NATIVE AMERICAN LEGENDS
Dull Knife - Northern Cheyenne Chief
By Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)
The life of Dull Knife, the Cheyenne
Chief, is a true hero tale. Simple, child-like yet manful, and devoid of selfish aims, or love of gain, he is a pattern for heroes of any race.
Dull Knife was a chief of the old school. Among all the Indians of the plains, nothing counts save proven worth. A man's caliber is measured by his courage, unselfishness and intelligence. Many writers confuse history with fiction, but in
Indian history their women and old men and even children witness the main events, and not being absorbed in daily papers and magazines, these events are rehearsed over and over with few variations. Though orally preserved, their accounts are therefore accurate. But they have seldom been willing to give reliable information to strangers, especially when asked and paid for.
Racial prejudice naturally enters into the account of a man's life by enemy writers, while one is likely to favor his own race. I am conscious that many readers may think that I have idealized the
Therefore I will confess now that we have too many weak and unprincipled men among us. When I speak of the
Indian hero, I do not forget the mongrel in spirit, false to the ideals of his people. Our trustfulness has been our weakness, and when the vices of civilization were added to our own, we fell heavily.
It is said that Dull Knife as a boy was resourceful and self-reliant. He was only nine years old when his family was separated from the rest of the tribe while on a buffalo hunt. His father was away and his mother busy, and he was playing with his little sister on the banks of a stream, when a large herd of
buffalo swept down upon them on a stampede for water. His mother climbed a tree, but the little boy led his sister into an old beaver house whose entrance was above water, and here they remained in shelter until the
buffalo passed and they were found by their distracted parents.
Dull Knife was quite a youth when his tribe was caught one winter in a region devoid of game, and threatened with starvation. The situation was made worse by heavy storms, but he secured help and led a relief party a hundred and fifty miles, carrying bales of dried
buffalo meat on pack horses.
Another exploit that made him dear to his people occurred in battle, when his brother-in-law was severely wounded and left lying where no one on either side dared to approach him. As soon as Dull Knife heard of it he got on a fresh horse, and made so daring a charge that others joined him; thus under cover of their fire he rescued his brother-in-law, and in so doing was wounded twice.
The Sioux knew him as a man of high type, perhaps not so brilliant as Roman Nose and Two Moon, but surpassing both in honesty and simplicity, as well as in his war record. (Two Moon, in fact, was never a leader of his people, and became distinguished only in wars with the whites during the period of revolt.) A story is told of an ancestor of the same name that illustrates well the spirit of the age.
the custom in those days for the older men to walk ahead of the moving caravan
and decide upon all halts and camping places. One day the councilors came to a
grove of wild cherries covered with ripe fruit, and they stopped at once.
Suddenly a grizzly charged from the thicket. The men yelped and hooted, but the
bear was not to be bluffed. He knocked down the first warrior who dared to face
him and dragged his victim into the bushes.
The whole caravan was in the wildest excitement. Several of the swiftest-footed warriors charged the bear, to bring him out into the open, while the women and dogs made all the noise they could. The bear accepted the challenge, and as he did so, the man whom they had supposed dead came running from the opposite end of the thicket.
The Indians were delighted, and especially so when in the midst of their cheers, the man stopped running for his life and began to sing a Brave Heart song as he approached the grove with his butcher knife in his hand. He would dare his enemy again!
grizzly met him with a tremendous rush, and they went down together. Instantly
the bear began to utter cries of distress, and at the same time the knife
flashed, and he rolled over dead. The warrior was too quick for the animal; he
first bit his sensitive nose to distract his attention, and then used the knife
to stab him to the heart.
Northern Cheyenne Painting
He fought many battles with knives thereafter and claimed that the spirit of the bear gave him success. On one occasion, however, the enemy had a strong
buffalo-hide shield which the Cheyenne
bear fighter could not pierce through, and he was wounded; nevertheless he
managed to dispatch his foe. It was from this incident that he received the name
of Dull Knife, which was handed down to his descendant.
As is well known, the Northern
Cheyenne uncompromisingly supported the Sioux in their desperate defense of the Black Hills and Big Horn country. Why not? It was their last
region -- their subsistence. It was what our wheat fields are to a civilized
the year 1875, a propaganda was started for confining all the Indians upon reservations, where they would be practically
interned or imprisoned, regardless of their possessions and rights.
The men who were the strongest advocates of the scheme generally
wanted the Indians' property -- the one main cause back of all Indian wars. From the warlike Apaches to the peaceful
all the tribes of the plains were hunted from place to place; then the
government resorted to peace negotiations, but always with an army at
hand to coerce. Once disarmed and helpless, they were to be taken
under military guard to the
A few resisted, and declared they
would fight to the death rather than go. Among these were the
nearly all the smaller tribes were deported against their wishes. Of
Indians who came from a mountainous and cold country suffered
severely. The moist heat and malaria decimated the exiles.
Chief Joseph of the
and Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas appealed to the people of the
United States, and finally succeeded in having their bands or the
remnant of them returned to their own part of the country. Dull Knife
was not successful in his plea, and the story of his flight is one of
He was regarded by the
authorities as a dangerous man, and with his depleted band was taken
to the Indian Territory
without his consent in 1876. When he realized that his people were
dying like sheep, he was deeply moved. He called them together. Every
man and woman declared that they would rather die in their own country
than stay there longer, and they resolved to flee to their northern
Here again was displayed the genius of these people.
From the Indian Territory
to Dakota is no short dash for freedom. They knew what they were
facing. Their line of flight lay through a settled country and they
would be closely pursued by the army. No sooner had they started than
the telegraph wires sang one song: "The panther of the
is at large. Not a child or a woman in
Nebraska is safe." Yet they
evaded all the pursuing and intercepting troops and reached their
native soil. The strain was terrible, the hardship great, and
Joseph, was remarkable for
his self-restraint in sparing those who came within his power on the
fate was against him, for there were those looking for blood money who
betrayed him when he thought he was among friends. His people were tired
out and famished when they were surrounded and taken to Fort Robinson [Nebraska].
There the men were put in prison, and their wives guarded in camp. They
were allowed to visit their men on certain days. Many of them had lost
everything; there were but a few who had even one child left. They were
These despairing women appealed to their
husbands to die fighting: their liberty was gone, their homes broken up,
and only slavery and gradual extinction in sight. At last Dull Knife
listened. He said: "I have lived my life. I am ready." The others agreed.
"If our women are willing to die with us, who is there to say no? If we
are to do the deeds of men, it rests with you women to bring us our
they had been allowed to carry moccasins and other things to the men, so
they contrived to take in some guns and knives under this disguise. The
plan was to kill the sentinels and run to the nearest natural trench,
there to make their last stand. The women and children were to join them.
This arrangement was carried out. Not every brave had a gun, but all had
agreed to die together. They fought till their small store of ammunition
was exhausted, then exposed their broad chests for a target, and the
mothers even held up their little ones to be shot. Thus died the fighting
and their dauntless leader.
did not actually die in this last battle, but was able to escape with his
wife, son and daughter-in-law, who made their way to the Sioux Pine Ridge
Agency in South Dakota. Later, he lived on a reservation assigned to the
surviving Cheyenne in the Rosebud Valley. He died in 1883 and was buried
on high ground near his home.
Charles A. Eastman, 1918. Compiled and
of America, updated October, 2016.
About the Author: Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and
Great Chieftains, by Charles A. Eastman, 1918. The text as it appears here; however, is not
verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.
Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree
from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890, and then began working
for the Office of
Affairs later that year. He worked at the Pine Ridge Agency,
and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the
Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890. Himself part-Sioux,
he knew many of the people about whom he wrote.
Cheyenne Prisoners from
Band, 1878, photo courtesy
State Historical Society.
The Dull Knife Battlefield, north of Barnum, Wyoming was listed on the
National Register of Historic Places on August 15, 1979.
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