“HERE LIES: OHKOHM HE E KIT, ‘LITTLE WOLF’. DIED OCT. 30, 1904. AS SOLDIER CHIEF IN 1878 HE LED THE ESCAPING CHEYENNES FROM THE SOUTH BACK TO MONTANA. HE AVOIDED THE MANY PURSUING TROOPS AND FOUGHT BUT ONE REAL BATTLE. HE WAS A COMMANDER OF MEN, A GREAT GENERAL”
“HERE LIES: WO HE HIV, ‘MORNING STAR’. CHIEF OF THE NORTHERN CHEYENNES. FAMOUS IN THE EARLY WARS WITH THE WHITES. HE DIED ON THIS RESERVATION IN 1883. HE IS MORE OFTEN KNOWN BY HIS SIOUX NAME: ‘DULL KNIFE’.
So read two of the gravestone markers in a plain and lonely cemetery just off Route 212 in Lame Deer, Montana. The small enclosure is surrounded by a decorative wooden fence, and on many summer days the air is aromatic with the scent of sage and buffalo grass. There are some buildings nearby, but the cemetery is a peaceful place, and sometimes there are bundles of sweet grass and other offerings beside the two graves within the enclosure, placed there by modern-day Northern Cheyenne people. These graves are the final resting places of two Native People who are considered as heroes to their Tribal descendants, and rightly so, for in most respects (even after considering the tensions and issues of that time) they were true heroes, whose courage was then, and still should be, honored.
Sadly, in the long 19th century clashes between American “Manifest Destiny” and our indigenous people’s desire to live their traditional free lives, more often than not it was the Native People who suffered and died, as their historic freedom was slowly and often brutally stripped from them. It is mostly a history, during all those long and tumultuous years of the last half of the 19th century, of the waves of westward expansion of American civilization, and the inexorable semi-extinction of the original native populations known as “American Indians”, but who called themselves by many other appellations. Even today, they remain as mostly “independent” nations, separated from American society on reservations scattered throughout the U.S., mementoes of the wars, the perfidies, the degradations, and the mistreatment perpetrated upon their ancestors by our ancestors. Today they are usually out of our sight, and mostly out of our concerns.
In this present time these Native People either live well and reasonably prosperously on their own independent land established by treaties over the years, or they live as desperate wards of the U.S. government on those lands, too often suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, despair, lack of motivation, high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, and resentment of their historical relations with the majority population who seldom understood (and still don’t) what made these “nativists” tick—what ancient beliefs motivated them for centuries.
We all know, if we’ve studied and learned any U.S. history, that there was a long record of broken promises, broken treaties, shabby treatment, deceptions, lies, and violence between the U.S. military who were allied with the tidal wave of westward expansion of Americans, and the Native People as they struggled to maintain what had been theirs for eons. “Manifest Destiny”, or the American desire to create one nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific, rolled over large groups of Native People who had no conception of nation building as understood by the mostly European heritage Americans who surged westward from the 18th century until the dawn of the 20th.
Most educated Americans know the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in Montana of 1876, when the great Sioux leaders, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall, massacred the arrogant General George Custer and his personal command of 7th Cavalry troopers. Around 210 7th Cavalry troopers were wiped out by an allied force of Northern Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux, and Arapaho warriors. (Chief Dull Knife was a participant in the attack). Custer’s massacre, by his own incompetence and arrogance or not, is a tale for another time. But I would like you to know about two Northern Cheyenne Chiefs who I believe were real heroes, and who determined to resist the injustices being perpetrated against them and their people. Their Anglicized names were “Little Wolf” (ca. 1820-1904) and “Morning Star”, aka “Dull Knife”, (d. 1883).
Following the battle with the 7th Cavalry, the U.S. government intensified its efforts to subdue the plains “Indians”, particularly the Northern Cheyenne and their long time allies, the Lakota Sioux. Firstly, let’s have no false notions regarding today’s politically correct concept of “noble savages” so often perpetuated in modern times by “spinners of false tales”, perpetually offended progressives, and other assorted mental midgets and brain damaged non-thinkers. Native peoples were as noble or ignoble as any other humans on Planet Earth. All native people had many of the faults and sins of people the world over. They warred against each other, they enslaved each other, some practiced cannibalism and human sacrifice, some encouraged misogyny, some were brutal to each other. Some were as noble as any people that ever existed. Basically, Native People were the SAME as societies of humans no matter where they were. Some of them were true examples of the nobility that most humans ascribe to, but seldom attain.
I’ve concluded that the Northern Cheyenne people approached that “nobility” during those centuries before they came into close contact with western, American culture. They lived “communally”, a concept that worked well for them in the harsh environment of the western and northern plains. Their Chiefs were expected to care for all of their people and assure that their needs were met, and were discouraged from any form of self-aggrandizement. A Council of Chiefs kept the peace among scattered groups of their people. For centuries they lived successfully and prospered, as they changed from an agrarian farming existence in what is now Minnesota to a hunting/gathering existence on the plains, always making the survival of their people their “prime directive”. The vast areas of Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana became their domain, shared to an extent with the Lakota People. Then, in the mid-1600’s, they first came in contact with a new group of people—white Europeans—and their world began to change.
NEXT TIME: The U.S. Army intensifies its efforts to subdue the Northern Cheyenne, attacks and overcomes them, and relocates the survivors to the unfamiliar and harsh environment of Oklahoma Territory, causing much suffering, disease, and death. The survivors determine to return to their original tribal lands.