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What could I do? Most of us ask that question when we see wrongs being done to people around us. We want to make a difference, but we suspect we never will. In the film WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, the lead character Catherine Weldon (played by Jessica Chastain) tells Sitting Bull her personal battle is against insignificance. However, in real life, the person of Catherine Weldon did make a difference—not always in the direction she hoped.
Catherine Weldon contacted Sitting Bull at Standing Rock with the intention of helping him resist coercive governmental attempts to purchase Indian land for disgracefully low compensation. Hers was what author Eileen Pollack terms “an unexpected gesture of friendship”—unexpected because she was white, female, and privileged. She was rare in that she wanted to support the Indians’ desire to live traditionally and not as imitations of white people. Weldon was also an accomplished painter who did portraits of the famous Lakota chief. (One of her portraits of him hangs in Bismark, ND.)
Weldon’s story is detailed as much as the sketchy records permit in the book WOMAN WALKING AHEAD: IN SEARCH OF CATHERINE WELDON AND SITTING BULL by Eileen Pollack. Since Sitting Bull couldn’t read or write English, Weldon handled his correspondence and used her communication skills and political contacts to help his people survive. She brought her son to learn and live among his people with her until staying was too dangerous. In return, she was vilified by the white locals who blamed the Indians for the hostilities whites had endured and helped perpetuate. She was accused of being Sitting Bull’s white squaw. In the dramatic world of film, she and Sitting Bull negotiate sexual tension but, in actuality, Sitting Bull already had more than one wife, was in his fifties, and was recovering from pneumonia when they finally met face-to-face. However, he may have proposed to Weldon at one point and was firmly rebuffed for stepping beyond their friendship. She may have been 37 years old (Stanley Vestal described her as occupying “that age at which some women suffer a change and do unaccountable things”), and she presented quite a distinctive picture in her Eastern finery. She convinced “the old chief” to rely on the law and the vote to protect his people, but females, indigenous peoples, and the laws regarding indigenous people were not respected.
Not entirely unlike attacks on the rule of law we experience today, Sitting Bull’s passive resistance and dedication to the misunderstood ghost dance were spun against him and eventually resulted in not only his murder, but also the military slaughter of 200-300 (depending on the account you embrace)—including 60 women and children at an Indian camp the 7th Cavalry had led them to—Wounded Knee. (I recommend the book BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE by Dee Brown.) Many blamed Catherine Weldon and her “liberal interference” for the tragedy, although she was no longer at the reservation. The film suggests a revenge motive—revenge for the battle of the Little Big Horn.
In the film, Weldon privately bemoans the difficulty of being brave against the odds. We can all identify. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to make a difference? In film, Weldon is beaten by townspeople. In film or reality, befriending the indigenous people sets her up for the cruelest of ridicule, regardless of her humanitarian acts. Her story is largely missing from American history.