No battle in American history has won more attention than the relatively insignificant defeat at the Little Bighorn River in 1876.
No single battle in American history has won more attention from more writers than the relatively insignificant defeat of a handful of cavalry by a few thousand Indians on the Little Bighorn River in 1876. How could there be anything new to say about it? Yet there is—the recollections of the Indians themselves—and that is the story we have to tell in this collection of reminiscences gathered before the survivors all died and translated by David Humphreys Miller, the author of several books on Indians, including Custer’s Fall (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1957), and a writer for motion pictures. An artist as well, Mr. Miller has done all that any man can to bring to life once again this desperate moment in American history.
Indian country—the sprawling Sioux and Cheyenne reservations—lured me to the Dakotas and Montana in 1935, when I was sixteen. Having sketched, painted, and written since I was old enough to hold pencil or brush, I was prepared to fill many sketchbooks and notebooks with all I expected to see and hear.
The historic Battle of the Little Bighorn had occurred fifty-nine years earlier, so I calculated there still must be Indian survivors of Ouster’s Last Stand who could tell me their side of the story. My high school history books dealt sparingly, if at all, with the Indian wars of the Plains. It seemed vital in exploring the past to find oldtimers who had actually lived the battle.
I soon discovered that none of the older Indians I wished to depict and interview spoke English, and it soon became obvious that the language barrier and constant need for an interpreter would be a handicap in securing full and complete statements. Already armed with a knowledge of the indispensable sign language every old Plains Indian used, I assiduously studied the Sioux tongue and, later, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Blackfoot, and Kiowa, as I came into contact with those tribes.
Overcoming the linguistic hurdle opened the minds and memories of the old warriors to me as nothing else could and, moreover, helped ameliorate their still considerable resentment and distrust of white men generally. Tribes that had fought the frontier army and had finally been defeated were shabbily treated; even in the thirties many of these former “hostiles” were starving. I did what I could to help them, shared their privations, and gradually won their confidence. I was formally adopted into five Plains tribes and made a “relative” by many Indian families.
Some old-timers, however, still clung to the superstition that if their likenesses were sketched, painted, or photographed, part of their souls would leave them to go with their portraits. One bitter old Sioux named Crazy Bull refused for more than a year to submit to an interview or sit for his portrait. Appealing to his somewhat rusty sense of humor, I finally won his cautious friendship and trust, although I deliberately refrained from asking him again to pose or to engage in anything but small talk. Then one day he came to ask me to paint his likeness and listen to his story of Little Bighorn.
In all, I interviewed seventy-one old-timers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who had taken part in the Custer fight : fifty-four Sioux, sixteen Cheyennes, and one Arapaho. I questioned them in their own languages and found, with very few exceptions, that none of them had ever before told their stories to a white man or had their portraits painted. It was my purpose to tax their memories. Whenever possible, I arranged joint conferences with several survivors, who often reminded each other of various details that might otherwise have been overlooked. It was considered bad form, however, for any warrior to talk of something he had not personally seen or done. At the same time their somewhat complicated system of tabulating battle honors and counting coups required reliable witnesses, and sometimes two or three interviews were necessary to crosscheck certain points against the white soldiers’ version in the military annals. However, since Little Bighorn was the greatest battle of these warlike Indians, I was not surprised to find their recollections of it honest and lucid. After all, no white man survived to tell of Ouster’s final hour; only these Indians who fought him could describe the climactic events.
The matter of which Indian killed Custer has bothered generations of historians. It may simply boil down to a question of identity. White Bull was firmly convinced, I am sure, that he had killed Long Hair, for he had undoubtedly slain a leader of the soldiers who wore a buckskin jacket after this white man had fired twice at him and missed. But White Bull may have been unaware that Ouster’s brothers, Tom and Boston, who died with him, also wore buckskin jackets, or that officers Yates, Cooke, Smith, Porter, Calhoun, and possibly Keogh wore buckskin blouses (as described in a special report dated January 16,1896, by General—then Major—E. S. Godfrey). The leader White Bull killed could have been any of these men, for no warrior knew Long Hair was on the field until after the fight. Only a handful of hostiles had ever seen Custer, who at his wife’s request had had his . flowing locks, his frontier trademark and most identifying feature, trimmed short before the battle.
Dewey Beard may also have been honestly mistaken in his identification of Long Hair, although I do not question his testimony that he thought the white man killed by Charging Hawk was the leader of the soldiers.
White Cow Bull did not claim to have killed Long Hair, but to have shot a man, whom he later heard called Long Hair, out of his saddle at the ford. While never mentioned in kill-talks after the battle as Custer’s slayer, he may well have been the warrior who inflicted Custer’s mortal wound. His story satisfies several enigmas, accounting for the troopers’ halt in midcharge and their abrupt shift from offensive attack to defensive and apparently demoralized retreat. Two hundred fifteen hell-for-leather cavalrymen would scarcely have turned back unless they had suddenly found themselves with a dead or mortally wounded leader. The loss of any other officer would hardly have had such a deleterious effect.
The fact that Ouster’s body, according to both Indian and white accounts, was later found on the west slope of the ridge to which his troops retreated fails to prove that he was killed or mortally wounded on the spot. Accepting the validity of White Cow Bull’s statement that Long Hair fell at the ford actually provides an explanation for the body’s location. Only Ouster’s body would have been carried by the troops as they fell back.
In early kill-talks after the battle several other warriors claimed to have slain Long Hair: Red Horse, a Miniconjou; Flat Hip, a Hunkpapa; and Walks-Under-theGround, a Santee—probably because he wound up in possession of Ouster’s horse. Little Knife, a Hunkpapa, said Brown Back killed Ouster to avenge his brother Deeds, who had been killed by soldiers early the day of the fight. Two sons of Inkpaduta (Scarlet Tip), chief of the Santee, made a joint claim. Fast Eagle, an Oglala, said he held Ouster’s arms while Walking Blanket Woman, the girl warrior, stabbed Long Hair in the back. Charging Hawk, a Miniconjou, did not deny the deed when others (including Dewey Beard) declared they saw him kill the soldier chief. Three Northern Cheyennes—Two Moon, Harshay Wolf, and Medicine Bear—claimed they counted coup on Ouster but admitted they did not see him die.
Whites were properly confused by this plethora of claims. Such an enterprising showman as Buffalo Bill Cody attempted to credit Sitting Bull—who turned out to be so affable a showman himself that few believed in his villainy.
Eventually as perplexed as white entrepreneurs, poets, and historians, Indian leaders of eleven tribes settled the matter in characteristic fashion—and to their satisfaction—in September, 1909, when the wealthy Philadelphian Rodman Wanamaker gathered them in conclave for a last Great Council on the Little Bighorn. He offered a considerable largesse to be prorated among them if one of those present could prove himself to be Ouster’s killer. After days of deliberation in secret council, mulling over conflicting claims, the chiefs found the record of a sixty-four-year-old Southern Cheyenne war chief made to order: not only had Chief Brave Bear fought at Little Bighorn; he had earlier fought Custer at the Battle of the Washita in 1868, a defeat for his people that provided him with a fitting motive for evening the score. After lengthy palaver the council unanimously elected Brave Bear the honorary slayer of Long Hair Custer!
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, on June 25, 1876, has had its impact on history for ninety-five years. Its endless ramifications may well continue to fascinate historians and laymen alike for more generations to come. Undoubtedly, the Custer fight will long remain the apotheosis of the adventurous American spirit.
Chief Henry Oscar One Bull was the first Indian veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn to pose for me and tell me his version of the Custer fight. I located him at an Indian pageant south of Rapid City, South Dakota, in the mid-1930’s. As a nephew, adopted son, and bodyguard of the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull, he had held an elevated position in the hierarchy of Indian command.
Well past eighty at our first meeting,∗One Bull was withered and bent with age, his legs widely bowed from long years on horseback. He was still remarkably agile in the saddle, but he walked only with the aid of a polished cottonwood cane. On ceremonial occasions the cane also served as a scepter of his authority as the last hereditary chief of the Hunkpapa tribe—the northernmost and traditionally the most warlike of the entire Sioux nation. As a badge of his distinction as a warrior he tied to the cane a buffalo-hide shield, painted white and decorated with blue lightning streaks. Eagle feathers fluttered from the shield’s rim.
He died at ninety-four, in 1947.
In the summer of 1938 I made my annual visit to the Crow Indian Fair at Crow Agency, Montana—an event that in prewar years attracted thousands of Indians from all over the country. To my delight I found that One Bull and his family were among them. Since the Custer Battlefield was a short drive from our camp, I was determined to take advantage of the Chiefs presence and invited him to show me over the fighting ground, step by step. He gladly complied, pointing out where each of the great camp circles had been, where the soldiers had come charging in initial phases of the battle, and where he had won individual honors as a warrior. We even looked in vain for a cache of captured bullets One Hull said he had buried under some rocks along the river. Back in camp he told me his story, conversing, as usual, in Sioux:
It was the time when ponies are [June]. During a sun dance we held on Rosebud Creek ten days earlier, my uncle, Sitting Bull, had offered a hundred pieces of his flesh to Wakantanka [Great Holy Spirit] and had been granted a vision of white soldiers without ears falling upside-down into camp. He told me that this vision was a promise of a great victory yet to come. Three days later we beat [General George Crook] in a light on the Rosebud. But my uncle said an even greater victory was coming.
The night before the fight with Long Hair. Sitiing Hull went out to the ridge where the monument now stands. He sang a thunder sons;, then prayed lor knowledge ol things to come. As he repeated for me later, he wailed aloud. ollering a filled pipe as he prayed:
“Wakantanka , hear me and pity me! I oiler you this pipe in the name of my people. Save them. We want to live! Guard my people against all danger and misfortune, lake pity on us!
Then he stuck slender wands in the ground to which he tied tiny buckskin bags of tobacco and willow bark. Next day Long Hair’s horse soldiers would knock them all down, but that night my uncle knew that “Wakantanka had heard his prayer. Before sunup an old woman died in the Hunkpapa camp. She was the wife of Sitting Bull’s uncle, Four Horns. As Sitting Bull later told me, the death of such an important woman made him wonder if the promised victory might not come that very day.
I was twenty-three that summer and had been a warrior a long time. Another Hunkpapa named Gray Eagle and I were Sitting Bull’s special bodyguards. It was our duty to watch him and see that he had protection. I also had the duty of seeing that his orders were carried out by others and Io look after his property, That morning I took (he lamily horses to the river.
At midday I went back to the pony herd and drove the horses to the river lor the noon watering, just then I heard shooting near the Hunkpapa camp tircle. I knew our camp soldiers [police] did not allow olfhand linng. So I recognized the shots as a warning of some kind of danger. I quickly caught my best pony and turned the other sttxk loose, knowing they would head back to camp as stxin as the hobbles were oil. Not faraway I sawdust rising and heard iron-shod hoofs pounding against loose rocks. I raced back to the tepe I shared with my uncle.
The Hunkpapa camp was in an uproar. Warriors were rushing around to catch their ponies, Women were streaming and children were crying and old men were shouting advice as loud as they could. Then the women and children began to run off to the west, not taking the time to strike their tepees or to carry of belongings.
I reached the tepee ahead of my uncle. I grahlx’d my old muzzlcloader and quickly checked it. Just then Siding Hull entered the tepee and took the old rifle out of my hands. He handed me a stone-headed war club, then took his own rawhide shield out of its buckskin case and hung; it over my shoulder. This shield was both for protection and to be used as a badge of the chief’s authority.
“You will take my place and go out and meet the soldiers that are attacking us,” he ordered. “Parley with them, if you can. If they arc willing, tell them I will talk peace with them.”
Sitting Bull was buckling on his cartridge belt as we hurried outside. His deaf-mute adopted son came running up with the chief’s black stallion. Another bodyguard, named Iron Elk, handed my uncle a Winchester carbine and a revolver and held the stallion’s jaw rope. Sitting Bull jumped on the stallion’s bare back and galloped off to look for his old mother and get her to safety. Many young warriors gathered around me. I raised my uncle’s shield high so they all could see it. Then I led them out to meet the soldiers.
One Bull soon discovered that any talk of peace with Major Marcus A. Reno’s attacking troopers was out of the question. Soldiers now on the firing line began shooting as soon as they saw the raised shield. Rec [Arikara] Indian scouts, serving the jth Cavalry, were trying to capture the huge herd of Sioux ponies west of the camp. Chief Black Moon rode up with a large force of Hunkpapa camp police to save the pony herd. One Bull rallied his warriors for a charge.
The Sioux onslaught began suddenly, sweeping back the Ree scouts and halting Reno’s advance. Black Moon’s Hunkpapas hit Reno’s exposed flank. As One Bull told me:
The soldiers were mixed up. Some got off their horses and began firing again as we rode in. Others stayed mounted. Two soldiers couldn’t hold their horses in all the excitement. The horses bolted, carrying their riders right into our warriors. These soldiers didn’t last long!
Then the soldier chief shouted something, and all the soldiers did a strange thing. They all got off their horses, except for every fourth man who held the horses for the other three. Then they ran on foot trying to get into the timber along the river. I raised my uncle’s shield again and led another charge to chase them. They were turning around to shoot at us, but we rode right into them, chasing them into the river. VVc killed many on the river bank and in the water.
I rode up behind one soldier and knocked him over with my war club. Then I slid off my pony and held the soldier’s head under water until he was dead. I killed two more soldiers in the water.
A Hunkpapa warrior named Good Bear Boy was riding alongside me and was suddenly shot off his horse. Black Moon fell about the same time. He was dead, but Good Bear Boy was only wounded. I ordered a warrior named Looking Elk to rescue him, but Looking Elk didn’t hear me. Good Bear Boy tried to crawl back from the river.
I saw many soldiers struggle across the river and climb out on the far bank. They ran to a high butte [now called Reno Hill], and from there they kept shooting at us. Some of them dug holes [trenches] in the ground and got into these holes or behind their saddles so we couldn’t hit them. I ordered warriors to surround the butte so the soldiers couldn’t get away. I wanted to starve them out. A Lakota told me later that the warriors kept those soldiers there all nicht. Finally, the soldiers began to get crazy for water. The Lakotas (Teton Sioux] wouldn’t let the soldiers go to the river to drink or get water to take back up to their holes in the ground. Two or three of them tried to crawl down to the river, but our warriors shot them.
Bullets were Hying all around, but I saw that Good Bear Boy wasn’t able to crawl back to camp. He was shot through both thighs and bleeding heavily. So [ jumped of! my pony long enough to help Good Bear Boy climb on, then I leaped up behind him. I heard my pony scream. A bullet had struck his hindquarters. I took Good Bear Boy bark to camp and saw that his friends took care of him. As I left him, I saw three soldiers running on foot toward the river. They had gotten away from us earlier in the fight. I charged after them, and they ran very fast. I wanted to ride them down, but just then 1 heard my uncle s voice.
“O, come back, my son!” he shouted.
Sitting Bull had seen the blood of Good Bear Boy and my pony all over my legs and thought I was wounded. Then he said: “Let them go! !,et them live to tell the truth about this fight!”
I obeyed. We let the three soldiers escape. My uncle looked worried.
“Nephew, you are wounded. Go to the women and have your wounds treated.”
So I laughed, saying I wasn’t wounded and telling him about Good Bear Boy.
“You have done well. You put up a good light. Now go help defend the women and children and old ones. More soldiers may come.”
I did as he ordered and joined our people west of the camp. Soon after I reached them, I saw more dust across the river. A second band of soldiers was riding down a coulee toward the ford by the Miniconjou camp circle. Another alarm went up. I saw a handful of warriors racing (o the lord to meet them. Then more warriors left the soldiers surrounded on the butte and galloped over to head off this second attack. They chased these new soldiers out of the coulee and up onto a long ridge. More of our warriors, mostly Oglalas and Gheycnncs, were waiting for these soldiers at the end of the ridge and caught them in a trap. They were all wiped out in a short time. My brother White Bull later said the leader of this second band of soldiers was Long Hair G’fcster. White Bull was nghting the soldiers on the ridge and he can tell you about thai part of the battle.
Reno’s troops, reinforced by Captain Frederick W. Bentcen’s detachment and a pack train of ammunition, were kept surrounded on the butte throughout (hat night and until noon the following day. Had the Indians attacked them in force, from all directions, there is little doubt that the remainder of the yth Cavalry would have been wiped out to a man. As One Bull told me, however, Sitting Bull ordered the warriors to stop fighting:
“ Henala! Enough!” my uncle shouted. “Those soldiers are trying to live, so let them live. let them go. If we kill all of them, a bigger army will march against us.”
The old man sat cross-legged in the Montana sun, posing for me with his gaunt shoulders draped in an ancient trade-cloth blanket, gnarled ringers clutching a cottonwood cane. It was hard to imagine that his scraggy hands had once been dexterous with firearms, or that his watery eyes, with bluish, washed-out irises, had been among the keenest of any warrior’s who had fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
We were camped that August day in 1938 at the Crow Fair. His name was Joseph White Cow Bull. An Ogîala Sioux from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he had come to have a last look at the battlefield before he died.
His name seemed somewhat anomalous in combining the bovine sexes. It made better sense in Sioux than it did in English. Ptebloka Ska indicated a male of the white man’s semidomesticated longhorn cattle, which some interpreter, lacking fluency in English, had evidently mistranslated. White Cow Bull, I learned, had earned the name at age fourteen by shooting a stray longhorn bull with a single arrow.
My first portrait sketch of him completed, I loaded the old man in my car and headed south out of camp on U.S. Highway 87, by-passing the entrance to G’fcster Battlefield and National Cemetery so he could first see the site of the great Indian village where he had camped sixty-two years earlier. I realized that time and cultivation by the semiagricultural Crow must have caused considerable changes in the look of the land. White Cow Bull nonetheless soon managed to point out where the wide ramp circles, each a half mile in diameter, had sprawled along the Little Bighorn River.
Spreading his hands to indicate a large circle, he said:
The Shahiyela [Cheyenne] camp \vas farthest north. We Oglala were ramped just southeast of them, with the Br’fblé in a smaller circle next to us. Next were the Sans Arc, then the Miniconjou, the Blackfoot Sioux, and farthest south next to the river were the Hunkpapa. I was twenty-eight years old that summer.
While we were together in this village, I spent most of my time with the Shahiyela since 1 knew their tongue and their ways almost as well as my own. In all those years I had never taken a wife, although I had had many women. One woman I wanted was a pretty young . Shahiyela named Monahseetah, or Meotxi as I called her. She was in her middle twenties but had never married any man of her tribe. Some of my Shahiyela friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a seven-year-old son born out of wedlock and that tribal law forbade her getting married. They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle, in a battle in the south [Battle of the Washita] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her. But after while his Rrst wife, a white woman, found her out and made him let her go.
“Was this boy still with her here?” I asked him.
Yes, I saw him often around the Shahiyela camp. He was named Yellow Bird and he had light streaks in his hair. He was always with his mother in the daytime, so I would have to wait until night to try to talk to her alone. She knew I wanted to walk with her under a courting blanket and make her my wile. But she would only talk with me through the tepee cover and never came outside.
White Cow Bull sat silent a few minutes, musing on the past, I suppose, and remembering the Cheyenne girl Long Hair Custer had dishonored in the eyes of her people. I^ater interviews corroborated the old Oglala s statement that Monahseetah and Yellow Bird had been in the Little Bighorn camp at the time of the fight, many of my Cheyenne informants insisting that their strict moral code, more rigid than that of the Sioux, imposed restrictions on their relationships with fallen women. I was already familiar with various accounts of Custer s winter campaign against the Southern Cheyenne in 1868, in several of which Monahseetah is mentioned as having served Custer as an interpreter—although she apparently then spoke no English!
“Tell me about the battle with Long Hair,” 1 said.
That morning many of the Oglalas were sleeping laic. I he night before, we held a scalp dance to celebrate the victory over Gray Pox [General Grook] on the Rosebud a week before. I woke up hungry and went to a nearby tepee to ask an old woman for food. As I ate, she said:
“Today attackers are coming.”
“How do you know, Grandmother?” I asked her, but she would say nothing more about it.
After I finished eating I caught my best pony, an iron-gray gelding, and rode over to the Cheyenne camp circle. I looked all over for Meotzi and finally saw her carrying firewood up from the river. The boy was with her, so I just smiled and said nothing. I rode on to visit with my Shahiyela friend Roan Bear. He was a Fox warrior, belonging to one of that tribe’s soldier societies, and was on guard duty that morning. He was stationed by the Shahiyela medicine tepee in which the tribe kept their Sacred Buffalo Head.…We settled down to telling each other some of our brave deeds in the past. The morning went by quickly, for an Elk warrior named Bobtail Horse joined us to tell us stories about his chief, Dull Knife, who was not there that day.
The first we knew of any attack was after midday, when we saw dust and heard shooting way to the south near the Hunkpapa camp circle.…
Just then an Oglala came riding into the circle at a gallop.
“Soldiers are coming!” he shouted in Sioux. “Many white men are attacking!”
I put this into a shout of Shahiyela words so they would know. I saw the Shahiyela chief, Two Moon, run into camp from the river, leading three or four horses. He hurried toward his tepee, yelling:
” Natskaveho! White soldiers are coming! Everybody run for your horses!”
“ Hay-ay! llay-ay! ” The Shahiyela warriors shouted their war cry, waiting in a big band for Two Moon to lead them into battle.
“Warriors, don’t run away if the soldiers charge you,” he told them. “Stand and fight them. Watch me. I’ll stand even if I am sure to be killed!”
It was a brave-up talk to make them strong in their fight. Two Moon led them out at a gallop…
After Two Moon’s band loft to fight Major Reno, a new threat developed from Custer’s detachment advancing down Medicine Tail coulee toward the river and the Cheyenne camp.
“They’re coming this way!” Bobtail Horse shouted. “Across the ford! We must stop them!”
We saw the soldiers in the coulee were getting closer and closer to the ford, so we trotted out to meet them. An old Shahiyela named Mad Wolf, riding a rack-of-bones horse, tried to stop us, saying:
“My sons, do not charge the soldiers. There are too many. Wait until our brothers come back to help!”
He rode along with us a way, whining about how such a small war party would have no chance against a whole army. Finally Bobtail Horse told him:
“Uncle, only Earth and the Heavens last long. If we four can stop the soldiers from capturing our camp, our lives will be well spent.”…
At this point I interrupted White Cow Bull, suggesting that we try to get closer to the crossing known as Miniconjou Ford. He agreed it would refresh his memory on a few details to go, so I eased the car down a dusty lane between cultivated fields until we reached the river. He sat in silence a long moment before resuming his narrative. Then he spoke in low tones, the Sioux words resonant in the morning quiet:
The Sans Arc and Miniconjou camp circles were back from the ford. We found a low ridge along here and slid off our ponies to take whatever cover we could find. For the first time I saw five Sioux warriors racing down the coulee ahead of the soldiers. They were coming fast and dodging bullets the soldiers were firing at them. Then Bobtail Horse pointed to that bluff beside the ford. On top were three Indians that looked like Crows from their hair style and dress. Bobtail Horse said:
“They are our enemies, guiding the soldiers here.”
He fired his muzzleloader at them, then squatted behind the ridge to reload. I fired at them too, for I saw they were shooting at the five Sioux warriors, who were now splashing across the ford at a dead run. My rifle was a repeater, so I kept firing at the Crows until these Sioux were safely on our side of the river. They had no guns, just lances and bows and arrows. But they got off their ponies and joined us behind the ridge. Just then I saw a Shahiyela named White Shield, armed with bow and arrows, come riding downriver. He was alone, but we were glad to have another fighting man with us. That made ten of us to defend the ford.
I looked across the ford and saw that the soldiers had stopped at the edge of the river. I had never seen white soldiers before, so I remember thinking how pink and hairy they looked. One white man had little hairs on his face [a mustache] and was wearing a big hat and a buckskin jacket. He was riding a finelooking big horse, a sorrel with a blazed face and four white stockings. On one side of him was a soldier carrying a flag and riding a gray horse, and on the other was a small man on a dark horse. This small man didn’t look much like a white man to me, so I gave the man in the buckskin jacket my attention.∗ He was looking straight at us across the river. Bobtail Horse told us all to stay hidden so this man couldn’t see how few of us there really were.
The “small man” was evidently Mitch Bouyer, half French, half Sioux, who had married into the Crow tribe and served Custer as scout and interpreter for the Crow scouts.
The man in the buckskin jacket seemed to be the leader of these soldiers, for he shouted something and they all came charging at us across the ford. Bobtail Horse fired first, and I saw a soldier on a gray horse (not the flag carrier) fall out of his saddle into the water. The other soldiers were shooting at us now. The man who seemed to be the soldier chief was firing his heavy rifle fast. I aimed my repeater at him and fired. I saw him fall out of his saddle and hit the water.
Shooting that man stopped the soldiers from charging on. They all reined up their horses and gathered around where he had fallen. I fired again, aiming this time at the soldier with the flag. I saw him go down as another soldier grabbed the flag out of his hands. By this time the air was getting thick with gunsmoke and it was hard to see just what happened. The soldiers were firing again and again, so we were kept busy dodging bullets that kicked up dust all around. When it cleared a little, I saw the soldiers do a strange thing. Some of them got off their horses in the lord and seemed to be dragging something out of the water, while other soldiers still on horseback kept shooting at us.
Suddenly we heard war cries behind us. I looked back and saw hundreds ol Lakotas [Sioux) and Shahiyela warriors charging toward us. They must have driven away those other soldiers who had attacked the Hunkpapa camp circle and now were racing to help us drive off these attackers. The soldiers must have seen them too, for they fell back to the far bank of the river, and those still on horseback got off to fight on foot. As warriors rode up to join us at the ridge a big cry went up.
“ Hoka hey! ” the Lakotas were shouting. “They arc going!”
I saw this was true. The soldiers were running back up the coulee and swarming out over the higher ground to the north. Bobtail Horse ran to his pony, shouting to us as we caught our ponies.
“Come on! They are running! Hurry!”
He and I led the massed warriors across the ford, for the others knew we had stood bravely to protect the village and willingly followed us.
Another warrior named Yellow Nose, a Sapawicasa [Ute] who had been captured as a boy by the Shahiyela and had grown up with them, was very brave that day. After we chased the soldiers back from the ford, he galloped out in front of us and got very close to them, then raced back to safety.
I kept riding with the Shahiyelas , still hoping that some of them might tell Meotzi later about my courage. We massed for another charge. The Shahiyela chief, Comes-in-Sight, and a warrior named Contrary Belly led us that time. The soldiers’ horses were so frightened by all the noise we made that they began to bolt in all directions. The soldiers held their fire while they tried to catch their horses. Just then Yellow Nose rushed in again and grabbed a small flag (guidon] from where the soldiers had stuck it in the ground. He carried it off and counted coup (struck blows] on a soldier with its sharp end. He was proving his courage more by counting that coup than if he had killed the soldier.
Now I saw the soldiers were split into two bands, most of them on foot and shooting as they fell back to higher ground, so we made no more mounted charges. I found cover and began shooting at the soldiers. I was a good shot and had one of the few repeating rifles carried by any of our warriors.∗ It was up to me to use it the best way I could. I kept firing at the two bands of soldiers first at one, then at the other. It was hard to see through the smoke and dust, but I saw five soldiers go down when I shot at them.
Indian informants agree there were probably not more than a dozen or so repeating rifles in working order in the entire village, although more were captured as the battle progressed.
Once in a while some warrior showed his courage by making a charge all by himself. I saw one Shahiyela , wearing a spotted war bonnet and a spotted robe of mountain-lion skins, ride out alone.
“He’s charging!” someone shouted.
He raced up to the long ridge where the soldiers of one band were making a defense standing there holding their horses and keeping up a steady fire. This Shahiyela charged in almost close enough to touch some of the soldiers and rode around in circles in front of them with bullets kicking up dust all around him. He came galloping back, and we all cheered him.
” Ah! Ah! ” he said, meaning “yes” in Shahiyela .
Then he unfastened his belt and opened his robe and shook many spent bullets out on the ground…
The old man grinned at the memory of such courage.
It was a day of bravery— even for our soldier enemies. They all fought well and died in courage, except for one soldier on a sorrel horse. He broke away from the others and started riding off down the ridge. Two Shahiyelas and a Lakota chased after him, shooting at him as they rode. But the soldier’s horse was fast and they couldn t catch him. 1 saw him yank out his revolver and thought he was going to shoot back at these warriors. Instead he put the revolver to his head, pulled the trigger, and fell dead.∗∗
This may have been 2nd Lieutenant Henry M. Harrington, C. Company, whose body was never identified.
In a little while all my bullets were gone. Hut by that time the soldiers lay still. Wc had killed them all. The battle was over. Soon we were shouting victory yells. When the women and children heard us, they came out on the ridge to strip the bodies and catch some of the big horses the soldiers had ridden. Some women had lost husbands or brothers or sons in the fight, so they butchered the soldiers’ bodies to show their grief and anger.
I began looking for bullets and weapons in the piles of dead bodies. Near the top of the ridge 1 saw a naked body and turned it over. The face had little hairs on il and kx)ked like the white man who had worn the buckskin jacket and had lired at me across the ford—the same one I had shot off his horse. I rememlx’red how close some ot his bullets had come, so I thought I would take the medicine of his trigger linger to make me an even better shot. Taking out my knile. I Ix-gan *o cut oil that linger.
Just then I heard a woman’s voice behind me. I turned to see Meotzi and Yellow Bird and an older Shahiyela woman standing there. The older woman pointed Io the while man’s body, saying:
“He is our relative.”
Then she signed for me to go away. I looked at \leotxi then and smiled, but she didn’t smile back at me, so I wondered if she thought it was wrong for a warrior to be cutting on an enemy’s body. I decided she wouldn’t be as proud of me if I cut off the white man’s finger, and moved away. Pretending to be busy looking for bullets, I glanced back. Meotxi was looking down at the body while the older woman poked her Ixine sewing awl deep into each of the white man’s ears. I heard her say:
“So Long Hair will hear better in the Spirit Land.”
That was the first I knew that Long Hair was the soldier chief we had been fighting and the white man 1 had shot at the ford…
The tribes had split up after their victory at Little Bighorn. White Cow Bull never saw Meotzi again after that summer. Perhaps because of her, he never took a wife. After that day in Montana I saw the old man several times at Charlie Thunder Bull’s cabin near Oglala, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, making three portraits of him before his death in 1942.
One of my proudest possessions is an old single-trail war bonnet, mounted entirely on elk leather, which belonged to Silling Bull’s “lighting nephew,” Chief Joseph While Bull. I have documentation that he wore the headdress during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
I first met the Chief, then a grizzled old veteran of nearly ninclv, in the mid-1930’s. Since he spoke no English, all our many conferences were carried on in Sioux and sign language. My most memorable meeting with him took place in 1939 at his log house in the Indian settlement at Cherry Creek, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Throughout most of his lifetime White Bull was, without doubt, l lie most illustrious warrior of the entire Sioux nation. Twenty-six years old at the time of the Custer light in 1876, he had already taken part in nineteen battles, raids, and skirmishes ten against white men, one against government Indian scouts, the others against Indian enemies. His first notable engagement was in the Fctterman light in 1866. Prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he had counted seven coups (six of them “firsts”), killed three enemies, wounded another, taken two scal[)s, shot three enemy horses, rescued six wounded comrades, recovered a dead body under enemy fire, captured forty-live enemy horses, and been hit twice by enemy bullets. At least one horse had been shot from under him in battle. He meticulously kept this “honor count” in an old ledger, which he eagerly showed me. Page after page of this personal military history was illustrated with White Bull’s own colored drawings, executedintheold Indian style and murh like those formerly painted on hides.
He was a powerfully built old fellow, conveying even in later life an impression of great physical strength and stamina. His hair, gathered in loose tresses at the ear lobes, was nearly white. His prominent nose sprawled slightly leftward as though it had been broken. His most arresting feature, however, was his intense, almost animallike expression of fierce pride: and his eyes, while showing signs of milky blue in the pupils (as olten occurs among Indians of advanced age), were alert and piercing. He had a haunting habit of chuckling, even laughing, when recounting the more gory details ol his sanguinary career:
I am the only one left «leicht scalp-shirt men |head chicls ol the Miniconjou tribe. My lather was Makes-ltoom. hereditary chid ol my tribe. My mother was Good Leather Woman, sister of Sitting Hull, so the u;rcai chid was my uncle.
My original name given me in boyhood was Bull-Standing-Wilh-Cow. After my first fight against government Indian scouts in the Powder River country, when I was fifteen years old. I was given my grandfather’s name, White Bull, by another uncle named Slack Moon.…
At the Little Bighorn. White Bull, armed wilh a seventeen-shot Winchester, fought lirst against Keno’s loree and then rode off to join the battle against Custer:
Little bunches of Lakotas and Cheyennes were riding into the ravine. I rode up to where two Lakotas and two Cheyennes were sitting their horses, waiting to charge the soldiers. I shouted to them:
“Only Heaven and Earth last long;!”
I rode past them up the ravine. They took courage and followed me. We were behind the soldiers as we got up on the ridge, and we began to shoot at them. Some of them got off their horses and hid behind them to shoot back at us.
Lakotas were riding all around, shooting at the soldiers, who didn’t u;o any farther along the ridur. I axle around the ridge and dodged the bullets until 1 met a party of warriors with Craxy Horse. He was a chief of the Oglala and a brave fighter. He wore plain while buckskins and let his hair hant; loose with no leathers in it. He had white spots painted here and there on his face for protection in battle, and it was said he was bulletproof.
The soldiers were divided into two bundles. I galloped my pony in between the two bunches and kept close to his neck until I rode clear around one of the bundles and circled back to Craxy Horse. I shouted to him:
“Hoka hey, brother! This life will not last forever!”
I started to circle the soldiers a^ain. This time C.raxy Horse and the others followed. Some of the soldiers ran like scared rabbits, and we rode after them. One soldier was riding a black horse. A Lakota on foot shot him. and he fell oil the horse. I ran up to strike him with my quirt.
One of the soldiers blew on a bugle. The others began to get on their horses. I dared Crazy Horse to lead a charge against them. He refused, so I rode out alone and came up behind a soldier on a bay horse. I grabbed his coat and pulled him out of his saddle. He tried to shoot me, but his rifle fired into the air; he fell screaming to the ground. I rode down two soldiers and lashed them with my quirt. Crazy Horse struck both of these men after I did.
The soldiers who were still alive got off their horses and lay down to shoot. I charged through them twice. They were firing up in the air and acted as though they were drunk. A brave Lakota rode up and chased away their horses. Soon bays and sorrels and grays were running everywhere. Many Lakotas stopped shooting and began to chase these loose horses. I caught a sorrel horse. Just after that my pony went down with bullets in his shoulder and ribs. So I had to fight on foot.
One soldier fired his rifle at me, then threw it at my head. He tried to wrestle with me. I had a bad time keeping him from getting my rifle. He began hitting me on the face. Then he grabbed my long hair in his hands and tried to bite my nose off!
White Bull laughed, stroking his nose.
Two Lakotas came running up and began hitting this soldier with their war clubs. He let go of me. I knocked him down with the butt of my rifle. He was a brave man and put up a good fight—except that he tried to bite off my nose.
Not many soldiers were left alive by this time. We surrounded them and kept shooting them down. They acted like drunk people. Some of them shot wildly into the air, not hitting any of us. The Army was crazy to have sent such a small band of soldiers against us, anyway. They could never have beaten us in that fight.
One soldier still alive toward the last wore a buckskin coat with fringes on it. I thought this man was leader of the soldiers, because he had ridden ahead of all the others as they came along the ridge. He saw me now and shot at me twice with his revolver, missing me both times. I raised my rifle and fired at him; he went down. Then I saw another soldier crawl over to him. The leader was dead.
By the middle of the afternoon all the soldiers were dead. The fight lasted only a short time.∗ All of us were crazy. We had killed many soldiers. They had attacked us and meant to wipe us out. We were fighting for our lives and homeland. Cries of victory went up. Our women came through the timber by the river and began to strip the dead soldiers.
Lacking clocks or watches, Indians then told time by the sun’s position. All Indian informants agreed that the action against Ouster’s command on the ridge occupied the time it took for the sun to travel the width of the shadow of a tepee pole across the ground. By actual measurement this turned out to be almost exactly twenty minutes.
Some of the sisters and wives and mothers of slain warriors cut the bodies of the soldiers to pieces. They were crazy with sorrow. Two old women took the clothes off a wounded soldier, who pretended to be dead. When he was naked, one of the women started to cut off something he had. He jumped up and tried to fight the women. One of them tried to stab him with her knife while he was trying to get away from the other one. Then a third woman came up and stabbed the soldier. [The old man laughed.] He really died that time!
Some of the Lakotas said they found whiskey bottles on the soldiers after the fight.∗∗The soldiers had acted like drunk people.
Troopers carried rations of whiskey in their canteens, but probably lacked enough to get hard-drinking troopers intoxicated.
My cousin Bad Soup [Bad Juice] was stripping the soldier I thought had been the leader and held up the buckskin coat. He looked in the pockets of the coat and brought out some papers with pictures on them [maps]. In one of the pockets he found coils of long yellow hair. But the dead leader had his hair cut short.
“ Onhey! ” Bad Soup cried. “That man there was Long Hair Custer. He thought he was the greatest man on earth, but he lies there now. And he cut his hair so he would not be scalped!”
He was the leader who had tried to kill me. But I had killed him…
The old man looked both relieved and vaguely troubled. After several moments he said: “I never told this to anyone before. I was afraid the white men would hang me or lock me up for a long time, if they knew I had killed Long Hair. Hecetuyelo . So be it.”∗∗∗
White Bull apparently told the late Stanley Vestal much the same story. See Vestal’s article, “The Man Who Killed G’fcster,” in AMERICAN HERITAGE, February, 1957.
In the Custer fight alone White Bull had counted seven coups, killed two soldiers in hand-to-hand fighting, and captured two guns and twelve horses. Before leaving the field, he took two pairs of trousers from dead troopers, which he later presented to his father. All told, it was an enviable record of reckless courage—probably unexceeded by any other Sioux or Cheyenne warrior at the Little Bighorn.
White Bull and other leaders decided not to follow Sitting Bull and other Sioux into “Grandmother’s Land” (Canada, ruled, of course, by Victoria, R.L). Instead, the Miniconjou surrendered to white military authorities and became “agency Indians” at Cheyenne River.
His last big adventure occurred in his fifty-seventh year, when, almost single-handedly, he “captured” several hundred White River Utes who had jumped reservation in Utah and were crossing Wyoming to reach the Sioux country in South Dakota. Only an Indian leader of White Bull’s reputation could have dissuaded these Utes from making considerable trouble, and, as it turned out, they meekly submitted to his authority. He eventually led them to his home reservation, where they stayed about a year before the government returned them to Utah. In the meantime White Bull married one of their women, a marriage that lasted as long as the Utes’ temporary exile. (He had fifteen wives in all.)
White Bull died in 1947, aged ninety-seven. I like to think he’d be pleased to know how dearly I treasure his old war bonnet.
I first heard of Dewey Beard in 1935 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Assured that he had participated in the fight against Custer, I also learned that he had taken part in other Indian-white conflicts, including the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890—climax of the Ghost Dance activities.
Tracking down Beard—better known locally by his Sioux name Wasu Maca , meaning “Iron Hail” led me first to his isolated one-room log house in the Potato Creek district, many miles northeast of the agency. The place was deserted. His Indian neighbors told me the old man and his aging wife, Alice, spent the summer months in the nearby South Dakota Bad Lands. I found the couple camped in a canvas tepee near a craggy defile called Cedar Pass. This out-of-the-way location, I soon discovered, had more than casual meaning for Beard. Following an old Indian trail through this pass, hundreds of Ghost Dancers from the Cheyenne River country to the north had fled south to their rendezvous with destiny at Wounded Knee. Beard had been one of them and had narrowly missed sharing their fate.
Dressed in yellowish buckskins and wearing an erminetrimmed war bonnet, Dewey Beard was an imposing figure. At seventy-eight that first meeting, he stood tall and lodgepole straight, his proud head held high, his jutting jaw housing a full set of his own teeth, which remained white and even until his dying day. He wore his long black hair in two loose hanks. In the thirties and forties many old-time Sioux continued to favor long hair as a means of gaining or retaining spiritual power, but Beard had a special and rather surprising reason for wearing long hair.
“I let my hair grow this way,” he explained solemnly in Sioux, for he spoke no English, “because our Saviour, Jesus Christ, is always pictured with long hair.”
The old man’s regal appearance was an immediate challenge for my pencils, pastels, and paints. The sketch I made of him that evening at Cedar Pass was the first of many portraits I painted of Beard. Sometimes I portrayed him in full regalia. More often, though, I depicted him as I later usually saw him in drab, cast-off garments given to him by well-meaning missionaries. Even dressed as a grotesque old scarecrow, he never failed to convey a majestic sense of nobility that set him apart from his own tribesmen. My sketch completed, we talked late into the night. I asked him if he remembered the day Long Hair Custer fell.
“Yes, I remember well,” he said, a glint of excitement in his old dark eyes. “None of us who were there could forget. I was almost eighteen that summer. Never before or since that time did my people gather in such great numbers. Our camp on the Greasy Grass [Little Bighorn] stretched four miles along the river--six great camp circles, each a half mile across, with thousands of Lakota fighting men and their families.”
“How many thousands?” I wanted to know. “Can you say?”
Beard signed No with a wave of a bony brown hand. He grinned, adding:
In that long-ago time none of my people knew more than a thousand numbers. VVe believed no honest man needed to know more than that many. There was my own tribe, the Miniconjou. There were our cousins, the Hunkpapa, the Sans Arc, the Two Kettles, the Sihasapa [Blackfoot Sioux], the Br’fblé, and the Oglala—all our Seven Council Fires. There were many of our eastern relatives, too—the Yankton and the Santee. And our kinsmen from the north were there—the Yanktonai and the Assiniboin. Our friends and allies the Cheyenne were there in force, and with them were smaller bands of Arapaho and Gros Ventre. It was a great village and we had great leaders.
He paused, lending emphasis to what for him was talk of giants.
Hump, Fast Bull, and High Backbone led my tribe. Crazy Horse headed the Oglala. lnkpaduta [Scarlet Tip] led the Santee. Lame White Man and Ice Bear led the Cheyenne. But the greatest leader of all was the chief of the Hunkpapa—Sitting Bull. As long as we were all camped together, we looked on him as head chief. We all rallied around him because he stood for our old way of life and the freedom we had always known. We were not there to make war, but, if need be, we were ready to fight for our sacred rights. Since the white man’s government had promised our leaders that we could wander and hunt in our old territory as long as the grass should grow, we did not believe the white soldiers had any business in our hunting grounds. Vet they came to attack us anyway.
I slept late the morning of the fight. The day before, I had been hunting buffalo and I had to ride far to find the herds because there were so many people in the valley. I came back with meat, but I was very tired. So when I got up, the camp women were already starting out to dig for wild turnips. Two of my uncles had left early for another buffalo hunt. Only my grandmother and a third uncle were in the tepee, and the sun was high overhead and hot. I walked to the river to take a cool swim, then got hungry and returned to the tepee at dinner time I noon I.
“When you finish eating,” my uncle said, “go to our horses. Something might happen today. I feel it in the air.”
I hurried to Muskrat Creek and joined my younger brother, who was herding the family horses. By the time I reached the herd, I heard shouting in the village. People were yelling that white soldiers were riding toward the camp.
I climbed Black Butte for a look around the country. I saw a long column of soldiers coming and a large party of Hunkpapa warriors, led by Sitting Bull’s nephew, One Bull, riding out to meet them. I could see One Bull’s hand raised in the peaee sign to show the soldiers that our leaders only wanted to talk them into going away and leaving us alone. But all at once the soldiers spread out for attack and began to fire, and the light was on. I caught my favorite war pony, a small buckskin mustang I called Sunkmvakan Zi Chischila [Little Yellow Horse] and raced him back to camp to get ready for battle.
I had no time to paint Zi Chischila properly for making war, just a minute or so to braid his tail and to daub a few white hail spots of paint on my own forehead for protection before I galloped out on the little buckskin to help defend the camp. I met four other Lakotas riding fast. Three were veteran fighters, armed with rifles; the other was young like me and carried a bow and arrows as I did. One of the veterans went down. I saw my chance to act bravely and filled the gap. We all turned when we heard shooting at the far side of the village nearest the Miniconjou camp circle and rode fast to meet this new danger. I could see swirls of dust and hear shooting on the hills and bluffs across the river. Hundreds of other warriors joined us as we splashed across the ford near our camp and raced up the hills to charge into the thickest of the fighting.
This new battle was a turmoil of dust and warriors and soldiers, with bullets whining and arrows hissing all around. Sometimes a bugle would sound and the shooting would get louder. Some of the soldiers were firing pistols at close range. Our knives and war clubs flashed in the sun. I could hear bullets whiz past my ears. But I kept going and shouting, “It’s a good day to die!” so that everyone who heard would know I was not afraid of being killed in battle.
Then a Lakota named Spotted Rabbit rode unarmed among us, calling out a challenge to all the warriors to join him. He shouted, “Let’s take their leader alive!” I had no thought of what we would do with this leader once we caught him; it was a daring feat that required more courage and much more skill than killing him. I dug my heels into my pony’s flanks to urge him on faster to take part in the capture.
A tall white man in buckskins kept shouting; at the soldiers and looked to be their leader. Following Spotted Rabbit, I charged toward this leader in buckskins. VVc were almost on top of him when Spotted Rabbit’s pony was shot from under him. Zi Chischila shied to one side, and it was too late. A Miniconjou named Charging Hawk rushed in and shot the leader at close range. In a little while all the soldiers were dead. The battle was over.
The soldier chief we had tried to capture lay on the ground with the reins of his horse’s bridle tied to his wrist. It was a fine animal, a blaze-faced sorrel with four white stockings. A Santee named Walks-Under-the-Ground took that horse.∗ Then he told everyone that the leader lying there dead was Long Hair; so that was the first I knew who we had been fighting. 1 thought it was a strange name for a soldier chief who had his hair cut short.
‘Sometimes more properly translated as “Sounds-the-Ground-as-HeWalks,” this was a son of lnkpadula .
Our attempt to save Long Hair’s life had failed. But we all felt good about our victory over the soldiers and celebrated with a big scalp dance. But our triumph was hollow. A winter or so later more soldiers came to round us up on reservations. There were too many of them to fight now. VVe were split up into bands and no longer felt strong. At last we were ready for peace and believed we would have no more trouble.
Beard tried to settle down and raise a family with Chief Big Foot’s band of Miniconjous on the Cheyenne River. The old life was nearly over. White hide-hunters almost finished off the buffalo herds in the i88o’s. Attempting to follow the white man’s road, the Sioux did not take kindly to reservation life. Times were hard, and government beef rations were far from sufficient to sustain the Indians.
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.
I knew him well in his winter years. During a visit in the early fifties, I asked him if he had indeed been able to forgive the soldiers who had wounded him and had slain his family.
“I am sorry for all that happened at Wounded Knee,” he said, combing his bony fingers through hair still black and glossy. “But now my heart is full and warm with friendship for the white man.”
Beard proved it when his grown son Tommy, his only living offspring, died of the “white man’s sickness” - tuberculosis. I tried to help him through his heartbreak. Turning briefly from his sorrow, the old fellow named me his son to take his beloved Tommy’s place an honor I gratefully accepted.
When my wife Jan and I were married in Rapid City, South Dakota, in July, 1954, none of our parents, hers or mine, were able to be with us. Filling the gap, Dewey and Alice came forward to shake our hands and wish us well. Beard had a folded cloth under one arm. As he shook it free, I saw it was an old-time courting blanket brilliant red and green with a beaded strip dividing the colors—which I knew Alice had painstakingly made. He silently draped it, first around my shoulder, then Jan’s, encircling us together in the Sioux fashion of marriage. Then, speaking our Sioux names, he told us we were “one, now and always.” With the death of Sitting Bull’s deaf-mute son, John, in May, 1955, Beard became the last survivor —Indian or white—of Ouster’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn. He died the following November, the final, grand old patriarch of the fighting Sioux.