Deadlier Than The Male

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When I first met Elk Hollering in the Water on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana in 1941, she was a frail little old lady in her middle seventies. She was short and she was spare. I doubt if she ever weighed as many as one hundred pounds. Nothing about lier appearance would remind one of artists’ conceptions of the legendary Amazons. Nevertheless, Elk Hollering in the Water was a com bat veteran in her own right, a fighting member of the most aggressive tribe of the upper Missouri. As a lively teen-ager she had accompanied her stalwart husband, Hear Chief, on raids against enemy tribes. And she had won honors by “taking things from the enemy.”

Aged men of her tribe, men who had journeyed on many war excursions against the Grows, decs, Assiniboins, Flathcads, and Sioux, readily acknowledged Elk Hollering in the Water’s claim. Furthermore, they assured me that womanly participation in what we commonly regard as the man’s game of war was not considered abnonnal conduct in the days of intertribal conflict on the tipper Missouri prior to the middle iSSo’s. Young childless women sometimes joined their husbands on fatiguing and dangerous horse-stealing raids upon distant enemy villages in preference to remaining at home praying and worrying about the safety of their mates. Sometimes small war parties travelled two or three hundred miles before their scouts located an enemy camp. Usually the women cooked for the entire party and performed other menial tasks during the outward journey. Hut they also look active parts in the dawn attacks on enemy camps and helped to drive the stolen horses homeward. Sometimes the fleeing raiders were overtaken by angry enemy warriors bent upon recapturing their pilfered livestock. Then the horse thieves, female and male, had to fight for their lives as well as for their newly acquired property.

Women warriors also appeared among the Crows, south of the Yellowstone. The Crows were a small tribe, but they were wealthier in horses than any other Indians on the upper Missouri. They fought valiantly to protect their herds from frequent raids by the Blackfeet from the north and the mighty Sioux from the east. To protect themselves from extermination by those more powerful tribes, the Crows made alliantes with the white men.

Some thirty years ago or more an aged Crow woman, Pretty Shield, told Frank Mird Linderman of a brave Crow girl who aided General Crook against the Sioux and Cheyenne tinder Crazy Horse in the historic Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, only a week prior to the Custcr debacle on the Little Big Horn. The Other Magpie was her name. She was wild and she was pretty. But she had no man of her own. When some 175 Crow warriors rode oil to join Three Stars (General Crook) in his campaign against the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne, The Other Magpie went along. She had recently lost a brother at the hands of the Sioux, and she was eager for revenge. In the Battle of the Rosebud, the Crow scouts bore the brunt of the hostile Indian attack. Many of these scouts carried improved .50 caliber breech-loading rifles. But The Other Magpie’s only weapons were her belt knife and a long, thin willow coup stick. Yet she counted coup on a live Sioux warrior and later took his scalp—one of only eleven scalps taken by the Crows in the day’s bitter fighting.

Pretty Shield remembered the return of the Crows from that battle. She saw The Other Magpie proudly carrying a bright feather tied to the end of her coup stick to symbolize her recent achievement. And she saw her cut the Sioux scalp she had taken into several pieces and give them to the men so that they would have more scalps to dance with.

The greatest of all the women warriors among the upper Missouri tribes lived among the Crows in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rudolph Kurz, a romantic young Swiss artist who had journeyed into the wilderness to draw primitive Indians, met her at Fort Union near the mouth of the Yellowstone on October 27, 1851. He confided to his journal for that day, “In the afternoon the famous Absaroka amazon arrived. Mr. Denig [the factor in charge of the trading post] called me to his office that I might have an opportunity to see her. She looked neither savage nor warlike. On the contrary, as I entered the room, she sat with her hands in lier lap, folded, as when one prays. She is about 46 years old; appears modest in manner and good natured rather than quick to quarrel.” Kurz was so awed by this woman and so delighted to receive as a present a scalp she had taken in battle that he neglected to draw her portrait. Unfortunately, no likeness of this remarkable woman has been preserved. But Edwin T. Denig wrote a short biographical sketch of Woman Chief, as she was known to the Indians. He had known her for twelve years prior to her untimely death in 1854.

Woman Chief was not a Crow Indian by birth. She was a Gros Ventre girl who, at the age of about ten, was captured by the Crows. The Crow family that adopted her soon found that she showed little interest in helping the women with their domestic tasks. She preferred to shoot birds with a bow and arrow, to guard the family horses, and to ride horseback fast and fearlesslv. Later she learned to shoot a gun accurately, and she became the equal if not the superior of any of the young men in hunting on foot or on horseback.