Visiting a good friend last week, we went to see the 1976 Clint Eastwood movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales. It was retro Wednesday at the 1909 opera house in the small town where she lives. The movie – with an outlaw hero and the Redlegs, an adjunct of the Union Army, in pursuit – is considered revisionist for turning characters normally considered “bad” guys into “good” guys and vice versa.
One of the turned tables has Wales (Eastwood) talking a Comanche Chief named Ten Bears (Will Sampson) out of an attack on Wales and his friends in an exchange that Wales can’t have with the Redlegs who are determined to kill him no matter what.
Ten Bears: These things you say we will have, we already have.
Josey Wales: That's true. I ain't promising you nothing extra. I'm just giving you life and you're giving me life. And I'm saying that men can live together without butchering one another.
Ten Bears: It's sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death. It shall be life.
Ten Bears, whose birth name was Paruasemena, was a real Comanche Chief. He was a fierce warrior and later, tried to broker peace between the United States and the Comanche. He would have been old at the end of the Civil War when the movie took place. But he is pictured in the film as a young man.
At about the time of the movie in October, 1867, the real 77-year-old Ten Bears attended a council at a place known as Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas. In EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON, a wonderful book about the rise of fall of the powerful Comanches, S.C. Gwynne says the council was “the last big gathering of free Indians in the American West.”
Of all the speakers at the council, Ten Bears was the most moving and to this day he is primarily remembered for his speech. Gwynne reports he pulled on his wire-rimmed glasses – even though he was illiterate – and delivered what was in effect an epitaph.
“You said that you wanted to put us on a reservation, to build our houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born on the prairie where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no closures and where everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls. I know every stream and every wood between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas. I have hunted and lived over the country. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them, I lived happily…
"If the Texans had kept out of my country there might have been peace. But that which you now say we must live on is too small. The Texans have taken away the places where the grass grew the thickest and the timber was the best. Had we kept that we might have done the things you ask. But it is too late. The white man has the country which we loved, and we only wish to wander on the prairie until we die. Any good thing you say to me shall not be forgotten. I shall carry it as near to my heart as my children, and it shall be as often on my tongue as the name of the Great Father. I want no blood upon my land to stain the grass. I want it all clear and pure and I wish it so that all who go through among my people may find peace when they come in and leave it when they go out."