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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
The second trial, which opened in the same courtroom on May 23 and featured much the same cast of characters, followed a script similar to the first. Plenty Horses looked pale and wasted, the result of prolonged confinement, and endured the proceedings as impassively as ever. A bright red shirt and yellow neckerchief, the gift of an admirer, added color to his appearance. Broken Arm, Bear Lying Down, He Dog, and the scouts White Moon and Rock Road told their stories again, while the eloquent and able old chief American Horse described conditions among the Sioux after Wounded Knee. The defense trapped White Moon in some inconsistencies. Mortified, he bought a jackknife and repaired to the hotel room occupied by He Dog and Woman’s Dress. When these two returned to their room after lunch, they found White Moon sprawled on a bloody bed, the knife driven into his chest to the hilt. A doctor, hurriedly summoned, gave emergency treatment, and within a day White Moon had so far recovered as to board a train for his home in Montana.
Once more the prosecution and defense wrangled over the relevance of the war issue. In the previous trial Nock and Powers had demonstrated that the Indians regarded themselves as engaged in war with the white soldiers, but no evidence had been presented to show how the Army viewed the question. In fact, District Attorney Sterling had recently called on General Miles at his Chicago headquarters to see if he would come to Sioux Falls and testify that there had been no war. “My boy,” the newspapers reported Miles as replying, “it was a war. You do not suppose that I am going to reduce my campaign to a dress-parade affair?” And with that the general sent a staff officer, Captain Frank D. Baldwin, to appear for the defense. Baldwin’s testimony, together with military reports introduced in evidence, clearly established the Army’s view that, as Miles had declared, it was a war. Baldwin also conceded under questioning that Casey could even be regarded as a spy in enemy territory, although he made it plain (”as a cold smile played around his gray mustache,” observed a reporter) that “we do not call such a thing spying, we call it reconnoitering.”
Baldwin’s testimony coupled with the military documents proved decisive. “There is no need of going further with this case,” Judge Shiras announced after the lunch recess. To astonished participants and spectators he explained that the guilt or innocence of Plenty Horses turned wholly on the war issue. The defense had shown beyond doubt that war existed. If Wounded Knee was not a battle in a war, the soldiers were guilty of murder. Had Casey shot and killed Plenty Horses while reconnoitering the No Water camp, he surely would not have been charged with murder in the civil courts. The slaying of Casey, therefore, could only be called an act of war, and Judge Shiras could not accept any verdict other than acquittal. After a brief discussion without even leaving the room, the jurors obediently complied with their instructions, although a poll later taken by a newspaperman disclosed that left to their own deliberations, they would have convicted Plenty Horses of manslaughter.
Before the judge could dismiss the defendant and gavel the trial to a close, the courtroom exploded with cheers, for public sympathy had swung to the sad, lonely figure in the prisoner’s dock. As Powers grasped the hand of his client in congratulation a watching reporter could find no hint of joy in Plenty Horses’ demeanor. “On his face there was no trace of delight, as before there had been none of anxiety or fear.” Another observer, however, saw tears on the Indian’s cheeks and heard him murmur, “I am free! Good, good, good!” For an hour after the formal adjournment of the court well-wishers crowded around Plenty Horses, shaking his hand. Later, in the street outside, the Indians who had gathered for the trial enacted a similar ceremony. “I am glad you are free,” said the stately American Horse. “You killed Casey; that was bad. He was a brave man and a good one. He did much for the Indian, but the whites cruelly starved us into such a condition that the young men were crazy and you did not know what you did.”
Meanwhile the witness most responsible for the abrupt termination of the trial chatted with Nock and Powers. Captain Baldwin and Lieutenant Casey had been close friends ever since their service under General Miles against the Sioux in 1877. Baldwin could not hold back his tears as he talked about Casey’s death. “But Casey was on hostile ground,” he said, “and died like a soldier. If he could be alive today and appear as a witness, he would not desire the punishment of this poor savage.”
That night at the hotel, unbending enough to describe his feelings, Plenty Horses commented: “I am awful glad. I will go back to the agency and be a good Indian. I will ride my pony and be once more happy.” Expressing gratitude to his attorneys, he invited them to come out and visit him at Rosebud and offered them a ride on his father’s ponies, “with the additional inducement of plenty of dog soup,” according to one listener.