Based on true events, this 2018 film astounded me with a story I had never heard before. WOMAN WALKS AHEAD is the story of Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a New York artist in the 1880s, who traveled alone out to North Dakota with the purpose of painting an authentic portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
When she arrives at Standing Rock, she is confronted with open hostility from the US Army. They have stationed troops around the Lakota reservation to undermine Native American claims to their own land. This film is mainly about the close relationship that develops between Catherine and Sitting Bull, but their lives are both threatened by US government forces, in a lead up to the massacre of many Lakota members at Wounded Knee.
In reality, this woman’s name was Caroline Weldon, a name she gave herself after a few scandalous affairs in her past. She was born in Switzerland and came to the US in 1852. After divorce she became active in the summer of 1889 and traveled to Dakota Territory to fulfill her dream of living among the Sioux. She joined NIDA, the National Indian Defense Association, embarking on a quest to aid the Sioux in their struggle to fight the US government’s attempt to expropriate vast portions of the Great Sioux Reservation for the purpose of opening it up for white settlement, with the intent of rendering the creation of the two new states of North and South Dakota. She befriended Sitting Bull, leader of the traditionalist faction among the Sioux, acting as his secretary, interpreter and advocate.
I found this film to be beautifully and sensitively made, well-written with lines from Catherine like her need to fight “a battle of insignificance” as a woman in 1880s America. She did finally create four portraits of Sitting Bull. Two are known to have survived. One is now held by the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck, ND and the other at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, AR. I enjoyed a few lines from Sitting Bull like when he said, “To place and hold in your heart this moment.” and as he referred to death as “to cross over into the spirit world…”