Caroline Weldon was an Indian rights activist who decided she wanted to help the Sioux in their fight against the Indian Affairs people. She also wanted to paint Sitting Bull, the head of the Hunkpapa Sioux tribe and one of the most famous Native Americans of all time. Her story has been told in books and in a recent (2018) movie Woman Walks Ahead.
Movies and books often take artistic license by revising situations to suit narrative flow or other artistic interpretations. But this movie goes too far. A review on Rotten Tomatoes accused the movie of “grave historical inaccuracy.” Rolling Stone called the movie “one big falsehood” and says it “promotes a feminist agenda by painting over the pesky facts to make the story more palatable to lovers of romance novels.”
I was doing my research on Caroline Weldon when I came across the movie and I was appalled at the misrepresentation of her and of Sitting Bull. So I’m changing my usual narrative to contrast the “facts” with the movie version. I don’t want to stop you from enjoying the movie, just be aware that it’s far from historically accurate.
Why Caroline Weldon Came to the Dakotas
Caroline Weldon* was born Susanna Karoline Faesch in Switzerland in December 1844, which would make her about 45 at the time she was with Sitting Bull (not the beautiful 30-something portrayed in the movie.) Sitting Bill, chief of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, would have been about 59 at his death in 1890 (not the virile 40-something of the movie). Yes, she was overdressed and she did, as the movie shows, tame down her wardrobe and hair after she came west..
Caroline was a widow with a young son, Christie (his existence is ignored in the movie). She was involved with a group called the National Indian Defense Association, who were protesting the break-up of the tribes. Her plan was to help Sitting Bull by being his secretary and translator and to paint his portrait.
A bit of background:
The U.S. government had been gradually taking over Native American lands. At first, they sent the tribes to reservations; the Five Nations owned about 21 million acres of land. The U.S. government believed the tribes would be “better off” if they had their own plots of land and farmed (the tribes didn’t want to farm). The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the government to divide tribal land into allotments. The “excess” land would be sold to whites at market prices. (You can see where this is going.)
At the time Caroline was with Sitting Bull, government land agents were working hard to get the tribes (men, of course) to sign agreeing to the allotments. The situation was made more difficult by several things:
- Gold had been discovered in the Dakotas. On Native American land.
- The Indian rights people were trying to persuade the tribes not to sign.
- The land agents were cutting food rations for the tribes, trying to force them into signing.
- The U.S. Army still hated the tribes for Little Bighorn, where General Custer and his troops were all killed. Sitting Bull was blamed for leading the battle, but he actually wasn’t in the fight that day.
The final event that caused the government to become more aggressive was the emergence of a messianic cult that was inciting the Sioux and other tribes into a phenomenon called Ghost Dancing. The dances made the settlers and the Army nervous; they were afraid the tribes were getting ready to strike.
Back to the story…
Caroline made three trips to what was then called “Dakota,” to Ft. Yates and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where Sitting Bull lived. Her first visit was just for a few weeks, without her son. The second time, with Christie, she spent some time living with two women on a ranch 25 miles from Sitting Bull, and for a brief time moved to his home (but she stayed in a small house, not his cabin). The Sioux started calling her “Woman Who Walks Ahead” because she walked ahead of or with Sitting Bull, which a Native American woman would never have done.
She was forced to leave by the Indian Agent, McLaughlin. He twisted her words and portrayed her in the press as insane. (Really.) The press didn’t like the idea of a woman acting out of character for that time. They castigated her for leaving her son in New York, and they reviled her for bringing him into danger in Dakota. She couldn’t win with them.
Major James McLaughlin is portrayed in the movie as a terrible man. He at first liked the Indians, as long as they were compliant. McLaughlin actually wrote a book called My Friend the Indian (1915)! He personally hated Sitting Bull, in part because of Little Big Horn. He liked to show off Sitting Bull, taking him on trips, including one to Washington, D.C. to “discuss” the Dawes Act.
McLaughlin told Sitting Bull what he could do and where he could go. In 1885 he allowed Sitting Bull to go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where the chief rode in the opening parade for a few months.
What Happened in the End?
Caroline begged McLaughlin to be allowed to come back to Dakota a third time, with her son. She returned in October 1889, planning was to spend the rest of her life living with Sitting Bull and his people. She loved the prairie and the Sioux way of life, and she had nothing and no one back East.
She came back to a volatile situation, with the Ghost Dancers stirring up trouble and Sitting Bull sick and tired, looking years older. She accosted the messiah and denounced him, which didn’t go well with the tribes – and Sitting Bull. He sided with his people and turned his back on her. He said he was ready to die, and in fact, he predicted his own death.
One source quotes her as saying,
“There I had been working for his interest and the interest of the Indians for years, was ready to share all the dangers, and he was foolish enough to believe me to be his enemy.”
She was furious with him for not stopping the Ghost Dances because she was (rightly) afraid that their actions would lead to violence. But Sitting Bull, as chief, couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with the right of his people to celebrate their religion.
She left with her son for Kansas City. Her son, who probably had tetanus, died on the way. Sadly, she was castigated by the press for “neglecting” him (she didn’t).
McLaughlin, convinced that Sitting Bull was “in open rebellion against constituted authority, was defying the Government,” decided to arrest him. Sitting Bull was arrested by the Army and some of his own people on December 15, dragged out his bed. He protested the indignity, and in the process, he was killed accidentally by One Bull, his adopted son. Caroline had already left for Kansas City and she was nowhere near Dakota when he died. (That dramatic movie scene where she runs around in the snow never happened.)
One incident that’s true – kind of – is the horse. The horse, a circus horse, was a present to Sitting Bull from Buffalo Bill. The rumors were that when the horse heard the gunshots in the fight, he followed his training and started dancing (the movie version). Another rumor was that he bowed his head. Who knows?
What Was the Relationship Between Caroline and Sitting Bull?
Caroline’s role with Sitting Bull was as a secretary, translator, and liaison. They were very different, culturally and personally, but they clearly liked each other. Were they romantically involved? There’s absolutely no evidence of that. Sitting Bull had 5 wives and more than one at a time. (No wives in evidence in the movie.) And she did paint several portraits of him, one of which was hanging in his cabin when he was killed.
There is evidence that he asked Caroline to marry him. She was insulted and refused. It’s quite possible that the proposal was a way of protecting her from rumors, but not because he “loved” her. That concept wouldn’t have been in his vocabulary. And the steamy scenes in the movie would never have happened.
The movie portrayed her as being instrumental in getting Sitting Bull to fight the allotments, but a Native American man probably wouldn’t listen to the advice of a woman.
He wanted peace, but he also wanted freedom. Tough dilemma.
Of her life in Dakota with Sitting Bull and the Sioux, she said (quoted in Woman Walking Ahead),
“No one in the world was as happy as I, and I wish that all might have shared in that happiness. A city seems a prison to me….I enjoyed the freedom of the wilderness…I love the solitude, …and I was loath to leave it. But I had to go, as my life was in danger.”
Caroline went back to New York and obscurity. Unlike other women of the time, she never published any memoirs. Maybe the memories were too difficult to bear. She died in 1921 and is buried in Brooklyn, N.Y, in Green-Wood Cemetery. In 2018, the cemetery featured her in a celebration for Women Who Walked Ahead.
This NPR article interviews Michael Greyeyes, who plays Sitting Bull in the movie. He discusses the changes in the portrayals of indigenous people in tbe movie.
Willis Fletcher-Johnson. The True Story Behind “Woman Walks Ahead”- A Brief Historical Account of Caroline Weldon (part of a larger work). Johnson notes that Weldon didn’t begin using the name “Caroline” until after she left the reservation.
*Eileen Pollack. Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull. Bookbaby, 2018. Pollack, on the basis of Johnson’s book (above), chooses to use the name “Catherine.” Because she is included in Wikipedia as “Caroline,” I chose to use this name to make it easier for readers to find information about her.