Form and Content
Burton Supree’s Bear’s Heart: Scenes from the Life of a Cheyenne Artist of One Hundred Years Ago with Pictures by Himself is essentially a picture book with added text. The biography reproduces many drawings by its subject, and the author elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding their creation. Thus, the illustrations serve as the stimulus for the text.
Bear’s Heart produced his drawings in order to record his experiences after his capture by the United States government. Native American camps had been attacked by American troops, and the tribes retaliated with an uprising in the Southwest. Bear’s Heart was among this group of defiant Native American warriors. In order to wipe out the Native American resistance movement, the government punished the “hostile chiefs” by sending them east. Among the prisoners were Kiowa, Comanche, Arapahoe, Caddo, and Cheyenne leaders. Bear’s Heart was included with the captives when he was betrayed by fellow warrior Big Moccasin.
The group of seventy-two Native Americans was relocated to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, under the command of Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt. Because Pratt wanted to convert these “savages” to Christianity and to integrate them into white culture, he treated his prisoners relatively well, providing them with sanitary living conditions and allowing them to receive visitors. Many times, however, the captives were given hard labor. Bear’s Heart helped to clear palmetto and scrub from the land, and the prisoners also cooked, worked at the town sawmill stacking lumber, and dug a deep well. They were forced to sleep in high, damp, vaulted rooms on stone floors. In his childlike illustrations, done in colored pencils and ink, Bear’s Heart recounts these experiences of his captivity, which lasted from May, 1875, to November, 1876.
The biography also includes an afterword by the noted Native American novelist Jamake Highwater, who is of Blackfoot and Cherokee parentage. The afterword, entitled “The America of Bear’s Heart,” provides insights into the treatment of Native Americans and the resulting effects upon these peoples. Bear’s Heart—in its first-hand visual record, its accompanying textual background, and its analytical afterword—gives the young reader an understanding of attitudes toward Native Americans in the nineteenth century.