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Mari Sandoz (1896–1966)

Isolated by vast distances and the stern demands of the land, the people of the American frontier knew first hand the promise and the hardship of America’s last “free” land in the Nebraska Sandhills that was settled in the early years of the twentieth century. Today, the feats, the passions, and the distinctive speech of the Western Nebraska homesteaders still come alive in the writings of Mari Sandoz, daughter of Swiss immigrants Mary and Jules Sandoz.

Sandoz was born on Mirage Flats, south of Hay Springs, Nebraska on May 11, 1896. As the eldest child—the first of six children—Mari bore much of the responsibility of caring for her two sisters and three brothers, and much of the wrath of their father’s explosive temper, but she also shared in many of his exploits as a claim locator, trader and pioneering horticulturist.

It was those adventures, and the need to entertain herself on the frontier of Northwest Nebraska, which led Mari to become a writer. As a child, she was a great storyteller with an intense desire to write, scribbling stories when she was not cooking, working in the garden, or looking after brothers and sisters.

A Passionate Writer and Native American Authority

From modest beginnings writing short stories for entry into contests conducted by what is now the Omaha World-Herald, Mari developed a keen eye for detail and a sense of rhythm. This enabled her to become one of the most valued authorities of her time on the history of the Plains and the culture of the Native Americans, most notably the Sioux. A passionate partisan for the Plains Indians, she also told the stories of their lives, changed forever by the arrival of Euro-Americans.

Published long before most Americans were ready to listen, two books about American Indians, Cheyenne Autumn and Crazy Horse, give Sandoz’s impassioned view of the persecution of the northern Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux and of the near destruction of their culture. Her writing champions the worth of the Native American, the need for just laws, and the role of government aid.

Sandoz’s Crazy Horse is a biography of one of the most famous Native American warriors in recent history. Camping near the reservations, she meticulously interviewed dozens of Crazy Horse’s people in the 1930’s, all of them by then old and constructed this semi-fictionalized biography of the great Sioux warrior. He is most famous for defeating Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but there was much more to his life than merely that one battle and to the lives of his Sioux people during the mid to late nineteenth century.

“The glorious hero tale told with beauty and power…the story of a great American.” —John G. Neihardt, New York Times.

Mari worked to shed light on the challenges native people faced and she solicited positive economic changes for natives. As an indicator of her commitment, Sandoz went on a game show called Strike It Rich and used the proceeds to buy art and athletic supplies for Indian schools.

The “Great Plains Legacy”

Observant and sensitive, but with the grit to survive the hard early years and forge an independent literary career, Sandoz also gave voice to the homestead experience, and chronicled the people of the Great Plains – Indians, trappers, hunters, farmers, and ranchers. The harshness of the environment and the many conflicts those on the frontier faced dominate Sandoz’s books, essays, and short fiction.

Mari Sandoz wrote more than 20 books and dozens of short stories and she left a Great Plains legacy of social novels, sympathetic Indian biographies, and histories enlivened by dramatic episodes that chronicle the growth of the West. Six books form the center of Sandoz’s work. She referred often to these, her Great Plains Series.

Though not written chronologically, the series begins with The Beaver Man, the story of the early fur traders and the Plains Indians, and continues with The Buffalo Hunters, a work that details the destruction of the bison. Next, The Cattle Men traces the coming of cattle to the plains and the many struggles among cattlemen and between cattlemen and grangers.

The Great Plains Series also includes Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn, Old Jules and, she had completed much of the research, only her death kept Sandoz from writing the seventh and last work of the series. This unfinished work was to emphasize the importance of oil to the world and the struggle of those in the plains states to provide oil, destroying more of the environment in the process. Once again, Mari Sandoz was ahead of her time.

She is particularly remembered for two biographies:  Old Jules , considered by many historians to be the definitive story of homesteading in western Nebraska and Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Ogallalas , a towering achievement in her chronicles of the west. Old Jules, the biography of her father's years as homestead locator, agronomist, and fighter for agrarian rights tells of the struggle of the immigrant homesteaders. Her father, Jules Sandoz, a horticulturalist and dreamer, planted orchards and built a community in the hills along the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska, locating homesteads for hundreds of settlers—often on land coveted by powerful cattlemen. Her biography of this colorful, eccentric figure is among the most enduring records of the Plains settlement years.

The concerns of Old Jules appear again in Sandoz’s later books—concerns for the rights of the poor, the dispossessed, and for those who face discrimination.

Also, nature, its danger and its beauty, is often celebrated by Sandoz in lyrical passages, passages that sometimes appear unexpectedly in the midst of her usual reportorial style. She knew her land and her people and in each book her sly humor satirizes society, urging awareness of human vices that threaten the environment and the welfare of people.

Sandoz was aware of the importance of women to the West and of how few of their experiences had been told. Old Jules chronicles many stories of the brutal abuse of pioneer women by their husbands and fathers, telling of the death, insanity, or, in more fortunate cases, determined survival of these women. Sandoz also writes of the independence and endurance of single women homesteaders in Old Jules.

In her novels, Sandoz often places women in roles that traditionally have been primarily male. Miss Morissa is based in part on the careers of three women who were plains physicians; Dr. Mary W. Quick, Dr. Phoebe A. Oliver Briggs, and Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix. In The Tom-Walker one woman is a political writer and academician while another is a labor organizer. Gulla Slogum in Slogum House terrorizes the community as she gathers land and influence by any means she can in her attempt to control the county.

Acclaimed Plains Historian/Biographer

Mari was the recipient of many accolades and awards. Her honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Nebraska (1950) reads: “Mari Sandoz, distinguished Nebraska historian, biographer, novelist, story writer, authority on Indians of the Nebraska territory and neighboring states…widely known teacher in creative writing at several state universities.”

In 1954, Mari received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska for her “sincere and realistic presentation of Nebraska as it was.” Also that year, the Chicago Corral, the parent group of the Westerners, announced that she had four books on their list of one hundred best books about the West (Stauffer Story Catcher 181, 202, 209). A Mari Sandoz Award was established by the Nebraska Library Association in 1969 to be given annually to “a person who has made specific, significant contributions to the Nebraska book world through writing (books, stories, poetry, plays, reviews), film production, or other related activity.” A bust of Mari Sandoz stands in the State Rotunda, Nebraska State Capital Building in Lincoln, Nebraska. Widely acclaimed as a Plains historian and authority on Native Americans, she was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1975-76.

A Teacher and Writer Until the End

During her career, Mari Sandoz went to great lengths to encourage other writers; conducting summer writing workshops at institutions of higher education such as the University of Wisconsin, reviewing manuscripts sent to her by aspiring authors from all over the nation, and teaching creative writing through programming produced by Nebraska Public Television.

Her advice to anyone who wanted to become a writer was the same approach she took to her work, “pick a subject you know well, and write about it.” She also admonished young writers to always have more than one book in the works, so that when the time came to finish a book they could let go and move on to the next. That too was a maxim she took to heart, always having a number of works in progress; her apartment filled with shopping bags and file boxes containing thousands of note cards of source material.

She worked until the last month of her life finishing The Battle of the Little Bighorn. She died as she had lived, with spunk and grit and a determination to leave behind a blunt, accurate, and caring record of the region she so loved. Mari Sandoz died of cancer in New York City March 10, 1966, and is buried on a hillside overlooking the Sandoz Sandhills ranch, south of Gordon, Nebraska.

Mari’s Works & Life Displayed

The Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center in Chadron, Neb. celebrates the life and literature of Mari Sandoz and the culture of the High Plains. The celebration of her life includes many of the items that encompassed Mari’s life and that allow us to see both her personality and her passion.

After Mari’s death, younger sisters, Flora and Caroline, became the overseers of her estate. As the last living sibling, Caroline Sandoz Pifer kept and assembled Mari’s artifacts at her ranch home south of Gordon, Neb. In the decades that she maintained the collection before donating it to the Sandoz Center, Caroline added her touch by retyping letters and adding cover sheets and notes to Mari’s newspaper articles, books, and manuscripts.

Although, the bulk of Mari Sandoz’s research collection is housed in Love Library at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), the Sandoz Center at Chadron State College has many of those documents, other documents that did not go to UNL, as well as an assortment of her personal items.

Mari’s greatest wish that has come true…to have a repository in the vast Great Plains to hold her life’s work for posterity and for it to be fruitful so all the world might benefit.

The Pifer Collection contains many copies of manuscripts, short stories, essays and poetry; personal notes; research files and book-related material; flyers, programs and invitations to events; family documents; and carbons of Mari’s correspondence and letters sent to Mari. Making this collection significant were boxes of Mari’s personal files, many of the folders labeled in her handwriting, filled with a range of other documents.

Materials that Caroline collected regarding her sister, such as drawings and writings by others who were inspired by Mari were also included.

In addition to the documents, the Pifer Collection includes furniture from Mari’s New York apartment from the time of her death, her clothes and personal effects, her infamous collection of approximately 30 hats, Native American artwork, dishes, collectibles, books and photos.

For more information on the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, visit their website.