The Cheyenne resistance

Brian Ward brings to life the story of one tribe's resistance to the federal government's campaign to drive them from their ancestral lands in the late 19th century.

All we ask is to be allowed to live, and live in peace...We bowed to the will of the Great Father and went south. There we found a Cheyenne cannot live. So we came home. Better it was, we thought, to die fighting than to perish of sickness...You may kill me here; but you cannot make me go back. We will not go. The only way to get us there is to come here with clubs and knock us on the head, and drag us out and take us down there dead.
--Dull Knife, Northern Cheyenne leader

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TODAY, THE Northern Cheyenne live on a 444,000-acre reservation in the Tongue River Valley in southeast Montana. The tribe has nearly 5,000 enrolled members. However placid this may appear on the surface, resistance is at the very foundation of the Northern Cheyenne's story.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the Northern Cheyenne, the Lakota and the Northern Arapaho united against the federal government's efforts to steal their territory (as defined by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty and 1868 Fort Larmine Treaty). Known as the Great Sioux Wars, Lakota leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull as well as Cheyenne leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife led the fight against Gen. George Custer and his Seventh U.S. Cavalry.

During the Battle of Little Big Horn, which was the high point of the war, thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated the Seventh Cavalry and killed Custer. This was a huge win for Native Americans and their fight for freedom from the "Long Knives" (as the soldiers were known by some tribes).

On November 26, 1876, Col. Ranald Mackenzie attacked Dull Knife's winter camp in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and forced his surrender, thus ending the Cheyenne's participation in the Sioux Wars.

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ACCORDING TO the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which the Cheyenne signed, the Northern Cheyenne "committed them to live either on the Sioux Reservation or on a reservation set apart for the Southern Cheyenne." The Southern Cheyenne at this point lived at the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Cheyenne assumed that they would be forced onto reservations set up in South Dakota for the Lakota. Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne, said:

All of us wanted to stay in this country near the Black Hills. But we had one big chief, Standing Elk, who kept saying it would be better if we should go there [Indian Territory]. I think there were not as many as 10 Cheyennes in our whole tribe who agreed with him. There was a feeling that he was talking this way to make himself a big Indian among the white people.

Lt. William P. Clark assured Little Wolf that if they did not like Indian Territory, they would be permitted back north to their home after a year. Of course, the U.S. government never intended on keeping this promise.

In 1877, 972 Cheyenne and Arapaho embarked on the 1,500-mile trek to the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory after they were forced to leave. Only 937 completed the journey. Conditions on the reservation were horrible. In the summer of 1878, about 2,000 of the 5,004 Cheyenne and Arapahos were sick. The culprit was the change in climate and a shortage of food rations promised to them. The Northern Cheyenne resisted being farmers and assimilating to the white man's way of life--and were punished for doing so.

The Cheyenne were "authorized" to hunt for game in the winter of 1877-78, but the buffalo, the livelihood of the Cheyenne, were all but extinct in the lower plains, forcing the Indians to eat some of their horses to survive the winter. Iron Teeth, a Northern Cheyenne, described the experience:

When we were not sick, we were hungry. Much of the time, we had not any food. Our men asked for their guns...so they could kill game...Sometimes, a few of them would take their bows and arrows and slip away to get...meat...The bows and arrows were used at times for killing cattle belonging to white men. Any time it happened, the whole tribe was punished. The punishment would be the giving of less food to us, and we were kept still closer to the agency. We had a great many deaths from both the fever sickness and starvation.

In August 1878, Dull Knife and Little Wolf started preparing their people for their trip home. But as their departure drew near, tensions rose between the federal government and the Indians. On September 9, 1878, Little Wolf had a frank conversation with John D. Miles, the federal agent at the Darlington Agency, telling him:

My friends, I am now going to my camp. I do not wish the ground about his agency to be made bloody, but listen to what I say to you. I am going to leave here; I am going north to my own country. I do not wish to see blood spilt about this agency. If you are going to send your soldiers after me, I wish that you would first let me get a little distance away from this agency. Then if you want to fight, I will fight you, and we can make the ground bloody at that place.

Little Wolf, Dull Knife and their followers, numbering 353 in total, left later that evening. Their number totaled 353, only a third of those who had made the trip to Indian Territory a year earlier. The number included 92 men, 120 women, 69 boys and 72 girls and no more than 60 or 70 experienced warriors. They were on a trek that was either going to kill them or get them to home--there were no other options in their minds.

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CAPT. JOSEPH Rendlebrock of the Fourth Cavalry was in charge of the pursuit. "In all, about 250 soldiers had been put in the field by the Department of the Missouri by September 12. By the end of the Cheyenne odyssey, that figure would escalate to over 1,000." That's right, more than 1,000 troops to fight against 60 to 70 seasoned warriors. The U.S. government did not want a repeat of the Nez Perce chase that ended a year earlier.

The first test was on September 12 during the Battle at Turkey Springs in Indian Territory near the Kansas border. Little Wolf, who was a brilliant military strategist, said to his warriors:

Let them shoot first. But do you all get your arms and horses, and I will go out and meet the troops and try to talk with them. If they kill any of us, I will be the first man killed. Then you can fight.

The fight lasted for more than 24 hours, and the Northern Cheyenne successfully surrounded Rendlebrock and his Fourth cavalry, leaving them without water and forcing them to retreat. "At Turkey Springs, the U.S. Army lost simply because the Cheyennes won, not by sheer numbers but by virtue of superior tactical leadership," explained historian John Monnett.

In order to survive, the Cheyenne raided settlers' ranches for food and often got in conflicts with the settlers, resulting in the deaths of about 80 settlers along the way. However, Little Wolf and Dull Knife also impressed upon their young warriors that they should avoid killing civilians whenever possible, saying that the fight was with the U.S. Army not the settlers.

Following Turkey Springs, a running battle ensued across Kansas and Nebraska. The Cheyenne followed the old Indian Trail connecting the Northern and Southern Cheyenne. They tried their best to stay on rugged trails so the army would be unable to use wagons. A call was issued to all cavalrymen and infantrymen in the area to come by horse, train and foot.

In the first days of October, the Cheyenne crossed the Union Pacific Railroad and headed toward the sand hills of Nebraska. At this point the weather had begun to get much colder, and the Cheyenne constantly faced a shortage of food and clothing.

When 34 Cheyenne went missing, a divide became apparent in the camp. Desperate for food and shelter, Dull Knife argued that they should go to the Red Cloud Agency in northern Nebraska for the winter (but unknown to Dull Knife, the agency had moved to Pine Ridge, S.D.). Many times before the Cheyenne had helped Red Cloud and the Lakota in battle, and it seemed like a good moment to ask for hospitality. Little Wolf, on the other hand, couldn't stand this talk and said he was determined to make it to the Tongue River Valley.

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THE TWO leaders decided to allow each member of the group to choose whom to follow--either Dull Knife bound for the Red Cloud Agency or Little Wolf headed north to the Tongue River Valley. When they parted ways, 150 left with Dull Knife, and 134 continued home with Little Wolf.

On October 23, Dull Knife and his band were just two days away from Fort Robinson, Neb. Only a couple months earlier, Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota warrior, was imprisoned and killed there. When a blizzard caught them on the open plain, the Third Cavalry surrounded them and took them to Fort Robinson where they were imprisoned. Knowing that they would be disarmed upon capture, the band disassembled many of their guns and hid them in their clothing.

Dull Knife was in negotiations with the soldiers in hopes of being permitted to continue to the Red Cloud Agency in Pine Ridge. The cavalry said they needed to get approval from Washington. When the word arrived on January 3, 1879, Washington said that they must return south to Indian Territory. "Unless they are sent back to where they came from," said Gen. Sheridan of the War Department, "the whole reservation system will receive a shock which will endanger its stability."

Dull Knife's band continued to refuse to go back south. At 9:45 pm on the night of January 8, 1879, the Cheyenne assembled their guns and made a run for it. The warrior Bull Bear, who was reportedly seven feet tall, led the break out. By morning, 65 Cheyenne, 23 of them wounded, were taken back to Fort Robinson as prisoners. Only 38 Cheyenne, including Dull Knife, made it out alive, and they were now being pursued by the cavalry. Only nine made it to Pine Ridge alive. Later, 58 of the survivors still at Fort Robinson were allowed to also settle in Pine Ridge.

Little Wolf's band spent the winter months around Wild Chokecherry Creek in the sand hills of Nebraska, where they had plenty of game to hunt. For the most part, they were left undisturbed, but in the spring Lt. William P. Clark came looking for Little Wolf, determined to get a surrender.

The band agreed to surrender and was taken to Fort Keogh, Mont. Many then became scouts for the army--and were plied with alcohol. "The Cheyennes drank whiskey from boredom and despair," said Dee Brown. "It made the white traders rich, and it destroyed what was left of the leadership of the tribe. It destroyed Little Wolf."

Later, Dull Knife and the 58 survivors in Pine Ridge were free to join Little Wolf at Fort Keogh. In 1883, 360 Northern Cheyenne still in Indian Territory were permitted to go to Pine Ridge. After months and months of delay, in 1884 the Northern Cheyenne united for the first time in five years on the newly established reservation in the homeland of the Tongue River Valley.

Landon Means, a Northern Cheyenne who was born and raised on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, discusses the impact of this experience on his people today. "When I was young," he said, "my grandfather would say, 'Be proud that you are Northern Cheyenne.'"

Landon went on to say that the landscape has changed as younger people today have lost some of the knowledge of their Odyssey. Phillip White, a Northern Cheyenne, is trying to change that by organizing an annual run along the same route that Dull Knife used to escape from Fort Robinson.

Although the Northern Cheyenne never achieved their dream of living free on the open plains of their homeland, their story of resistance is inspiring. That this small band of Cheyenne outsmarted and outmaneuvered the U.S. military during a 1,500-mile trek under harsh conditions stands as an enduring accomplishment. And though their homeland has changed, they were never forced back to Indian Territory again.