Little Wolf - Courageous Leader of the
By Charles A. Eastman
If any people ever fought for liberty
and justice, it was the
Cheyenne. If any ever demonstrated their
physical and moral courage beyond cavil, it was this race of purely
American heroes, among whom Little Wolf
was a leader.
I knew the chief personally very well. As a young doctor, I was sent to the Pine Ridge agency in 1890, as
government physician to the Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne. While I heard from his own lips
of that gallant dash of his people from their southern exile to their
northern home, I prefer that Americans should read of it in Doctor George
Bird Grinnell's book, "The Fighting Cheyennes." No account could be clearer or
simpler; and then too, the author cannot be charged with a bias in favor
of his own race.
At the time
that I knew him, Little Wolf was a handsome
man, with the native dignity and gentleness, musical voice, and
pleasant address of so many brave leaders of his people. One day
when he was dining with us at our home on the reservation, I asked
him, as I had a habit of doing, for some reminiscences of his early
life. He was rather reluctant to speak, but a friend who was present
contributed the following:
Perhaps I can
tell you why it is that he has been a lucky man all his life. When quite a small boy, the tribe was one winter in want of food, and
his good mother had saved a small piece of
buffalo meat, which she
solemnly brought forth and placed before him with the remark: "My son
must be patient, for when he grows up he will know even harder times
"He had eaten nothing
all day and was pretty hungry, but before he could lay hands on the
meat a starving dog snatched it and bolted from the teepee. The
mother ran after the dog and brought him back for punishment. She tied him to a post and was about to whip him when the boy
interfered. "Don't hurt him, mother!" he cried; "he took the
meat because he was hungrier than I am!'"
I was told of
another kind act of his under trying circumstances. While still
a youth, he was caught out with a party of buffalo hunters in a blinding
blizzard. They were compelled to lie down side by side in the
snowdrifts, and it was a day and a night before they could get out.
The weather turned very cold, and when the men arose they were in
danger of freezing. Little Wolf pressed his fine buffalo robe upon an old man
who was shaking with a chill and himself took the other's thin
As a full-grown young
man, he was attracted by a maiden of his tribe, and according to the
custom then in vogue the pair disappeared. When they returned to
the camp as man and wife, behold! there was great excitement over the
affair. It seemed that a certain chief had given many presents
and paid unmistakable court to the maid with the intention of marrying
her, and her parents had accepted the presents, which meant consent so
far as they were concerned. But the girl herself had not given
The resentment of the disappointed
suitor was great. It was reported in the village that he had
openly declared that the young man who defied and insulted him must
expect to be punished. As soon as Little Wolf heard of the
threats, he told his father and friends that he had done only what it
is every man's privilege to do.
"Tell the chief," said
he, "to come out with any weapon he pleases, and I will meet him within
the circle of lodges. He shall either do this or eat his words. The woman is not his. Her people accepted his gifts against her
wishes. Her heart is mine." The chief apologized, and thus
avoided the inevitable duel, which would have been a fight to the death.
The early life of Little Wolf offered many examples
of the dashing bravery characteristic of the Cheyenne, and inspired the younger men to win
laurels for themselves. He was still a young man, perhaps
thirty-five, when the most trying crisis in the history of his people came
upon them. As I know and as Doctor Grinnell's book amply
corroborates, he was the general who largely guided and defended them in
that tragic flight from the
to their northern home. I will not discuss the justice of their
cause: I prefer to quote Doctor Grinnell, lest it appear that I am in any
way exaggerating the facts.
"They had come," he
writes, "from the high, dry country of
to the hot and humid Indian Territory.
They had come from a country where
buffalo and other game were still
plentiful to a land where the game had been exterminated. Immediately on
their arrival they were attacked by fever and ague, a disease wholly new
to them. Food was scanty, and they began to starve. The agent
testified before a committee of the Senate that he never received supplies
to subsist the
for more than nine months in each year. These people were
meat-eaters, but the beef furnished them by the government inspectors was
no more than skin and bone. The agent in describing their sufferings
said: 'They have lived and that is about all.”
endured this for about a year, and then their patience gave out. They left the agency to which they had been sent and started north. Though troops were camped close to them, they attempted no concealment of
their purpose. Instead, they openly announced that they intended to
return to their own country.
We have heard much in
past years of the march of the
Chief Joseph, but little is
remembered of the
Dull Knife outbreak and the march
to the north led by Little Wolf. The story of
the journey has not been told, but in the traditions of the old army this
campaign was notable, and old men who were stationed on the plains forty
years ago are apt to tell you, if you ask them, that there never was such
another journey since the Greeks marched to the sea.
"The fugitives pressed constantly northward undaunted, while orders were
flying over the wires, and special trains were carrying men and horses to
cut them off at all probable points on the different railway lines they
must cross. Of the three hundred Indians,
sixty or seventy were fighting men -- the rest old men, women, and
children. An army officer once told me that thirteen thousand troops
were hurrying over the country to capture or kill these few poor people
who had left the fever-stricken South, and in the face of every obstacle
were steadily marching northward.
"The War Department set all its resources in operation against them, yet
they kept on. If troops attacked them, they stopped and fought until
they had driven off the soldiers, and then started north again. Sometimes they did not even stop, but marched along, fighting as they
marched. For the most part they tried -- and with success -- to
avoid conflicts, and had but four real hard fights, in which they lost
half a dozen men killed and about as many wounded."
It must not be
overlooked that the appeal to justice had first been tried before
taking this desperate step.
Little Wolfhad gone to the agent about the middle of the summer and said
to him: "This is not a good country for us, and we wish to return to
our home in the mountains where we were always well. If you have
not the power to give permission, let some of us go to Washington and
tell them there how it is, or do you write to Washington and get
permission for us to go back."
and Little Wolf. This image available for
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"Stay one more year,"
replied the agent, "and then we will see what we can do for you. "No," said
Little Wolf. "Before another year there will be none left to travel
north. We must go now."
Soon after this it
was found that three of the Indians had disappeared and the chief was ordered to surrender ten
men as hostages for their return. He refused. "Three men,"
said he, "who are traveling over wild country can hide so that they
cannot be found. You would never get back these three, and you
would keep my men prisoners always."
The agent then
threatened if the ten men were not given up to withhold their rations
and starve the entire tribe into submission. He forgot that he was
addressing a Cheyenne. These people
had not understood that they were prisoners when they agreed to
relations with the
government and came upon the reservation. Little
Wolf stood up and shook hands with all present before making his
final deliberate address.
"Listen, my friends,
I am a friend of the white people and have been so for a long time. I do not want to see blood spilt about this agency. I am going
north to my own country. If you are going to send your soldiers
after me, I wish you would let us get a little distance away. Then if you want to fight, I will fight you, and we can make the
ground bloody at that place."
Cheyenne was not bluffing. He said just what he meant, and I presume the agent took the hint, for
although the military were there they did not undertake to prevent the
Indians' departure. Next morning the teepees were pulled
down early and quickly. Toward evening of the second day, the scouts
signaled the approach of troops.
Little Wolf called his men together and advised them under no
circumstances to fire until fired upon.
Arapaho scout was
sent to them with a message. "If you surrender now, you will get
your rations and be well treated." After what they had endured,
it was impossible not to hear such a promise with contempt. Said
Little Wolf: "We are going back to our own country."
We do not want to
fight." He was riding still nearer when the soldiers fired, and at a
Cheyenne made a charge. They succeeded in
holding off the troops for two days, with only five men wounded and none
killed, and when the military retreated the Indians
continued northward carrying their wounded.
This sort of thing
was repeated again and again. Meanwhile
Little Wolf held his men under perfect control. There were practically no
depredations. They secured some boxes of ammunition left behind by
retreating troops, and at one point the young men were eager to follow and
destroy an entire command that were apparently at their mercy, but their
leader withheld them. They had now reached the
buffalo country, and he always
kept his main object in sight. He was extraordinarily calm. Doctor Grinnell was told by one of his men years afterward: "Little
Wolf did not seem like a human being. He seemed like a bear." It is true that a man of his type in a crisis becomes spiritually
transformed and moves as one in a dream.
At the Running Water the band divided, Dull Knife going toward Red Cloud
agency. He was near Fort Robinson when he surrendered and met his
sad fate. Little Wolf remained all winter in the Sand Hills, where there was plenty of
game and no white men. Later he went to Montana and then to Pine Ridge, where he and his
people remained in peace until they were removed to Lame Deer,
Montana, and there he spent the remainder of his
days. There is a clear sky beyond the clouds of racial prejudice,
and in that final Court of Honor a noble soul like that of
has a place.
Charles A. Eastman, 1918.
of America, updated April, 2017.
About the Author:
Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, by
Charles A. Eastman, 1918. (now in the public domain)
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.
held prisoners in County Jail in
Dodge City, Kansas in 1878. They were captured as
they were trying to return to the
Black Hills from
Warriors of the Great Plains
Proverbs & Wisdom
Myths & Tales of Native Americans