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The Ordeal of Plenty Horses
Caught between two cultures, a young Sioux sought to make himself a hero—by killing an army officer
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
On the trial’s second day the Indian visitors were given a treat. It turned out to be a pathetic reminder of the descent from past glories of these once-powerful lords of the plains. A corral on the edge of town contained seventeen buffalo, a pitiful remnant of the millions that once provided the Sioux with almost every material want and contributed so vitally to the shape of their political and social institutions and spiritual beliefs. The last of the great herds had vanished nearly a decade earlier, and the sight of these few survivors brought such joy to the Indians that they cavorted about like excited children. Broken Arm and He Dog even climbed into the pen and tried to hug the animals, only to be thrown roughly aside by a surly shake of the head. They then, as a reporter described it, “scampered about, although at the risk of their lives, and in general made so free with the animals that the latter looked around as though dazed at the proceedings.”
The defense strategy became apparent even in the selection of jurors and followed a consistent course in the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and the questioning of defense witnesses. Nock and Powers sought to demonstrate that the Army and the Sioux, and specifically Casey and Plenty Horses, viewed themselves as belligerents engaged in warfare and that the killing of a belligerent during a state of war could not be regarded as a criminal offense within the competence of the civil courts. The prosecution vigorously contested the admissibility of evidence bearing on the state of mind of the Sioux and conditions in the No Water camp. The judges failed to resolve the question definitively. They ruled that the court had jurisdiction over the case but that evidence on the war issue could be introduced “in a general way as a mitigating circumstance.” Three days of testimony established beyond doubt that Plenty Horses had fired the fatal bullet and also indicated fairly conclusively that, in the aftermath of the bloody affair at Wounded Knee, the Indians in the No Water camp regarded themselves as at war with the white soldiers.
Paradoxically, the central figure of the trial played almost no part in it. Throughout he sat impassive and expressionless, betraying no emotion, speaking but rarely and then only to Nock or Powers. Almost certainly he understood very little of what happened. On one occasion he expressed admiration for the oratorical style of Sterling even as the District Attorney roundly excoriated him. There can be little question that Plenty Horses viewed the whole proceeding as some sort of ritual the white people had to honor before slipping a noose around his neck and hanging him.
The ultimate irony in this strange lack of involvement in his own trial came on April 28, when Nock and Powers called Plenty Horses himself to the stand. The Indian witnesses had given their testimony through an interpreter, and Philip Wells was sworn for this purpose along with Plenty Horses. Pointing out that the defendant had been a Carlisle student for five years, District Attorney Sterling objected to an interpreter. After asking Plenty Horses a few questions in English, Judge Edgerton sustained the objection. Nock argued heatedly that to convey the exact meanings essential to his defense Plenty Horses must speak in his native tongue. To force him to use English would seriously prejudice his case, and it could not be allowed. Testily Judge Shiras reaffirmed his colleague’s ruling. “Then we refuse to permit Plenty Horses to testify,” declared Nock, “and we also close our case.” Stunned, the crowd filed quietly from the courtroom. “I wanted to tell them all that I am not guilty of murder,” said Plenty Horses on the way out. “If they do not care to hear me I am satisfied. Probably it is better that way.”
The next day, after eloquent and emotional summations by prosecution and defense, Judge Shiras charged the jury. Although the Sioux did not constitute an independent nation with legal authority to declare war, he said, they still had the power to go to war. If the jurors felt that a state of war existed in actual if not legal fact, they should acquit the defendant. If they judged a war not to be in progress and Plenty Horses to have shot Casey with malice and deliberation, they should find him guilty of murder. If in the second circumstance the killing had occurred without premeditation and in a condition of great mental excitement, the verdict should be manslaughter. The jury, composed largely of farmers of average intelligence, deliberated all night and finally, at noon on April 30, confessed to a hopeless deadlock. The vote stood, on the twenty-third as on the first ballot, at six for murder and six for manslaughter—in effect a hung jury, though there was no question in its collective mind of Plenty Horses’ guilt.
After the jury was dismissed, Plenty Horses sat without evident emotion as he had throughout the trial. Not so Living Bear; all morning he had paced the corridors, repeatedly asking a deputy how things were going. Now he made his way through the crowd to attorney Nock and, with tears streaming from his eyes, pumped the lawyer’s hand and poured forth his gratitude. Later Plenty Horses relaxed a bit. He would have to face another trial, but now he saw that it was not just a formality before taking him to the gallows. “I thought last night that they would hang me sure,” he said, “but now I feel that it will not be so. My father is glad once more.”