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WSU historian shares expertise for documentary on Buffalo Soldiers that airs Monday on PBS

A still image from the documentary ‘Buffalo Soldiers: A War on Two Fronts,’ set to air on PBS Monday evening.  (Courtesy of Buffalo Soldiers: A War on Two Fronts)

“Oooh, horsies,” Dru Holley’s 7-year-old daughter, Andrea, exclaimed at a Juneteenth festival in 2018.

Those words that so many parents have heard for generations sparked Holley’s first feature-length documentary, “Buffalo Soldiers: A War on Two Fronts,” airing for the first time Monday on PBS.

The documentary explores the roles the members of six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments, known as Buffalo Soldiers, played in conflicts in the American West and abroad following the Civil War.

The documentary features Washington State University historian Ryan Booth, who studies the United States Indian Scouts. The scouts were Indigenous men acting as guides for the U.S. Army in the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.

In 2018, Holley’s daughter had spotted The Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, a living history group that honors the regiments.

“She asked me, ‘Who are they, Daddy?’ And I had forgotten who they were,” Holley said.

He tried to do some research but quickly realized there wasn’t much material.

A filmmaker based in the Vancouver, Washington, area, Holley quickly realized highlighting Buffalo Soldiers’ complex history would be a great topic for a documentary.

He began connecting with local historians who studied the Buffalo Soldiers and quickly delved into their involvement in the Indian Wars that paved the way for settlement of native lands.

“Finding out their involvement in the Indian Wars was something that had kind of taken me aback,” Holley said.

It was a part of the story he wrestled with how to tell. Then he found Booth, a postdoctoral fellow at WSU and member of the Upper Skagit Tribe whose dissertation focuses on the U.S. Indian Scouts from 1866 to 1947.

Both the Indian Scouts and Buffalo Soldiers were created in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, when Congress passed the Army Organization Act.

America was reimagining roles for newly freed Black people and looking West trying to settle conflicts with Indigenous people, while making more land available for settlement, Booth said.

Booth came in to military history through his initial research in Native American history, he said. He discovered there wasn’t much written about the scouts as individuals.

“But they’re people, right? Who are these people and why are they fighting?” Booth said. “Why don’t we know more about them?”

The military figured out that it could exploit tribal conflicts to get scouts to show soldiers the terrain and provide other valuable information.

“It’s an old military maxim: divide and conquer,” Booth said.

Scouts helped the Buffalo Soldiers in assignments out West. The regiments got their name from American Plains Indians they fought against, who thought the men’s dark, curly hair resembled a buffalo’s coat.

Booth and Holley felt it was important to tell the personal stories of members of the scouts and Buffalo regimens, like that of Charles Young, who was the third Black graduate from West Point, or Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as a man to enlist.

“You can put names and faces and motivations and sorrow and joy, all those things that are part of being human, to these stories,” Booth said. “That’s way more interesting to me.”

This was the first time Booth was involved in a documentary project. He hopes promoting the stories of the individual Scouts and Buffalo Soldiers will help people connect with history.

“I think when it looks like us, we’re more inclined to remember it,” Booth said.

The documentary did just that, Booth said.

“It was bigger and better than I ever could have imagined,” he said after watching it. “It’s a very compelling story.”

Holley directed and co-produced the documentary. While he hopes to bring the Buffalo Soldiers to the forefront, he also hopes to remind people that history is nuanced.

“History is more complex that we’ve been taught,” Holley said.

For Booth, one of the most poignant moments between the Indian Scouts, Buffalo Soldiers and the rest of their fellow soldiers is memorialized forever at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where everyone is buried side by side in the order of death, not segregated as was standard in the 1800s.

“That speaks volumes,” Booth said. “These are truly brothers in arms.”

Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts will air locally on KSPS at 10 p.m. Monday.