The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mari Sandoz tries to be fair in her presentation of both Indian and white historical figures, though her sympathies are clearly with the Cheyenne. While not romanticizing the Cheyenne as “noble savages,” she is able to view their actions from the Cheyenne cultural perspective. She manages to avoid the archetypes and clichés of Indian characterization in depicting the individual personalities of a number of the Cheyenne.

Certainly, the most admirable figures in her novel are the two Cheyenne chiefs, Little Wolf and Dull Knife, and of these two, perhaps Little Wolf is the more interesting since his fate is the more tragic. The underlying strength and integrity of his character comes through in his forbearance toward the whites and his unwillingness to engage in unnecessary violence that would risk the safety of the women and children in his tribe. He tries to keep his word and to honor his promises, even in the face of the continual failure of the army and Indian Bureau agents to honor their agreements with his tribe.

The tragic dimension of both Little Wolf and Dull Knife emerges in their depiction as the leaders of a vanishing culture and a disappearing way of life. The Cheyenne were a nomadic people whose culture and land-use patterns conflicted with the American settlement of the Great Plains. Their eventual defeat was perhaps inevitable, but they fought so bravely against such overwhelming odds that they earned the respect of many...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Little Wolf

Little Wolf, also called Brave Man, the bearer of the Sacred Chief’s bundle and one of the Old Man Chiefs. In his prime at the age of fifty-seven, Little Wolf is one of two leaders attempting to take their Northern Cheyenne back to their Montana homeland from the hated Indian Territory. Distrustful of whites, he believes that their promises are no more than “wind on the grass.” When the group divides at the Platte River, with Dull Knife hoping to reach safety at Red Cloud’s agency nearby, Little Wolf takes his followers to their original destination in the north. His one weakness is his jealousy of Thin Elk.

Dull Knife

Dull Knife, also an Old Man Chief. Once a famed warrior, now, in his sixties, he wants only to return north. He naïvely believes that the Army will honor its promise to let the Cheyenne return home from the intolerable southern agency. After their capture and their failed attempt to escape from Fort Robinson, Nebraska, he is embittered, a failure in his own eyes.

Little Finger Nail

Little Finger Nail, a young warrior, sweet singer, and artist. In the absence of older leaders, he leads the tribal remnant in their thirteen-day escape from Fort Robinson. He is killed in their last encounter, at Warbonnet Creek. His book of pictographs recording their trek remains strapped to his back, with two bullet holes in it.

Wild Hog

Wild Hog, a headman. Big and broad, standing 6 feet, 5 inches, he is married to a Sioux. When Dull Knife fails to take charge during their capture, he assumes leadership. Later, he attempts suicide, hoping that his family can then be sent to Red Cloud’s nearby Sioux agency.

Black Coyote

Black Coyote, a prominent subchief, inimical to the whites and a troublemaker for the leaders. After killing Black Crane, he is exiled as a renegade. Later captured and convicted of killing a soldier, he is hanged by whites.

Thin Elk

Thin Elk, a joker, a ladies’ man, and Little Wolf’s nemesis. Once ordered to stay away from the chief’s wives, he now flirts with a...

(The entire section is 889 words.)