Author: Josephine Waggoner, edited by Emily Levine.
Title: "Witness, A Hunkpapha’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas."
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press 2013. 492 pages of text, 20 pages of color photos with black and white photos throughout.
Josephine Waggoner was born in 1871 and died in 1943. Her mother was a Lakota Indian and her father was a white man. Her father, Charles McCarthy, was the third of her mother’s six husbands.
As sheriff of Burleigh County, Dakota Territory, he was drowned in the Missouri River while pursuing a criminal. With a livery and feed business he was fairly well to do, but his estate was probated with nothing going to his widow and child. After living near Bismarck, Josephine’s mother went back to the Standing Rock Reservation where Josephine grew up.
In 1881 at age 10 she was sent to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural School in Virginia, ultimately returning to the Standing Rock Reservation in 1888. In 1889 she married John Franklin Waggoner, who was a soldier, and she remained on the reservation for most of her life, except for their time in the Old Soldiers’ Home at Hot Springs, S.D., “in their old age.”
Waggoner wanted to preserve the stories of her people which she learned and experienced going through “the most turbulent times of our nation.” She wrote the stories she had been told, she wrote about what she experienced, and she wrote about many of the chiefs. Regrettably none of what she wrote was edited or published in her lifetime, although several attempts were made to do so.
In an Afterword of 23 pages, editor Emily Levine describes the several starts and stops involving Waggoner’s manuscripts, and the efforts of some of her heirs to preserve these manuscripts. Levine has done an excellent job in editing the many pieces of Waggoner’s writings which she has annotated with extensive notes. Although “Witness” is a collection of stories Waggoner wrote, it is also a testament to Levine’s skill and editorial judgment.
What is most striking about Waggoner’s writing is the fact she lived through and experienced first-hand what she writes about, including the final bringing onto reservations of the Indian people – what she calls The Surrender; with her mother she went to be with Sitting Bull’s band on the Powder River in 1875; she heard the reports of the battle at the Little Big Horn in 1876 before word of the battle reached Bismarck and Fort Lincoln; she knew her grandmother fled with Sitting Bull to Canada to return in 1881; she knew Sitting Bull, and she wrote letters and interpreted for him; she knew what went on when Sitting Bull was killed in 1890 and she knew people who were with him and who were in the Indian Police; she knew about the Ghost Dance and its promise of a new Messiah; she knew about the Wounded Knee massacre and many of the people killed or wounded on both sides; she knew first hand of the reservation system of distributing food to the various bands and sub-bands; she knew many of the chiefs, and she knew of the tribes which made up the Sioux nation; she knew the teller of the old stories.
“Witness” is the dispatches of an on scene reporter which have finally surfaced after more than 100 years.
"Witness" is not an easy read. Waggoner is often repetitive, sometimes on the same page. It is a physically large and heavy book well illustrated with many photos, including most of the chiefs she describes. It is a valuable first person account of a significant part of our history. The fact she knew and helped Sitting Bull, and could write about him from her direct observations, as well as other chiefs, makes this a remarkable history and biography. Waggoner led a hard, but truly remarkable life. Her gift to her people and to us is the fact she wrote it all down.
Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.