New Podcast Episode: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Life-size images of Sitting Bull, chief and holy man of the Hunkpapa Lakota, and U.S. President Ulysses S Grant, at the Little Bighorn National Monument museum.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Friday, July 21st, 2017

Early morning Friday, I awake to a most spectacular view: the Beartooth Mountains from the top of Beartooth Pass, at about 10,900 feet above sea level. As you may remember, I had to pull off the road to sleep last night since I encountered a road block in the middle of the night between Yellowstone National Park and my next destination, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The Beartooth Pass drive is incredible, a worthy destination in itself. I’m very glad I chose this longer route, I can’t imagine any other northern route would come close to its beauty.

The drive from the pass to the Little Bighorn is a happy and thoughtful one. I have the deep glow of satisfaction from reveling in the spectacular natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and Custer-Gallatin National Forest combined with the physical afterglow which follows vigorous exercise from my fast hike up Mt. Washburn. But during the long drive, I also think a lot about the events which occurred at the site I’m approaching, so I’ve grown a little somber as well… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories

Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Photo: January 2017 by Amy Cools

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my seventh philosophical-historical adventure: an almost three-week road trip through the Great Plains and on to Illinois. I’ll fly from Chicago to Scotland on August 9th: I’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in the history of ideas at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. In the meantime, I’m overjoyed to have this window of time to explore parts of my country which I’ve never seen, and to learn as much as I can along the way…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: The Love of Possession is a Disease With Them

Lakota giveaway ceremony, photo origin unknown

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and which I believe is more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.

Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment itself is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Entering Pine Ridge Reservation via Bombing Range Rd (what a name!) from the Badlands, South Dakota.

Wounded Knee, South Dakota, afternoon and evening of July 25th, 2017

From McLaughlin, Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, I make the 5-hour drive south to my next destination in the Pine Ridge Reservation, just a little ways north of the Nebraska border. My drive takes me through Badlands National Park, though only for a short while. What I see of it is beautiful, and I certainly plan to return.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

My destination is Wounded Knee, named for Wounded Knee Creek and the site of a conflict between the United States army and the band of Chief Spotted Elk, or Big Foot, as the U.S. army dubbed him. This conflict was originally called the Battle of Wounded Knee in United States historical accounts but was generally redesignated the Massacre of Wounded Knee. As sympathy for the plight of defeated Native Americans grew and their side of the story became better known, it became clear that ‘massacre’ was a more fitting term for this affair than ‘battle,’ since the vast majority of those who were shot down here were noncombatants: women, children, infants, and the elderly.

Pine Ridge Reservation as I arrive on a soft summer evening

When I arrive at the large red and white sign at the side of the road which marks the Wounded Knee Massacre site, I park at the little lot in front of it. I look a while at the structures and the lay of the land here for a short. I take some pictures and then begin to read the sign, front and back. I’m not yet finished when a young man approaches me, perhaps fifteen or so. He is lean, about my height, with hair pulled back and hanging long behind. He’s dressed simply in a plain t-shirt and jeans. His skin is a rich reddish-gold tan in the deep peach just-after-sunset light, his cheekbones high. ‘That sign is wrong’, he says. ‘They tell the story wrong.’

‘Hello! And thanks for the warning,’ I reply. ‘Who are ‘they?”

He tells me that the people who agree with the army’s side of things wrote the sign. I interject and tell him, yes, I see where they placed a wood block on each side to cover part of the title, painted with the replacement word is ‘massacre’. But, he explains, they still didn’t really fix most of what’s wrong with it. Big Foot was not really the chief’s name, and …well, the whole thing is wrong. He tells me why. Then he points to the colorfully painted round building across the road.

‘Go to the museum, that’s our museum, where we tell the story’, he directs me. ‘I will,’ I said, ‘That’s where I’m headed next. But I do want to finish reading the whole sign and see what they said about it, and try to find out the real story if I can.’

I return to the back of the sign, read the rest carefully, then approach him again. ‘I know what they say here now, so I’ll go to the museum and read the story there.’ ‘Okay, he says, then hesitates a moment, then holds up some beaded necklaces in different bright colors, each with a circular pendant holder open in the center to display the gemstone or colorful glass bead within. ‘I make these’, he says.

I admire them, and he names the prices. ‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him. ‘I can check to see what I have, but I remember I don’t have much cash on me, not nearly enough to pay you fairly for all this work.’

‘I take contributions’, he says.

I go to the car and check, and it’s true. I only have a few dollars. I take most of this and bring it back to him. ‘Thanks for telling me the story, and I’ll go find out more.’ I cross the road…

Wounded Knee historical sign, front side, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 2017 Amy Cools

Wounded Knee historical sign, front side, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. You can right click on the image, open it in a new tab, then click on that to zoom in for ease of reading

Wounded Knee historical sign, back side

In 1890, the Lakota people were not doing well. They had mostly been driven from their homelands, scattered and confined to reservations in unfamiliar and mostly inhospitable territories. U.S. government-issued rations, supplied by treaty agreement, were scarce, sometimes in punishment for real or perceived infractions, and more often because corrupt and underpaid government agents and dishonest contract suppliers skimmed liberally from the top. So, the Lakota often went hungry.

They were often disarmed too, so they could not always defend their holdings from white raiders or go on raids themselves when hunger or honor demanded it. The dispossessed men could sometimes get special dispensations from the army to get their guns back for hunting but the hunting was poor. The white settlers had also nearly wiped the American buffalo from the face of the earth, in part for their hides which made fashionable hats and other goods, and in part to remove the incentive for Great Plains Indians to want to remain to their traditional hunting grounds. Deer, elk, and other game were getting ever harder to find too, and their lean meat was not as nutritious.

Wounded Knee massacre site. There are few and simple structures here. The site is privately owned, and negotiations to sell it to an organization that is both willing and has the resources to maintain it has been long and contentious. So, its fate as a preserved and protected national historic landmark is still uncertain.

Boredom, disillusionment, depression, and disease were also rampant. The traditional ways of life that gave it meaning were gone and the men, especially, had little to do and little reason to want to do it. Much of the reservation lands were not very good for farming even when some of the Lakota decided to take up this culturally undesirable occupation (it was traditionally acceptable for women but not for men), and bad land apportionment policies caused many Native American-owned ranches to fail. Children who were sent to white schools by their parents, or taken from their parents when they were unwilling, were shorn of their hair, traditionally worn long, and whipped when they dared speak a word of their native language or engage in any traditional ways. The unfamiliar terrain, often assigned as reservations precisely because their poor soil and malarial conditions made them undesirable to white settlers, helped contribute to the depression and disease that regularly wiped out large portions of Native American populations, who were already vulnerable to the diseases introduced by white people to which they had little or no immunity.

Spotted Elk, or Big Foot as he was known to the U.S. army, as a younger man. He was the Minneconjou Lakota chief who died with so many of his people at Wounded Knee in 1890

And when Native Americans of the Great Plains and throughout America, as individuals or groups, dared leave their poor circumstances in the reservations and strike out for a better life for themselves and their families, just as the white settlers had done when heading west, they were branded ‘hostiles’ and hunted down like criminals.

In 1890, the Minneconjou Lakota chief Spotted Elk welcomed two distressed Hunkpapa Lakota men into his camp in the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock. They bore the sad tidings of the killing of his half-brother, Sitting Bull, and some of his followers who adhered to the Ghost Dance movement. About forty more of Sitting Bull’s band were set to flee Standing Rock, fearing they’d be next. White authorities thought that because the Ghost Dance cult believed sacred garments called Ghost Shirts could turn away bullets, this implied that their wearers secretly plotted war against the whites, though the Ghost Dance cult actually, explicitly preached non-violence. Like Sitting Bull, Spotted Elk was initially drawn to the Ghost Dance movement but later rejected its truth and utility, though they both tolerated adherence in the cult by others. After all, it revived a spirit of hope and purpose in its adherents, and it preached peace. But this made both Lakota leaders objects of suspicion by the white authorities, who apparently believed that once a Ghost Dancer, always a Ghost Dancer.

In solidarity and a spirit of brotherly hospitality, Spotted Elk invited the beleaguered and bereft Hunkpapas of the slain Sitting Bull’s band to take shelter with his own. Spotted Elk had become a trusted negotiator by white and Native American authorities by this time. He was an uncle of the great warrior Crazy Horse, Oglala hero of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and an ally of the rebellious tribes in the Great Sioux Wars of the 1870’s, but had remained a peaceful moderate in dealing with white demands for many years since then, settling down and farming on the reservation. By the time of Sitting Bull’s death in the spring of 1890, however, White and Native Americans alike had begun to view the sixty-five-year-old Spotted Elk as, at best, out of touch and somewhat irrelevant, and at worst, a secret Ghost Dance anti-white conspirator.

Wounded Knee massacre site

When white authorities heard that the Ghost Dancing Hunkpapas were with Spotted Elk, they believed their suspicions of impending rebellion were confirmed. They wanted Spotted Elk arrested too, along with the Hunkpapa refugees. But the peaceful Spotted Elk, who didn’t want to betray these men, couldn’t convince the young men of his band to give up the Hunkpapas anyway. When he heard that troops were on their way, Spotted Elk decided it was useless to try to give in to these unreasonable demands and expose himself to unreasonable arrest. He decided to lead his band south to Pine Ridge instead, in answer to a request by Chief Red Cloud to mediate some difficulties there. Before he left, however, he fell terribly ill with pneumonia. He made this trek south with his people carried in a litter, coughing up blood and growing every weaker along the way. It was dead winter, late December, and they struggled through the snow, wind, and bitter cold.

Though the local army authority didn’t believe Spotted Elk and his people were a threat, they were ordered to intercept and detain them. U.S. Army troops caught up with Spotted Elk and his people not far from Wounded Knee Creek, where they proceeded on to camp and arrange for talks. But the talks did not go well. They began with the order from faraway higher-ups to disarm the band. Spotted Elk refused. The band needed to be able to protect themselves out here away from the Pine Ridge agency, and they needed to hunt and provide their families with food in these hard times.

The protracted and repeated bargaining and forced attempts to convince Spotted Elk’s men to give up their weapons became more and more contentious. It was just too humiliating for a man to be forced to give up his most expensive and prized possession, his main tool and weapon with which he could vanquish his enemies, protect his life and those of his people, and provide for his family and friends. Sometimes the Minneconjou would make a show of giving up weapons by turning in their old and broken ones, sometimes the soldiers would simply raid the tents and take the hidden weapons, pushing past the enraged and resisting women as they did so. This whole business of forcibly and unnecessarily disarming the band was not a policy that the local military authorities thought wise or necessary. But the orders came in insistingly, so they obeyed. Francis Craft, the Jesuit priest who lived with the Lakota people and spoke their language, assisted with these sticky negotiations. It’s the map from his papers that I used as an aid in seeking the site of Sitting Bull’s death.

On December 29th, 1890, the Minneconjou men were called out to be thoroughly searched and all their firearms confiscated once and for all. When a rather clueless soldier tried to grab and wrest a gun from the hands of a deaf and perhaps mentally troubled man, a shot went off. It was all over then. The shots kept firing, and the killing began. And went on, and on. Both sides shot some from their own number in the crossfire. And both sides fought at first, but when it became clear that the badly outnumbered Minneconjou were losing, the killing kept going, segueing from combat to simple extermination. Soldiers, in a cold relentless sort of frenzy, began methodically picking off the fleeing Minneconjou one by one, aiming, shooting to kill all those the Hotchkiss guns didn’t get.

“Big Foot, leader of the Sioux, captured at the battle of Wounded Knee, S.D.” Here he lies frozen on the snow-covered battlefield where he died, 1890; this photo is in the National Archives collection at Washington, DC. The title of the photo is misleading in two ways: first, his people called him Spotted Elk, and he only later became known as Big Foot, an insulting nickname for him coined by a U.S. soldier; and second, he was not captured, he approached to the army on his own accord to discuss terms. He had been lying down, but his frozen body was propped up this way by the photographer. Many of the bodies on this sub-zero battlefield were similarly bent, distorted, gesturing in strange ways from rigor mortis combined with freezing

When the firing finally stopped, about two dozen soldiers were killed and about forty wounded. But between 250 and 300 of Spotted Elk’s people were killed, more than two-thirds of them women, children, and other noncombants. Spotted Elk was among them.

I enter the museum, and find myself in an open, roughly circular room. There’s a long folding table with a guestbook, a little cashbox, and some papers. Behind it stands a young woman in a long dark colored dress without sleeves, her long hair loosely pulled back. She’s rather petite, slim, with a round face and flushed cheeks. I greet her. She seems remote, almost out of it, and answers me in a voice so quiet I don’t catch all of what she says. She does indicate that should I look around, so I do. There’s a pair of child’s sparkly blue costume fairy wings in the center of the floor, and a few other toys. I find that the displays mostly consist of text and images painted on the wall and printed on large sheets, some framed, that sit atop more folding tables that line the room. They don’t refer much to the first clash at Wounded Knee, but to the second in the 1970’s, in the midst of the American Indian Movement. That’s a long and important story of its own, too much to get into in this piece. The displays also tell stories of other important moments in the struggle for Native American rights.

Here’s something of some of these stories, as this museum tells them:

American Indian Movement display at Wounded Knee Museum

American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee 1970’s conflict display at Wounded Knee Museum

Much needed addition to the Battle of the Little Bighorn Monument display at Wounded Knee Museum

Display about the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 which recognized that the Sioux, or Lakota, were the rightful owners of the Black Hills, Wounded Knee Museum. This treaty went right out the window, like all the others, once gold was discovered in the Black Hills

I leave the museum and am just about to walk up the hill when two very small children ran up to me. A little girl, perhaps three, hugs my legs, and her wide grin displays her tiny upper teeth. She has wispy pigtails and wears a pink play dress. She evidently wants to play but doesn’t  speak. Her little companion, a ruddy-faced toddler in a blue t-shirt and diaper, chases after her, his tough little feet undeterred by the gravel. Once she hops and then runs away, looking back in invitation for a good chase, he grabs my legs in turn and looks up. His short hair sticks out all around his head. They are impish and adorable. I’ve always particularly liked bold and precocious children. Not bratty, mind you, but outgoing. I greet them and smile, and since the little girl doesn’t answer what I say to her, just continues to invite me to play with gestures and body language, I’m not sure if she understands me. The lady from the museum calls to the children, and after a few moments of stalling, they run inside.

Wounded Knee Massacre Burial Site from Wiki Loves Monuments 2012, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. I approach this rise from the other side, where the Oglala-run museum is. You can click on the photo above to find several more photos of this burial ground at the Find A Grave website. Note the white flag in Robert Schaller’s photo memorializing Spotted Elk’s surrender flag that did nothing to save his life or the lives of his people.

US Attorney General Eric Holder laying a wreath at the site of the Wounded Knee Memorial, photo from the US Department of Justice. The memorial was erected here in 1903.

I continue up the hill to the burial ground, the cemetery gate composed of an unpretentious arch of metal across two pillars of brick painted red and white. It’s surmounted by a simple cross. There are many gravestones and a handsome engraved marble monument that was erected in 1903. I’m about to take my camera out to take pictures for this piece when I see there are other visitors here standing over grave sites, some speaking to each other softly, some silent, two evidently praying. It doesn’t seem respectful, somehow, to take pictures while these people are having this solemn moment here, so I refrain. I’m certain to find some photos published in a public forum later for reference since this is an important historical site.

The burial ground is located on the very hill that the Hotchkiss guns were placed to mow the Oglalas down in their village, sparing no-one. But it wasn’t just the distant artillery that lacked discretion in whom it killed. Oglala survivors told of soldiers who deliberately shot women, children, and infants at point-blank range. Many of the soldiers believed that this indiscriminate killing was justified as a pre-emptive strike, and besides, just as Native Americans were not legal citizens or even persons under U.S. law, so were they considered on a moral basis. They were thought by many as a sort of species of sub-human, in a similar sense that African Americans were. They were just human enough to accept favors from and treat kindly when it was more expedient to do so, and just human enough to have sex with, at least with the women, with their consent if you could get it but if not, no matter. But they were not human enough to deserve representation in court, not human enough to judge each Native American as a moral individual deserving the benefit of the doubt or of the right to enjoy liberty in their own way.

Portrait of General L. W. Colby of Nebraska State Troops Holding Baby Girl, Zintkala Nuni (Lost Bird), Found On Wounded Knee Battlefield, South Dakota, 1890, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

There were, to be sure, some soldiers who did not get caught up in the rush to violence. Some believed and went on to report that the Lakota were being treated unfairly and in fact, this affair was little short of mass murder, a wholly unnecessary result of bad policy ordered by ill-informed and bigoted higher-ups who didn’t know or care much what was happening on the ground.

General L. W. Colby was one of those who believed that Wounded Knee was a murderous debacle. A few soldiers had rescued and shielded some of the Lakota, especially women and children. A few survivors were rescued from the frozen battlefield later, including a few infants pulled from the arms of their dead or dying mothers. One of these, Zintkala Nuni or Lost Bird, was adopted by Colby. Perhaps he saw this adoption as an opportunity to undo a tiny bit of the wrong done. He also seemed to perceive himself as a sort of white knight to this tiny damsel in distress.

Zintkala Nuni, or Lost Bird, as an actress portraying Pocahontas at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition

Unfortunately, Colby’s dismay at what happened to the Lakotas at Wounded Knee didn’t translate into his being a very good caretaker to this one particular Lakota. He abandoned Lost Bird and her adoptive mother when she was a child. She was put in white schools but never accepted by her white peers, yet she was forbidden by her doting but unwise adoptive mother to associate with children of her own or other races either. She wanted Lost Bird to be an example of her brand of progressivism, to show that Native Americans could be as perfectly civilized as anyone else if you just assimilate them properly. But Lost Bird never adjusted well to white culture in general and struggled to get by as an adult, mostly working as a traveling performer. She had many troubled relationships, some of which were abusive, and Colby had her institutionalized in a harsh reformatory when she became pregnant at seventeen. She contracted syphilis from her first husband and suffered from it the rest of her life. Already weakened by this disease, Lost Bird died at only age 29 in an influenza epidemic in 1920. Her body was reclaimed by her people and reburied here at Wounded Knee in the burial ground on the hill.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Burgoyne, Mindie. ‘Lost Bird – the Sad Story of a Baby Taken from Wounded Knee.’ Dec 31, 2015, Travel Hag blog

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Cozzens, Peter. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Knopf, 2016

Harrison, Eric. ‘A Girl Called ‘Lost Bird’ Is Finally at Rest: History: Lakota Infant Survived Wounded Knee Killing and Was Adopted by Whites. Now She is Buried Among Her People.’ Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1991

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Lawrence, Melanie. ‘Chronicle of a Lakota Girl Raised White / Baby Found at Wounded Knee Grew Up to Face an Identity Crisis.’ SF Gate, July 23, 1995

Lost Bird Story: Summary.’ South Dakota Pulic Television website

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Spotted Elk‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark Nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places. Prepared by Richard E. Jensen / Eli Paul, Research Department of the Nebraska Historical Society, Dec 6, 1990

Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 2

General store on the main road at Kenel, a community in Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota, as seen through the windshield.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North and South Dakota, morning and early afternoon of July 25th, 2017

I wake up at Prairie Knights Casino and Resort at the north end of Fort Yates in Standing Rock Reservation, on the North Dakota side. It’s by far the nicest place I’ve stayed at this trip and one of the cheapest. Thanks, gamblers, for subsidizing my roomy bed, my nice bathtub with its complimentary tasty-smelling chokecherry bath products, and my ultra-clean room!

Historical sign and wood structures near the site of old Fort Manuel, Kenel. The original site of the town

I head south on Highway 1806, otherwise known as the Native American Scenic Byway, towards the tiny unincorporated community of Kenel, in search of the site of old Fort Manuel. Counting the road just across from Kenel’s general store, I turn left on the third road, a dirt road, guided by a little brown road sign. Then I head straight, past the turnoff that curves off to the left back towards Kenel. After a little while, this road curves to the left as well and arrives at a simple, tall, broad gateway made of three large poles with a pair of antlers in the center of the crossbeam, indicating the entrance to someone’s private property, likely a farm or ranch. The place for which the gate marks the entry is encircled by a thick grove of trees. I pull off to the right of the road in before I reach the gateway. Then I look around and see what look like historical marker signs in the field around and beyond the left side of the wooded boundary. There are some wood structures rising from the grass beyond that. I take the little footpath heading in that direction.

Portrait medallion on Sakakawea’s memorial obelisk on the west bank of the Missouri River, Standing Rock Reservation. In his record of her death, clerk John Luttig wrote: ‘She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl.’

I’m here following my trail of discovery to the site where Sakakawea lived her last year, and where she died. She was a Shoshone girl captured and enslaved by the Hidatsa people, and became one of three purchased Native American wives of an inept, and by at least one account brutish, French Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Sakakawea died at only twenty-five years of age after a long illness, probably secondary to the rigors of the Lewis and Clark expedition. During that trek, which was otherwise only undertaken by strong, travel-hardened men, she gave birth to her first child, a son, which she carried and nursed the rest of the way. Despite what would seem to us as a rather grim life story, she was loved and admired for her ability to navigate most difficulties with aplomb and for her cheerful and willing disposition. Sakakawea went on to become one of the most famous and beloved women in American history.

According to most histories, Sakakawea, sometimes spelled Sacagawea or Sakajawea (the first two are preferable because they most closely indicate the correct pronunciation in the name’s Shoshone language), died here at Fort Manuel on December 20th, 1812. There are some sources which place her death much later and far away, at the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming on April 9th, 1884. However, that evidence is much more circumstantial and based on hearsay, and later attempts to corroborate those sources are irreconcilable with better-recorded contemporary evidence.

Reconstruction of old Fort Manuel Lisa, Kenel, South Dakota, Standing Rock Reservation

Sakakawea had moved to Fort Manuel the year before her death with her husband and a troupe of fur traders in August of 1811. Her death in December of the following year was recorded by John Luttig, clerk of the Missouri Fur Company for which the fort was founded as an outpost. This company, in turn, was founded in St. Louis in 1809 by Manuel Lisa, the Spanish entrepreneur for whom the fort was named, and William Clark was elected its president. This was the Clark of Lewis and Clark; he and Meriwether Lewis led the great exploratory expedition ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to discover a more direct trading route across the continent. From 1804 – 1806, the expedition wound northwest up the Missouri River then straight west across land to the Pacific Ocean. It was Charbonneau who was recruited by Lewis and Clark, but it was Sakakawea who lent her invaluable assistance to this mission as interpreter, trail guide, identifier of wild foods to gather, and on one occasion, rescuer of the all-important contents of a tipped boat. Clark later adopted her son, Baptiste, whom he called ‘Pomp’; he had become very fond of this tiniest member of the expedition. He later made sure Baptiste received a quality education. Charbonneau, evidently, was also rather a deadbeat.

Theodore Roosevelt Monument Manhood stone

By the way, I remember being annoyed a couple of years ago while visiting Theodore Roosevelt’s monument in Washington, D.C. Among the monuments was a row of large stones engraved with quotes. On one of these, Roosevelt equates manhood with daring and courage. I commented in a piece I wrote at the time that virtues such as these are human ones, and are not distributed in human nature according to sex. Sakakawea is just one of the countless women who demonstrate this, though she performed her brave acts within a cultural milieu that inculcated these virtues primarily in men while encouraging shrinking, even shuddering, modesty in women. To be sure, she showed fear at times and wept at others. But she not only did what it was her duty to do regardless, she took on men’s duties when they weren’t fulfilling them, and then went beyond that! And she did so in a way that made others love, admire, and remember her for her ability and excellent personal qualities long after others were forgotten.

A large fireplace inside of one of Fort Manuel’s reconstructed buildings, Standing Rock, South Dakota

But back to my story… The wooden structures I see here today at Fort Manuel were built in 1965. They replaced a 1941 facsimile of the old stockade that had been built according to the details of a 1938 study of the fort’s records and of the grounds. The reconstructed stockade was not built on the exact site: its walls tracked more or less the shape of the original ones but about 6 feet away, to keep the ground open for a planned excavation that was done in 1965-1966. Fortunately, since the fort was built on high ground, it escaped the flooding of Kenel’s original location three miles north of its current site as a result of the construction of the Oahe Dam in 1944. Unfortunately, the original remains of the fort were eroded away shortly after its excavation by unusually high waves. But at least the archaeological information about the fort was retrieved before that happened. The reconstructions standing here today near the old site likely portray the original structures quite accurately, since they’re based on the very meticulous archaeological and historical research work done on the site.

View from a reconstructed building at Fort Manuel

The excavation discovered the remains of seven structures within the original stockade walls. According to an archaeological and cultural report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in  ‘Four of these units were dwellings (Structures A-C, E), one probably a storehouse (Structure 0), one a blacksmith shop (Structure F), and one possibly a stable or barn (Structure G). It is not known whether the post had other buildings, although extensive stripping of the site failed to reveal more. Luttig’s [1920] list of structures at the post does not tally exactly with the seven sites found by excavation and it may be incomplete.’ At first, I wonder why I see only five structures here today, but then I realize three of them are linked together like row houses, making seven in all.

Very, very few artifacts were found in the dig except for remains of the structures themselves. Fort Manuel was abandoned in the spring of 1813 after it was attacked by Native Americans allied with the British in the War of 1812. Any remaining goods were likely taken by the fort’s captors before it was burned down. Luttig, the clerk who admired Sakakawea and recorded both her death and his esteem for her, her little daughter Lizette, and her husband were among the survivors. Lizette likely died as a child, Charbonneau went on to enjoy a long life, and I don’t know what became of Luttig.

View of the Grand River from the bridge looking southwest, Standing Rock, just south of Little Eagle

Late nineteenth-century map showing the site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the north bank of the Grand River in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from the papers of Francis M. Craft

Little Eagle and Bullhead on the Grand River, as shown on Google Maps, 8-13-12017. Compare the dip of the river on today’s map with the dip of the river above.

I leave Fort Manuel and head south a short ways, turn right towards Kenel Road, stop for gas and an ice cream sandwich in McLaughlin, then turn south onto Highway 63. Just south of Little Eagle, I arrive at the bridge over the Grand River, the same bridge I crossed to come to Standing Rock and Fort Yates. I pull over at the head of the bridge and stop. I have more information this time. I’m here seeking the site of Sitting Bull’s death.

Based on Francis Craft’s late nineteenth-century map, Sitting Bull’s camp was on the north bank of the Missouri River, a good ways west of it, and a little ways east of Bullhead. I compare this map with the lay of the land and water here as shown on Google Maps. If Bullhead and the course of the Grand River are more or less the same as they are today and this map is accurate, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp would be a little ways west of where I’m standing, near the center of the curve where the river dips south. However, when you zoom out further, the lines of the river in the old map and in Google Maps track each other only loosely. Many years and weather systems have passed and the course and flow of the Missouri River, of which the Grand River is a tributary, have been tinkered with a lot since then. The first certainly, and the second likely, would affect its course over time.

Looking north and west from the bridge over the Grand River. It was somewhere along this north bank of the river, not far from here, where Sitting Bull was killed

I think of Sitting Bull’s death… no, martyrdom; he was killed for his beliefs. His real ones, and those that others ascribed to him.

Others believed he believed in the Ghost Dance movement because he tolerated it, and that the Ghost Dance movement was really a secret plot to violently overthrow white authority because it envisioned a blessed future in which the whites couldn’t oppress Native Americans anymore. Never mind that a specific doctrine of this cult was strict non-violence. Others believed he was a threat because he didn’t believe in white people, because he didn’t trust them as he should. Never mind that white soldiers and settlers had treated him and his people so badly for so long.

Sitting Bull Monument on the west bank of the Missouri River near Mobridge, SD

He believed that the world was big enough to hold many people with their different ways of living and that his people and their way of life deserved to exist, too. He believed in self-sacrifice and that convenience and luxury are not worth betraying your values for. He believed it was worth fighting the white people who were destroying his people’s ability to survive so long as it seemed there was a chance to drive them out. Then, he believed in peace when it became clear that was the only way left to survive. He believed in giving individuals, white ones too, the benefit of the doubt but he also believed you shouldn’t trust people who were crazy enough to value money and putting up fences above everything else. He believed in promises but not in written treaties: promises were the way of his people, but written treaties were invariably broken, as soon as they became inconvenient, by the very people who insisted on them.

Those are a few things I believe that he believed. I think I’m right about these, but I’m still learning, and I believe there’s more.

I cross the bridge and continue south towards Pine Ridge Reservation, south and west of here, about a 5-hour drive.

To be continued….

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and information: 

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Courchane, John Chalk. ‘Toussaint Charbonneau: In the Pacific North in 1805‘.

A Cultural Resource Inventory of Portions of Lake Oahe, Corson County, South Dakota, Volume I
by Paul H. Sanders, Dori M. Penny, Michael L. McFaul, Keith H. Oueholm, Kurt P. Schwetgert, and Thomas K. Larson, for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District

Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009

Howard, Helen Addison. ‘The Mystery of Sacagawea’s Death.‘ The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 1-6, University of Washington

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Kenel, South Dakota. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Nelson, C.B. ‘South Dakota State Historical Society Markers.‘ (#391 Fort Manuel.) For the South Dakota State Historical Society

Perry, Douglass. ‘Lewis & Clark Expedition‘. Educator Resources, National Archives website.

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website

Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932

Wood, W. Raymond. ‘Manuel Lisa’s Fort Raymond: First Post in the Far West (November 1807—March 1813)‘. Discovering Lewis & Clark

See also: the South Dakota State Historical Society Markers in place at the Fort Manuel Site:and:

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500

Standing Rock Reservation: In Search of Sitting Bull, I Find Sakakawea, Too – Part 1

Standing Rock Monument, Fort Yates, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, ND. It’s a very odd monument to unfamiliar eyes: unglamorous, unprepossessing. It’s the beginning of a part of my tour where the monuments and significant places are less curated. It’s up to the looker to slow down and really look close.

Journal: Faith, South Dakota, early morning July 24th, 2017

~ Dedicated to Genessa Kealoha

I woke up in the backseat of the rental car this morning feeling just a little stiff. I drove late into the night last night so I could break up the long drive. I stayed alert enough to continue until a little after midnight, but then sleepiness began to give me that oddly swaying feeling; time to pull over. I chose a nice big gravel lot with a semi truck parked close to the road. I pulled into the other end of the lot near a row of colorful but rusted old tractors and other farm machinery, changed into my sleep clothes, and curled up in my backseat nest. I’ve decided to leave it ready for such impromptu car campings.

When I awoke, I stepped out to a soft cool morning. It had rained intermittently last night and there were still a few occasional drops falling. A man stepped out from a little garage in front of what I then observed was a little motel right next to the lot. He kindly invited me into the motel’s little cafe for hot coffee and to freshen up, without rebuking me in word or in tone for spending the night for free right outside of his establishment. I thanked him but decided to push on. I had a little thermos with some coffee left and had felt the urge to keep going. But what a generous man! I rebuked myself afterward for not stopping in just to show that I appreciated the invitation.

Journal: Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017, later

A little less than two hours later, I reached McLaughlin, South Dakota, in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. At the little gas station, deli, and apparently popular gathering place, I confirmed directions to Fort Yates, another half hour northeast in the North Dakota part of the reservation.

I followed the signs to Fort Yates and to historical monuments on the main street that runs along the Missouri River. In a parking lot across from the tribal administration building, there’s a stone set upright on a pedestal of yellow-painted brick, well weathered, and some historical placards, also worn. The Standing Rock placard tells the tale of how this stone inspired the reservation’s name:

I went into the administrative building and briefly described the nature of my trip. The woman at the desk directed me to the Sitting Bull Visitor Center at Sitting Bull College, up on the side of the hill above the main campus buildings. I was greeted by Jennifer Martel, and she had much to say. Before long, it was clear to me that she’s had a long experience of feeling that she and her people are often talked at and around, that they are very frequently misrepresented and misunderstood, often because people from academia and from other cultures try to explain and portray Native American cultures in ways that make sense to themselves. That doesn’t necessarily translate into truth. It was also clear to me that this was a time to say very little, just to listen. So I did.

Lakota Winter Count (facsimile), Sitting Bull Visitor Center in Standing Rock Reservation

Jennifer rises to greet some people here for a meeting,  and says she’ll keep in touch. I looked through the exhibits in the lounge area of the visitor center, then headed to the Sitting Bull College Library. I’ve just set up a little writing station where the wireless signal is best. I’ll start with asking the young lady at the desk for help….

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, July 24th, 2017: the rest of the story

I ask the young lady at the front desk to help me find a few things I’m looking for, especially biographical information for the life and death of Sitting Bull, and especially, precisely where he died. So far, I’ve had little luck with that. She’s welcoming and friendly, and we get to talking as she begins to look through her digital and print materials. She introduces herself as Stormy, great-great (how many greats, I don’t remember) granddaughter of One Bull, nephew and adopted son of Sitting Bull. She kindly prints out maps for me to make it easier to find Sitting Bull’s monuments. After we look around for awhile, I sit down to look at what she’s given me so far while she assembles a collection of books for me. She’s friendly but not gushing, and seems like a person that would take most things in stride. I like her a lot.

Late nineteenth-century map showing the site of Sitting Bull’s camp on the north bank of the Grand River in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from the papers of Francis M. Craft

We continue to search our materials for the exact location of Sitting Bull’s death. Stormy hasn’t come up with anything so far with her online search. Among the books she gave me, I read that Sitting Bull was killed in his cabin on the Grand River ’40 miles from the Agency’, according to his biographer Stanley Vestal. The number of miles is new information for me, and I do find one more particularly helpful thing in these books: a map of Standing Rock from the late nineteenth century from the papers of Francis M. Craft, a priest who used to live here.  Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, and the map shows the location of his camp on the Grand River. One of Sitting Bull’s monuments is near where the Grand River flows into the Missouri. I’ll start there so I have plenty of daytime hours to work my way west along the Grand River to seek the place where he died.

Sakakawea Memorial on the bank of the Missouri River near Sitting Bull’s memorial at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

I make my way to Highway 1806, here called the Native American Scenic Byway, and head south towards Mobridge, short for Missouri Bridge, a little town near the monument. I cross a bridge over the Missouri River and a little island. Instead of turning left on the 12 to Mobridge, I turn right towards the casino, then left, following a roadside sign which directs me towards the Sitting Bull Memorial down a little gravel road. I park and walk down the path towards the monument site near the bank of the river. Or, rather, monuments. I didn’t know that I’d find two monuments here. The first I see is an obelisk with a medallion set into it portraying a woman and an infant. My mind immediately goes to the legend of Standing Rock, of the Arikara woman and her baby who turned to stone long ago.

But across the little path that encircles the obelisk, I find a bronze plaque which tells the story of Sakakawea, who famously accompanied the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery and was instrumental in its success. Cartoonist Bob Thaves once joked that sure, Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels. Sakakawea guided Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and all their big, strong men on their grueling trail first as a pregnant teenager, then as a first-time mom caring for the newborn infant strapped to her. Not only that, she jumped in a river to rescue Lewis and Clark’s journals and other important things when their boat capsized or was about to (they named that river in her honor), found wild foods for the men to eat when their rations ran low, and in countless other ways was instrumental to the expedition’s success. A truly impressive person.

As I read the plaque’s brief summary of her life and death, I remember that I saw signs earlier for Kenel and Fort Manuel. I mentally add that to my itinerary for later today or early tomorrow.

Sakakawea Memorial historical plaque

After I spend a little time here, I walk further down the path towards Sitting Bull’s monument overlooking the river. This may be the site of his remains, or of some of them. He was originally buried at Fort Yates, on the other bank of the Missouri River north of here. I’ll visit that monument later today or tomorrow. There’s a story that says his remains were secreted away and buried here, closer to the place he died, away from the Agency whose overzealous Indian police killed him in a botched arrest for allegedly helping to foment Native American discontent reinvigorated by the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance was the central ritual of the quasi-Christian cult of Wovoka, a Paiute holy man. Wovoka preached that Jesus Christ would soon return to earth if the Native Americans would live lives of scrupulous virtue and perform this sacred circle dance. In this happy time of his return, the sad world of death, destruction, deprivation, and loss of liberty brought by the whites would be swept away. Health and plenty would return and the people would be joyfully united with their ancestors and dead loved ones (the ‘ghosts’).

Sitting Bull Monument near Mobridge, SD, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

The evidence was scant indeed that this religious movement was linked to any plans for violent rebellion; indeed, one of the virtues that Wovoka called on the people to practice was total nonviolence. The evidence was also scant that Sitting Bull had anything more than a tangential link to the movement. He was curious about the movement and looked into it, but didn’t become a believer. However, there seemed no harm in it, and its message of nonviolence accorded well with the peaceful practices of his own life subsequent to his life as a young warrior. True, Sitting Bull never trusted the U.S. government, as was fitting given the history of their encounters with his people, but he no longer advocated armed resistance. He had seen the futility of this course over his lifetime and since his people now numbered so few, his primary purpose was to see that the remainder live as best they could in this alien new world imposed upon them.

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque

The distrust between Sitting Bull and the U.S. government went both ways, however, though the military power was all on one side. Standing Rock agent James McLaughlin sent out a cadre of Native American tribal police to arrest Standing Bull for questioning. Initially, Sitting Bull was willing to go and asked leave to get dressed first, since it was his practice to sleep without clothes. But the police were impatient and tried to force him into his clothes while restraining his hands. Some friends and family, as well as adherents of the Ghost Dance movement, observed the disturbance and came to investigate. Sitting Bull began to resist his rude treatment and in the scuffle that ensued, shots rang out. Sitting Bull was deliberately killed by shots from two separate policemen, and all told, fifteen men died, some from each side of the fight.

He was killed very near the site where he was born.

Ranchland along the north bank of the Grand River

I go back a little ways north on 1806 and turn left, or east, on the first gravel road past the dirt road that runs along the Grand River, to see what I can see. I turn left again on another road, a rougher little dirt road called 121st St, which points directly toward the river. I pass through ranchland with grazing black cattle, the river usually in sight to my left. The road dead ends at Strong Heart Ranch. I have not gone nearly far enough to reach this site I seek, but this road places me closest to the river bank that I can reach from this side, and I want to get a feel of what the riverside scenery is like. I turn back, then turn left on the gravel road towards Wakpala. I take this road through that little town and beautiful ranch land, all the way to Highway 12. I take the 12 to Highway 63, which I take back north to Fort Yates. Little Eagle, a town near the Highway 63 bridge that crosses the Grand River further south than the 12 junction, is nearer the likely site: it’s almost 40 miles from Fort Yates, the distance specified by the old map between Fort Yates and Sitting Bull’s camp. I decide to wait until tomorrow to visit that place since I’ll be passing that town and that bridge on my way south tomorrow to my next destination.

Tipis and farmland along the Wakpala road

I return to Fort Yates and seek his original burial site, which is still perhaps the current site of his remains. Stories of his reinterment elsewhere are still in dispute. I find the monument on the east bank of the Missouri River, just off Sitting Bull Ave on a wide gravel path that runs north along the river through a tiny park. I read the plaque, look around, then sit and think. Two Native women walk by, talking and picking up litter from the grounds. One of the women comes to me and greets me. We each tell what brings us here and where we’re from. She’s lived here for most of her life, as has her shy friend. She smiles at me and moves off to continue her task, taking no part in the conversation. She tells me what she knows of the story of Sitting Bull and of his possible reburial, and about local landmarks. She points out an area where the sage grows thickly. It’s used for sweat lodges by the men and just to crush and breathe in the scent by women because, she says, the men can handle breathing in the smoke but the women can’t ‘well, you know, because we’re women’. I smile inwardly. She has a very sturdy appearance, like she’s spent her life outdoors and working hard, and seems able to hand more physically than most women and men I know.

The other Sitting Bull memorial on the other bank of the Missouri River, Fort Yates

Sitting Bull Memorial plaque, Fort Yates

I double check with her about a good place to spend the night. She agrees with the person I spoke to earlier that day, that the lodge and casino I’ll find just a few miles north of here is the best local place to go. I head there to get a good night’s sleep and do some research for my journey tomorrow.

To be continued…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and information: 

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

Faith, South Dakota‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Foley, Thomas W, ed. At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis M. Craft, 1888-1890. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009

Ginger Rogers, Article 2: Backwards and in High Heels’. ReelClassics website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

The Legend of Standing Rock‘. Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center and St. Joseph’s Indian School website

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010

Sacagawea‘. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail – People, National Park Service website

Sacagawea‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Vestal, Stanley. Sitting Bull: Champion of the Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932


Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Bldg. #1 N Standing Rock Ave.
P.O. Box D, Fort Yates, ND 58538
(701) 854-8500

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Day 2

Cheyenne Warrior Marker historical placard, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, NPS. I’m glad to see that there’s now public acknowledgement that other human beings died here that day besides U.S. soldiers. Soon, I hope, that more of the Oglala, Hunkpapa, Miniconjou, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and other tribe members, their slain warriors and slain women and children as well, will be specifically remembered too, as far as we can identify them. There’s a general remembrance in the Indian Memorial, but it would be a very good thing, I think, to see more of the victims named if possible. The attack began, after all, with U.S. soldiers firing into the lodges of families, regardless of the collateral damage (that pragmatic military term to ease the conscience of war-makers), the lives of noncombatants that would necessarily be lost.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

As I continue to explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield the next morning and afternoon, I gain a much clearer idea of how the drama played out. I had read many accounts of the battle, but seeing the lay of the land helps me visualize it more clearly. For example, it all happened over a much larger area, and over a longer period of time, than I had conceived.

Here are just a few more images of the many, many more things I see and learn here this second day at the Little Bighorn battlefield:

Headstones marking where U.S. cavalry soldiers fell at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. The 7th cavalry was hopelessly outnumbered; later, Native American expressed their amazement that George Armstrong Custer’s 7th attacked the encampment given that it was so large, about 7,000 in all, including about 2,000 warriors. Though it was later revealed that Custer ordered the attack because he didn’t want the encampment to escape, still, it was suicidal to lead his men to attack such a large force before the other approaching U.S. troops arrived.  So it the question remains unanswered, at least satisfactorily: was it just hubris on his part, or dismissiveness of Native American prowess in war, or ignorance, or some of each? The debate continues….

John Stands in Timber, Lame White Man’s grandson, was one of those who helped the National Park Service to identify and honor the sites of fallen warriors

Here, about 7,000 people banded together near the banks of the Little Bighorn River in 1876 in a bid for freedom

Above: Deep Ravine, through which Crazy Horse led a charge towards Land Stand and Calhoun Hills from the Little Bighorn River.

Site of Major Marcus Reno’s retreat, about five miles from Last Stand Hill, Little Bighorn Battlefield. He attacked the encampment from one direction, Custer from another, and his detachment of soldiers was the first to start firing

Looking towards the Crow’s Nest vantage point from which Custer directed his attack

Black Elk quote on the wall of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument museum. Black Elk, a Northern Cheyenne, was a young teenager when he fought in the battle here, and he went on to become an important witness to what occurred here. This quote is from Black Elk Speaks, poet and author John G. Neihardt’s account of Black Elk’s conversations about, among many things, this battle and of his life as a visionary and holy man. It was published in 1932, when Black Elk was in his late 60’s. Black Elk’s life was a fascinating one, and I’ll continue to follow him in this series. To be continued…

Many times throughout my life, especially as a child and teen, I had heard of the battle at the Little Bighorn, and shrugged my shoulders each time. I was not then inspired to learn more about it: it seemed to me like just one more of the countless times human beings have slaughtered each other for what were probably completely insufficient reasons. Why learn the tedious details?

I’ve only recently begun to make a serious study of the history of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and their encounters with the encroaching peoples of the United States and Europe. What I’ve learned is disturbing, amazing, complex, and heart-wrenching. Learning about this battle, it turns out, is not the least bit tedious. It’s dramatic, tragic, fascinating, and invaluable for understanding this very important and formative period in American history, and continues to be very relevant today. Human beings are still wasting lives on battlefields all over the world, and Americans are still dismissive of and doing wrong to the original inhabitants of the Plains, as the recent Dakota Access Pipeline debacle illustrates.

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Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

‘The Battle of the Little Bighorn‘, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. London: Macmillan, 1984

‘Indian Memorial’, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service website

Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

Janiskee. Bob.  ‘An Indian Memorial Helps to Re-Image Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument‘, National Parks Traveler, Dec 7th, 2008

Marquis, Thomas Bailey. Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, 1931

Marshall, Joseph III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking, 2004

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, 1932

Powers, Thomas. The Killing Of Crazy Horse. New York: Knopf, 2010