- Historic Sites
The Redskin Who Saved The White Man’s Hide
Chief Washakie earned his battle scars in the service of the Great White Father, who—for once at least—kept faith with an Indian
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The signing was held with much ceremony. There were many state and federal notables present. Most of the Shoshones were there, and the proud hierarchy of the Arapahoes stood by. Washakie, regal in his blue silk robe, with Tigee at his side, walked up to the treaty table. Norkuk, an important subchief who had signed at the treaty of 1868, had to be carried, though he was younger than Washakie. When they had made their crosses, the Arapahoes were asked to come forth and sign. Then Washakie spoke: “Why are the dogeaters asked to this table?”
“Why,” the agent explained, “they have to sign the treaty in the cession of this land.”
Washakie replied, “They don’t have to sign. This is Shoshone land. The Arapahoes own nothing here.”
“But,” the agent persisted, “it is the White Father’s wish that the Arapahoes sign too. It is part of the regulations.”
In one of his amazing rages, Washakie crashed his fist down on the table and shouted, “All right! if that is the way it must be, let them sign. But under their marks write it down that Washakie says no.”
Long after his death, Washakie’s careful study of the treaties and his strongly worded protests proved of tremendous value to the Shoshones. When George M. Tunison, an attorney, took up the Shoshone case in 1929, Washakie’s records were powerful weapons in his hands. After a long delay Congress allowed the Shoshone case to be presented to the United States Court of Claims. Tunison argued the case in December, 1936, and in January, 1937, the court awarded the Shoshones four and one-half million dollars in damages suffered from the presence of the Arapahoes on their lands. With the accrued interest from the original claim and additional claims, this has grown into a tremendous sum.
Old age, the civilizing tendency of the times, and the gentle counsels of Father Roberts did much to quiet the warlike nature of the old chief. But his promise never to shed white blood was nearly broken when his son Bishop was treacherously murdered by a drunken renegade white. The murderer was still at large, and the outraged Washakie was preparing to hunt him down when Father Roberts persuaded the old chief to let the law punish the murderer.
When he was past ninety Washakie suffered a light paralytic stroke. To give him better care the post surgeon had him placed in the hospital. On one of his daily calls Father Roberts found him morose and discontented. Washakie explained that though he was receiving wonderful care, the soft bed was making him die. He asked Father Roberts to help him down on the floor where he could get well. After a great deal of discussion, the priest compromised by removing the mattress and putting a door in place of it under the chief of the Shoshones. Within a short time the patient was showing remarkable signs of recovery. During Washakie’s convalescence Father Roberts presented him with an old-fashioned reading robe. This quilted, down-filled garment was covered with blue silk and lined with pink satin. It became one of the old chief’s favorite pieces of apparel, and he often wore it on state occasions.
After his discharge from the hospital, as soon as his strength allowed, Washakie resumed the active life that his illness had interrupted. He devoted much of his time to reservation affairs and the welfare of his people. His rides took him all over the reservation and to the nearby town of Lander. But now he had to be helped on and off his horse. He continued his rides until his vision was destroyed by a furious sandstorm.
Finally, on the evening of February 20,1900, Washakie called his family to his bedside in the snug log cabin on the Little Wind River. His voice was only a whisper and his hands moved feebly in the sign language. “You now have that for which we so long and bravely fought. Keep it forever in peace and honor. Go now and rest, I shall speak to you no more.” When the grieving family left the room they saw his lips silently moving. They knew that he was singing his death song.
On the morning of February si, the wires carried a message to the office of the Adjutant General in Washington: “Chief Washakie of the Shoshones died at eight thirty last night. Recommend full military funeral. Overton commanding—please advise.”
The wires replied: “Commanding Officer, Fort Washakie, Wyoming: Order full military burial for Chief Washakie of the Shoshones, rank of Captain. Extend our deepest to members of family. Office Adjutant General, Washington, D. C.”