The Redskin Who Saved The White Man’s Hide

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After a few years, reservation life became difficult for the Shoshones. Game, especially buffalo, was getting scarce; soon the buffalo would be gone forever. It was hard for the proud, horse-riding Shoshones to think of turning to the white man’s plow to feed their families. Cattle raising, which would have been much more to their liking, was not encouraged by Indian agency personnel, nor was the promised breeding stock forthcoming. Food allowances were slow to arrive and often half spoiled. Hunger, the eternal terror of the Indian, faced them. Washakie preached patience. His brother-in-law, Tigee, had lost his leadership of the Bannocks and along with his immediate followers had come to live on the Wind River reservation. Some Shoshones didn’t think that this should have been allowed. The victory at Crow Heart Butte was soon forgotten and restless young men began to talk. They thought that their chief was too soft in his dealings with the whites and that he was too old to lead them in battle any longer. They thought he was too strict in his handling of tribal affairs. Perhaps, they mused, they should have a new chief.

Washakie overheard some of the talk, and one night he disappeared. When he returned a few days later, seven fresh scalps hung from his shield, and there was no more talk about a new chief.

Washakie’s request for Christian training for his people was answered when Father John Roberts, an energetic Welshman, was sent to the Wind River reservation by the Episcopal Church. The chief of the Shoshones and the bearded little priest, whom he called “White Robe,” became great friends. Washakie had an amazing knowledge of Biblical lore, which he had acquired from Marcus Whitman, Father De Smet, and Brigham Young. He himself was not baptized until late in life, but his co-operation was a great help to Father Roberts’ efforts in the raw wilderness.

Early in the winter of 1878, a bedraggled band of Arapahoes, escorted by two troops of the Fifth Cavalry under Major G. A. Gordon, appeared on the Wind River reservation. Under the able leadership of Sharp Nose, Black Coal, Yellow Calf, and Wallowing Bull, they had escaped the previous spring from the Indian territory in Oklahoma, where they had been exiled as a punishment. They were captured by troops under Stephen W. Kearny in northern Wyoming and with the cavalry escort headed back south. The Arapahoes had covered a thousand miles in their flight from Oklahoma, and when they reached the Shoshone reservation they were in a desperate condition. They could travel no further. Gordon asked the commanding officer and the agent at Fort Washakie for permission to hold his charges there until they were strong enough to travel again. Both officials were anxious to assist; but they insisted that Washakie must be consulted before permission could be granted.

Washakie had known of the presence of the Arapahoes before he received the agent’s message summoning him to the post. His answer to Gordon’s request was a flat “No.” But Gordon was desperate, and he asked the chief if he would inspect the Arapahoes before he made his decision final. Washakie agreed to this but insisted that the agent and commanding officer and an interpreter go along.

It was a raw, cold day. When they rode through the forlorn camp Washakie refused to speak to the Arapahoe chiefs, all of whom he knew; but he took note of the emaciated women and children and the starving, lifeless horses. Turning to the officials he said: I don’t like these people; they eat their dogs. They have been the enemies of the Shoshones since before the birth of the oldest old men. If you leave them here there will be trouble. But it is plain that they can go no further now. Take them down to where the Popo Agie walks into the Wind River and let them stay until the grass comes again. But when the grass comes again take them off my reservation. I want my words written down on paper with the white man’s ink. I want you all to sign as witnesses to what I have said. And I want a copy of that paper. I have spoken.

The grass has come and gone many times since that bleak day in 1878, and the Arapahoes still remain on the Wind River reservation. Yet each year, throughout the rest of his life, Washakie formally demanded their removal from Shoshone soil.

When government officials attempted to insinuate the Arapahoes into reservation affairs (having mostly to do with land cessions) by inviting them to sign all treaties made on the ground (as United States treaty practice required), Washakie protested. His words were always the same: “The Arapahoes have nothing here to sign for.”

His most famous protest was made over the treaty of 1896, the last one he was to sign. State and federal officials, recognizing the medicinal values of the mineral hot springs at what is now Thermopolis, Wyoming, asked the Shoshones to cede these waters and about fifty thousand additional acres for public use. Washakie and his fellow tribesmen were willing. But they asked that part of the waters be developed and set aside, always with an Indian attendant, for the free use of all men of all races, creeds, and colors. This was included in the treaty.