In Woman Walks Ahead, out June 29, a Swiss-born painter named Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) boldly leaves her home in Brooklyn, New York, and boards a train headed west. She seeks to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe.
Ostensibly, Woman Walks Ahead is supposed to be a biopic. But what if a biopic omits or changes the actual details of the subject’s life, as is the case in Woman Walks Ahead? The movie version of Catherine Weldon is a bold widow, heading into the West with no intentions beyond creating art and soaking up the spectacular landscape. In real life, Weldon, a member of the National Indian Defense Association, was far more politically motivated. When she traveled to the Dakotas in 1889, she was a divorcée heading west with express purpose of offering her services to a tribe fighting the Dawes Act, which sought to turn communal land into individual plots and allow white homesteaders onto the reservation.
“Weldon was one of the only white people of her time of either gender who not only had the right political view of Native American rights, but also gave her life to work for those rights,” Eileen Pollack, author of the 2002 book Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, said to History. Pollack's meticulously researched book conjures up a woman whose identity as an activist eclipsed her hobby as a painter. According to Pollack's book, back when Weldon was married, she visited the remaining American Indian tribes on the Eastern Seaboard and painted. And she really did paint four portraits of Sitting Bull – the two surviving ones are located in the North Dakota Historical Society in Bismarck and the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Weldon was born Susanna Fraesch in Switzerland in 1844. After moving to the United States, she had a brief and unhappy marriage to a doctor in Brooklyn. They divorced, and she had a son named Christie out of wedlock with a married man, Christopher J. Stevenson. When Stevenson left her, she moved back to Brooklyn from New Jersey and became more involved with American Indian causes.
In fact, Weldon and Sitting Bull's correspondence had actually begun even before she traveled to the Dakotas, though the movie depicts otherwise. In Woman Walks Ahead, Weldon and Sitting Bull have a bit of a "meet-cute" in the plains. Weldon introduces herself as someone who has traveled "from the East, across many rivers and hills for the honor of speaking with you." He skeptically responds, "You got on a train." They're strangers. In reality, Weldon had sent Sitting Bull maps of the drastic changes in territory proposed in Congress, and they'd spoken back and forth.
In 1889, Weldon traveled to the Dakota territory to offer her services as a lobbyist, translator, and an advisor to the Lakota Sioux. As Bobby Bridger writes the book Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, “Weldon was in her thirties, rich, erratically eccentric, stubborn, well-dressed, and obsessively impressed with Sitting Bull.” When she arrived with her 14-year-old son in tow, Sitting Bull was gravely ill with pneumonia. Still, he roused himself to greet her. Pollack writes, "[Sitting Bull] felt impaired by his lack of an adviser he could trust who spoke and read English." Weldon filled that role.
Weldon and her son lived with Sitting Bull's two wives, children, and 200 tribesmen. Sitting Bull’s people named her Toka hey mani win, which translates to Woman Walking Ahead (hence the movie name). Weldon paid for big feasts held at Grand River.
Beyond the reservation, Weldon’s presence among the tribe became a media sensation. She was branded Sitting Bull’s “white squaw.” She and Sitting Bull had a close relationship, but not a romantic one. Though according to Bridger, Sitting Bull was also perplexed about the nature of their relationship when she first arrived. “In Lakota culture, if a woman was so forward as to pursue a man in such manner as Ms. Weldon, it was assumed by everyone she intended to also become his bed-partner. Following the dictates of his culture, the old chief did the honorable thing and proposed. Rather than be honored by the sincere proposal, however, Mrs. Weldon’s righteous rejection bordered on disrespect of the chief,” Bridger wrote. They never married, though Bridger writes her presence caused discontent among Sitting Bull’s wives. Of her friend, Weldon said, "As a friend [he was] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree,” said Weldon.
However, their close relationship reached a crossroads when it came to the Ghost Dance, a cult-like religious movement that had been sweeping the Plains. Participants of Ghost Dance believed that certain dances and songs could conjure up a messiah that would eradicate the whites and restore native land and an older way of life. Weldon was suspicious of Ghost Dance. She thought Sitting Bull’s involvement with Ghost Dance might cause the government to fear an uprising, and give troops an excuse to attack. As a result of their disagreement, Weldon ended up leaving the reservation.
In her book, Pollack points out Weldon’s foibles when it came to understanding Ghost Dance. Ultimately, despite her respect for him, Weldon perceived Sitting Bull’s faith in Ghost Dance to be superstitious and somewhat backwards. “Like most liberals – like me — she was a victim of the fallacy that she could accept anything and anyone as long as she remained well intentioned enough,” Pollack writes of Weldon in her book.
Still, not long after, the fate Weldon feared came to pass. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was captured and killed by U.S. officials. Two weeks later, the army ended the Ghost Dance movement with the massacre of hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee. Meanwhile, the Sioux Agreement of 1889 was enacted and had disastrous effects for the Lakota Sioux people’s territory and their self sufficiency.
Upon her return to Brooklyn, Weldon was branded a social pariah. After her son tragically passed away, she was alone for the rest of her days. She died in 1921 in a fire sparked by a candle in her apartment.
Pollack told History that, despite the fact that Weldon was blinded by her privilege and acted on behalf of the American Indians without their asking for help, we should nonetheless put her on the right side of history. “It’s incredibly important to look at the very few people who in their time bucked all the conventions at great danger to themselves to do the right thing,” Pollack said.