American Horse - A Shrewd Sioux Chief
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By Charles A. Eastman
of the wittiest and shrewdest of the
American Horse, who succeeded to the name and position of an uncle,
killed in the battle of Slim Buttes in 1876. The younger
American Horse was born a little before the encroachments of the whites upon
country became serious and their methods aggressive, and his early manhood
brought him into that most trying and critical period of our history. He
had been tutored by his uncle, since his own father was killed in battle
while he was still very young. The
American Horse band was closely attached to a trading post, and its members in
consequence were inclined to be friendly with the whites, a policy closely
adhered to by their leader.
When he was born, his old grandfather said: "Put him out in the sun! Let
him ask his great-grandfather, the Sun, for the warm blood of a warrior!"
And he had warm blood. He was a genial man, liking notoriety and
excitement. He always seized an opportunity to leap into the center of the
In early life he was
a clownish sort of boy among the boys —an expert mimic and
impersonator. This talent made him popular and in his way a leader. He
was a natural actor, and early showed marked ability as a speaker.
American Horse was about ten
years old when he was attacked by three Crow warriors, while driving a
herd of ponies to water. Here he displayed native cunning and initiative.
It seemed he had scarcely a chance to escape, for the enemy was near. He
yelled frantically at the ponies to start them toward home, while he
dropped off into a thicket of willows and hid there.
image available for photographic prints
A part of the herd was caught in sight of
the camp and there was a counter chase, but the Crows got away with
the ponies. Of course his mother was frantic, believing her boy had
been killed or captured; but after the excitement was over, he
appeared in camp unhurt. When questioned about his escape, he
remarked: "I knew they would not take the time to hunt for small game
when there was so much bigger close by."
When he was quite a
big boy, he joined in a buffalo hunt, and on the way back with the
rest of the hunters his mule became unmanageable.
American Horse had insisted on riding him in addition to a heavy
load of meat and skins, and the animal evidently resented this, for he
suddenly began to run and kick, scattering fresh meat along the road,
to the merriment of the crowd. But the boy turned actor, and made it
appear that it was at his wish the mule had given this diverting
performance. He clung to the back of his plunging and braying mount
like a circus rider, singing a Brave Heart song, and finally brought
up amid the laughter and cheers of his companions. Far from admitting
defeat, he boasted of his horsemanship and declared that his "brother"
the donkey would put any enemy to flight, and that they should be
called upon to lead a charge.
It was several years later that he went to
sleep early one night and slept soundly, having been scouting for two
nights previous. It happened that there was a raid by the Crows, and
when he awoke in the midst of the yelling and confusion, he sprang up
and attempted to join in the fighting. Everybody knew his voice in all
the din, so when he fired his gun and announced a coup, as was the
custom, others rushed to the spot, to find that he had shot a hobbled
pony belonging to their own camp. The laugh was on him, and he never
recovered from his chagrin at this mistake. In fact, although he was
undoubtedly fearless and tried hard to distinguish himself in warfare,
he did not succeed.
It is told of him that he
once went with a war party of young men to the Wind River country against
At last they discovered a large camp, but there were only a dozen or so of
therefore they hid themselves and watched for their opportunity to attack
an isolated party of hunters. While waiting thus, they ran short of food.
One day a small party of Shoshone
was seen near at hand, and in the midst of the excitement and
preparations for the attack, young American Horse caught sight of a
fat black-tail deer close by.
Unable to resist the
temptation, he pulled an arrow from his quiver and sent it through the
deer's heart, then with several of his half-starved companions sprang upon
the yet quivering body of the animal to cut out the liver, which was
sometimes eaten raw. One of the men was knocked down, it is said, by the
last kick of the dying buck, but having swallowed a few mouthfuls the
warriors rushed upon and routed their enemies. It is still told of
American Horse how he killed game and feasted between the ambush and the
At another time he was
drying his sacred war bonnet and other gear over a small fire. These
articles were held in great veneration by the
and handled accordingly. Suddenly the fire blazed up, and our hero so far
forgot himself as to begin energetically beating out the flames with the
war bonnet, breaking off one of the sacred buffalo horns in the act. One
could almost fill a book with his mishaps and exploits. I will give one of
them in his own words as well as I can remember them.
"We were as promising a party of young
warriors as our tribe ever sent against any of its ancestral enemies. It
was midsummer, and after going two days' journey from home we began to
send two scouts ahead daily while the main body kept a half day behind.
The scouts set out every evening and traveled all night. One night the
great war pipe was held out to me and to Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses.
At daybreak, having met no one, we hid our horses and climbed to the top
of the nearest butte to take an observation. It was a very hot day. We lay
flat on our blankets, facing the west where the cliff fell off in a sheer
descent, and with our backs toward the more gradual slope dotted with
scrub pines and cedars. We stuck some tall grass on our heads and
proceeded to study the landscape spread before us for any sign of man.
photo by Heyn, 1899.
image available for photographic prints
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