Echoes Of The Little Bighorn

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In 1890 many Sioux, including Big Foot’s people, eagerly began to practice the Ghost Dance. Desperate and starving, they believed that worship of an Indian messiah would rescue the red race from the white man’s hated civilization and restore the vanished buffalo. As avid a believer as any of his tribesmen, Beard was convinced that his departed ancestors would return from beyond the grave to share in a great revival of Sioux culture if he performed the Ghost Dance often and fervently enough.

Neither Beard nor more than a handful ol his tribe actually wanted war with the whites, who, by the winter of 1890, were fearful that the Ghost Dance would lead to an armed intertribal outbreak. Troops were called out to surround the Sioux reservations. Big Foot tried to calm his followers, often telling them:

“I will stand in peace until my last day!”

When military pressure mounted, the old Chief grew panicky. Knowing that vast numbers of Ghost Dancers were gathering in the vicinity of Fine Ridge Agency, Big Foot and his band jumped the reservation and fled south through the Bad Lands to seek whatever sanctuary they could find. Soldiers were hard on their heels, but they eluded them until they reached Porcupine Butte on Pine Ridge Reservation, where they encountered Long Hair Custer’sold /th Cavalry. Big Foot promptly surrendered; he was too sick and old to resist. He and his band were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek to camp for the night.

Beard said sadly:

That is another time I will never forget. It was the last night on earth for my first wife and family. Next morning the soldiers surrounded us and ordered us to give up our weapons. They even took away our skinning knives. But we were not looking for war and wanted to do as the soldiers ordered.

One Indian’s gun was fired by accident. I heard later it belonged to Sitting Bull’s deaf-mute son, who couldn’t hear the order to disarm. After that shot, the soldiers let loose with everything they had. Unarmed, we didn’t have a chance. Men, women, children, even babies, were shot down. Soldiers galloped after those who ran and cut them down with sabers. Then they opened up on us with cannons [Hotchkiss guns] and pounded everything flat tepees, people, even horses and dogs. I was struck by bullets in my arm, chest, and leg, but I ran limping down a gully and got away.

Hiding in a cutbank, I looked back at the camp. My wife and child were lying there motionless. A few paces away were my old mother and father, my sister, and, beyond them, my two younger brothers. All of them were dead. I waited there in the snow beside the cutbank and prayed for death…

Only a handful of Miniconjous were fortunate enough to survive. Shouting “Remember Little Bighorn!” troopers of the yth reaped a whirlwind revenge for Custer’s 1876 defeat. Nearly three hundred∗ Indians were slaughtered at Wounded Knee—among them the entire family of a warrior who, according to his own account, had tried to save Custer’s life.

The Army officially set the number of dead at thirty-one troopers and 128 Indians.

For a time Beard thought only of vengeance on the whites. He knew of places in the Bad Lands from which he might wage an embittered, lone-hand vendetta against the soldier enemies. But happily, Beard’s one-man war against the United States Army never materialized.

The turning point came when General Nelson A. Miles took command of the military and sought justice through the prosecution of those 7th Cavalry officers responsible for the Wounded Knee tragedy. Beard’s testimony as a survivor of the massacre was considered by Miles to be vital to a War Department prosecution. Little actually resulted from the investigation, however. Instead, Congress awarded twenty-nine Medals of Honor to soldiers who had participated in this last campaign against the Sioux— twenty-three specifically for action at Wounded Knee!

Nevertheless, Beard and Miles became fast friends. Through the General, Beard met other high officials. After the turn of the century Miles summoned Beard to Washington and introduced him to Admiral George Dewey, fresh from Manila Bay and the Spanish-American War. Beard later took the naval hero’s surname, adding it to his old Sioux nickname, to become “Dewey Beard.”

While in Washington, Beard was asked by the sculptor James Earle Fraser to pose for a bas-relief profile on a proposed new coin. When the buffalo nickel was issued in 1913, the noble Indian profile turned out to be a composite, and Beard was never sure which part ol it was patterned after his own features.∗∗

Fraser’s aboriginal models for the buffalo nickel also ineluded Chief Iron Tail of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, an Oglala, and Two Guns White Calf, a Montana Piegan. Eraser’s memoirs of his early life appeared in AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1968.

Back in Sioux country Beard remarried. For a half century Dewey and Alice Beard were harmonious fixtures in the South Dakota Sioux community. Old resentments faded. Beard’s prominence among Indians and white historians grew as he became one of a dwindling group of aging warriors who had been wounded in battle and were thus entitled to perform with honor the Wounded Warrior Dance. Moreover, he was one of the remaining few who had fought Custer.