Herald about him once, and I had to watch what I said, because his daughter was a friend of mine. I said, 'He was as cruel and hard as the times in which he lived'--that was how I got around most of it."A dark-skinned young man with dark hair and eyes and an embroidered white shirtfront came in. "Hello,Mrs. Claar, my name is Jesus Epimito, and I am staying with Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Larson. I am an International Foreign Youth Exchange student from the Philippines, and I was wondering if you have anything in your museum from the Philippines."Mrs. Claar produced some beads that she thought were from the Philippines but that turned out to be from Puerto Rico."Some people think this museum is only about the Indian raid, but we have things here from every period in the history of this area. I shouldn't brag on myself, but I have one of the best collections of bob wire in the state of Kansas. This is the exhibit--'The History of the Plains Told in Bob Wire.' This wire here is called Glidden's Twisted Oval. It's from the early eighteen-seventies. This piece is called Harbaugh Torn Ribbon--it's just like a ribbon of metal with little tears in it. This wire with the big square pieces of tin on it is called Briggs Obvious. It came out in 1882. It's called 'obvious' because the cattle were supposed to see it and it wouldn't cut them up.""Oh, what funny names these Indians have. Little ... Wolf. Dull ... Knife," said the Filipino student, who was looking at one of the Indian-raid exhibits."This wire here is a get-well gift sent to me when I was in the hospital from the isle of Tahiti by a friend of mine who got it from a Dutch artist. This wire here is handmade bob wire from the white cliffs of Dover. This wire here is from Jerusalem."Dr. R. G. Young, a chiropractor whose office is next door to the museum, came in. He was wearing a terry-cloth shirt that zipped to the throat, and had his hands in the pockets of his blue pants. "Hey, Kathleen, when're the Indians coming? Remember the time the Indians came--oh, ten years ago--and set up their tepees in the yard and wouldn't stay at the motel? They wouldn't eat at the restaurant! They brought their own food and cooked it right out there!""This bob wire was on the Johnny Carson show. Not this exact wire--wire like this. It's called Tyler G. Lord. It was strung on a fence and Johnny had to put a splice in it in a certain amount of time, and he was pretty good at it, too."A farmer came in. His lips were spotted and turned back into his mouth from chewing tobacco. "We've only had sixteen-hundredths of an inch of rain in this county since the beginning of September," he said. "We had a downpour a couple of weeks ago, but then the sun came out and the wind started to blow and it evaporated quicker than it come. I hope it rains for this centennial. That would do more good than anything.""This wire is called Hodges Parallel Rowel. See the rowel in there, like the rowel in a spur, between the two strands? This wire is called Stover Corsicana Clip. This wire is called Kennedy Barb. You can put the barbs on this wire wherever you want."Glenn Gavin, of the Kansas Committee for the Humanities, came in. He began to talk about getting Mrs. Claar a grant, and she was not sure what she would have to do for it. "Have you had a consulting historian involved in this?" he asked."Let's look at this interesting mirror over here. It's made of a piece of what was left of the mirror behind a bar in Norcatur, Kansas, after Carry Nation went in and smashed the place up. The frame of the mirror is made from a piece of the molding of the bar. When we started this museum, people brought us things from every town around here.""An overall public humanities program can coordinate specialists in pioneer history," Glenn Gavin said."Let's look at this desk. It's called a Wooten Desk. Its full name is Wooton's Wonderful Patent Secretary, and it was known as the King of Desks. President Ulysses S. Grant had one, John D. Rockefeller had one, and Oberlin's leading citizen at the turn of the century owned this one. His name was Otis L. Benton, and he was warm and outgoing, but his wife was definitely the first lady of the town, and she used to give command performances, like the queen. Her name was Maude. When she came back from her trip to Europe, she had this book of her impressions privately printed. It's called Maude Abroad. Some people thought that should be three words instead of two, with a comma after Maude."This is a picture of the only Negro ever to live in Oberlin. Well, he wasn't the only one. He had a wife. He lived in the town for many years and was loved and respected by all who knew him."This is a map of Oberlin done by a man with a wooden leg."These are books that were written about the Indian raid--Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, and The Brass Command, by Clay Fisher. Cheyenne Autumn was made into a movie."This is a fossil skeleton of a prehistoric shark which was found on the Smoky Hill River near Sharon Springs by a man who was an alcoholic and liked to look for arrowheads and fossils. Some of that arrowhead collection from forty-nine of the fifty states was his, too."This is a collection of buttons--shell buttons, glass buttons, buttons from Europe, all kinds of buttons--worth over three thousand dollars."This is an arrow recovered from the stomach of a cow belonging to James A. Gaumer after the Indian raid."This is a cigar made by an Oberlin woman who once worked in a cigar factory in New York City."This is a stuffed cobra with electrical tape around it where it broke. A serviceman who was married to a local girl gave it to the museum."These books--A History of the Indians of the United States, by Angie Debo, and Crimsoned Prairie,by S. L. A. Marshall--were in a house that my assistant, Esther Kump, and her husband rented to some people who had kids and the kids got into the books and shot them up. Used them for target practice."There was a phone call for Mrs. Claar. "Maybe it's the Indians," she said.
Writings having to do with the Indian raid:Authentic Accounts of Massacre of Indians, Rawlins County, Kansas, 1875, and Cheyenne Indian Raid in Western Kansas, September 30, 1878, a booklet compiled by George Nellans, contains a copy of the official report submitted by Second Lieutenant Austin Henely, of the 6th United States Cavalry, on an attack he led on Cheyenne Indians camped on the Sappa Creek, in Rawlins County (the county next to Decatur County, where Oberlin is). Henely says that on April 19, 1875, he took forty men and pursued a band of Indians for four days until he met up with some buffalo hunters who showed him where the Indians were. He found the camp and attacked it at daylight, and killed nineteen men (including two chiefs, a medicine man, and a brave who attempted unsuccessfully to escape with "peculiar side-long leaps") and eight women and children. He burned all the lodges, destroyed or took all the arms and ammunition, and captured all the ponies. He lost only two men himself. The booklet also contains a copy of the official report filed on October 26, 1878, by Captain William G.Wedemeyer, of the 16th United States Infantry, on the lives lost and the property destroyed and stolen in the Indian raid in Decatur and Rawlins Counties along the Solomon, the Prairie Dog, the Beaver, and the Sappa Creeks on September 30 and October 1. The men killed were homesteaders, cowboys, Czechoslovakian immigrants, men hunting land, young men of no family and no fixed address, and a traveling preacher. The lost property was cattle, horses, mules, hogs, chickens, patent medicines, carpenter's tools, eight hundred pounds of flour, coffee, molasses, sugar, bacon, men's clothing, women's clothing, children's clothing, clocks, books, pictures, jewelry, a telegraph sounder and key, guns, dishes, feather beds, blankets, quilts, and cash. The report says that prairie fires burned through the area soon after the Indians left, and that many of the survivors went back East within ten days after the raid. The booklet also contains an article written for the Kansas Historical Society by the late William D. Street, who lived in Oberlin, who suggests that there was some connection between the massacre of Indians on the Sappa in 1875 and the massacre of settlers along the same creek and in the same area three years later.Mari Sandoz, the author of Cheyenne Autumn, talked to many Cheyennes in doing research for her book, which is more about their long struggle with the Army and the Indian Agency than it is specifically about the Last Indian Raid. Mari Sandoz says that the Indians who took part in the raid were part of a bandof 284 Cheyennes led by Chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife who had escaped from the reservation at Bent's Fort, in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and were heading north across the state of Kansas, trying to get back to their old homeland in the Yellowstone country or rejoin their allies the Sioux at the Red Cloud Indian Agency, in northwestern Nebraska. She says that most of the band were Northern Cheyennes who had been sent to the reservation of the Southern Cheyennes in 1877. She says that the Northern Cheyennes caught malaria and starved in the south but that the Indian Agent and the Army would not let them leave, so on a night in early September 1878, they sneaked away from their camp, leaving their fires burning, and headed north--men, women, old people, and children. She says that they escaped many times from the cavalry that was sent after them, and they held off the cavalry in several engagements, and they raided in northwestern Kansas, and they crossed into Nebraska, where they camped on the banks of the Republican River, and then they split into two groups, and one group was captured and taken to Fort Robinson, in Nebraska, and when they found they were to be sent south again they escaped from the fort and were again captured and many of them were killed, and several of the men were taken back to Kansas to stand trial for murder but were acquitted for lack of evidence, and finally they and the others who remained of the Fort Robinson group were allowed to go to the RedCloud Agency, where they had wanted to go in the first place, while the second group avoided capture longer, and then the Army caught up with them, and finally they, too, were allowed to stay in the north, on land that is now the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, in southeastern Montana. She says that about a third of the original band did not survive the trip. She says that some of the band were Southern Cheyennes, who came at least part of the way, and that it was probably the Southern Cheyennes who were mostly responsible for the killings in Kansas, since the Indians who had been attacked along the banks of the Sappa three years before were Southern Cheyennes and not Northern Cheyennes. She says that one member of the original band was an artist named Little Finger Nail, who recorded his and his tribe's exploits in colored pencil in a canvas-bound ledger book, and that he wore this book on his body and it was pierced by two 45-70 rifle bullets when he was killed after the escape from Fort Robinson, and that the book is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History. She says that some members of the band were men named Hog, Left Hand, Tangle Hair, Noisy Walker, Woodenthigh, Thin Elk, Black Coyote, Porcupine, and Black Crane and women named Short Woman, Comes in Sight, Singing Cloud, Pawnee Woman, and Buffalo Calf Road. She says that although the Cheyennes lost many women and children when they were attacked on Sand Creek in Coloradoin 1864, on the Washita in 1868, and on the Sappa Creek in 1875, the Cheyennes themselves never killed women or children.
The Indians were supposed to arrive Friday evening of the centennial weekend. On Friday afternoon, Esther Kump, Mrs. Claar's assistant, got a telephone call from someone at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, in Busby, Montana, saying that the Indians' bus had broken down and they would not be able to make it.
All weekend long, the loud screen door of the museum banged, the floor creaked, children's feet scuffed, the phone rang, the air-conditioner turned off and on, mothers told children to behave, and women in pioneer bonnets and hoopskirts talked to each other at the butter-churning, china-painting, quiltmaking, and other booths. On the street, venders sold vases, lamps, bookends, lawn sprinklers, and clothes. Saturday afternoon, a high-pitched, bratty engine noise could be heard all over town as the toy tractors tried to pull a toy trailer loaded with lead weights the length of a sixteen-foot wooden table in the mini-tractor pull. That evening, the senior citizens' group from Topeka put on their medicine show, a collection of songs, skits, and jokes (Sample joke: Man: "Little girl, isyour mother at home?" Girl: "Oh, she's 'round in the rear." Man: "I know that. I asked you is she at home!"), in the museum's large metal prefab auxiliary building, and the stage was set up in such a way that latecomers in the audience had to enter across the stage, through the same entrance that the actors used. The people who were sitting and watching edited from the action onstage the occasional passage of relatives, friends, or neighbors as easily as the eye edits ghosts from a television picture. On Saturday night there was a street dance, with the museum's four-piece band and a square-dance caller performing on top of a truck, and a group of ten semi-professional square dancers. The dance was held on South Penn Avenue, right before the avenue crosses the railroad tracks and becomes a dirt road, under mercury street lamps, which threw light of silvery green and electric blue on the dancers and the bystanders and the steep-shadowed grain elevators in the background. The street was as wide as a New York City avenue, made of reddish bricks, and slightly canted. While I was watching, only the ten semi-professional dancers danced, and on the street's breadth, under the harsh mercury light, their weaving, unweaving, crossing, recrossing, exchanging, promenading, short-petticoat rustling, and boot-heel clicking seemed like an inexplicable organic structure on a microscope slide. Around the part of the street set aside for dancing, cars pulled up, facing toward the center with their lights on, and under thesquare-dance music you could hear the many different-sounding engines idling in unison.
The biggest event of the centennial weekend was the tour of the sites of the Last Indian Raid, sponsored by the High Plains Preservation of History Commission. It was on Sunday. The sky was CinemaScope blue, and the weather was so dry you could strike a match on the inside of your nose. After a short memorial service at the Oberlin Cemetery, people got into their cars and formed a long column heading for the first of ten stops on the tour. The sixty-seven cars, vans, pickup trucks, motor homes, and Land-Rovers quickly left the asphalt highway for dirt roads, following the tour leaders, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Wallsmith (ranchers and amateur historians from Levant, Kansas), and the dust became so thick that sometimes you could see nothing of the car ahead except a small piece of light on the chrome of the rear-window molding. At other times, the wind came up, and you could see the vehicles ahead, all with tails of dust exactly the same size and blown in the same shape. When the head of the column turned off to the right or the left, people in the cars at the back of the column could see the dust of the head cars miles across the prairie. Most of the stops on the tour were along the Beaver and Sappa Creeks--spring-fed creeks that used to have water in even the most severe droughts but now are sometimes completely dry, because deep-drilling forirrigation has lowered the water table. The cottonwood trees along the creeks were a dusty green, and some of the aspens had already turned yellow. Big, testy pheasants looked at the caravan from the burnt buffalo grass.Two hundred and fourteen people signed a register on a clipboard that was passed around at the early stops; some of them signed "Mr. and Mrs. and Family," so there must have been more than that. Many of the people on the tour were blond and blue-eyed and tanned. Many of the children were so blond their hair was almost white. There was one Spanish-speaking family, who never got out of their car but seemed to be having a fine time. There were three graduate students with long hair; when they got out of their car, they locked it. At each stop, the children would play, and the teenagers would sit on the hoods of the cars and lean against the cars, and the parents and old people would stand holding babies and listen as Fred Wallsmith read from his paper about the Indian raid into a battery-powered loudspeaker and pointed out where the Indians rode from and where the settlers were killed a hundred years ago.At one of the stops, Mrs. Keith Hall (maiden name Fern Anthony), a daughter of an eyewitness of the raid, made a speech on a hill overlooking the place where her family's farmhouse used to be:"My grandfather was a contractor and builder in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and he hurt himself--he fell through a building and broke his ribs. So in 1873Grandfather and Grandmother and their children came West in a covered wagon, and that was when my father, Henry Anthony, was born, in California, Missouri, on Christmas Day, 1873. They came to Decatur County in February of 1874 and started a home three miles south of Oberlin, but then a man named Ireland came along and said that the land they were on was his. The neighbors said Ireland hadn't ever done anything with it, but Grandfather said no, there was plenty of land for everybody, so they moved nine miles up the Sappa from Oberlin and built a dugout from native limestone."In April of 1876, Grandfather had gone for supplies to Buffalo Station, which was the largest town near here with the supplies that one would need, and he got caught in a snowstorm. It became real bad real fast and Grandfather became snow-blind, so he let the horses have their heads and he tied the lines around the wagon brake and the horses found their way to the Kaus place. Grandfather had blisters on his eyeballs, so Mrs. Kaus scraped seed potatoes and put the raw scrapings on his eyes, and after a few days he could see well enough to get home. But he was never well after that, and he died in February of 1877, leaving Grandmother, who was twenty-eight years of age, nine miles from Oberlin, with five young children."In September of 1878, there was a rumor of Indians. Papa's oldest brother, Harry, was thirteen, and he ran to the house about nine o'clock one morning and said that he had seen some Indians shoot ourneighbors, Mr. Smith and Mr. Hudson. A man named Lynch who was running his cattle in the area and a sixteen-year-old boy who was helping him were at our place that morning, and Grandmother was making breakfast for them. They went and called the children to the house."Papa was four years old. He would be five years old that Christmas. He came running to the house, but then he stopped on the hillside above the house--the dugout was built down in the hillside--and he sat down and started picking the cactus out of his feet. And he saw Mr. Laing and his son William going down the creek road that ran in front of our place in their wagon, taking the Van Cleve girls, Mary and Eliza, to school. He saw the Indians ride up to them, shake hands with them, and shoot them. The Indians cut the harnesses off the horses and took the horses, and they took the Van Cleve girls, too, but then they let the girls go."Papa's sister, Belle, ran up and picked him up and took him in the house, and the Indians came to the house and tried to get in and Mr. Lynch killed one of them when the Indian stuck his head in the window. Then the Indians went on up the Sappa and they did the same thing to the other people they found. They'd ride up to them, shake hands with them, and shoot them, and then cut the harnesses off the horses."Later on in the day, Mrs. Laing came to our place from their farm, about three miles up the creek. She said, 'I suppose my husband and son are killed,' andGrandmother said yes. That evening, eight bodies in all were taken from the North Sappa back to Oberlin, and coffins were built for them, and they were buried by their friends and family."The soldiers who were supposed to stop the Indians were always behind, and the settlers thought that the soldiers sympathized with the Indians. But really the Indians were not to be blamed for a lot of the things that they did. After all, this was their land. I know we would fight if someone came and tried to take our land."Papa grew up and stayed there on the farm, and he built a house on top of the old dugout, and that's where he brought his bride--my mother, Alice Gilmore. And that is where I was born, eighty years ago this April 5."Mrs. Hall received the only loud and spontaneous applause of the whole tour. Later, she said to me, "You know, I'm just as glad the Indians couldn't come."
After the tour, Mr. and Mrs. Wallsmith took the three graduate students and me to see Cheyenne Hole, where the Cheyennes were killed in 1875. The graduate students had looked for it once before but hadn't been able to find it, but Mr. Wallsmith knew where it was, because in 1975 he was at a memorial service that the High Plains Preservation of History Commission held at the site. Cheyenne Hole is on theMiddle Sappa Creek, about thirteen miles south of the town of Atwood, Kansas, on land now owned by a wheat-and-cattle farmer named Larry Curtin. We stopped at his farmhouse, and he and his wife and his children and his dog came out and got into a pickup truck, and we followed them for a short distance and stopped on a ridge. The sites where the settlers were killed, which we had visited earlier in the day, had all seemed like random X's on the prairie, but Cheyenne Hole was different. Cheyenne Hole was a ruin. Lacking crumbling temples and broken obelisks, it still had a strong spirit of place-time in residence, the way all ruins do. It was once, and for a long time, as real a place to Indians as Peachtree Center, in Atlanta, is to us. For centuries up to 1875, it was a great campsite. The creek, which did not use to be dry, makes a wide oxbow between two ridges. There are plenty of trees and cover. The land along the creek is level, and the ridges on either side protect it against the Great Plains wind."My daddy owned this land before me," said Larry Curtin, "and when I was little it wasn't nothin' to find an arrowhead or a piece of pottery or some beads. They were just lying all over the ground. After the 1875 massacre, I'm told, they buried twenty-seven Indians right over there, about halfway between here and the creek bed, under that soapweed. They buried the chief in a cave up there." He pointed to the ridge opposite. "See--even with that silo."The sun had just set. Fred and Wilma Wallsmith,Larry Curtin's wife, the graduate students, and I all kind of bunched together and sighted along Larry Curtin's arm to see where he was pointing, and then he turned away and started talking and joking with Fred Wallsmith. The rest of us were still peering in the direction of the cave when a falling star dropped perpendicular to the horizon right where we were looking, like a heavenly visual aid. The star started out white and turned pale green as it entered the lighter sky near the horizon. It was really an amazing thing to happen, but Fred Wallsmith and Larry Curtin did not see it, and the rest of us did not know each other well enough to comment on it.NOBODY BETTER, BETTER THAN NOBODY. Copyright © 1979, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Ian Frazier. Preface copyright © 1997 by Ian Frazier. All rights reserved. . No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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Meet the Author
Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains, On the Rez, Family, Coyote v. Acme, and most recently The Fish's Eye. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Ian Frazier is the author of Travels in Siberia, Great Plains, On the Rez, Lamentations of the Father and Coyote V. Acme, among other works, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He graduated from Harvard University. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
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