Echoes Of The Little Bighorn

PrintPrintEmailEmail

His last big adventure occurred in his fifty-seventh year, when, almost single-handedly, he “captured” several hundred White River Utes who had jumped reservation in Utah and were crossing Wyoming to reach the Sioux country in South Dakota. Only an Indian leader of White Bull’s reputation could have dissuaded these Utes from making considerable trouble, and, as it turned out, they meekly submitted to his authority. He eventually led them to his home reservation, where they stayed about a year before the government returned them to Utah. In the meantime White Bull married one of their women, a marriage that lasted as long as the Utes’ temporary exile. (He had fifteen wives in all.)

White Bull died in 1947, aged ninety-seven. I like to think he’d be pleased to know how dearly I treasure his old war bonnet.

 

I first heard of Dewey Beard in 1935 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Assured that he had participated in the fight against Custer, I also learned that he had taken part in other Indian-white conflicts, including the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890—climax of the Ghost Dance activities.

Tracking down Beard—better known locally by his Sioux name Wasu Maca , meaning “Iron Hail” led me first to his isolated one-room log house in the Potato Creek district, many miles northeast of the agency. The place was deserted. His Indian neighbors told me the old man and his aging wife, Alice, spent the summer months in the nearby South Dakota Bad Lands. I found the couple camped in a canvas tepee near a craggy defile called Cedar Pass. This out-of-the-way location, I soon discovered, had more than casual meaning for Beard. Following an old Indian trail through this pass, hundreds of Ghost Dancers from the Cheyenne River country to the north had fled south to their rendezvous with destiny at Wounded Knee. Beard had been one of them and had narrowly missed sharing their fate.

Dressed in yellowish buckskins and wearing an erminetrimmed war bonnet, Dewey Beard was an imposing figure. At seventy-eight that first meeting, he stood tall and lodgepole straight, his proud head held high, his jutting jaw housing a full set of his own teeth, which remained white and even until his dying day. He wore his long black hair in two loose hanks. In the thirties and forties many old-time Sioux continued to favor long hair as a means of gaining or retaining spiritual power, but Beard had a special and rather surprising reason for wearing long hair.

“I let my hair grow this way,” he explained solemnly in Sioux, for he spoke no English, “because our Saviour, Jesus Christ, is always pictured with long hair.”

The old man’s regal appearance was an immediate challenge for my pencils, pastels, and paints. The sketch I made of him that evening at Cedar Pass was the first of many portraits I painted of Beard. Sometimes I portrayed him in full regalia. More often, though, I depicted him as I later usually saw him in drab, cast-off garments given to him by well-meaning missionaries. Even dressed as a grotesque old scarecrow, he never failed to convey a majestic sense of nobility that set him apart from his own tribesmen. My sketch completed, we talked late into the night. I asked him if he remembered the day Long Hair Custer fell.

“Yes, I remember well,” he said, a glint of excitement in his old dark eyes. “None of us who were there could forget. I was almost eighteen that summer. Never before or since that time did my people gather in such great numbers. Our camp on the Greasy Grass [Little Bighorn] stretched four miles along the river--six great camp circles, each a half mile across, with thousands of Lakota fighting men and their families.”

“How many thousands?” I wanted to know. “Can you say?”

Beard signed No with a wave of a bony brown hand. He grinned, adding:

In that long-ago time none of my people knew more than a thousand numbers. VVe believed no honest man needed to know more than that many. There was my own tribe, the Miniconjou. There were our cousins, the Hunkpapa, the Sans Arc, the Two Kettles, the Sihasapa [Blackfoot Sioux], the Br’fblé, and the Oglala—all our Seven Council Fires. There were many of our eastern relatives, too—the Yankton and the Santee. And our kinsmen from the north were there—the Yanktonai and the Assiniboin. Our friends and allies the Cheyenne were there in force, and with them were smaller bands of Arapaho and Gros Ventre. It was a great village and we had great leaders.

He paused, lending emphasis to what for him was talk of giants.

Hump, Fast Bull, and High Backbone led my tribe. Crazy Horse headed the Oglala. lnkpaduta [Scarlet Tip] led the Santee. Lame White Man and Ice Bear led the Cheyenne. But the greatest leader of all was the chief of the Hunkpapa—Sitting Bull. As long as we were all camped together, we looked on him as head chief. We all rallied around him because he stood for our old way of life and the freedom we had always known. We were not there to make war, but, if need be, we were ready to fight for our sacred rights. Since the white man’s government had promised our leaders that we could wander and hunt in our old territory as long as the grass should grow, we did not believe the white soldiers had any business in our hunting grounds. Vet they came to attack us anyway.