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Deadlier Than The Male
The hair-raising deeds of Throwing Down, The Other Magpie, and Elk Hollering in the Water lead one to believe that the female of the red-skinned species was
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
She grew taller and stronger than most women. She could carry a deer or bighorn home from the hunt on her back. She could kill four or five buffalo in a single chase, butcher them, and load them on pack horses without assistance. Yet, despite her prowess in men’s activities, she always dressed like a woman. Although she was rather good-looking, she didn’t attract the fancy of young men. After her foster father died she took charge of his lodge and family, acting as both father and mother to his children.
Her first war experience was gained in a defensive action outside the white men’s trading post in the Crow country. A Blackfoot war party approached the post and called upon the traders and Chows to come out and parley. This young woman alone had the nerve to answer their invitation. And when the treacherous enemy charged upon her, she killed one and wounded two others before running to safety in the traders’ fort. This deed of daring marked her as a woman of unusual courage in the eyes of the Crows. They composed songs in her honor telling of her bravery, and sang them in their camps.
A year later she led her first war party against the Blackfeet; seventy horses were stolen. She succeeded in killing and scalping one Hlackfoot and in capturing the gun of another. Her continued success as a war leader won her greater and greater honors among the Crows until she gained a place in the council of chiefs of the tribe, ranking third in a band of 160 lodges. Thereafter she was known as Woman Chief. This was a station and a title never before known among Crow women.
In the summer of 1854, twenty years after Woman Chief had begun to acquire a reputation as a warrior, she sought to try her skill as a peacemaker. She proposed a visit to the Cros Ventres, the tribe of her birth, to negotiate a peace between them and her adopted tribe, the Crows. Her friends, both Indian and white, sought to dissuade her from this bold undertaking. They well knew that the Cros Ventres looked upon her as a leader of their enemies. Hut Woman Chief persisted. In company with four Crows she travelled north of the Missouri, where she met a large party of Gros Ventres en route home from a visit to the trading post of Fort Union. She approached them boldly, talked to them in their own language, and smoked with them. While she journeyed with them to the main Gros Ventre camp, some of the party turned upon her and her four Crow comrades and coldly shot them down.
Weasel Tail, a Blood Indian who was over eighty years of age when I met him some twenty-odd years ago, told me that he was the son of very poor parents. Jn his late teens and early twenties he repeatedly joined horse-raiding expeditions in the hope of bettering both his economic status and his social prestige in his tribe. His wife, Throwing Down, used to go along with him during the early years of their marriage and before their first child was born. Weasel Tail explained, “She told me she loved me, and if I was to be killed she wanted to be killed with me. My wife was in five battles with me. She carried a sixshooter and knew how to use it. Once she stole a horse, a saddlebag filled with ammunition, and a war club from the enemy.”
Weasel Tail told me the story of Running Eagle, most famous of all Blackfoot women warriors, who was killed in action about the time of Weasel Tail’s birth in 1860. He had known several older men who had been members of war parties under Running Eagle’s leadership, and they often had talked about her. One of these men was White Grass, who later became a prominent band chief among the Piegans, a Blackfoot tribe.
Running Eagle was a large, strong woman. When she was still young, her husband was killed in a fight with the Crows. Seeking some way to avenge his death, Running Eagle prayed to the sun, and thought she heard the sun answer, “I will give you great power in war. But if you give yourself to any other man you will be killed.”
In a short time Running Eagle became a successful leader of sixablc war parties. When on the warpath, she wore men’s leggings, a peculiar loin cloth doubled over like a diaper, and a woman’s dress. Although men who went to war under her leadership respected her highly, she was never proud. She insisted upon cooking for the men of her party, and she also mended their woni moccasins. When one young brave complained that it was not proper for a Blackfoot war leader to have to mend moccasins, she replied, “I am a woman. You men don t know how to sew.”
One winter White Grass joined an expedition of about thirty men under Running Eagle’s leadership, bound southward to the Crow country beyond the Yellowstone. They had not gone far before one of the younger men began to grumble because the leader was a woman. Running Eagle heard him and said, “You are right, i am only a woman.” Then she sang her sacred war song, “All of you bachelors, try your best.” The dissenter was so impressed by her manner that he decided to stay with the party to observe how this woman behaved.
When they reached the Yellowstone River, Running Eagle sang another song, “I should like to many a buffalo bull, to have a two-year-old heifer for a sister, and to have a fall calf.” Then she told her companions, “My brothers, I shall leave camp tonight. Tomorrow morning you must follow my footsteps in the snow.”
So saying, she picked up her gun and walked oft alone into the darkness. At daybreak she sighted a buffalo herd. She crawled toward it and shot first a huge fat bull, then a two-year-old heifer, and then a fall calf. When the others overtook her they found her sitting down, quietly cleaning her gun. As they approached she told them calmly, “See, I have killed my husband, my two-year-old sister, and my baby.”