Season of Dishonor

(Part One)

By now, the evidence is in. The New Millennium is here, and (thank God) all the babble about Y2K can be relegated to the same trash bin as all ''The End is Here'' prophesies of doom.

But the preparations that some people went through ''just in case,'' buying generators, kerosene heaters, bottled water and canned foods, brought to mind a New Year's tragedy that did come to pass, and there were no kits available for those who had to go through it.

Our story begins in 1877. The defeat of Custer had heated up the miliary determination to put an end to what was called ''the Indian problem.'' Reinforcements poured into the Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming territories, with the singular objective of corralling all the remaining Sioux and Cheyenne into the newly established reservation system. It didn't matter if the tribes in question had participated in the Little Big Horn or not. The reservation system was a ''one size fits all'' solution to the settlement of the land by the whites. And so,in the spring of 1877, a band of Cheyenne, numbering about 900, came to Ft. Robinson, Nebr., to surrender.

Three reasons contributed to their decision to surrender: First, they lived by the hunt, and the buffalo were all but gone. Second, Plains Indians knew they could not survive the white man's way of making war for long. An endless running battle, especially where one side has to take care of its women, children, and elderly, gives a decided advantage to the professional soldier. And third, suffering from hunger, with rags for clothes, and with even the horses emaciated, the promise of food, provisions, peace, and a home with their relatives and allies, the Sioux, looked better for the future of their people.

Dull Knife and Lone Wolf, two elderly and respected chiefs, led their people to Ft. Robinson in northwest Nebraska to surrender because their children, their old people, and their women could not go on much longer. But soon they found that the promise of the white man (the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868) meant very little. In spite of a treaty promising them a home with the Sioux, word came down from Washington that the Northern Cheyenne were to be shipped to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to be with the Southern Cheyenne. Only after General Crook told them to go down and have a look and, if they didn't like it, return and live at Pine Ridge, did they consent to go.

What they found in Oklahoma was abject poverty, broken promises (''We'll get you more food.''), bad water, and disease. Disease and hunger began taking their toll immediately, and pleas to allow them to return home were met with rejection. Seeing their numbers dwindle and fearing that they would all die and be forgotten, they began making plans to leave, with or without permission. And so, a little over a year after their arrival, on the night of September 9,1878, about 300 of them headed north. In his book, ''The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge,'' Joe Starita describes what they faced: ''Ahead lay more than a thousand miles of open prairie. Cowboys and ranchers, farmers and homesteaders. Two railroads, a dozen forts and thousands of soldiers. Along the way, there would be no mountains to hide in, little wild game, few weapons and not enough horses. Some would have to walk and some were afraid.'' Of the 300 that left, about 60 were warriors, 30 were old men and boys, and the rest were women and children.

What happened over the next several weeks is a testimony to the courage of a people fueled by the certainty of having nothing to lose. They fought and won four major battles, traveled 500 miles in five weeks, lost food, possessions, and much of the pony herd. Ammunition was scarce. And winter came early. Starita writes that ''Chief Dull Knife saw his weary people and he wanted to turn off course now, take them to Red Cloud and his Lakota camp near the fort on the White River. The Lakota, their relatives, would help them, he said, and the soldiers would treat them fairly, would let them stay in the north with the Red Cloud Sioux.''

Little Wolf did not agree. He was all for continuing north to the Powder River and Big Horn Mountains of Montana. And so they split up, 149 going will Dull knife. Most of these were women, children, and old people. At the end of October they were met in a blinding snowstorm by some troops from Ft. Robinson, who took them there and set them up in one of the barracks. They were given food, medical attention, and their Sioux relatives brought them clothing.

On Christmas Eve, word came from Washington that they were to be returned immediately to Indian Territory. General Crook wrote his superiors: ''At this time, the thermometer at Ft. Robinson showed a range of from zero down to nearly 40 below. The captives were without adequate clothing, and no provisions had been made to supply itŠ''

On January 3, 1879, the post commander summoned Dull Knife and four sub-chiefs to his office to give them the bad news. They were to be taken to the reservation in the south as soon as possible. Dull Knife spoke for all of his people when he said, ''I am here on my own ground, and I will never go back. You may kill me here, but you cannot make me go back.''

Imagine now, if you will, your worst possible inconvenience if the prophets of Y2K doom had been right. It will pale in comparison to what a small band of Cheyenne actually went through in January of 1879.

(Part Two)

For two days, the post commander at Ft. Robinson, Capt. Wessells, told his Cheyenne prisoners that he had no choice but to ship them back south to Indian Territory. For two days, Dull Knee and his sub-chiefs told him they would not go. It was there that their children had died, their old people had suffered and died. It was there that starvation would kill them, too, if disease didn't kill them first.

Under pressure from his superiors, Wessells withheld food and heat for two days. Beginning January 5,1879. on January 7, he withheld water. In "The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge," Joe Starita descrIbes what must have been a heart­rending sight: "Soldiers guarding the barracks sometimes saw the windows crack open, saw the Indian hands scooping snow from the ledges so the children could have some water. Still, no one surrendered. They had decided they would not be starved into returning to a place they had left because they were starving."

On the morning of January 9, Wessells invited the leaders to his office. Three sub­chiefs went, but Dull Knife refused. Wessells had the three men put in irons and taken to the cavalry post about a mile away. He reasoned that without leaders, the people would weaken. In the afternoon, the wives of the three sub­chiefs and their families were ordered out to join the sub­chiefs. That left 130 in the barracks, and they were angry and frightened for their lives. They expected to be shot.

The warriors covered the windows with blankets and made preparations to fight for their lives. When they were brought to the fort, they had not surrendered all their guns. They had disassembled five rifles and eleven pistols, hiding them as trinkets in the women's clothing. The larger pieces were hidden under the wooden floorboards of the barracks. These were now retrieved and reassembled. Floorboards were crafted into clubs. They did not want to be killed by being trapped in the barracks, so they determined that they would die fighting on the prairie.

Just before 10:00pm, glass in the windows was broken, shots were fired, and the Cheyenne poured out of the barracks, running for the hills beyond the fort. The warriors stopped only long enough to gather weapons and ammunition from the fallen soldiers. Women and children and the old ones led the flight, while selected warriors formed a line of defense between them and the soldiers racing to stop their escape.

Now, in the warmth of your home and with your last meal still digesting in your stomach (with another meal soon to follow), imagine the plight of 130 women and children, some of whom were mothers with babies on their backs, some elderly, some wounded from previous battles, and a handful of brave warriors, running for their lives into the night. Snow is on the ground. The temperature is below zero. They have been without food for five days, without water for two, and they are weak. One old man killed his wife and himself when she fell to the ground, wounded. Within minutes of the first shots, half of the warriors fighting a delaying action were dead.

For about two weeks, a group of 32 Cheyenne managed to wear out several companies of troops, who would then go back to the fort for fresh food and clothing. Finally, supply trains arrived and fresh troops were sent into the field. They finally located the Cheyenne about 45 miles north of the fort. When the Cheyenne spotted the bluecoats, they hid in an old buffalo wallow about six feet deep. Four companies of cavalry surrounded them and bombarded them at point-blank range for about 30 minutes. As the soldiers then approached the washout, three warriors charged at them with knives and an empty pistol. They were killed immediately. Only eight women and children had survived, their bodies protected by the men on top of them.

January 23,1879, the shooting stopped. Of the 64 dead, 39 were men, 25 were women or children. Of the 78 prisoners back at the fort, many were wounded, some severely.

Seven were still missing, including Dull Knife and some of his family. On the first night, they turned away from the path most of the others were taking, and they found a cave where they holed up for ten days. Then, traveling only at night, they made their way eastward, ever careful not to leave tracks. They had to eat the rawhide from the soles of their moccasins to get them through the last few months. After 18 nights, they straggled into the Red Cloud Agency (Pine Ridge), where the people wept when they saw them.

At that time, Dull knife was close to 70 years old and so sickly that some did not recognize him. Throughout the winter and spring, he had to be hidden amongst the Sioux because the soldiers were still looking for him.

Meanwhile, what happened to Little Wolf and the other half of the tribe after they had gone their separate ways? They found their way to the Lost Chokecherry Valley in the Nebraska sandhills and camped there until the worst of winter had passed. Then they made their way to the head of the Powder River, their old homeland. At the end of March, 1879, having made their way through 1,000 miles of hostile territory, they got home, only to be met by soldiers who asked them to surrender. They did, but were granted permission to stay, which was what they had wanted all along.

Later that year, Dull Knife was given permission to join his friend, Little Wolf, and the surviving Cheyenne, in Montana. He died there in 1883.

Finally, after all the pain, hunger, disease, and loss of life, the government made it official. In 1904, they set aside a tract of land in Montana as a permanent home for the Northern Cheyenne.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 17, 2000

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